“I was so filthy, and so messed up. But He still loves me.”
Tryphena, only identified by her first name on one of the church’s promotional videos, said these words to True Love, a Singapore-based initiative run by 3:16 Church. On their Instagram page, she is featured as one of the many people who worked with the church to get over the “same-sex attraction” she faced since she was a teenager.
In another post featuring Tryphena, she tells the church, “Ever since childhood, I needed to be the man. To protect my friends, be the surrogate husband to my mother, to be a better man than my father was. I tried to be better, but was not man enough for her.” She said wanting to be a man made her want to be a lesbian but that True Love has helped her find God and realize she didn’t actually want to date women.
Alessio, another True Love member with only his first name disclosed, shared a story similar to Tryphena’s. “Was I born gay?”, he asked in a somber video. He described his fear of women, supposedly brought by witnessing them putting men down. He said that with the help of God and True Love, he realized that he was not gay. It was, the organization argues, just fear. “Alessio has found peace instead of a tortuous struggle,” said the text on the video.
This, the organization claims, is the purpose of True Love: “Don’t just come out, come home.” These words are plastered across their Facebook and Instagram accounts, in rainbow colors reminiscent of the LGBTQ flag. Led by Pastor Ian Toh, 3:16 Church was founded in 2013, and the True Love ministry began as an offset in June 2018.
“The ministry provides Christian stories, resources, and a safe community to help Christians with unwanted same-sex attraction,” its Facebook page says.
The Instagram account is dotted with interviews featuring Christians who are “born again.” In videos, soft piano keys play in the background as people speak about their journey to finding God, and discovering the truth behind their same-sex attractions. These clips and IGTV features often speak about being “set free.”
In an email to VICE, Pastor Toh explained his organization’s goals.
“TrueLove.Is is an initiative that firstly seeks to encourage and empower those within the Church who have same-sex attraction, so they can flourish while honouring the biblical teaching on holiness and sexuality and secondly, challenge the church to humbly lend a listening ear and learn to respond with respect and compassion to those struggling,” he said.
“We truly care for these Christian brothers and sisters, who are so very brave to share their stories of struggle and flourishing.”
He also made clear, in no uncertain terms, that experiencing same-sex attraction is not a sin but that some people have expressed a desire to overcome it. In his email, he clarified that the church and the initiative "[do not] seek to change or ‘cure’ anyone’s sexual orientation.”
“We do not conduct any form of formal programme or therapy for Christians with same-sex attractions. All that the ministry volunteers do and advocate is to walk with a fellow Christian brother or sister with same-sex attractions, and provide acceptance, love and affirmation of their value and identity as children of God,” he said.
But through True Love, Toh said some members have voluntarily changed their sexual preferences.
“We have, however, discovered a small but growing group of people within the church who hold the belief that a change in their sexual orientation is possible and they claim to experience varying degrees of such change,” the pastor said.
This is, allegedly, the case with people like Tryphena and Alessio. They wanted nothing more than to rid themselves of being gay, says the church.
“No one has been encouraged, prescribed nor pressured to become heterosexual, to enter or re-enter into heterosexual relationships, or to remain single or celibate,” said Toh.
There are many, however, who don’t believe this. A closer look at their promotional materials also proves problematic.
One of their video segments, for example, features four Christians in a “heart-to-heart” chat with a pastor, revealing certain insensitive comments that they have heard about their sexuality for years. The video seems to be sympathetic towards the discrimination LGBTQ people have to face daily. And yet, their so-called quest to rule out “insensitive comments” is completely negated. In the same breath, the organization explicitly calls being gay a “struggle”: that these “urges” can be, and should be, overcome.
Toh himself also concedes that sex should be reserved for “monogamous heterosexual marriage.”
“Any other expression of sexual intimacy outside of that context falls outside of God's joy-filled design for our sexuality, and as such, does not lead to people experiencing His best for their lives. Accordingly, we do not promote such relations out of a genuine care for people,” he said in his email.
In the same breath, however, he added, “Be that it may, we hold to the view that every individual has the freedom to choose how they wish to live their lives.”
Since the birth of True Love, Singaporean netizens and members of the city-state’s LGBTQ community have questioned True Love’s real intentions. A year ago, a Reddit thread was filled with comments about the 3:16 Church denouncing being gay.
Reddit user veryfascinating wrote, “I accept you, but sorry hun, you’re going to hell”–seemingly mocking True Love’s tone towards church-goers. Another user, blammer wrote, “Huh, [does this] mean we have to be celibate all our lives and not be able to love our partners?”
Some of the comments on the thread also pointed out that the organization contradicts itself. User Enterland wrote that they’ve contradicted their message “by having [a] straight couple pose [for] an LGBT cause”, in regards to the True Love banner.
In May 2019, an anonymous Medium writer also took to the platform to recount attending a True Love event as a “gay ex-Christian.”
“As True Love writes, ‘we are enslaved by sin – powerless and addicted, so to speak – and lose our ability to choose good.’ This seems to be a guiding principle for the campaign: straight Christians occupy a higher moral ground and gay people must up their level of morality,” said the post.
The writer admitted that True Love does not seem to be outwardly homophobic, but rather, any sign of homophobia is implicit. For instance, he felt that they were talking at gay people, rather than with them. Despite feeling the compassion of the pastor and speakers at the event, he did find fault in their conversations. More than anything he felt that True Love doesn’t “actually want to listen” to gay people.
In a second post, outlining further disapproval for the initiative, he wrote that the group is “rooted so deeply in its moral opposition to homosexuality.”
“[True Love] chooses to ignore the substantial scientific evidence that establishes homosexuality as a natural, involuntary, and harmless variation in human psychology,” wrote the Medium author. “It chooses to resist the inevitable realization that life without ‘same-sex attraction’ is a viable mode of existence…”
Another Reddit thread in response to his piece garnered over 100 comments, most of whom slammed the church’s social media content.
More recently, allegations about the group’s use of conversion therapy practices went viral.
On July 23, Gabbi Wenyi Ayane, artist and founder of Queer Zinefest Singapore, blasted the organization in an Instagram post that got over 6,000 likes and close to 600 comments. She superimposed the words “True Love is a F***cking Disgrace” on a photo of one of the organization’s banners posted in Singapore.
In her caption, Ayane condemned True Love’s interpretation of the Bible which she said fuels discrimination against the LGBTQ community and expressed anger towards Christians who spread messages of hatred, as opposed to love.
Two days after Ayane’s viral post, True Love was forced to make their own statement – challenging everything she and hundreds of others were criticising them for.
“Truelove.is does not practice ‘conversion therapy’ nor does it condone electroshock therapy,” the post read. “The ministry provides Christian stories, resources, and a safe community to help Christians with unwanted same-sex attraction.”
The existence of a group like True Love is revealing of larger truths about Singapore, specifically the influence of Christianity on the island. Evangelical Christians came to Singapore in the 1980s, and the movement has been flourishing since, with deep-rooted networks across the island.
Along with Singaporeans condemning True Love come examples of other churches in Singapore that have routinely attempted to rid Christians of being gay. This has been going on for years, with some attempts more subtle than others. In Singapore, gay sex is still illegal under Section 377A of the Penal Code. Any male found guilty of having sex with another male could be punished with a prison sentence of up to 2 years.
This, along with the church’s attitude towards homosexuality makes it even more difficult for those who identify as part of the LGBTQ community in Singapore.
Ashley, 33, who asked to have her name changed for her protection, claims she underwent conversion therapy at the hands of her church when she was 14 years old.
“We are supposed to be a secular state. In practice, I don’t think we are,” she told VICE.
Ashley is part of a devout evangelical family that also adheres to traditional Chinese Confucian values. Despite knowing she was a lesbian since the age of eight, she kept that part of her life a secret. At the recommendation of church elders, her parents took note of her seemingly masculine qualities, which was apparently cause for concern.
“They wanted to show me the error of my ways,” she said, speaking of the weekly counseling sessions she had to go through at her church. “Because I was marked as being a ‘tomboy,’ which was a stereotype of being a gay woman, they wanted to get rid of it in me. I just had to go along with it, so I would just switch off [during the sessions].”
When she was a teenager, and later when she left home at 22 years old after coming out as a lesbian, she dabbled in other faiths, in an attempt to find a religion that would work for her. Ashley’s family eventually accepted her and only then did she turn back to Christianity.
“I would say I’ve reconciled my relationship with my religion and my past. The Christian community does take care of you,” she said.
However, both as a Christian and as a part of the LGBTQ community, she is against Christian groups like True Love that try to turn people straight. Ashley said many of her friends and acquaintances have been “solicited into joining the cause.”
“[True Love is] saying they love people who experience same-sex attraction,” said Ashley.
“When I looked more closely, I can see why people are still falling for their marketing. I almost did. It seemed harmless. They are flying under the radar – it’s all underhanded,” she said. “They would never say you’re going straight to hell.”
Blatant anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is indeed absent from the group’s expansive social media presence. It is not openly homophobic or dictatorial. But Ashley and several others believe that the organization's compassionate rhetoric is just an underhanded way to convince people to turn away from being gay.
White boxes adorned with words such as – “He did not create me a gay. It was just a lie” and “No longer trapped in darkness, for now I live in the light”– have been accused of being manipulative. Other posts have shown Christians calling themselves “weak” for experiencing same-sex attraction.
While the language may not be outwardly hostile, the words arguably suggest that gay people can be transformed by religion, for the better.
Like Ashley, Manvendra, 20, who also asked to have his name changed for his protection, was shocked and angered when he first learned about True Love.
He runs an anonymous Instagram account, singapore.activist, where he speaks of issues central to Singapore and its youth. While he identifies as Hindu and not Christian, he recognises that religion is difficult for those who are part of the LGBTQ community. He has talked about how challenging it is to be queer in a place like Singapore, where gay sex is still illegal and genuine acceptance of LGBTQ people is scarce.
“The presence of an organization like this doesn’t represent the whole of Singapore, but it does allude to the fact that the Christian demographic does have a lot of power in Singapore,” he said.
He also agreed with the criticism that True Love was not upfront about its real intentions.
“I do think their marketing techniques are trying to mask what they’re doing,” Manvendra told VICE. “They talk about queer stuff in general. They use the rainbow flag at the particular church where the initiative is held. They are just trying to coerce people into coming to the church.”
In his email to VICE, Toh again emphasised that the ministry does not practice conversion therapy, saying the church is aware of its critics, but stands by its cause. Their primary intention is to help Christians “to live in a way that's consistent with Christianity's life-giving design for our sexuality.”
“Some people mistakenly think that True Love attempts to coerce or manipulate people into changing their sexual orientation. That couldn't be further from the truth,” Toh said.
“No one has been encouraged, prescribed nor pressured to become heterosexual, to enter or re-enter into heterosexual relationships, or to remain single or celibate.”
Toh also said that the criticism is “saddening” to him and his ministry but that they “do not seek to debate or argue with those who do not share our Christian beliefs and convictions.”
“We appreciate that in a pluralistic society there will be differences in beliefs and opinions. We respect that,” he said.
Toh admits that he is aware of people having to undergo conversion therapy through manipulation and fear, which 3:16 is emphatic it is allegedly against. This will only result in “more pain and suffering,” he said.
But he also said that for those who do choose to change, their choices should not be criticised.
“Let’s accord these Christians with same-sex attraction the dignity and space of their choice,” wrote Toh. “Their experiences are also a valid way of living out their autonomy as individuals with freedom of choice to love the way they want to. Just because a person with same-sex desires to commit to not acting upon their desires, that doesn’t mean they have been ‘brainwashed’ or ‘lied to’.”
He said that it shouldn’t be assumed that those who change their sexual orientations, “haven’t done the hard work of thinking through and forming their own personal convictions.”
“While others may not understand their beliefs, their convictions and commitments shouldn’t be derided, demeaned, distorted, but respected, included and honoured,” he said.
But critics like Manvendra still don’t buy it. He said that the existence of True Love and such churches makes him afraid for his fellow queer Singaporeans.
“Looking at True Love, I think of all the queer people and vulnerable people who are just starting to figure out their sexuality,” he said. “Being that vulnerable and insecure is a make-or-break point.”
He also insisted that the central idea of queer people needing to change is in itself unjust.
“Queer people deserve to have love and experience a romantic and sexual connection with someone. It’s not a sin,” he said. “Don’t consider yourself a sinner.”