Reno’s Yvette Schneider worked for decades trying to convert people who are gay into being straight. She was one of the leading figures in what’s called the “ex-gay” Christianity movement. Today, however, she is speaking out against the damage done by those who believe you can “pray away” homosexuality.
Schneider is featured in the new Netflix documentary called Pray Away, set to be released Aug. 3. Her message: trying to change people’s sexuality is damaging, and there is no credible evidence it works. She uses herself as a primary example.
Schneider came out as lesbian during the mid-1980s when the AIDS epidemic was raging.
“At that time, people were dying within 15 months of diagnosis, so lots of funerals,” she said. “I actually lived with my best friend, Ed, and his partner, Mike, who both had full-blown AIDS. And I was sort of taking care of them.”
At the time, Schneider was working in a support position at a law firm in downtown Los Angeles. A friend there was always inviting her to church.
“And I didn’t want to go because I had seen church people at gay and lesbian pride parades in West Hollywood and Long Beach, and they were always like, ‘You’re going to go to hell.’ I thought, ‘I don’t want to be like that,’” she said.
Her friend told her it wouldn’t be like that—that anyone was welcome in the congregation.
“Yeah, anyone can come—and then once you get in the door, then they’re not so accepting,” Schneider said. “Then it’s, ‘You have to change. The Bible says you’re a new creature in Christ, and you have to change. You can’t be gay anymore. It’s a sin.’ I was really torn with that because I did feel like I had truly been born again. I’d found the love of Jesus.”
Eventually, however, she did agree to go to services with her friend. She said it gave her the feeling of being reconnected to her faith, something she’d lost as a teenager. She began going regularly, but it wasn’t long before her initial suspicions about the church were confirmed.
“I had been a Christian for maybe a year, and I was living in a house with seven other Christian women—young women who were part of this church,” Schneider said. “I was called in to meet with the campus pastor’s wife … and she said, ‘I saw a spirit of homosexuality on you.’ I hadn’t spoken to anyone about it. We, at that time, had mentors called ‘disciplers’ who would help us … make sure we were reading our Bibles, [and to] answer questions. I had told her, but I hadn’t told anyone else.”
They laid hands on her and the cast out the “demon of homosexuality,” and they replaced it with “purity and holiness.”
“This is what they said,” Schneider recalled.
They then told her she couldn’t do anything but go to work and go home. At home, she was only allowed to read her Bible and pray. They called it “being in quarantine.”
No one else was put into quarantine, including a friend of hers who was working for a conservative organization that stressed abstinence but was having sex with one of her co-workers—an act called “falling” by the church.
Schneider said she felt coerced and manipulated and forced into the situation,but she also felt conflicted because of her rediscovered faith.
“I felt I had to push anything down that came up. And I was in love with one of my friends there for probably three years and just had to keep the lid on it—don’t tell anyone; don’t say anything because you have to be straight,” Schneider said. “That’s the only way that you can be a Christian. Otherwise, what are you going to do? Go to hell? God’s going to hate you?”
Schneider eventually came to consider herself “ex-gay” and began speaking out about using religion to make the transition from gay to straight. Following a prayer breakfast at which she spoke, she was approached by a woman from the conservative Family Research Council. The woman asked her to relocate from California to Washington D.C. to work for the organization as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill pushing anti-LGBTQ legislation.
At the time, the issues were civil unions and gay marriage, The Employment Nondiscrimination Act, adoption rights for gay people, among others.
“And that’s nothing that I’m proud of, obviously. But I did feel like, ‘Well, this is what I have to do to serve God. This is what I have to do to be a good Christian,” Schneider said.
Schneider also spent several years working for Exodus International, the largest ex-gay organization in the nation until it closed. She had married a man and had children, but it wasn’t until her youngest daughter was diagnosed with Leukemia that Schneider stepped fully away from her work that she began to question what had become her professional calling.
By then, her family was living in Reno. Schneider describes two and a half years of panic attacks during her daughter’s cancer treatments. She went to a therapist who told her it was only natural that she was feeling so overwhelmed but that there might be something more to her anxiety. The therapist said she believed she had post-traumatic stress disorder and asked Schneider to consider what underlying issues and experiences might have led to it.
It didn’t take long for her to zero in on her history with the ex-gay movement, thrust upon her by the leaders of the church.
“You’re telling people they can change when you know good and well that they can’t. You’ve never seen anyone change, including yourself,” Schneider said.
Schneider decided in 2014 to do an interview with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation as a means of coming out against her past beliefs.
“I felt an obligation to let people know, look, ‘I don’t believe this anymore. So, if you ever knew me, you need to hear it from me: This doesn’t work. And that’s where the backlash happened, as I knew it would,” she explained.
People with whom Schneider used to work at the Family Research Council and Exodus International began saying she was under the influence of a sorceress.
“That’s what they were calling my therapist, a sorceress, that somehow she had brainwashed me, which is absolutely ridiculous,” she recalled. “What I thought was interesting was that no one was really challenging my arguments as much as they were trying to attack me personally.”
She, who said she now identifies as bisexual, said she likes the idea of a documentary and was happy to participate in Pray Away because it provides an opportunity to get the word out about the ineffectual and often traumatizing nature of conversion therapy.
Schneider said she thinks there will need to be a sea change within the religious community if LGBTQ+ people are ever to feel comfortable being members of it.
“I would say, spiritually, I’m in process,” she said. “I don’t really trust churches because of what I’ve been through with them in the past. So, it would be difficult for me to walk through a church’s doors and feel comfortable—but I do believe in God and nurture that relationship in my own way.”
Schneider said she hopes what people get out of the documentary is the knowledge that gay people cannot change—and that they shouldn’t. Their sexual orientations are a part of who they are intrinsically. She also hopes parents will watch the documentary and reconsider any attempts they may have made to change their gay children to straight.
Research shows “there is no credible evidence” to support the efficacy of so-called “conversion therapy.”
“I’m just glad that I got out of it when my children were young because they’ve never been like I was,” Scheider added. “Both of my kids have always been very accepting of others. And my youngest is a huge LGBTQ advocate—always standing up for her friends or those at school who were trans and sort of outcast. So, I’m very proud of who my kids are and that my husband and I did not subject them to the things that we had been subjected to.”
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.