Gay US ex-Christian pastor on losing everything before finding acceptance, love, and home in Czechia

"Asking Answers, Finding Questions"

Don Hall grew up in the Deep South of the United States, in a poor, conservative, religious family. He became a successful evangelical Christian minister and was preaching to crowds of people all over the southeastern United States. But he was deeply unhappy because he held a secret that would ruin him if it were found out – he was gay.

At the age of 30, Don decided to change his life and moved to Europe, eventually settling in Prague. Now he’s written a book about his experiences and his journey to get to where he is today.

I spoke to Don at his home in the Prague district of Vršovice to get a taste of what the book is about, and started by asking him when he first realised he was gay.

“I think I realised there was a difference probably as early as four years old but I didn’t have a name for it, but then I realised what that difference was – it was being gay. That was difficult, being raised in a fundamentalist Christian family in the Deep South.”

Don Hall | Photo: archive of Don Hall

So you did realise and you did have a name for it when you were still Christian?

“Oh yes, a long time before.”

But you never told anybody?

“We were taught that to be gay meant that you go to hell. It’s always talked about on Sundays as this burning pit of fire and the pastors always elaborate how the flesh melts from your bones and you’re in agony for all eternity, and it’s terrifying for a child.

“So because of that, and because of the fact that honestly, all I’d ever wanted to do since I was a little kid was to be a pastor. And those things in the South did not equate – being gay and being a Christian, especially not a pastor. The only way I could do that was if I were straight.

“So I tried to put myself in gay reform therapy – it started off with just counselling, which didn’t work. Then when I went to university – I went to a Christian university – I was still struggling, trying desperately not to be gay. By that time I had met my first boyfriend and moved in with him. Nobody on campus knew that we were gay. I was madly in love, I was 20 years old. At night we were together, and by day we were at the university or working at the church, trying desperately to be straight.

“And I made the mistake of talking to the on-campus psychologist. He closed his office door and said, ‘Look, we did not have this conversation. Because if I don’t report you immediately and have you expelled, then I could lose my job too.’

“So he advised me like most Christians do to read the Bible intensively, and that’s supposed to drive what they call ‘the demons’ out of you, and so that was that.”

Did you go to any of the more extreme gay conversion therapies?

“I did. I willingly put myself in gay conversion therapy after that, and that lasted probably almost 10 years. I put myself through conversion therapy in the form of exorcisms, as well as psychological counselling, from the time when I was 20 or 21 until I came to Czechia.”

How did you square all of that in your mind – still being Christian but living with the knowledge that you were gay?

Don Hall in front of Lennon's wall | Photo: archive of Don Hall

“It was terrifying. The pressure was so intense. You’re surrounded by this religious environment 24/7 and you’re brainwashed into believing the lie that who you are is evil and dirty, so you hate yourself. And knowing secretly that I was gay, while meanwhile my ministry after university became quite successful.

“By the time I was 19 I had preached on television. By the time I was in my mid-20s I had my own weekly two-hour show as a radio evangelist. I was travelling, preaching in churches all across the south-eastern US.

“On Sundays you had to get up there and you had to be full of energy and faith and hope, you had to inspire people and encourage them. But when you’re depressed and hating who you are, and on Sundays you have to tell everyone else how much they are loved and accepted, but you don’t see yourself as being loved and accepted, it’s hell.”

How old were you when you left the US and why did you decide to leave?

“I think I was 31 years old. I left the US on October 31, 2001. Because in 1999, I had met some friends online who lived in London in a Christian commune. It was so radically different from anything I had experienced in the US, where religion had become nothing more than a business. It was all about numbers, how many people you could get into church on a Sunday, how much money you could bring in in offerings – it wasn’t about people. I called it corporate Christianity.

“And here in London I found these people that had normal jobs, they pooled all their money together to pay the rent, pay the bills, and everything else that was left over went to feed the homeless, to help them get into government programmes – and I thought, ‘Wow! It seems like they’re actually helping somebody.’

“I visited in 1999 and in 2000 I visited again. And when I got back home I went to my desk – although my vocation was as a pastor, my job was as a mortgage banker – and when I got to my desk, there was a stack of mail and on top of it was a letter from the US Social Security office. And it said, ‘Dear Mr. Hall, if you make the same amount of money that you made last year, this is how much you’ll get when you retire at age 67.’ I was 30 at the time. And I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way in hell I can do this for 37 more years.’

Don Hall in Karlštejn | Photo: archive of Don Hall

“So I made a plan – I worked hard, I saved every penny I could, cut all my expenses out, and as soon as I’d paid off the last of my student loans, I bought an airplane ticket to London, and I went to my computer, typed up my resignation letter, and I quit.

“I got to London – and it was difficult. Because when you’re working with the homeless, there’s a very small percentage of them that you can actually help. Working with them for four or five months was different to visiting.

“Everything in me thought, ‘It shouldn’t be like this.’ And everything I’d ever believed came to a crashing halt. And I realized I had spent my whole life not asking questions, but giving answers. And now I realized the answers didn’t work.

“It wasn’t long after that that I moved to Prague.”

What kind of headspace were you in at the time you decided to move?

“I realized that as much as I enjoyed and felt really fulfilled by what I was doing on the streets of London, I couldn’t do it long-term because it was extremely emotionally taxing. Because you really do not see much success – you see a lot of pain and suffering, and when you put yourself in that environment every day it’s psychologically damaging.

“So when I realized I couldn’t do it long-term, one day I decided to take a break and I took a tour on a riverboat going down the River Thames towards the House of Parliament. I was thinking about what I was going to do next in life, because I really didn’t want to go back to the US but I also knew I couldn’t continue doing what I was doing in London.

“So as the boat was floating down the river, I looked up and there was the House of Parliament. And this thought went through my mind, and it said, ‘I wonder if this is what Prague is going to look like.’ And it sounds crazy, but I had honestly never heard of Prague – at least not to my recollection.

“So that afternoon I went back to the commune where I was living, and it was before dinnertime so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll read for a while.’ I pulled out a box of National Geographics and on top of them was a magazine that said, ‘The Velvet Revolution: Prague, Czech Republic.’ And I got chills.

“The next morning I snuck away and went to an Internet café and I began googling Prague. I emailed some pastors who lived in Prague that I found websites for and I told them what had happened, that it sounded crazy but that I thought maybe I was supposed to be in Prague.

"Asking Answers,  Finding Questions" | Photo: archive of Don Hall

“And one person replied and said, ‘Well, my wife and I have a guest bedroom, why don’t you come and visit us for a couple of weeks, see what you think about Prague and go from there?’ And so I did, and I fell in love with it.

“I can’t tell you exactly what it was, but I knew from that first exposure that this was the place I’d been searching for my whole life.”

When did you finally come out of the closet and what prompted it?

“I came out of the closet in 2002 after moving to Prague. After about two months here, I had a lot of time on my own. For the first time in my whole life, I had time away from religious influences and voices, a lot of time to think. I had spent most of my life – at that point, almost 12 years of my life – helping everyone else find peace and happiness and hope, and I had not found any of those things myself. And I realised then that the pain of staying in the closet would be worse than the pain of coming out.

“I think like with most people, coming out was not an instantaneous process – I didn’t mail out invitations and exclaim it all over the Internet – it was a gradual process. I finally just stopped hiding it.

“But when my father and mother found out, the world exploded. My father was on the Board of Deacons at the church, so he immediately tried to force me to come home by cutting off my finances. When I came out, my parents disowned me, they said it would have been better if I’d never been born, or if I were dead.

“They didn’t speak to me for a year and a half. They would send emails, but the emails were horrible – two or three pages of Bible verses and scripture and talking about how I was going to go to hell and how I was wicked and evil and needed the blood of Jesus to cleanse me and get the demons out of me.

“So the coming out process wasn’t instantaneous, but it was painful. And I think that’s true of most gay people.”

How did you meet your husband?

“There used to be a gay dating website called Gaydar, and I met him on there. That was 17 years ago this year – we’ve been together 17 years and married for six.”

Did your husband also come from a religious background?

“Not at all – he’d never even seen a Bible until he met me.”

What made you decide to write a book about your experiences?

“The book actually started in London. I was sending emails twice a month, sometimes even once a week, to my church and friends and family back home about what was happening on the streets of London, never intending for it to be a book.

“And then when I moved to Czechia, from day one I was keeping a journal, and that journal turned into stories. Even after I came out the closet, I continued writing along the way. Eventually I had a thick manuscript. I’d always had a dream to write a book, and I talked about it with my husband and finally he said, ‘You know, you’ve got enough there for a book. Why don’t we spread it out on the floor and see if we can find a way to fit it together?’

“And then I discovered that all the stories I’d written actually flowed together almost perfectly chronologically. And so with a little bit of extra editing and writing some chapters to fill in the gaps, it actually fit together nicely.”

Who do you hope reads your book? Did you have a target audience in mind?

“I know it probably sounds like a non-starter, but honestly I didn’t have a target audience in mind. The book wasn’t written for Czechs or Americans or gay or straight people, it was just written with the hope of encouraging people. People go through a lot of really difficult times in life, and I wrote the book trying to be as authentic and open as I could be with my own life, sometimes painfully so, to show people that you can go through very difficult times in life and survive – you can lose everything and survive.”

Why do you think you feel so at home in the Czech Republic? Does it have anything to do with the fact that it’s a famously atheist nation?

“I think it has something to do with that. I think atheism has been a blessing for the Czech Republic in many ways, especially for the gay community. There is homophobia in Czechia, but it’s nothing like in the US, especially the Southern part of the US where I come from, where it’s actually dangerous to be gay. In my state, Georgia, it was illegal to be gay until 2004.

“In Czechia, a lot of gay and queer kids grow up in families where they’re not accepted because they’re gay, but it’s not as much as in the US. And atheism has a part to play in that, because with atheism there’s not the same kind of judgement system based on religion. And I think for that reason, it makes it easier to be here and be gay.

“Also for me, living here, I feel open and free to be myself. I think Czechs, for the most part, don’t care if you’re gay or straight. As long as you don’t involve them in it, you keep it to your own business, they don’t really care.

“And Tomáš – Tomáš is the main thing. We’ve been together for 17 years and honestly said – some people can’t stand being together, they love each other but they have jobs and stay apart for a lot of the time – but we’re these strange creatures that can’t stand to be apart. We have friends, but honestly after a while we get bored and say, ‘OK yeah, are you bored? Let’s get out of here.’ We enjoy being together.

“Czechia became my home before Tomáš, because I made a close network of Czech brothers and sisters, I even have a Czech mum who walked me down the aisle at my wedding. But Tomáš was the cherry on the cake that really made it my home.”

"Asking Answers, Finding Questions" is available online and in select bookstores in the US and Czechia. The official book launch is taking place in Prague on Tuesday 22 November.