SPARTANBURG — McKrae Game is gay.
He was gay when he received counseling from a therapist who assured him he could overcome his same-sex attractions.
He was gay when he married a woman and founded what would become one of the nation’s most expansive conversion therapy ministries.
He was gay when thousands of people just like him sought his organization’s counsel, all with the goal of erasing the part of themselves Game and his associates preached would send them to hell.
For two decades, he led Hope for Wholeness, a faith-based conversion therapy program in South Carolina’s Upstate. Conversion therapy is a discredited practice intended to suppress or eradicate a person's LGBTQ identity through counseling or ministry.
But the group’s board of directors abruptly fired Game in November 2017.
In June, Game publicly announced he was gay and severed his ties with the organization.
Now, the man once billed as a leading voice in the conversion therapy movement is trying to come to terms with the harm he inflicted while also learning to embrace a world and community he assailed for most of his adult life.
If you were to meet McKrae Game, 51, you’d catch on quickly that he likes to talk. He’s loud and carries his thin build with confidence.
Game is one of many former conversion therapy leaders who have left the movement and come out as LGBTQ.
In 2014, nine founders and leaders from some of the country’s most prominent programs and ministries wrote an open letter calling for a nationwide ban on the practice. The letter was published online by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
“As former ex-gay leaders, having witnessed the incredible harm done to those who attempted to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, we join together in calling for a ban on conversion therapy,” they wrote in the letter. “It is our firm belief that it is much more productive to support, counsel, and mentor LGBTQ individuals to embrace who they are in order to live happy, well-adjusted lives.”
“Conversion therapy is not just a lie, but it’s very harmful,” Game told The Post and Courier. “Because it’s false advertising.”
Nearly 700,000 LGBTQ-identifying adults have undergone conversion therapy treatments or counseling, according to a 2018 study by UCLA’s Williams Institute. The various forms of conversion have been tied to emotional and psychological trauma for many, including depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide. It’s been condemned by virtually every major medical group in the United States, including the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association.
Last year, the LGBTQ youth advocacy nonprofit Trevor Project launched “50 Bills in 50 States,” a campaign lobbying for legislation in every state barring conversion therapy on youth.
Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., have laws on the books banning the practices on anyone younger than 18. South Carolina is not one of them. Whether or not there's a ban in place, there’s nothing to prevent a religious organization from offering such counseling.
Hope for Wholeness, the program Game once led, declined to offer comment or be interviewed for this story.
Gay conversion therapy has been condemned by major medical groups for years. In SC, ex-gay ministries remain prominent.
While Game’s coming out and condemnation of conversion therapy is important, he needs to take ownership of the role he played in others’ pain and to be sensitive to their healing process and careful with how he chooses to interact with them, said Casey Pick, senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs at Trevor Project.
On a recent afternoon, Game was invited by a former Hope for Wholeness client to attend a counseling session. The young man reached out to him, Game said, and explained that he was trying to come to terms with the damage done, trying to untangle himself from the messaging he’d internalized through Hope for Wholeness.
Game, donning a rainbow T-shirt, sat and listened. He owed him at least that much, he thought.
“I was a religious zealot that hurt people,” Game said in an interview. “People said they attempted suicide over me and the things I said to them. People, I know, are in therapy because of me. Why would I want that to continue?”
Game recently published a written apology to his personal Facebook page in which he called for the dissolution of any conversion therapy practice or ex-gay ministry. Though he condemned the practices, Game also said a group like Hope for Wholeness could serve as a community for those that believe “homosexuality is incongruent with their faith.”
Josh Crocker, 32, a Greenville man who is gay and sought counsel from Hope for Wholeness as a college student in 2006 (known then as Truth Ministry), said that particular sentiment was troubling. There is no part of Hope for Wholeness, he added, that could be of benefit to anybody.
“For me, I just think that's inadequate. ... I think he should be afforded the time and space to process all the things he needs to process and become who he is,” Crocker said in an interview, “but I’d love for him to apply that same passion he had for Hope for Wholeness ... to advocacy for the LGBTQ community ... and to dismantle conversion therapy and ex-gay ministries.”
It’s not just Hope for Wholeness that needs to be shuttered, Game said.
“I want all ex-gay ministry dismantled.”
To see why Game is so strident, it's important to understand how he got to this point.
Game was born and raised in a Southern Baptist household in Spartanburg.
He said he has never been particularly close with his family — his parents and an older sister. As a child, Game felt isolated from other boys his age. In secret, he wore his sister’s clothes. Looking at his own reflection in the mirror, he’d study the way her dresses draped his body.
At school, he said, his classmates taunted his more feminine qualities, nicknaming him “McGay.”
By age 11, Game said he began to believe he may be attracted to other boys. Confused and ashamed, he kept his feelings to himself, he said, until he turned 18.
For the first time he was on his own. Game moved into a duplex just across the street from where his mother lived.
By chance, a gay man who was about 20 years older than Game moved into the adjoining apartment, and they became close.
The mutual attraction was undeniable, and, in secret, the two developed an intimate relationship.
For more than three years Game was out to a small group of people. He frequented one of the region’s only gay bars, a now-defunct club in Greenville called Castle.
“I was blown away. I had major butterflies in my stomach,” Game said of his first time walking into the club. “I was talking to people whose stories ... sounded a lot like mine.”
It was a kind of freedom Game had never known, but he also battled debilitating anxiety and insecurity, he said.
“I was having ongoing panic attacks, and I had never experienced that before,” Game said. “Emotionally, I was freaking out. I was crying. I was internally pained.”
At one point, Game said he experienced a nervous breakdown that lasted two weeks.
“My brain was telling me ‘you’re going in the wrong direction',” he said. “But my body was telling me otherwise.”
Then, in the summer of 1993, Game was attending a conference for Evangelical Christians when, during a church service, he felt compelled to approach the pulpit. There, he sobbed as he prayed for salvation.
“I remember walking up to the altar. I look up and there’s probably about 300 people around the stage,” Game said.
Later, he told the group of worshippers about the struggle warring inside him, the angst he felt in failing to reconcile his sexual identity and his faith.
“Because, in my mind, homosexuality and Christianity didn’t go together,” Game said. “And the very first thought was ‘now I can go to heaven and not hell.’ ”
When Game returned home to Spartanburg, he said, his mother footed the bill for a counselor who pledged he could get to the root of why Game had grown up to be gay. If Game worked hard enough, he was told, his attraction to men would lessen.
For the next six years, Game saw that counselor once a week.
“I guess my thought process was ‘this will become manageable',” he said. “My hope was to get to the point where I could lay this down, meet a girl, fall in love and have a family.”
At one point, the counselor reasoned Game was drawn to other men because his father had not been invested enough in him as a child, prompting Game to seek out male attention. As therapy, Game said, the counselor had him act out father-son role-playing scenarios where they played with toys on the floor.
In 1995, Game met his wife through church. They married in 1996, have two grown children and remain together. Today, Game said, his wife knows he is gay. Julie Game did not want to participate in this story.
Game said he was honest about his same-sex attractions from the beginning of their relationship. He told her he was seeking help and had been told, if he stuck with counseling, his attractions would lessen.
On numerous occasions his wife confronted him about his consumption of gay pornography. Whenever she would catch him, Game said, he’d toss the magazines into the fire.
The breaking point came after Game said he had an affair with a man.
Game’s counselor told him about a retreat in Virginia, led by group called Exodus, for people who were gay and didn’t want to be. They went.
After the retreat, Game told his wife about his affair.
Back home in Spartanburg, Game wrote a letter to the owners of the shop where he purchased his magazines. In the envelope, he included a photo of him and his wife and implored them to never again do business with him.
Game continued counseling, and during those sessions, he said, he developed his philosophy that would become the central tenet of his ministry: if you determined the cause of someone’s attractions, you could learn to repress them.
Hope for Wholeness was Game’s life’s work. For years, he worked remotely with Exodus International, an Orlando, Fla.-based conversion therapy network that comprised more than 120 ministries across the United States and Canada.
It was in 1999 that Game founded an Exodus-backed offshoot he named Truth Ministry, based in his hometown of Spartanburg, where he still lives. With a $10,000 gift from his father, Game led a thriving organization that, today, serves as a hub of conversion therapy providers across at least 15 states.
Game developed a curriculum that teaches same-sex attraction is a multi-casual developmental disorder. He named the curriculum Hope for Wholeness. In 2013, the ministry re-branded and adopted the same name.
It’s not clear how many people the group has counseled, though Game estimated that figure is well into the thousands.
The only record that gives a glimpse into the scope of Hope for Wholeness' reach is an IRS Form 990 filing from 2007 in which the ministry said it administered 528 counseling sessions and held at least 60 group meetings.
“I created it all,” Game said of Hope for Wholeness. “We have harmed generations of people.”
Recently, Game started going through the boxes packed up from his Hope for Wholeness office.
“It’s like going through another life,” he said. He pulled out a hand-sewn cloth with the Truth Ministry logo etched into red fabric and a photo of himself standing with an arm around Joseph Nicolosi — the man widely considered to be the founding father of modern-day conversion therapy.
When Game came out in June, he said he readied himself for a backlash. He still gets irate messages on Facebook from people who say they were traumatized by Hope for Wholeness. He gets angry responses on gay dating apps and across social media about his out-and-proud life.
“You don’t deserve it,” they’ve said.
“Most people in the gay community have treated me ridiculously kind,” Game said, “liking me for me now and not who I was. And I hope they just give me the chance to talk to them so I can hear them out and apologize.”
Game said he realizes that for many an apology won’t be enough. And that he’ll likely be apologizing for the rest of his life.