WASHINGTON — Pulse nightclub shooting survivor Luis Javier Ruiz joined a few dozen others at a so-called Freedom March in Washington, D.C., on Saturday where those in attendance celebrated no longer identifying as gay or transgender.
“I don’t want to tell everyone it’s a ‘gay-to-straight’ thing because God is not calling me to that," Ruiz told NBC News. "I feel that I want to live in a life of purity. I feel that through loving Christ, he will walk me out of any situation. I love the LGBTQ community, I love my family. There’s no hate here, there’s love.”
Ruiz, who said he no longer identifies as gay and denied going to conversion therapy, promoted his decision to attend the event on Facebook. That post, which has since been taken down, led to threats and the loss of many friends, Ruiz said.
A few dozen people in total showed up at the event on a cloudy Saturday celebrating "freedom from homosexual/transgender lifestyles by the grace and power of Jesus Christ," according to the march.
Jeffrey McCall, a former transgender rights activist and organizer of the event, shared his story, which seemed to have taken a sharp turn from his days of LGBTQ advocacy. Wearing a red shirt emblazoned with "#Jesus," he stood before the small crowd at the National Mall and said he had left his gay identity of 12 years behind.
“Everyone has marches, all kinds of views and opinions," McCall told said, explaining his decision to hold the event. "So I said, ‘I don’t really know about a march for people coming out of the LGBTQ [community] to follow Jesus so I want to do that.’
"I want all these people to have their story told. So I said why don’t I provide an outlet for people to march and have their stories told?" McCall said.
McCall said he struggled with his sexuality at a young age and felt a stronger tug toward what he called a feminine identity, which led to him living as a woman named Scarlett for two years. That changed, he said, when God spoke to him and said, "You will live for me."
McCall denied seeking conversion therapy, a discredited and nonscientific method of changing a person's sexual orientation.
Saturday's event was cosponsored by Voice of the Voiceless, which has previously advocated for forms of conversion therapy on college campuses but says its mission is to "to defend the rights of former homosexuals, individuals with unwanted same-sex attraction, and their families."
Daren Mehl, president of Voice of the Voiceless, said he did not seek conversion therapy in his personal journey from homosexuality to heterosexuality. He said the decision was “not forced but a choice.”
"I didn’t convert, as in go through a program. I saw Jesus about who I am. I found grace to Jesus to live according to my values and belief," he said.
McCall said the journey to living his new life in Christ and outside that LGBTQ community has not been easy, but he plans to bring the event to other cities in future.
He said he still feels urges to return to being gay, but added that "God gives him the grace not to do it."
Fredi and Paul Cleveland, pastors of Koinonia Congregation in Washington, came to the event to support those who had left their gay and transgender identities behind and also to support the message of love.
“It was very fair, especially for those who have struggled with homosexuality,” Fredi Cleveland said, adding that she was moved to hear people open up about their experiences with depression and other issues. “It was refreshing to hear people speak of the victories not the negative. It builds us up.”