‘Warrior for God’ becomes warrior against conversion therapy: Andrea Simakis

December 30, 2018

‘Warrior for God’ becomes warrior against conversion therapy: Andrea Simakis

CLEVELAND, Ohio – In October, Lakewood became the sixth Ohio city to ban conversion therapy, sometimes known by its colloquial shorthand, “pray away the gay.”

Though debunked by a long list of American medical associations as not just ineffective but toxic, “tens of thousands of children between the ages of 13 and 17 will [have experienced] conversion therapy in the United States in 2018,” says Councilman Dan O’Malley, who sponsored the legislation.

People living in and around the Cleveland suburb applauded the move, some thanking O’Malley on his Facebook page when he announced that the “harmful practice” was no longer legal in Lakewood.

Tony Cintrony was one of them.

Tony grew up in Florida, kissing statues of Catholic saints and praying the rosary every night. The baby of five, “I was always dubbed the priest in the family,” Tony says.

“ ‘You are special,’ ” his Mom told him. ‘You are set aside to be the messenger for the Lord. ’ ”

As early as kindergarten Tony nursed crushes. “I can remember thinking, ‘Oh that boy is so cute! I hope he wants to be friends with me. ’ ”

One of Tony’s brothers was an athlete, the other a ladies’ man. Both liked to tinker under the hoods of cars. Tony preferred cooking with Mom.

When he was very young, says Tony, “my parents started letting me know that homosexuality was wrong. They made it very clear that this just grieved the heart of God so deeply, because it was the most unnatural thing.

“And because it was the work of Satan.”

He had his first panic attack at 8 or 9. He’d sit in bed, struggling to breathe, convinced he was somehow broken.

By the time he was in high school, “I completely knew how gay I was,” Tony says. But “Warriors for God” weren’t gay. “If I’m faithful enough,” he thought, “one day God will change me.”

Tony never dated. He became a youth group leader, and went to church four times a week.

After graduation, Tony moved to Alaska, the butchest, most unforgiving terrain he could think of, to enroll in Master’s Commission. The intense, nine-month program of Bible study and ministry was like boarding school – it charged tuition and “they literally owned your every moment,” he says.

On day one, “the pastor looked at me and said, ‘You have a gay spirit on you. But we are gonna get this gay spirit out of you.’ ”

Certain activities, he was told, would be prohibited, because they revealed his gay spirit, like the skits he loved to write and perform for seniors during visits to nursing homes. And whipping up big meals for everyone before mission trips.

Quashing his gay spirit also meant a “Queer Eye” makeover in reverse – he was only allowed to wear clothes that swallowed his small frame, everything baggy and extra-large. And it meant shaving his head, banishing the lush black bangs that hung down over his right eye in an emo wave. “Now,” they told him, “you look like a man.”

After completing his stint in Alaska, Tony returned to the lower 48, attending weekly conversion therapy sessions in Orlando, Florida. Still, he found himself unchanged. He had to take a more radical step or “burn in hell for eternity.”

The International House of Prayer in Kansas City, Missouri, famous for its 24/7 prayer services, was “the most extreme organization that I could find,” says Tony. At the affiliate Living Waters ministries, promising help for those struggling with “unwanted same-sex attraction,” Tony says he was taught that his parents were to blame – their failings had made him gay. “So, I stopped talking to my family,” he says. It’s this confession that still makes Tony cry.

“I was so isolated,” he says. “I only had one voice coming into my life. And that voice taught me to hate myself.”

He was termed “a serious case,” and Tony’s conversion therapy sessions were upped to five days a week. He was badgered to reach out to sponsors – “accountabilibuddies” – whenever he had a sexual thought about a man. In bed, his heart pounding in panic, he’d ask God to stop it from beating. The only thing that kept him from killing himself was fear of damnation.

Then, Tony had an epiphany at a revival meeting called “the Awakening.”

“God is giving you your miracle tonight!” a man shouted from the podium. All around him, people were shaking and flying into fits.

“I went up to that altar, tears in my eyes,” Tony says. He cried out to God to heal him.

Suddenly, Tony’s head felt like it was on fire. He heard a voice from somewhere. His subconscious? The whisper of the divine? He isn’t sure.

“This is who you are,” it said. “I’m not changing you.”

Today, at 31, Tony is fully himself, rocking a Freddie Mercury ’stache and hosting a weekly music trivia show at Jukebox in Hingetown under the moniker DJ Tone Def.

He moved to Cleveland some six years ago on a directing internship with Cleveland Public Theatre. Tony never meant to put down roots here, but then he met Stephen. Cleveland was where Stephen was, so Cleveland is where Tony stayed.

In November, he opened a boutique yoga studio in Ohio City. The mental torture had left scars; through yoga and meditation, he’d renewed his wounded faith.

“I couldn’t believe that there was a way to feel spiritually alive without being completely damned,” he says. He hasn’t had a panic attack in years.

Tony wants to help others feel that way, too – no matter who they are. That’s why he named his new place “everybody yoga + movement.”

On Thursday, January 3 at 7 p.m., Tony will perform “The Exorcism of Tony Cintrony,” a one man show about his journey from the hell of conversion therapy to a heaven of his own making, at his studio at 4160 Lorain Ave. Admission is free.

If one person’s story can change the world, or at least his little corner of it, Ohio legislators should listen hard. The state is among 36 that still allow conversion therapy on minors.

Time for an awakening.

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