Sy Rogers, an early leader of the ex-gay movement, died from cancer Sunday at the age of 63.
Rogers had what he called a “God encounter” in 1980. He had begun to identify as a woman and was preparing for a sex reassignment surgery when Johns Hopkins Hospital shut down its gender identity clinic and stopped offering surgeries. Rogers, in desperation, asked God to change him. He spent the next 40 years testifying that God did.
“Sex is a powerful master,” he preached in 2014. “But I can also tell you this … God is a more powerful master. You can serve your desires or you can bring your desires to God, admit them and submit them, and experience his mastery over mind and body.”
Before “LGBT” was a popular term, Rogers challenged Christians to think about sexual orientation and identity. A past president of Exodus International, he was an early proponent of support groups for people who wanted overcome unwanted same-sex attraction and he was frequently held up as a dramatic example that change was possible.
He spoke around the world about God and sexuality, becoming a key figure in the expansion of the ex-gay movement to the global church. In later years—as reparative therapy became increasingly controversial and a number of prominent Christian psychologists concluded it didn’t work—he focused his message less on orientation and more on connecting people with God.
“Sy was truly one of the kindest people you could ever meet,” Hillsong cofounder Bobbie Houston wrote on Instagram, reacting to news of Rogers’s death. “He exemplified grace and freedom and a passion to always bless others. We will miss you Sy. You ran your race perfectly, always giving honor to your Savior King.”
The evangelist Priscilla Shirer called his death “a huge loss for the church.”
Long road to change
Rogers, born in December 1956, had a traumatic childhood. He was molested as a toddler, and his mother died in a car accident when he was 4. His father left him with relatives for a year. He was bullied in school for his effeminate mannerisms and was overwhelmed with shame at his attraction to members of the same sex.
Rogers joined the Navy in 1973 and was stationed in Honolulu. By his account, he became active in the “gay scene,” spending his nights at the city’s clubs and discos, and also working on the streets as a prostitute.
“Men found me young and pretty,” he recalled later. “I made love with them because I enjoyed it, and I pretended I was being loved. The little money I made was icing on the cake.”
Rogers sometimes attended the island’s Metropolitan Community Church, which was at the time called “the gay church,” because the denomination founded in 1968 affirmed LGBT identities and blessed same-sex relationships. Rogers was the best man in a same-sex wedding ceremony at the church but recalled later that while he liked the idea of a religion that approved of his sexuality, he was not particularly interested in God or Jesus.
It wasn’t a matter or belief, for Rogers. Something else held him back.
“Though I believed in the God of the Bible, maker of heaven and earth, and I believed in Jesus the redeemer, I also believed God didn’t love people like me,” he said. “I wonder where I picked that up?”
Rogers got out of the Navy in 1977 and moved to Washington, DC. He got a job as a telephone switchboard operator and started to identify as transgender. He pursued sex-reassignment surgery and lived as a woman for about 18 months while doing hormone therapy. Then the same-sex couple who had gotten married in Hawaii wrote him they had “turned away from the homosexual lifestyle and identity” because they had become Christians. At the same time, Paul McHugh, the leading psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins, did a study that found that sex-reassignment surgery had little impact on psychological well-being. McHugh shut down the program, and Rogers could no longer get the surgery he thought would fix him.
The 23-year-old turned to Scripture. He read Isaiah 1:18, where God tells the prophet, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Rogers knelt at the foot of his bed and cried: “God, I cannot change what I am, but I’m willing to be changed. I know you have the power. Make me the man you want me to be!”
In later years, he would say the transformation that happened to him in that moment was not primarily about his sexual orientation.
“My need was for a Savior, not just a different sexuality,” Rogers said. “In that encounter, God did not say ‘Go be straight.’ He said, ‘Walk with me.’”
At the time, however, Rogers focused explicitly on what he believed was the transformation of his sexual orientation through a deeper relationship with God and healthy male bonding. He attended an Assemblies of God church and met a woman named Karen. They developed a relationship and two years later, they married. Rogers joined a Christian support group and counseling center called Eleutheros (a Greek word meaning “freeborn”), which was under the umbrella of Exodus International, the prominent ex-gay ministry.
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Source: Christianity Today