“Would God love you any less if you were gay?”
This was a question Matt couldn’t answer but desperately sought the answer to for most of his life. Matt Ashcroft grew up in Prince Edward County as the son of a white woman and a black man. He already knew he was different from most of his peers. If he ever tried to forget it his classmates were sure to remind him. Daily slurs of “Fag” or “n***er” were hurled in his direction by classmates as he walked down the school hallway or while walking on Main street.
He wasn’t safe at home either from the regular onslaught of homophobic slurs. Matt had always been afraid of his father, and it was this man who made sure Matt knew how he felt about the idea of having a gay son. When Matt was sixteen years old his father offered to hire a female escort for him so he could be a “real man”, even though it was around this same time Matt began realizing he might be gay.
It was at a high school party in grade 12 where Matt had his first sexual experience. The party was fun and he had a few drinks. He was drunk. There was another guy from Toronto he hadn’t met before, and in his inebriated state he let things just happen naturally. Afterward though he was so scared. He never told anyone about his experience. It was important for him to fit in.
Matt instead turned to religion. He started volunteering at community organizations and attending youth groups within the region. He didn’t stay too long in one place, fearing that someone might figure out the secret he was carrying. The foundational message he received from most of the religious institutions he attended was that there was something fundamentally wrong with being gay. There was one group where he sat amongst his peers, waiting for the minister to come in to start the bible study. The minister came in, he was angry. He shouted at the group, “I am sick and tired of you all dressing like the world, look at me I am dressed like a man of god.” The minister then proceeded to single out one young man in front of the entire group for not dressing appropriately. The experience unnerved Matt so much. He feared it wouldn’t be long before everyone figured out who he was. He never went back.
But Matt didn’t stop seeking out places where he could feel accepted. He allowed the belief there was something wrong with him define his decisions. He didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, and he so desperately wanted to fit in. He figured he needed to be fixed in order to be truly accepted so he turned to online forums on Facebook and Twitter. He discovered others who were questioning their identity like he was, and it lead him to find the largest conversion therapy camp in the world. It was called, at the time, Journey Into Manhood weekend. (Now called Brothers Road).
In 2014 Matt registered for a weekend camp, and travelled with another man he had met through a Facebook group. He prefaced that he doesn’t remember a lot from the weekend, which he now attributes to trauma. He says the events from the weekend are like a blur. The first thing they had to do when they arrived was sign a liability waiver. He doesn’t remember what he was agreeing to, that should have been a red flag for him, but Matt was young and he was placing his trust in this organization. His desire to be fixed outweighed any concerns or doubts that might have crept into his mind.
They arrived at the camp at 4 pm.
They weren’t allowed to have a cell phone. They weren’t allowed to have a watch. These were confiscated.
They were told when to eat, when to sleep, and they were expected to approximate the time of day or night by the sun.
He and the other men from the group were led down a pathway toward a separate building. They walked in and the first thing Matt noticed was black garbage bags taped against the doors and windows. The light deprivation made it impossible to determine the time of day. This made the events of the weekend even more disorienting.
There was a circle of men all standing and staring around a single candle. Matt tried to ask what the purpose was, and he was quickly scolded to be silent. They weren’t allowed to speak. This was how the weekend began.
The leadership asked him to divulge what his deepest fears were, and Matt admitted that one of his greatest fears was that he would never have his father’s respect. Journey Into Manhood presented a few theories why a man might believe he is gay. In Matt’s case they said it was due to an overprotective mother and an absent father. They told him it was his father that made him gay, and he believed them. A punching bag was laid across the floor in front of Matt along with a baseball bat. He was told it represented his father. He was instructed to beat the punching bag as hard as he could. Matt said he beat that bag continually, screaming and crying, until his arms could no longer lift the bat. As he stood over the bag, sobbing and tears streaming down his face, the leadership held a mirror to his face so he could witness the expression on his face. Matt described being “emotionally depleted” and the experience was traumatic. People of PEC reached out to Rich Wyler, the head of Brothers Road (formerly Journey Into Manhood) for his comment. “Some of the things you described have elements of truth, but Matt has contorted them to make good appear bad. For example, if we held up a mirror to him, it would have been so he could see the joy on his own face after a positive emotional breakthrough. We’ve never held up a mirror to the face of an ‘inconsolable’ man who had tears of grief streaming down his face. Complete fabrication. It never happened.”
Matt then describes what he referred to as “healthy holding”. This is a practice employed by a few different conversion therapy groups. Men get into groups of three, and each would take a position. One man took the cradle position, where he would sit in a hunched position while sitting upright on the floor. Another man would come in behind him as the “large spoon” except seated. The final position is called the motorcycle position where the man’s legs would straddle the back of the man in front of him. And they would “hold” one another fully clothed, supposedly as a healthy expression of intimacy, for a period of time determined by the leadership. This didn’t have any inherent traumatic association for Matt, but it was certainly a confusing exercise for him.
How was I able to experience love when some of the behaviours of those I looked to for support were not loving?Matt Ashcroft
Matt then described “carpet time”. Another theory presented by Journey Into Manhood was a reason a man might believe he is gay is due to sexual assault. There was another young man in the group that weekend who had disclosed a sexual assault against him by his older cousin. While everyone in the group was seated on the carpet, the leadership asked him to describe the assault he endured. As the other young man described what was done to him, the leadership abruptly asked him to stop and they asked him what his response to his cousin was during the abuse. He responded with what he had said at the time, “Stop, stop doing that, stop it you’re hurting me, I don’t want to be a part of this any more, stop doing this to me.” The leaders at the camp then began to reenact what the young man was describing. “Did it look like this?” And they would wait for the young man to acknowledge them. They would continually persist in acting out the descriptions of this young man’s assault experience in front of the entire group, and all the while the young man was screaming at the top of his lungs for them to stop. They didn’t stop. He was being forced to relive the abuse before his very eyes and without the sanctity of privacy or safety. Matt says this experience permanently messed him up and he can only imagine what this other young man went through. “I don’t know if he is alive today.” Matt said. “I think about it everyday.” At this point of the interview Matt started to become emotional and he was holding back tears.
Again, when People of PEC asked Rich Wyler to comment on some of what Matt had described. This was his response, “Wow, I knew Matt has been contorting the truth in interviews in order to make himself look like a victim of unconscionable practices, but I didn’t expect him to make up complete fiction in order to make his story seem shocking…I could go on, but with such obvious lies and gross distortions, I don’t want to waste my time with a point-by-point rebuttal.” (Rich Wyler did provide a link to some of the practices that Brothers Road utilize, I will attach it to this article with the disclaimer that People of PEC does not endorse or promote these practices.)
When the camp had concluded, Matt returned to Prince Edward County as a “former gay man”. This was how they were now referred to according to the teaching of the camp. But he had never come out officially as a gay man, so his circle of friends was limited to people who had also gone through conversion therapy with him. Because Matt didn’t have a lot of friends in The County, having a group of men who understood some of what he was experiencing was a welcome change at first. Each man who comes out of a conversion therapy weekend leaves with a set of priorities in order to continue toward living their life as a straight man. One person Matt knew wanted to find a wife and start a family. Matt’s goal was to eventually earn his Dad’s respect. Part of achieving these goals required continually engaging in conversion practices. Matt was encouraged to read books on conversion therapy, attend conferences and continue in therapy. The post-conversion therapy community was a close knit, insulated group. Something that was advertised as a supportive and healthy practice proved to be a source of incredible further harm.
One of the people Matt became close with as part of post-conversion life was a man named “Ted” (name changed to shield identity). Ted was older than Matt, and he lived in the US. He made himself an “accountability” partner for Matt and would often encourage Matt to disclose deeply personal things, things that he would only disclose to his therapist. These things included secret thoughts and sexual triggers, under the guise of remaining accountable. Ted became a persistent presence in Matt’s life, to the point of stalking. He would sometimes drive from Boston, or other cities in the US where he was residing, to Belleville to visit with Matt. Ted served in the US military and on one occasion, he wanted to celebrate by getting high. Ted had just passed his drug test required of him for active service and it was safe for him to now use recreational drugs. Matt viewed himself then as a Christian, and he didn’t smoke or do drugs, so it took some convincing on Ted’s part to get Matt to help him procure weed. Eventually Matt relented and they sat in Ted’s car while he smoked up. “By the way, just so you know, weed makes me horny.” Ted said off handedly. Soon after in Matt’s apartment Ted grabbed Matt by the back of the neck and drew him in close.
“I’m sorry.” Matt said surprised.
“I’m not.” Ted said back. Then he drew Matt in closer to him and whispered into his ear. At first Matt didn’t hear what Ted said so he said it again, “Take off your pants.”
Matt didn’t want to do this. He shook his head and Ted started yelling at him, ordering him to take off his pants. Ted was still gripping him by the back of the neck and at this moment Matt prayed, “God if you are there, help me get my friend back.”
Matt emphatically said he did not want to pull his pants down. But he did.
Soon after Matt pulled his pants back up and left Ted in the bedroom. He laid down on the sofa and closed his eyes so he could sleep. Within five minutes Matt could feel Ted standing over top of him, and when he opened his eyes the assault continued. When Ted was finished he left Matt alone.
The trauma of the experience is so fresh for Matt as if it were yesterday. At this point in the interview Matt needed to take a break. (Certain details have been omitted from this account to protect Matt, and this account has been shared with permission.)
When asked why Matt stayed in contact with Ted, he admitted to feelings of confusion. “I didn’t know how to navigate what I was feeling.” They had classified one another as friends, but it was almost as if they were engaged in an abusive relationship. In public Ted was encouraging Matt to actively live as a straight man and renounce anything to do with a gay lifestyle, but behind closed doors he was sexually assaulting him. And afterward Ted would remain in contact with Matt as though nothing strange had even happened. Ted would call Matt routinely, email him from multiple email accounts, and encourage Matt to spend time with him when he came to Belleville. And then Matt moved in with him when Ted moved to Texas. Free from the support systems he had in Prince Edward County, which were few, Matt was constantly assessing where he could run to at a moment’s notice if he needed to. He was taking inventory of who he knew in and around the Texas area, and was evaluating how he would get to where he needed to get to if he needed to escape. And then the second sexual assault happened. This time Ted held him down against the floor nearly strangling him, and begged Matt to have sex with him. Matt was able to get away. “I never looked back.” Matt said.
Matt moved to Toronto, and life wasn’t much easier there for him at first. He quickly described a list of things that happened to him in a short amount of time. He had been sexually assaulted, he had engaged in a few abusive relationships, he had to move from various places he was living quickly and under duress, and he became a regular heavy drug user. He even admitted to being homeless for a time. He didn’t believe he would ever be safe moving back to Prince Edward County, so he instead chose to live a life of hardship in Toronto. The belief he had growing up that something was wrong with him, causing him to seek conversion therapy, had now brought him to his lowest point in life. Conversion therapy had knocked out any confidence he had in himself. He believed he was disposable–trash– and so he allowed other people to take advantage of him because that is what he thought he was worth.
Matt provided further examples of why he didn’t feel safe in the County. While attending local religious institutions, he had met a man who agreed to provide him with some spiritual guidance. He was an older man, and not many knew about Matt’s secret struggles. But this man did. Matt had felt comfortable with this man enough to share some of the things he was thinking and feeling. We’ll call him Martin. Martin spent a considerable amount of time with Matt. One day they were alone at Martin’s private residence, and he was encouraging him to seek out conversion therapy again. Martin told Matt he could appreciate what he was going through and that he knew of other men in the community who were just like Matt. But then he looked at Matt and commented on how “good-looking” Matt was. He then leaned over and kissed Matt full on the mouth.
Another occurrence happened while he was still living at his mother’s house and he was having some difficulties with his step-father. He reached out to a friend who had attended Journey Into Manhood with Matt and asked if he could crash at his place. The friend, we’ll call him Conner, gladly allowed him to stay and gave him a place to lay his head. Conner invited Matt to join him in his bed. They were both ex-gay men living a straight lifestyle, Matt didn’t see the harm in sharing a bed. But then during the night Conner leaned over and wrapped his arms around Matt. He whispered, “I’m going to make you squeal like a pig.” Matt recalls saying “Absolutely not!” and he struggled to get away from him. The next morning Conner was ashamed of his actions and called Rich Wyler to disclose that it was Matt who had tried to sleep with him. Matt had to get on the phone and listen while Rich Wyler scolded him. Matt was crying and despondent, apologizing to him and to Conner while Rich scolded them. Rich’s response to Matt’s apology was “I honour that,” as if he were somehow the purveyor of Matt’s forgiveness.
People of PEC asked Wyler about this incident, his response was “As for Matt’s relationship with another participant, both Matt and another man told me that soon after attending ‘Journey Into Manhood,’ they had become involved in a consensual sexual (and apparently co-dependent) relationship (despite written commitments they had both made to not become sexually involved with anyone else attending the event). Neither of them described their relationship to me as “assault” or in any way non-consensual.”
These examples are simply to highlight the desperation Matt felt. He had just endured a sexual assault by his roommate and had to leave the place he was living quickly. Soon after he tried to kill himself by overdosing on drugs. He felt he had no choice–no one to turn to, no one he could trust–everyone he had ever turned to in any way had only betrayed him and hurt him. “How was I able to experience love when some of the behaviours of those I looked to for support were not loving?” he asked during the interview. It was while he was in hospital recovering from his overdose that he was finally able to confront what he had been repressing for so long. He was able to fully realize the scope of harm done to him as a result of his involvement with conversion therapy.
When Matt decided it was finally time for him to come out he admitted he was still afraid of his father, but he couldn’t continue to deny who he was. He was living in Toronto in the Leslieville area. He was speaking to a reporter from the CBC, it was his first media interview. He decided then and there that either nobody was going to know he was gay, or everybody would know. So he chose his CBC interview to be his coming out moment. This was all in a relatively short time frame after he had just been hospitalized for an overdose, after he had been assaulted by his roommate, and after he had undergone an emergency move to get away from his roommate. This was a do or die moment.
It was because of that moment he was able to see that his story was worth telling. He realized that he could be the support for someone else that he never had. And so after his media interview, he started telling his story over and over again to a variety of different media organizations. He told his story to anyone who would listen. Soon he was gaining the attention of researchers and politicians all across Canada, people who had influence and power to affect real change in this Country. And because Matt was brave enough to tell his story, he was able to help with bringing Bill C-6 to life. Bill C-6 is an act that would amend the Criminal Code to prohibit certain activities that relate to “conversion therapy” in Canada. The Bill just passed its third reading in the House of Commons this week.
Matt says one of his proudest moments is when Justin Trudeau tweeted to him to thank him for his willingness to share his story and help change laws in this country.
Because he was willing to tell his story he was invited to a United Nations Task Force at Harvard Law where he was paid to participate in a global leaders initiative to examine best practices for banning conversion therapy worldwide.
Matt is currently enrolled in school at The University of Toronto. His advocacy work has helped him to gain worldwide notoriety and he is active in ensuring the fight for protections against the harmful practice of conversion therapy are enacted around the world.
People of PEC reached out to a variety of Mental Health care practitioners in Ontario for their professional comments about conversion therapy.
Jennifer Thomson, MACP, RP from Roots in Wellness says: “I believe that one of the things that we need to consider when we look at conversion therapy is why it exists to begin with, and why there are instances where people “willingly” put themselves through something like that. It’s no secret that many people have self-enrolled in conversion therapy. But why?
The answer, I believe, is in our society… it means we hold the control – we can work to change how society treats the LGBTQ+ community so that they don’t feel the need to suppress who they are. [It also] means we have a long way to go….
…these individuals feel so negatively about who they are as trans, gay, bi, etc., that they seek help to change a fundamental part of their being. This doesn’t happen by accident; it’s conditioning as they’re growing up. They see the hate and the hardship that the LGBTQ+ community faces, and they don’t want to have to deal with that. In turn, people who advertise that they can ‘fix this’ seem really attractive.
They start to wonder if maybe they can change their sexuality or gender identity.”
Dr. Andrew Moss (C.Psych) from Moss Psychology in Belleville says, “I, as a gay man, have been through the difficulties inherent in growing up in a strict orthodox religious setting where non-heterosexual sexual orientation and gender diversity were not accepted. My personal experience has led me to work to reduce stigma, and promote self and other acceptance and community change in whatever ways I can. This is in order that others don’t have to go through the traumas and injuries that drive so many people into suicidality and ongoing mental health struggles.”
Today Matt has a wide system of support around him that embraces who he is and allows him to be his authentic self, something he never envisioned he would have. He has a great network of friends that add life and vitality to his existence. But he says the idea of returning to Prince Edward County still gives him intense anxiety. He has so many traumatic memories in every corner of this region, and he hopes one day he can return home and not experience the same triggering feelings he does now. His healing is a process and he is finally on the right path.
People of PEC asked about his mother, and he said emphatically that he keeps her out of his media interviews intentionally. He did permit us to say though how supportive she is, and when he needed her to be, she accepted him just as he is. He is encouraged to know that in Prince Edward County there is a wealth of support for young people who are questioning their sexuality or their gender identity. (People of PEC will be listing them below). It gives him hope for the future that there won’t be another young person who has to endure what he endured while he was coming-of-age.
People of PEC spoke to Joanna Howard from the Prince Edward County Library, and the facilitator for Discover YOUth. She disclosed that one of the key areas still lacking in essential support, based on feedback from the young people in her group, are the schools. There is a definite lack of awareness and support from educators and the board within the local school system, and it is her hope that in the near future there is significant change. Based on her experience, it illustrates that Prince Edward County still has work to do in order to foster true inclusion in this community for LGBTQ2SI+ people.
Thanks to people like Matt Ashcroft, this change is becoming more and more a reality. He is using his voice so that no young person has to endure what he went through. He hopes his activism will bring more awareness of the harm of conversion therapy, and that no one will feel like they need to seek it out.
To anyone who has read this and has experienced a triggering emotional response, please contact one of the numbers below for immediate support:
Quinte Crisis Intervention Centre: 1-888-757-7766
The Canada Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-833-456-4566
The Trevor Project TrevorLifeline: 1-866-488-7386
The Trevor Project also has a 24/7 webpage: www.thetrevorproject.org
Resources Available in Prince Edward County and region for LGBTQ2SI+ persons:
|Name of Organization||Address or Location||Phone Number||Website Address||Description|
|Moss Psychology||154 Cannifton Road Belleville||613-689-7783||www.bellevillepsychologist.ca||We have a long history and continue to work with 2SLGBTQ+ issues and clients who are working through their identities and expressions.|
|PEC Counselling Psychotherapy||Armoury Mall, 206 Main Street Picton||613-476-8850||peccp.ca||As a community-minded organization, we sincerely believe that emotional healing and personal growth are within your reach. Through a trauma-informed, anti-oppressive lens, we offer individual therapy for issues related to anxiety and depression, gender and sexuality, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and trauma.|
|Discover YOUth||Picton Branch Library,||613-476-5962||email: firstname.lastname@example.org||Weekly drop-in youth group hosted by the PEC Library. To provide a space and an outlet for 2SLGBTQ+ youth voices. Ages 12-18.|
|The Relationship Centre||100 Bell Boulevard, Suite 325|
Quinte Mall Office Tower
|613 – 848 – 3683||The Relationship Centre ~ Mary Joan Brinson & Associates | where people come to heal & grow||Finding solutions when you feel sad and lonely can be overwhelming.|
Where do you start? The Relationship Centre can move you in the right direction
and set you up for long term success.
|SAY OutLoud||Belleville||613-985-9650||SAY OutLoud! Queer Youth Support Group – Belleville, Quinte – About us||Questioning your sexuality is often extremely confusing and can leave you feeling very alone. As if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough, you find yourself asking, “Is this normal? Am I the only one? What do I tell my parents? What are my friends going to think? Why me? Who can I talk to about this?”|