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The Brilliant Marketing of Truelove.is: Homophobia Rebranded or a Chance for Acceptance?

The Brilliant Marketing of Truelove.is: Homophobia Rebranded or a Chance for Acceptance?

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Photos by author.

In June, a rainbow appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

It was the beautifully designed logo of a sponsored page. Branded across it were the words, “True love is”, written in contemporary calligraphy, the kind that’s super trendy on Instagram. Both the seven colours and powerful phrase brought to mind the pride flag and the LGBT community’s fight for acceptance.

A couple of my gay friends had ‘liked’ the page, so I assumed it was marketing for Pink Dot, which was due to happen a month later. I forgot about the page until a few days later when a straight friend, who supports the LGBT community, shared the page in a group chat.

“This is disgusting,” he said.

My curiosity was piqued. Not knowing what to expect, I visited the page thinking it was some inconsequential thing that had ticked my friend off. I could not have been more wrong.

To summarise, Truelove.is is an initiative started by 3:16 Church to reach out first and foremost to LGBT Christians, as well as other Christians who want to be equipped with Christian-centric resources on LGBT issues. Their core message is simple: Don’t just come out, come home.

Anyone who chances upon the page might initially conclude that the church is truly affirming and welcoming of the LGBT community—which is exactly how the initiative hopes to appear. In fact, Truelove.is is a textbook example of effective and excellent branding.

First, Truelove.is understands its target audience: Christian millennials who are well-read and well-meaning. Through high-quality videos and nuanced articles showcasing the intimate stories of several Christians who struggle with “same sex attraction” (SSA) and who claim to have overcome it, the in-house creative team manages to soften the church’s typically hardline stance against the LGBT community.

Second, the singular tactic of Truelove.is is bulletproof. The initiative makes clear that it comes from a place of ‘love’. It wants to listen to LGBT Christians without passing judgement. It wants the church to be a safe space for LGBT Christians to feel loved and accepted. Moreover, it wants LGBT Christians to know that God loves them unconditionally, whatever they choose to do with their SSA.  

Finally, Truelove.is understands the visual power of renowned symbols. It uses the pride flag to draw attention to their cause, aligning the church as allies of the LGBT community. It’s effective because it’s ‘radical’.

For these precise reasons, the initiative has received its fair share of detractors like my friend, many of whom claim that it’s pure deception.

At best, they say truelove.is should win a marketing award. At worst, it is modern day ‘conversion therapy’, designed to force LGBT Christians to suppress their sexuality.

As a straight female with a Christian background, I am aware of my privilege. I am able to try and understand the perspective of Truelove.is without feeling attacked by their stance on my sexual orientation.

This is how I find myself arriving at the Truelove.is conference on 10 August with an open mind.

Before the event kicks off, the emcee says, “At the end of this session, you should be able to fill in the blank in ‘True love is ___.’” I don’t realise it then, but I return to this sentence multiple times throughout the day as I listen to the speakers, each time amending the answer in my mind.

Jason Wong, who works at the Ministry of Social & Family Development, and who also started the Yellow Ribbon Project and Dads For Life, is first to speak. Being the mentor to Raphael, one of the main faces of Truelove.is, he shares his journey of taking on LGBT issues.

His speech sounds well-intentioned, in that it demonstrates his interest in the LGBT communityfrom statistics that show churches aren’t doing their best to help Christians understand LGBT issues to sharing that he’d even gone overseas to better understand the issues himself. Nonetheless it’s littered with traditional Christian arguments about family that undermine his motive.

For instance, Jason states explicitly, “When God created man and woman to have children, they say sex is within marriage. They look after the children. The marriage will thrive, the nation will thrive. Along the way, we’ve been turned away.”

Shortly after, he likens the Thai boys being rescued from the caves as a sign that God also wants LGBT Christians to ‘come out, come home’.

How can it be true love on Jason’s end if the ‘goal’ is about preventing Raphael from developing a sexual connection with people he’s attracted to for the rest of his life?

Essentially, when Truelove.is tells LGBT Christians to “come home”, they are not saying that it’s okay to be gay or to have sexual relationships with others of the same gender. They are saying that it’s not a sin to have gay desires, nor should anyone be ostracised for having them. However, it would be sinful to act on them in the eyes of the Lord.

As such, “coming home” is merely about a commitment to Christ and His ways, which includes not acting on one’s SSA—something straight Christians might see as a perfectly reasonable path.

Later, after listening to Raphael’s testimony about Jason’s integral support as his mentor, I think I get it. We all experience periods of darkness when we need anyone at all to show us the way; for many Christians who grew up within the church, to overcome this darkness is to be allowed to return to church. It’s hard to say if any of them truly want to be able to practise their SSA.

Hence, to deny Jason’s support from Raphael life feels presumptuous. It also suggests that help is only valid if it comes from someone who shares our worldview.

If Jason’s mentorship can prevent someone like Raphael from slipping into depression or, God forbid, suicide, then is it really so bad?

My privilege tightens its shackles around me—even though I support the LGBT community, I still occasionally give Christians the benefit of doubt because we share the same background. It’s a reminder that you may have the key to your own prison, but it doesn’t mean you’re able to escape.

I half expect to sit through a brainwashing conference and listen to Raphael (as well as his fellow poster men and women of the Truelove.is initiative) parrot common narratives of how God made man for woman, yada yada yada.

So it surprises me when they take the stage with thoughtful and authentic testimonies, free from any kind of moral high ground. Frankly, if we weren’t in a church, their eloquent rhetoric would fit in nicely at Pink Dot, for they firmly assert that the church must win the trust of LGBT folk by using the right language and respecting their journey.

Many of them remind the audience never to harp on whether an LGBT Christian has ‘turned straight’ nor try to ‘fix’ or ‘save’ LGBT Christians. Truelove.is, according to them, is not conversion therapy.

Embarking on a journey with someone who has SSA is simply about remaining present in their lives, and constantly reminding them that because God loves them, He knows what’s best for them.

When they honestly share that their struggles with SSA still prevail, I sense it’s still a raw wound for most of them. One member, Gillian, states that her SSA resurfaced one night at a bar. Despite being married with a husband now, who is aware of his wife’s SSA, Gillian believes that “even when you think you’ve overcome [SSA], like drugs or alcohol, you might come back to it”.

Similarly, Raphael is upfront that his SSA will likely not go away, and that becoming heterosexual shouldn’t be the focus of his journey. He reiterates that the opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality, but holiness. In non-Christian lingo, this means Raphael either marries a woman or remains single and celibate for life.

What’s perplexing is that Raphael believes that having SSA doesn’t automatically mean someone is LGBT. He breaks down his understanding of having SSA into four categories: desire, behaviour, orientation, and identity. For example, a man who has sex with men (“behaviour”) might just be experimenting, and not gay (“identity”).

I understand where Raphael is coming from, but I disagree: behaviour may not always equate to a specific sexual orientation, but attraction does.

True love must be, after all, rooted in accountability to accuracy.

I don’t expect myself to experience serious cognitive dissonance at this Truelove.is conference. Yet I catch myself impressed at the amount of discernment and patience Raphael has to explain LGBT issues to a Christian audience. I want to support him, even if I don’t believe in his cause.

For instance, he does his best to reinforce the concept of true love in the context of the church. From providing examples of what doesn’t constitute true love (like social justice that isn’t in line with Christ’s righteousness) to the basic principles of walking with people who have SSA, he comes across as measured and profound.

“I think it’s a false paradigm that we have to choose between truth and love. They are not mutually exclusive, and I think you can demonstrate truth and love in equal dimensions,” he explains.

Again, for non-Christians, truth in this context simply means God’s word; anything the bible says is absolute. Separately, love is understood to be unconditional and unwavering, like Christ’s love.

However, Raphael emphasises that love doesn’t mean you must approve of everything that someone does. If they want to do something that doesn’t follow God’s will, then true love dictates that the person must be told the truth about their ‘wrong’ actions. Not because there are conditions to that love, but because true love is wanting what’s best for the person in accordance to God’s destiny for them, even if it may go against the person’s personal desires.

At this point, the burning question in my mind is how Raphael came to the conclusion that true love means denying himself from pursuing his SSA.

“[When we speak to people who have SSA], we cannot keep saying God made it this way, it works, full stop. Instead, do we see God’s master plan that is designed so everything fits beautifully together? Are we able to discern it and explain to people?” he says.

“In my journey with SSA, the turning point was not the bible passages telling me not to do this and that. They were important, but I saw the beauty of God’s design. God has made marriage to be good and pure, and I understood why a man and woman fit together. Then I naturally deduced for myself not to act upon my SSA desires.”

I struggle with empathising, because I cannot imagine a life where I must deny the most basic needs of my well-being.

At the same time, I’m cautious not to project. Perhaps people like Raphael genuinely do not want to act on their SSA anymore, and perhaps they truly hope to find salvation in God’s word. Wherever their paths take them, many of them appear committed to stick to it. I might disagree with their decision, but I respect it.

On this note, Pastor Norman Ng, the creative director of Truelove.is, who has also worked in the marketing industry for close to a decade, shares, “Often, your greatest ministry is what hurts you the most. I have a friend who’s struggling with SSA who’s early on his journey. He says he did not choose this, but if he can’t change it, then he’s going to use it so that others might come home. If we are courageous and strong enough, then we get to take the pain and transform it into power.”

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that Raphael feels anything but powerful. He’s a ticking time bomb, extending true love, kindness, and compassion to everyone but himself.

While doing my research on Truelove.is, several people informed me that the Church of Our Savior’s Choices Ministry shares a similar approach to tackling SSA. The latter has been labelled as ‘conversion therapy’ in more liberal circles.

Speaking with Gerald, 33, who has gone through the entire 1.5-year Choices programme himself, he confirms the similarities that bind Choices and Truelove.is: the usage of SSA terminology, making the distinction between having SSA and being gay, the belief in reparative therapy, and choosing “holiness” (i.e. celibacy) over homosexuality.

After Truelove.is was launched, he emailed Jotham, one of the faces fronting the initiative. In the email, he documented his journey with Choices, in an attempt to make Jotham aware that Truelove.is wasn’t as innocuous as it appeared.

When Gerald first signed up for Choices, he was 20 and a conservative Christian. In fact, he shares that his Choices mentor and batchmates pointed out that if anyone were to be the first to succeed in his batch of Choices attendees, it would have been him.

“For about 5 years beginning from 19, I didn’t have any form of sexual contact. I didn’t hang out with any gay friends. I even abstained from doing ‘sinful’ things like masturbate and watch pornography for months and years in a row. I believe I tried harder than anyone that I’ve come across. When I ‘stumbled’ after so many years of abstinence, I told my pastor about it, and I felt guilty because I thought I had failed,” he opens up.

“After that, I couldn’t and didn’t want to put back the lid on the boiling kettle. I saw the futility of it.”

Around the same time, Gerald’s church family “collapsed” as well. He became angry and wanted nothing to do with Christianity for a couple of years. In hindsight, he counts himself “lucky” to have that break from church, which allowed him to “think about issues without the influence of Christian friends” whom he grew up with.

These issues include the three factors leading to homosexuality according to reparative therapy (the modern term for conversion therapy), something both Choices and Truelove.is propagate: first, sensitive kid as a victim; second, dominant mother; third, distant father. According to reparative therapy, if someone’s life comprises these three factors, they “may get their sexual desires messed up during the course of puberty”. It’s grounded in the theory that because sexuality can be altered, homosexuality is caused by sin.

Gerald shares, “It fit into my own narrative, because I didn’t come from a good family background. I actually liked girls at the start of puberty too. I realise my attraction to guys grew over time. In hindsight, the explanation for all this is that I’m bisexual. Just that not very much bi … perhaps straight 10%, gay 90%.”

When he started digging deeper as he made his first few gay friends in his mid-20s, he recalls a gay friend getting offended at his presumption that he came from a broken home. After realising many of his gay friends had happy families, he fought to reconcile reality with what he was always told. The foundation of reparative therapy became unsustainable to him in light of evidence to the contrary.

Today, Gerald doesn’t go to church regularly, but doesn’t regret attending Choices. He says, “I’m very inquisitive and think critically of anything thrown my way. I needed to discover the truth for myself. I also believe Raphael and Jotham need to walk this path, but when you come out publicly like that, it’s even more difficult to backtrack.”

He doesn’t think programmes like Choices or Truelove.is should be illegal, but they should at least come with a mandatory warning of some kind.

“It’s a miserable existence because sex drives a lot of behaviour. How are you going to sustain a romantic relationship without a sexual connection? Life is already so tough. It’s going to be like planting crops in dry land. You can do it with willpower, but the yield will be pathetic,” he says.

After a whole day at the conference, it’s a lot harder to state what true love is than what it isn’t, but I am surer of the latter.

True love is not hypocritical. It does not draw false dichotomies, implying that it’s okay to “love the sinner, but hate the sin”. What someone believes essentially reflects who they are. A sinner is his sin; someone who doesn’t believe gays deserve equal rights in all aspects is a homophobe.

True love is not masking homophobia as holiness. It does not claim to demonstrate unconditional love, yet stop short of all-encompassing acceptance and affirmation.

True love is not interpreting God’s word to suit the church’s values.

These views, however, are my own, and aren’t shared by LGBT Christians. They’re not shared especially by those like Raphael, Jotham, and Gillian, who may truly want to return to the church even if it means to subdue who they are.

But it may also be that people like me need to forgo our own reservations. Perhaps we should accept that everything Truelove.is preaches simply emphasises a core tenet of being Christian, something that holds more weight for some LGBT Christians than being gay.

When embracing two contradictory identities, most people don’t know how to allow both to exist harmoniously without some form of internal conflict. One has got to go—usually, it’s whichever is more ‘problematic’ in society.

There is a movie I want to talk about in particular. Based on a true story about a homophobic mother who becomes an advocate for the LGBT community after her gay son kills himself, a scene in Prayers for Bobby sticks out for me. Bobby’s mother says, “I know now why God didn’t heal Bobby. He didn’t heal him because there was nothing wrong with him.”

No one at Truelove.is ever says being gay is “wrong”, but they don’t need to. Unlike the Lawrence Khongs of the world, they never make their intolerance explicit. They use soft power, and words like ‘love’, ‘vulnerability’, and ‘safe spaces’, to hide their unspoken rejection.

They wholeheartedly believe that “true” love conquers all.

But when handled carelessly, love is also a violence that cannot be undone.

Truthfully, Raphael seemed happy on stage. But even though I haven’t been to church in more than a decade, I find myself praying that he is happy, settled, and at peace.

I don’t presume to know what he or other LGBT Christians desire, being neither a gay Christian nor a staunch, straight one. But from what I know of love, this much has always been clear to me: true love is freedom.

Unfortunately, if you lock yourself in a prison long enough, you’ll convince yourself it’s paradise.

I understand that “same sex attraction” (SSA) is a term that usually raises a red flag among the LGBT community, as it’s largely used by conservative Christians who believe being gay is abnormal. I only use it in this article to pander to the terminology adopted by Truelove.is.

Have something to say? Write in: grace@ricemedia.co.

Author

Grace Yeoh Senior staff writer