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A Firsthand Account of the Torture of 'Conversion' Therapy

A Firsthand Account of the Torture of 'Conversion' Therapy

What This Trans Man Learned Surviving Conversion Therapy

While 'ex-gay' therapy gets the headlines, this attorney reminds us that conversion therapy is used to demoralize and abuse transgender youth too. 

When I was 15, my parents took me to the basement of a church in my western hometown for "therapy."

The "therapist," Michael, was an older, pale-faced man with graying brown hair. His office was painted sky blue and decorated with white-framed pictures of his family sitting on hay bales, grinning at the camera. The white-on-blue color scheme gave the room the impression of somewhere bright and cheery -- a sharp contrast to the concrete, windowless reality of the oppressive space.

"When did your 'best friend' first touch you?" was the first complete sentence Michael ever said to me, his voice full of obvious contempt and disdain.

After the initial shock of being asked such a question passed, I burst into tears. When I eventually looked up from between my hands, I was greeted by Michael's smug face looking gleefully pleased that my gender and sexuality fit neatly into the narrative he had devised.

"She never touched me," I said, gritting my teeth through my tears.

This was my best friend we were talking about -- the first woman I fell in love with, the person who taught me to live with integrity, to stand up for who I am. She was the same person who encouraged me to be honest with my parents about our friendship, in hopes of allaying their concerns. That honesty landed me an almost immediate visit to Michael's office.

For eight months, it went like this: once a week, my parents, usually my father, would drop me at the back door of the church. I would walk down a dark staircase to find Michael waiting for me. I remember counting my steps down those stairs, desperately trying to figure out a way to escape -- looking at windows to crawl out of, considering turning around and making a run for it, past my dad's idling car and into the nearby neighborhood.

I remember the first time Michael slammed his fist down on his desk and screamed:

"You are not gay! You will burn in hell! Jesus died so that you can repent from your sins!"

Too shocked to look away, I made eye contact, and even now I can see his desperate, watery eyes trying to burn those thoughts into my teenage brain, to force them into my psyche.

While Michael paced around the room gesturing, screaming, reciting Bible verses, and even crying, I focused on geometric shapes on the walls, traced the edges of bookcases and file cabinets with my eyes to their intersecting points. The precision and consistency of this exercise was comforting, and allowed me to tune out the chaos around me. I memorized the sound of Michael's wall clock so I could know how much time was left in each "session" without looking; he yelled louder when I looked at the clock.

For the first few months of therapy, I mustered the energy to respond to Michael's aggressive inquiries. But eventually I grew tired of repeating myself. "No, I'm not gay." "No, she didn't rape me." "No, I've never used drugs or alcohol." He often asked me sexually explicit questions, which I cannot recount here both because of their content and because the memory is too painful. Eventually I just sat there, listened to him yell at me, and tried to block him out.

My silence angered Michael. He tried different ways of asking me the same questions, and when that didn't elicit a response he would attack my gender expression, my appearance. He was terrifyingly prescient:

"Why can't you dress more like a lady? Who taught you to dress like this? You see my daughters, they look like women. I can't even tell if you're a girl or a boy. How are you going to ever date a man when you don't even wear makeup? You think Jesus wants you to be a dyke? You think Jesus died so you can march down the street with all your faggot friends?"

Far from having a parade of gay friends, at age 15 I didn't know any out LGBT people; I didn't even know that acronym. I didn't have context for the "therapy" I was being forced to attend. I didn't have words to describe the detrimental impact of a treatment that sought to "save" my soul by telling me the very essence of who I am is an abomination.

I was totally isolated. I couldn't tell my friends, and the adults I thought I could trust sided with my parents and refused to listen when I tried to explain what was happening to me. I was alone with Michael each week for what felt like an eternity. I could feel my life slowing to a crawl that I thought might never end during those hours in that cold basement office.

The few times my parents attended sessions with me were even more uncomfortable than usual, with Michael feigning kindness and concern that was curiously absent when we were alone. My father, a proud military man, glared at me or the floor. My mother quietly cried into a tissue or tried to hold my hand.

It wasn't until years later, after coming out as a transgender man, that I began to understand the hell I was put through. It wasn't until I learned about the foundational work of my friend and colleague Sam Ames with the #BornPerfect campaign* at the National Center for Lesbian Rights that I could contextualize the excruciating hours I spent with Michael as abuse aimed at "fixing me."

Michael, my parents, and my church all claimed they were trying to save me from an eternity of pain and suffering they believed was the inevitable outcome of my love for my friend, and as I came to know later, my transgender identity. But Michael did more to break me than any kind of love -- for someone else or myself -- ever could.

Across this country, LGBT youth are subjected to terrifying sessions with pastors and therapists where they are force-fed toxic messages that they are intrinsically broken. Youth look to parents, faith, and community for guidance navigating the already bumpy road to self-realization, and internalize these messages and carry them into adulthood. For those of us "lucky" enough to make it out alive, it can take years to understand that you can't repair what isn't broken.

I am not broken. LGBT youth are not broken. We were all #BornPerfect.

*The #BornPerfect campaign seeks to outlaw the practice of "reparative" or "conversion therapy" in every U.S. state by 2019. California, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Oregon, and Illinois have already passed laws banning the use of these medically debunked counseling methods on minors, which have been denounced as ineffective and harmful by every major mental health and medical organization in the country. Because of the aggressive tactics and stigma central to these so-called therapies, many youth like me don't share their experiences with these horrific and unregulated attempts to "pray away the gay," or in my case, pray away the "trans," until much later in life.

CARL CHARLESCARL CHARLES is a Skadden Fellow and staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT and HIV Project. His work at the ACLU focuses on advocating for transgender and gender-nonconforming youth who are homeless, in foster care, or in the juvenile justice system. He is passionate about working for LGBT youth and their families who are impacted by the criminal justice system. Find him on Twitter @rarlrarles.

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