I grew up in a Mormon community where it was unacceptable to be gay, so for years I submerged my orientation in a deep, hidden place inside.
Following service in the Air Force and a two-year mission, I enrolled at Brigham Young University, where I continued to battle - with the hope of eventually slaying - my personal dragon.
Although I’d hoped to be safe at BYU, I soon faced a crisis: A mutual friend’s mom arranged a hotel room for me and Kurt, an Air Force buddy, to attend her daughter’s temple wedding weekend. Kurt had called me after my mission to tell me he was gay, and that he cared for me. And though never expressed romantically, I loved Kurt. So the prospect of sharing a hotel room terrified me.
Kurt missed the wedding, but this situation clarified that although for years I’d tried everything imaginable to withstand my sexual orientation, all efforts were insufficient. Then I noticed an ad in the BYU newspaper soliciting those with “same-sex attraction” to dial for help. The number connected to a therapist who invited me to join a weekly group he led at a Provo hospital annex.
With trepidation, I entered the session of men, most 10 to 30 years my senior. Many of their stories were a variation of the same theme — getting married, endless battles against their orientation, and eventual train-wrecked lives with broken families and self-loathing.
Before then, I’d held to a hope of marrying a woman. But the experiences of these men were a cautionary revelation, a vision of my future if I followed their path. I felt uneasy there, and the lingering hugs were unwelcome, so I attended only two sessions.
They told me about a conversion therapy group on campus with guys my own age, which I attended for nearly two years. For me, conversion therapy had the opposite of its intended effect. By examining and trying out the “science” behind the practice, it soon became apparent that it’s a bunch of junk and simply doesn’t work.
No one I encountered in the program was getting any straighter! I met my first boyfriend in that group. And I befriended other gay BYU students, who are some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. We helped each other through a journey toward greater self-integration and discovery that being gay is a part – a good part – of who we are.
Now, years later, I’m a civil rights lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s LGBT Rights Project. Our work includes a national campaign to help end conversion therapy.
Few lies have inflicted more harm on our communities than the one that gay people are broken and can change their orientation to straight. The notion that gay people can be “cured” of their orientation is used to rationalize treating LGBT people as second-class citizens and worse. Their logic says that if gay people can fix their orientation, there’s no reason to give us an equal seat at the table.
Conversion therapy harms, among other ways, by shoe-horning gay people into straight relationships, forcing them to be what they are not. For many gay people, leading a heterosexual lifestyle feels dishonest and can lead to disastrous consequences such as obsessive shame, depression, and even suicide ideation – as well as an empty wallet.
Therapists who peddle junk science purported to help “repair” gay people are engaging in an unethical and hurtful practice. It’s reckless to push the message, often to children, that gay people are defective and should change their orientation when virtually all reputable associations of mental-health professionals say it just doesn’t work and can be dangerous.
As part of our investigation, I recently attended a conversion program where participants used “touch therapy,” which involves being held like a baby by another man, with lights dimmed and soft music playing. The idea is to receive the nurturing missed as a child, thereby becoming more “whole” and automatically shedding “unwanted same-sex attraction.” Tragically, some of the participants were teens, prodded by their parents and communities that reject them as they are.
Social scientists now know that LGB youth in supportive environments have mental and physical health outcomes similar to those of other youth. But LGB youth in unsupportive environments suffer from seriously negative mental and physical health outcomes.
What’s less supportive than the lie that gay people can and should fix their orientation? It’s high time to do what actually works to improve lives – for adults and youth – and cease leading people to beat their heads against walls in a fruitless endeavor of trying to become straight.
As part of SPLC’s campaign against conversion therapy, we’ve held community meetings around the country, assembling experts and survivors to speak out against this fraudulent practice. Our most recent community meetings were this week in Provo and Salt Lake City. The most emotional moments of the Provo meeting came during harrowing testimony from survivors, one who underwent shock therapy that promised to turn him straight.
If you or someone you know has undergone conversion therapy, please join us by sharing your story of survival. And all of us can help by being kind, supportive, and understanding of each other as we continue to heal from the lies and abuses that yet burden our communities.
SAM WOLFE is a civil rights lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s LGBT Rights Project.