Anthony Venn-Brown has dedicated his life to walking a thin line between two communities – and has changed countless lives as a result.
In June, it was announced that Anthony Venn-Brown had been awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours, for his work in bridging the gap between religious institutions and the LGBTQI community.
Tomorrow (Wednesday, 2 December), Venn-Brown will receive the award at NSW Government House, which will be followed by a celebratory dinner at Oxford Street club, Universal, celebrating the OAM and many years of ‘bridge building’ between religious and LGBTQI communities.
While it will be a triumphant day, the road to this prestigious honour was far from easy.
Venn-Brown survived one of the earliest attempts of religious gay conversion therapy in the world, and later became one of Australia’s most famous Evangelical ministers.
He resigned after decades in the ministry in 1991, coming out as a gay man, then devoting his life to helping those were a part of the ‘ex-gay movement’ through the organisation he founded, Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International (ABBI) – which is dedicated to ending ignorance about sexual orientation and gender identity within religious.
Speaking to the Sentinel, Venn-Brown discussed the work that’s led to the OAM, noting that the inspiration to help others came from hitting his own rock bottom.
“Having dealt with being one of the first in the world to go through a residential conversion therapy program, then having to resolve that, then having to come out and being in a state of trauma and quite messy – it took eight years to find resolution and peace,” Venn-Brown says via Zoom from a friend’s cottage.
“So, that’s our work. We see the enemy as not individuals, churches or organisations. The enemy is ignorance, and the way to bring about change is not attacking the former, but focusing on changing the latter.
“When I began this work, there were many hurt people who’d come out of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches who were living with the pain and trauma of their experience. Receiving the [OAM] wasn’t in my goals or on my radar … So, it’s really quite incredible and unbelievable.”
It perhaps goes without saying that Christian faiths and LGBTQI identities have been at fundamental odds with one another, even before the inception of the global gay liberation movement.
Furthermore, Christian institutions have, for many decades, regarded sexual and gender diversity as deviations, dysfunctions or diseases that can be cured.
Despite these attitudes lingering – as evidenced by recent religious discrimination and education amendment bills – the voices of survivors such as Venn-Brown have narrowed the gap between LGBTQI and Christian communities.
However, it wasn’t until after the 2004 release of his critically acclaimed autobiography, A Life of Unlearning, that Venn-Brown pieced together a need for communication, help and healing between two fractured groups.
“20 years ago, I started an online Yahoo group for survivors of the ‘ex-gay movement’, and I had 400 people in that group,” Venn-Brown says.
“Then the book came out, and that was really the turning point for me because my inbox was flooded with thousands of emails with people saying, ‘Your story is my story.’
“It became clear that I couldn’t keep supporting these hundreds of people. But after a while, I realised that we need to fix this at the top of the cliff. For me, that was about reaching out to leaders, Christian organisations and churches – and who’s more qualified to do that than me?
“I understood the language and the culture and the connections, and that’s when I founded Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International.”
However, while we share a laugh over the never-ending difficulties Venn-Brown has confronted in his work, it’s clear that becoming a bridge between two worlds incurs its own forms of isolation.
“In some ways, it’s like you’re stuck in the middle. You have people within the LGBT community who, understandably, see the church or religion as the enemy. But, on the other side, I had people in the Christian church who saw me as the enemy with the gay agenda,” he says, staring thoughtfully out a nearby window.
“In 2004, when I launched A Life of Unlearning, we did it upstairs in the Midnight Shift club [on Oxford Street]. There were about 200 people there, but there weren’t any gay community leaders because of that anti-religious feeling.
“So here we are, 16 years down the track and getting recognition for this work, which is really overwhelming. There’s a lot more acceptance within our [LGBTQI] community – not that I created all of that – but there’s been contribution to creating a different conversation.”
Venn-Brown believes the work he has done bridging the gap between Christian churches and the LGBTQI community comes down to his championing of respect between both sides.
“I think it’s always about values, and finding common ground around those values,” he said.
“One of those common values is about respect. So even though I might disagree with someone’s point of view or beliefs, if I want them to respect me, I have to respect them as well.
“That’s the foundation for any dialogue that’s going to allow us to move forward. I’m working with two churches currently who want to be LGBT-affirming, but this is not something that’s going to happen overnight.
“You’ve got to give them time to process some of those new concepts or ideas. To challenge those stereotypes they may have, to talk about some of their fears and concerns.”
This commitment to respect, Venn-Brown believes, is needed now more than ever. Venn-Brown remains adamant that mending the relationship between religious and LGBTQI identifies must continue – especially if we are to move on from the trauma of the past.
“I’ve found that when you set the framework of a safe space, which has respect, integrity and a willingness to listen – it has a whole different environment to that confrontational, antagonist and adversarial thing that existed before,” he said.
“That doesn’t get us anywhere, and we can’t be in two separate camps any longer. Not with everything happening in the world.
“We shouldn’t want to destroy the other person, because there’s a piece of us in those other people. Our communities are starting to meet each other, and we need to foster that in the healthiest way possible.”
Venn-Brown will receive his OAM tomorrow (Wednesday, 2 December).
The Sentinel would like to congratulate Venn-Brown, whose work we look forward to seeing continue.
For more information on Venn-Brown and his work, visit the Ambassadors and Bridge Builders International website at abbi.org.au.
Venn-Brown’s autobiography, A Life of Unlearning, is available from The Bookshop Darlinghurst and good bookshops everywhere.
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