Joel Barrett has been happily married to his husband for 15 years after first marrying a woman and having three kids (Image: Joel Barrett)

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Ex-pastor Joel Barrett was just a child when he started to realise he was different.

“I have memories from as young as four and five years old of thinking about boys. There was a boy in my class who had olive skin and dark hair and I was infatuated with him,” Joel, 55, told The Mirror.

It wasn’t until Joel, from the US, reached puberty that he began to understand his feelings – he was attracted to boys.

But being gay didn’t fit with Joel’s conservative baptist upbringing, and he was raised to believe homosexuality was a sin.

The dad-of-three described his church as being only a bit less extreme in its beliefs than the Westboro Baptist Church – which famously pickets the funerals of fallen soldiers and celebrates human tragedy as a gift from God.

Joel, on Instagram as @Joelspeaksout, went through decades of turmoil hiding his sexuality
(Image: Joel Barrett)

“Growing up everything I heard about homosexuality was horrendous. I heard preachers stand in the pulpit calling to ship all gay people off to an island, let them infect themselves and die.

“There was a lot of mocking of effeminate men, they were trying to scare the hell out of you,” he explained.

So instead of confronting his feelings, Joel suppressed his sexuality and threw himself into worship.

“Most people thought I was Godly, but I knew if they ever found out I was gay that would instantly change. So I started this cycle of hiding and burying the truth.”

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As the years went by Joel told himself his feelings would go away if he could reach his next goal, like going to Bible College or dating a girl.

When he was 23 years old, Joel walked down the aisle and married a woman.

“It was the next ‘right’ thing to do. I wasn’t knowingly deceiving anyone, but I thought it was what I was supposed to do – find a good Christian wife.

“But nothing changed inside me. I thought ‘Wow, now I’m married and I’m having these feelings’,” he said.

At 23 years old, Joel got married and started a family, hoping his feelings for men would go away
(Image: Joel Barrett)

While he settled into married life and pursued a career in the church as a pastor, Joel described living with constant feelings of fear and shame” while hiding his sexuality.

To cope with his secret, he started ‘cruising’ – finding sex and intimacy with other men in parks and other public spaces.

“It was a quick fix and I was immediately filled with guilt and fear afterwards. It meant someone actually knew I was gay and I’d worry they would show up in my real life.”

From then on, every Sunday when Joel walked out on the platform at church to address 500 people, he’d scan the audience to see if any men he’d been intimate with were there.

Joel became a pastor and delivered sermons to hundreds of people every Sunday
(Image: Joel Barrett)

But one day, after moving to a different state, Joel met a fellow cruiser who made him double take.

“When I got in the vehicle I saw him and felt like I was looking in the mirror. I just thought: ‘He is you’.”

After that meeting, Joel decided to put himself through conversion therapy.

Although his experience wasn’t like the violent depictions portrayed in films, Joel says the next few years were the darkest of his life.

"I wanted to die. I didn't want to kill myself, but I wanted someone else to kill me.

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“I saw counsellors and told them every dark secret for three years. No one ever beat The Bible over my head but they asked questions like did I have an overbearing mother or an absentee father,” he explained.

“None of it is based in any kind of science. It’s mostly faith based.”

In a description of the therapy on his website, Joel wrote: “I went to individual and group counseling sessions, attended retreats, read the books, went to conferences, listened to the speakers, fought evil spirits with the counsellor, and cried and prayed like never before in my life.”

And yet after three years of “talking and praying” Joel wasn’t making progress and became frustrated.

Joel spent years trying to fight his sexuality, but now lives happily and openly as a gay man and wants to bridge a divide between the LGBTQ+ community and the church
(Image: Joel Barrett)

“I asked my counsellor to put me in touch with some guys who had been successful after therapy. But he said no.

“He told me everyone was either ashamed of needing the counselling in the first place or too frightened of ‘relapsing’ if they spoke to me,” he said.

After putting himself through hell for three years, and now 36 years old, Joel realised something. He was gay and that wasn’t going to change.

Despite his relief at no longer keeping the secret, he then had to go through the turmoil of telling his wife he was gay and ending the marriage.

Joel speaks at conferences and events to share his story and encourage others to live happily as who they are
(Image: Joel Barrett)

“Going through the divorce was like admitting failure,” he said, adding it was difficult to navigate life as an openly gay man.

“I knew I was gay but I didn’t know what that looked like.”

As part of the process, Joel stopped going to church – another huge change in his life.

“I had to clear the rubble of 36 years of my life and struggle. I realised I needed to clear that away before I could rebuild.”

In time, Joel met his now-husband, David Seymour.

Joel and David have now been happily married for 15 years
(Image: Aaron Burson)

“I dated a few guys short-term after coming out and went through a sort of ‘gay puberty’,” he joked.

But after meeting David, Joel knew it was time to settle down.

“It was perfect timing. I always told David he was my breath of fresh air,” Joel said.

By now, Joel’s three kids were approaching teenage years and he decided to introduce David to them.

“They were hard waters to navigate but gradually David just became a part of their life. They always understood and saw him as a friend,” he said.

Joel describes his loving husband David as a "breath of fresh air" and has dedicated his book to him
(Image: Aaron Burson)

Now, nearly 20 years after coming out, Joel is still happily married to David. He has written about his experience in a book, Godly… But Gay , which is dedicated to his husband.

On Instagram as @Joelspeaksout, he works as a motivational coach helping others through difficult times and is happy with who he is. He also says he wants to bridge the gap between some branches of religion and the LGBTQ+ community.

“My faith is a personal thing. I’m not anti-religion, and if you’re part of a faith community that is making you a better person then keep doing it.

“But if you’re part of a spiritual community that is telling you that you’re broken, get out of that,” he warned.

“I believe in the power of storytelling and I tell my story because it humanises my experience. When I was growing up the only images in my mind of LGBTQ people were people in San Francisco dancing half naked in the streets.

“It’s easy to see people as the ‘other’ but by telling these stories, we can see each other as human beings.”

Godly… But Gay is out now and available to buy on Amazon