Elsie Odom has a stranger in her closet. But the two are well-acquainted.
Odom, now 70, was a lesbian for many years before she learned what she calls “the truth.” These days, Odom uses that stranger’s experiences to help others who are unhappy in the homosexual lifestyle.
“(From the age of 14 to 47) I struggled with it. And in 1988, God set me free. I’ve had no desires since then – none whatsoever. And it has nothing to do with my age,” she said. “I don’t even know who that person was anymore.”
Dressed in a pretty green dress with lavender floral print, matching lavender beaded necklace and dainty white sandals, Odom looks like a traditional Southern grandmother who sits on the third row of church every Sunday and hosts the garden club on Monday.
But the women of her childhood had a vastly different influence.
“I lived in a very dysfunctional family,” she said. “My parents didn’t show love because they didn’t know how. They were alcoholics.”
Because of the alcoholism, Odom said she was isolated from her peers, ashamed and bashful. Her childhood also included several traumatic experiences of molestation from extended family members, both male and female. Odom said she feels the childhood experiences caused her to reject her femininity.
Dr. Lionel Solursh, a professor of psychiatry and health behavior at Georgia Health Sciences University, said that is one reaction to childhood sexual abuse.
“If you’re afraid of sexual experiences, or mistrustful, the one thing you do is back off from intimacy because it feels dangerous,” Solursh said.
Solursh said a therapist in a case similar to Odom’s would work with the patient to cope with their trauma history so they would be able to have relationships. However, he cautioned that each individual is different, and Odom’s situation cannot be applied to all homosexuals.
“We look at individual factors,” he said. “Each person deserves the respect of being seen and treated as an individual.”
But Odom knew nothing of therapy when she was young.
Puberty came along, and Odom said she was sexually attracted to other girls, which confused her.
“Eventually, I went with them,” she said. “I was dating guys, but also acted out those feelings with girls.”
One day, she went on a blind date with a young man, and he proposed.
“So, I thought I could get married, and that’d fix things,” Odom said, saying that she told her fiancé about her homosexuality before they married. “I tried very hard to make the marriage work.”
Several years later, going through divorce and losing a child custody battle was more than Odom could bear.
“In order to cover the pain, I lived a hellish life,” she said. “I tried to heal my pain with alcohol and drugs, and I actually became an alcoholic. And I was looking for love in all the wrong places.”
She found it in a relationship with another woman. The two ended up living together for 14 years, first posing as roommates, then in an openly lesbian relationship.
“We started going to gay bars and parties, and were accepted into the gay community,” she said. “We felt fulfilled with this new family we’d found.”
When Odom’s partner gave the ultimatum that she needed to deal with her alcoholism, Odom started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
At the meetings, she found deliverance from her alcoholism. Because some steps of the AA program suggest looking to a higher power, Odom’s partner bought her a Bible.
When she read the Bible, Odom said she learned that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin.
That was something Odom had never heard before, and as a result, Odom and her partner began looking for a church. After several failed attempts, they found one.
“When we walked in the door, we felt the love of God, and we both needed that,” Odom said. “From that day on, every time the doors opened, we were there.”
In church, Odom heard other new things she’d never known.
“I began to hear that God is not mad. He will take the rubbish of your life and make stepping stones to His destiny,” Odom said.
Claiming that the Holy Spirit separated her and her partner both emotionally and physically, Odom said she took up a celibate lifestyle, which she has kept for 23 years.
“But if God wants to bring me a husband, I will accept him,” she said with a smile.
Solursh said it’s possible that someone who is not happy with homosexuality, or who left the lifestyle, was never actually gay.
“We are not talking about a disease or a disorder. We are talking about behavior,” he said. “I know a lot of happy gay folks.”
For patients who are not happy, Solursh said a therapist works with them to help them manage their feelings and make them comfortable.
“But, if somebody is gay and happy, then he’s happy,” he said.
Odom said she wants to help people who are unhappy like she was. In April 2010, she founded a ministry called Straight Forward, which is a satellite office of Truth Ministry – a nondenominational faith-based organization whose mission is to help people who want to be free of same-sex attractions.
“I have a burden in my heart,” Odom said. “I want others who are struggling to know there is hope for them.”