This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
During his freshman year at Brigham Young University, Michael Ferguson began bargaining with God.
The pledges of sacrifice came during hours of feverish prayer that a dressed-for-church Ferguson offered from his knees, while locked inside his dormitory room on each monthly Mormon fast Sunday.
In exchange for heaven's merciful aid, Ferguson would give more more hours of service in his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints priesthood assignments, more time performing ritual ordinance work in the Provo LDS Temple, more devotion, more faithfulness, more obedience.
"One of [the bargains]," Ferguson said, "was that I would not tell a single person until I was on my deathbed that I had experienced same-sex attraction if he would help lift that off of me."
That struggle led Ferguson on a painful, sometimes desperate, journey through a decade of efforts to change his sexuality from prayer and talk therapy to 12-step programs and psychodrama workshops culminating with his exit from Mormonism and a landmark New Jersey lawsuit that became the first courtroom challenge to commercial conversion-therapy programs.
In June, a jury found the nonprofit group JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) guilty of consumer fraud for promising it could help clients with same-sex attractions overcome their sexual urges.
Ferguson and three Orthodox Jewish men had sued after seeking help from JONAH programs, some developed by Mormons. The four had wrestled to reconcile their sexuality with their conservative religious upbringings.
The conflict within • Growing up in a traditional Mormon home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Ferguson, now 33, said that even at an early age he had two distinct visions for his life.
One was like a page from a Latter-day Saint storybook. It included serving a Mormon mission and graduating from BYU, where he would meet and marry a faithful woman with whom he would rear a family and who would stand by his side as he served first as an LDS bishop and later as the president of a church mission somewhere in the world.
"I also remember very clearly having these spontaneous fantasies of life with a male partner," Ferguson said. "One that is very vivid to me is a vision of having Christmas with a husband and doing all the traditional family activities."
Seen through a Mormon lens, Ferguson, who recalls that his first crushes were on his fifth-grade male classmates, saw the latter picture, not as confusing, but as wrong.
"I just recognized it as temptation," he said. "And so you have to fight sin and resist temptation."
Ferguson breathed no word of what brewed inside and carried on with a life that was genuinely happy. He had a good family and strong faith. He loved the LDS Church and found services inspiring and motivating. He dated young women through high school and made plans for college and a mission.
He sincerely believed that his sexuality would change.
"In my mind, this is something that is going to go away when I go on my mission and serve valiantly," he said. "The Lord is going to heal me because that's the compensation you get."
He also was sure his orientation would shift so that he could fulfill his destiny and claim his place in heaven. A special "patriarchal blessing," given to him in his youth, anointed Ferguson as one who would "lead the church," he said. Two of his Mormon youth leaders even told him that it had been revealed to them by the spirit that he would become an LDS apostle.
"I grew up steeped in messages from multiple adult sources that the Lord was grooming me for a place in his kingdom," he said. "So I'm simultaneously struggling with the idea that I have a life calling that I have to be worthy and prepared for otherwise I'm really going to screw up the Lord's plan."
"Failing at Life" • The pressure to be heterosexual escalated in college, especially after his Arizona mission.
Hiding behind a curtain of chastity became harder because of the cultural expectation to marry and procreate. As his anxiety and fear of discovery mushroomed, Ferguson repeatedly ruminated on whether confiding in his Mormon bishop would help him or cost him dearly. He wondered if withholding the truth made him a fraud in the eyes of the church. He began not just failing his classes, he said, but "failing at life." He contemplated suicide.
Finally, at about age 22, Ferguson summoned the courage to share his secret with his ecclesiastical leader. Besides urging Ferguson to go to the temple more often, the church leader advised him to "turn down the dimmer switch" on his attractions to men and turn it up with women.
In hindsight, the counsel was "compassionate but misguided," Ferguson said. "But, at the time, I'm thinking, 'Hey, let's find that dimmer switch and start turning.' "
His pursuit began with talk therapy through BYU's counseling center. That provided a safe space to unload fears and feelings, but did nothing to alter his sexuality. After graduating in 2005, with a degree in biochemistry, Ferguson moved to Boston, where a church leader prescribed a 12-step addiction program, because he believed Ferguson was addicted to attention from men. It was no solution.
Ferguson also tried a nondenominational approach, attending worship services with a group that ascribed to a "pray away the gay" philosophy. Again, there was support, but no change.
New hope, same feelings • Increasingly, the then-aspiring physician said he was beginning to believe that he could not be changed and, for the first time, he became more angry than hopeful.
Ferguson then was approached by friends back in Utah about helping to organize a support network for gay Mormon men. The group, which later would be named North Star, included Ty Mansfield, co-author of "In Quiet Desperation," which chronicled his struggle with same-sex attraction and the life of Stuart Matis, a gay Mormon who committed suicide on the steps of an LDS meetinghouse in California.
Its 2004 publication drew many Mormon men wrestling with their sexuality out of the closet for fellowship meetings. The gatherings, Ferguson said, provided a sense of hopefulness and made the idea of essentially living a double life married to a woman, while still attracted to men more palatable and even possible.
Through his affiliation with North Star, Ferguson heard about conversion therapy. As the group took shape, he said, it became a clearinghouse, of sorts, for vetting men interested in change programs, including Journey Into Manhood, an intense weekend retreat designed to help men rewire their sexual impulses.
For Ferguson, the therapy was a draw partly because the practitioners leading the experiential workshops touted the use of proven scientific methods and a success rate of more than 60 percent.
"I was like, wait a second, this is different, this is new," said Ferguson, who by now was in his late 20s and enrolled in medical school in New York.
Despite his background in science and academia, Ferguson said he so badly wanted "not to be gay" that he didn't question the methods employed by Journey facilitators including naked rebirthing and hugging exercises who were not licensed therapists or counselors.
That Mormon men helped develop and run the programs also appealed to Ferguson.
"It was a huge influence," he said. "It's also something that they invoked knowingly. [One] told me that the spirit had told him [LDS founder] Joseph Smith really approved of the men's work that we were doing."
The tug of Mormonism continued when Ferguson began meeting with JONAH counselor Alan Downing, who had facilitated his Journey weekend.
Downing, a Mormon "life coach," urged him to take off his clothes by recounting the Book of Mormon tale of Captain Moroni ripping off his coat and holding it aloft in battle.
"He's saying, 'Where's your warrior?' and that if I'm not taking my clothes off, I'm failing to follow the teachings of Captain Moroni," Ferguson said. "It's very manipulative."
Ferguson spent six months commuting from medial school in New York to counseling sessions with Downing, who was working from JONAH's offices in New Jersey.
When no progress came, Ferguson was riddled with guilt and thoughts, again, of failure.
"It's very much on you," he said, "if you are not seeing progress."
Two events further eroded Ferguson's hope for change:
First, Downing acknowledged that he had never resolved his own same-sex attractions. Then, just before his return to Utah, Ferguson's bishop invited him to meet with a Mormon couple in a mixed-orientation marriage.
It was a well-intended gesture, Ferguson said, that backfired. He asked the couple, if they could go back in time, whether they would marry again. They said no.
Once back in Salt Lake City, Ferguson planned to immerse himself in the belly of Mormon theology and culture to help him turn a corner.
Finding a husband and happiness • Instead, he came to a realization that he could not continue on the same path. Exhausted and feeling "defeated by biology," Ferguson began to rethink his approach.
"It's definitely a real low point," he said. "It was just the continuing depravity of methods that I was attempting that also made me reassess what I was willing to compromise for these promises of change."
Ferguson started to deconstruct the life he had expected, prompting him to deconstruct his faith as well. He ran into hard bumps with aspects of LDS history and theology that undermined his belief and led him out of Mormonism.
At the same time, he met Seth Anderson, who spent hours listening to Ferguson's story and helped him realize that conversion therapy had been an emotionally abusive experience. They started a tea business together and, on Dec. 20, 2013, became the first gay couple in Utah to marry in the hours after a federal judge struck down the state's ban on gay unions.
"Seth is my strength," said Ferguson, who finished a doctorate in bioengineering at the University of Utah in June and is doing postdoctoral work at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "We complement each other in beautiful ways and expand the way the other sees and lives."
Anderson encouraged Ferguson to pursue the JONAH lawsuit so that those still considering change therapy would know its pitfalls and false promises.
The couple, who plan to return to Salt Lake City, hope the jury verdict and other legislative efforts will lead to a nationwide ban on such programs.
These days, Ferguson said, he has a vision of a rich life that he could not imagine during his decade of guilt and obsession with change.
"Life makes more sense now," he said.
"I have an amazing husband and insight into my own personal beliefs and inner light that I could not have found."
Even though it was there all along.