There we were. Around the illustrious circular United Nations briefing tables at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, among the 70 human rights advocates from across the United States, the largest delegation in the history of the U.N.’s Committee Against Torture.
Together, as leaders of the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ #BornPerfect campaign, Samuel Brinton and I had spent a sleepless few days working around the clock to make committee members aware of the dangers of conversion therapy, especially for LGBT youth.
What happened this morning, we could have never imagined.
The moment the words “conversion therapy” left rapporteur Jens Modvig’s lips, gasps filled the room. We had done it. Modvig, the Committee Against Torture member from Denmark, asked the delegation from the U.S. State Department how conversion therapy could still be going on in the United States in 2014. Sam, a conversion therapy survivor, who had courageously testified through tears the previous day, grabbed my hand and squeezed so hard I thought it might break. We had done what we came here to do: For the first time, a United Nations committee had addressed conversion therapy as an international human rights issue. It was unbelievable.
But before the shock could wear off, we heard the words again, this time from committee rapporteur Satyabhoosun Gupt Domah of Mauritius. Then, incredibly, a third time, from committee member Sapana Pradhan Malla of Nepal. For the first three times in the history of the United Nations, the Committee Against Torture was questioning a country on conversion therapy.
There was no going back. We had already won.
Today was a red letter day for underdogs. The committee went in depth into many of the larger issues, like indefinite detention and the death penalty, but they also brought up a select few less likely ones, including the abuse suffered by transgender women in detention, racially targeted police violence in Chicago, and conversion therapy.
As representatives of NCLR, we didn’t do it alone. We have been in extraordinary company on this journey, and our fellow advocates qho came to Geneva to testify on other important issues here couldn’t be more behind us. They lent me their strength as I testified before the U.S. State Department to ensure the voices of the survivors back in the United States were heard.
I testified that as many as one in three LGBT people have been subjected to some form of conversion therapy and that the American Psychological Association has linked it to depression, substance abuse, and suicide. I also told them that federal funds and juvenile justice systems are just two of the ways the government is implicated in its continued foothold in the United States. I’m confident that what I told them changed more than a few minds. But what Sam told them changed more than a few hearts.
Sam tearfully testified about the licensed psychotherapist who tied his arms down, wrapped his hands in hot copper coils, and stuck needles in his fingers to channel electric shocks whenever he was shown a picture of men kissing. The conversion therapy stories we shared brought tears to the eyes of U.N. and State Department officials.
Sam also shared his unbelievable strength with other survivors directly affected by the issues before the committee, including Stephanie Schroeder, a survivor of military sexual assault; Murat Kunaz, an exonerated prisoner held at Guantanamo Bay; and Martinez Sutton, Asha Rosa, and the parents of Michael Brown, whose families were devastated by police violence.
This week has been historic in ways we haven’t begun to realize. We did what we came to Geneva to do. But we couldn’t have done it without our fellow human rights activists. We broke bread and shared stories with some of the most committed, inspiring activists in the United States. Their issues have also become ours issues, and they’ve made our issues theirs. Today, intersectionality took on a whole new meaning. It isn’t just about dimensions of oppression. It’s about dimensions of humanity. From Phoenix to Ferguson to Guantanamo Bay, we know none of us succeed unless we all do.
SAMANTHA AMES is an attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, where she oversees the #BornPerfect campaign to end conversion therapy. Follow NCLR's journey to Geneva by following the hashtags #BornPerfect and #EndTorture, on NCLRights.org, and on Twitter @NCLRights, @SamanthaSAmes, and @SBrinton. And feel free to share your own experiences with therapy using #BornPerfect.