Jeff Johnston felt a sexual attraction to other boys in adolescence and also found himself fascinated with pornography.
“I struggled with my identity — who am I, what does this mean about me if I have some of these feelings,” he said.
“I asked God to take it away, and that didn’t happen.”
An internal battle raged within Johnston’s young mind, body and spirit, as he fought to reconcile his Christian spirituality with his sexual desires.
Johnston said he fulfilled in adulthood what his heart was yearning for — to live as a heterosexual man — through professional counseling, pastoral counseling, prayer and involvement in his church.
“We didn’t focus on ‘Let’s make you not gay,’” he said. “There were counselors who said, “We’ll help you develop your heterosexuality.’”
Counseling also rectified painful and confusing issues from childhood, he said.
"When I go into prayer with someone and they're praying for me, I've never heard them say, 'We pray for this to go away,'" Johnston said. "In prayer time, it was an issue God brought up, and God brought healing to it. That's how prayer works."
He’s now the culture and policy analyst for Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian broadcasting and media organization headquartered in Colorado Springs.
Johnston and his wife have three sons.
“I made a decision I was going to follow Jesus, even if these feelings don’t go away,” he said. “I realized I needed to grow into a healthy sense of my masculinity.”
Like other issues, homosexuality is divisive in Christianity, with some denominations interpreting the Bible to mean same-same relations are sinful, while other denominations say that's not what the Bible says.
Helping people who question their sexuality also has become controversial.
Focus on the Family has been criticized for something leaders like Johnston and President Jim Daly say Focus doesn’t do: Promote what’s known as conversion therapy.
“We at Focus do not advocate for any therapy that ‘requires’ or promises categorical change or sexual conversion,” Daly writes in a blog on the organization’s website.
As a Christian organization, Focus supports “the availability of professional counseling in matters of sexuality that is respectful, safe, ethical and responsive to the client’s values and desires,” Daly says.
Many view conversion therapy as harmful, though, particularly for adolescents.
Paul Gross, a licensed professional counselor who has owned 4Square Counseling in Colorado Springs for the past decade, says he agrees with the American Psychological Association, which in 2009 released a report that found “insufficient evidence to support using psychological interventions to change sexual orientation.”
The association now is calling for a nationwide prohibition on conversion therapy for youth.
“I’ve had people come to me who call themselves ‘religious refugees,’ who have said they’ve gone to different aspects of the church and said, ‘Can we get help’ and felt it hurt them,” Gross said. “The shame, the guilt they were made to feel was what they were using to change the way they were living.”
Clients have told him they heard things like, “You shouldn’t do this, it’s against this,” or “This is bad” or “ You’re going to hell.”
“That in and of itself can create a whole lot of trauma and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, on top of already having anxiety and depression from ‘How do I come out and tell my family and friends I’m gay,’” Gross said.
Johnston of Focus on the Family decries the movement for states to criminalize such therapy.
"I want to emphasize that 'conversion therapy' isn't a thing — counselors can't force you to do something," he said. "We believe people should get the help they want and therapists should be able to help them. We advocate for people's freedom of speech, freedom of religion and self-determination."
Colorado is one of 20 states and the District of Columbia to ban conversion therapy for minors under age 18, by licensed psychiatrists or licensed, registered or certified mental health providers, according to the Movement Advancement Project, or MAP.
Colorado's law took effect in 2019 and defines conversion therapy as "efforts to change an individual's sexual orientation, including efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attraction or feelings toward individuals of the same sex.”
It does allow for mental health professionals to provide acceptance, support and understanding for minor patients’ sexual exploration, as long as their techniques are “sexual-orientation neutral” interventions that do not try to convert someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Johnston said Christians who believe the Bible opposes homosexuality should be given “the freedom to choose counseling and support that’s one with their goals," but that the current legal trend prevents parents from doing so.
“If you’re a parent and you have a 5-year-old boy who’s confused about his identity, in Colorado you can’t find a counselor who will help him embrace his masculine identity, and that’s a travesty,” he said.
Some states, including California, want to prohibit such therapy for adults.
Legal challenges to laws pertaining to juveniles, including in Colorado, are ongoing.
Kaley Chiles, a licensed counselor in Colorado Springs, sought a preliminary injunction last year to stop Colorado’s conversion therapy ban for minors from proceeding, but in December, a federal district court judge denied blocking enforcement.
Chiles argued that the law violates her First Amendment rights as a professional and as a Christian, describing the law as “censorship” and saying she wants to be able to talk freely with patients.
In striking down Chiles' claims, U.S. District Court Judge Charlotte N. Sweeney, the first openly gay federal judge appointed in Colorado, called Chiles’ assertions “disingenuous.”
In her ruling Sweeney wrote that Chiles is still allowed to provide therapeutic practices for a minor child client with the condition that she “does not seek to change sexual orientation or gender identity.”
However, Colorado law does allow for “gender-affirming care,” such as hormone therapy, for minor children, with parental consent.
But youth can access mental health care without parental consent at age 12, which means psychotherapy of any kind, including gender-affirming counseling, is available for children 12 and older.
The World Health Organization defines gender-affirming care as encompassing social, psychological, behavioral and medical interventions “designed to support and affirm an individual’s gender identity” when it conflicts with their birth gender of male or female.
Adolescents under age 18 also can go through “social transitioning,” which means using a different name and pronouns to reflect the gender they identify with, and taking reversible puberty blockers, if that's deemed necessary for their mental well-being, said Liss Smith, spokesperson for Inside Out Youth Services, which supports LGBTQ+ youth.
“It’s critical that youth be allowed this freedom to explore their identities, to be respectful and valued for who they say they are — not what the world perceives them to be,” Smith said.
Doing so can help prevent suicide, Smith said, since “studies show that respecting a young person’s chosen name and pronouns can reduce their risk of suicide by 56%.”
Inside Out does not provide medical care but does offer individual, family and group therapy, and social opportunities for LBGTQ+ youth.
For Gross' LGBTQ+ patients who felt they were traumatized by conversion therapy, a combination of talk therapy, medication and eye movement and desensitization reprocessing psychotherapy have helped them “get past that trauma of ‘We’re going to pray the gay away.’”
“I’m not going to say the church’s methods or conversion therapists’ methods can’t be useful, but I do feel it does more harm than good ,” he said.
His patients have reported that they felt conversion therapy was misrepresented, since they were told it would help them cope but instead they felt like they were being attacked.
“There are people who maybe it does help, but it seems to me like a coercion and more like let’s stack shame and guilt on you so you can pack it down,” Gross said. “I personally don’t condone conversion therapy, but everyone needs to make their own choice.”
Choice is also what Focus on the Family advocates for, according to leaders.
Focus President Daly says in his blog that people should have the right “to seek assistance in living within biblical guidelines,” adding that the organization realizes its values are not everyone's values.
“Individuals with unwanted homosexual attractions or gender concerns often suffer stress, family strain, depression, anxiety and questions that are deeply perplexing," he said.
“As such, we believe in empowering individuals for health and realistic living toward their goals,” Daly said, which can include “therapeutically investigating their sexuality and exploring faith-compatible responses for their individual situation.”
While Focus does not provide individual counseling, the organization has compiled a referral network of Christian counselors who address any topic, including issues relating to sexuality and gender. The organization also distributes a variety of materials for families and individuals who request assistance.
Johnston said the subject is among the top 10 concerns to Focus’ call center, which provides consultation and guidance.