When I was 25 I started seeing a therapist. I was struggling in my daily life and I needed to talk to someone — a professional, about some of the thoughts weighing on me.
In my very first session with my now former therapist, he told me that I had been sexually abused as a child. I did not have memories of being sexually abused, but I’d always wondered if something had happened in my childhood that I could not remember. I was upset by his analysis, and though I did not accept it, I did not reject it either. He spoke with such conviction, and he was a licensed therapist — I assumed he knew things I did not.
The next year of therapy was largely focused on developing a narrative around what that abuse looked like. He put a tremendous amount of pressure on me to recover memories of abuse, warning me that keeping the abuse repressed would ruin my already unstable life.
I came to feel dependent on this person even as he urged me to create a narrative about the supposed abuse. Admittedly, I was relieved to have someone who seemed to care about me, especially since my relationships with my family were strained at that time.
Months into seeing him on a regular basis for private and group therapy, the therapist dropped another bomb, telling me the reason I was a lesbian and the reason I was gender non-conforming, was because of the abuse. He told me every romantic and sexual interaction I’d had with another woman was simply a reenactment of the sexual abuse I’d endured as a child. I wasn’t really a lesbian, according to the therapist, I was defended. My identity was a defense I’d constructed as a child to protect me from the abuse. In order to recover from the abuse, I must shed the defense to reveal my true-self.
In the beginning, my former therapist acted neutral around same-sex attraction. He said things like, "Human sexuality is a spectrum," and even shared that his sister was a lesbian. So when he first introduced the idea to me that I should change my sexual orientation, I didn’t think he was exhibiting homophobia — I thought his counsel was specific to me and my story. As the years went on, he became more brazen about his convictions, telling me and others that all homosexuality is a trauma response and that all individuals who are attracted to and have had romantic interactions with people of the same sex, were sexually abused.
This is the part in my story where I wish I could say that upon learning my former therapist believed gay people are pathological and deviant, I held him accountable and called him on his outdated and homophobic practices. But I did not. I did not hold him accountable because I revered him. He had gained my trust and manipulated me with the power he held as a licensed practitioner.
For eight years of my life, I tolerated weekly sessions on how to “fix” myself by denying my lesbian identity. I tried to be more feminine. I tried to be heterosexual. I was in a constant state of anxiety. I was drowning in shame. I dated one of his male patients because the therapist insisted he could feel my love for him and that with time I would feel it too. I wanted to be my true-self, I wanted to experience genuine love and connection, and I was terrified at the thought of acting out past abuse in my relationships.
In 2014 I terminated therapy and moved to a new city. With some distance and the counsel of a new therapist, who listened much more than she talked, something new started to grow inside me: outrage.
In 2016, I started working with the National Center for Lesbian Rights to file a lawsuit against my former therapist. The complaint cited the more than $70,000 I paid over the years for his fraudulent services. I trusted and paid him to provide accurate medical information as a licensed mental health professional, not to mislead, deceive, and defraud me. Though California banned conversion therapy for minors in 2012, I wasn’t protected by this ban because I was 25 years old when I started therapy.
My lawsuit was settled earlier this year. With the lawsuit behind me, I plan to tell my story in hopes of raising awareness about the real damage conversion therapy causes to those subjected to that fraud.
Conversion therapy is, without exception, an abuse of power. There is no way to practice conversion therapy ethically since all forms of conversion therapy are premised on the lie that LGBTQ people are deviant or abnormal.
Sometimes I think about what could have happened differently to prevent me from experiencing conversion therapy. I feel confident that if I had been raised in a world where I was told my sexual orientation and gender presentation were a normal variation of human behavior, I never would have even entertained the thought of trying to change my identity.
Young LGBTQ people need to know: you are born perfect and no one can change who you are.
Kate McCobb lives in Oregon and is an analyst at a nonprofit that promotes health equity. She also tutors students in math.