I’ll never forget hiding in the doorway, staring at the phone shaking in my mother’s hand. A stream of tears drowned her breath and she gasped fitfully for air. I could sense her weariness as she continued the conversation with my cousin, a psychologist. I remember them talking about my “poor health,” my “choices,” my “mental disability.” I would have to meet with my cousin the next day to talk about my sexuality. I felt betrayed.
"When did you start to feel like that? Do you want to be gay?"
"It just comes naturally for me, I guess."
I remember feeling nervous about meeting with my cousin the next day, but I felt revitalized after our talk. I realized that she and my parents were simply worried about my safety and my future. I am thankful that my family allowed me to open my heart and be true to myself with them. They listened me and were so quick to understand me. In the beginning it was a difficult process for them, but they chose to love me for who I am as they did with my deafness, rather than send me away to “fix” my homosexuality. I felt a trust within us.
Tragically, Manuel* had a very different outcome. As recently as one year ago, he had been forcibly admitted to a clinic where he was subjected to electroshock therapy in an attempt to “cure” his homosexuality. Disturbingly, Manuel’s situation is not an anomaly. Countless others have endured a myriad of treatments aimed at curing their “sexual deviations,” including surgery and substances. This issue was first brought to the public eye in 2011, when the national newspaper in Ecuador ran an article that estimated that 200 such facilities were still in operation across the country.
This may be shocking to some, but consider it in context: Fewer than 30 years ago, the World Health Organization continued to include homosexuality on its list of diseases and mental illnesses. It was only 20 years ago that Ecuador repealed its law against same-sex romantic activity and relationships. The rehabilitation clinics like the one Manuel attended were once far more prevalent; they closed down not only because they were not properly registered with the Ministry of Health, but because no one should endure having their sexuality forcibly “converted.”
“You’re not gay, you’re just shy.”
As counterintuitive as it may seem, the families who send their children to these clinics do so out of love and concern for their wellbeing. Ecuador, while officially secular, is a largely Roman Catholic country. In fact, most of the clinics shut down by the Ministry of Health in 2011 were religiously affiliated. This isn’t to suggest that religion itself is a problem; the owners of these clinics were unsavory characters looking to make a quick buck — and they knew that they could use our spirituality against us.
I have fond memories of attending church with my grandparents each Sunday, but it is there that I first learned about the prejudice so often shown to people who identify as queer, like I do. The verse from Leviticus is burned in my mind: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” For the first time in my life, I felt like my sexuality was wrong. Eventually, this led to thoughts of suicide, when I was as young as 13. Writing, while once just a childhood hobby, became my coping mechanism — and I continue it to this day. In fact, it was that aforementioned newspaper article that inspired me to write my first novel, first in Spanish and now translated into a new edition in English. While the story I tell is fictional, it is based on my research and conversations with survivors of these very real clinics.
It’s unknown how many of these clinics may still exist in Ecuador or around the world. They may even exist in your own proverbial backyard. The National Center for Lesbian Rights is working to pass legislation against gay conversation therapy in the United States, but at the moment, there is only legal protection for minors in four states and the District of Columbia.
Despite everything, I was able to find my safe place, and now I write in the hope that others will be able to find their own. In the words of LGBT activist Harvey Milk, “All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential.”
*I used a pseudonym to respect the victim’s privacy.
CESAR L. BAQUERIZO's debut English novel, A Safe Place With You, will be released June 14. It will be available for purchase at all major retailers online and at www.pennamepublishing.com. For more information about A Safe Place With You, check out his interview on Youtube. Twitter: @cesarluisb @asafeplacewithu