"Conversion therapy" in the United States is practiced in many forms -- talk therapy, exorcisms, and even torture. But despite broad consensus with the clinical community and even growing recognition among religious leaders that is is harmful, it remains legal in 35 states for licensed therapists and mental health professionals to put minors through the dangerous practice of trying to alter their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In an ongoing series, "Can't Be Converted,"The Advocate collected testimonials of those who endured conversion therapy in states where it remains legal to perform on minors. These individuals ultimately rejected the practice and now share their stories in an effort to educate the public -- especially parents -- on the potential harm, in hopes of influencing policymakers to follow the lead of states that no longer tolerate this abuse.
All of my early physical sexual experiences were with other boys from the time I was 12. I was raised in a repressive Southern environment in Birmingham, Ala., in the '60s. While it may have been free love and sexual liberation in San Francisco and New York, in Birmingham, we didn't talk about it. My freshman year in high school was the first year of forced desegregation. It's the first time I had gone to school with black students. Some of our teachers quit rather than teach the students.
I dated girls in high school, but we didn't have sex. I had sex with boys. It just never occurred to me that was a paradox. I know that sounds really naive looking back at it. It was not something I would talk about openly, saying I banged this guy last night. But my freshman year in college, I got involved in an extremely fundamental Bible study group. Then I knew those kinds of behavior were "wrong" and all the religious words that come attached to it. Abomination. Unnatural.
Some time in that first year I ended up leading the group very often. I felt like I wanted to go into the ministry. So I did what you're supposed to do. I married a girl who plays the piano. We went to college and seminary. For a very long time, the desires, the attractions, they definitely weren't gone, but they were sublimated because we were just we were working on the ministry and school and then the kids came along. But it reasserted. Years into my marriage, I needed to start facing up to these feelings.
Anita Bryant was being Anita Bryant. Her organization held a conference in Birmingham and a guy that she brought with her called himself a former homosexual. That's when I first thought if he can do it, I will do it. We didn't have any kind of ex-gay group in Birmingham, so I started one and ultimately became executive director. It was called Coming Back, since we couldn't be coming out. Basically, it was built off the story of the prodigal son. Then I became affiliated with Exodus International.
It was almost like an AA group. We would start off with prayer time and scripture, something related to our identity or overcoming sexual sin. Then there would be a time of sharing, somebody talking about maybe some slip up they had this week. They accidentally fell on somebody's dick. You know, totally unintentional. There's a lot of that. Then there's an accountability type of thing where we wanted people to be honest about what was going on without being graphic so you didn't trigger other people. But it was more just the sharing and support. I developed some material, periodic training for people that wanted more than just the support group.
It always sounds patently dishonest when I look back. At conferences with other ex- gays, I would hear their glowing, powerful testimonies of how God had changed their lives. "Once I was gay but now I'm not." I would listen and be so impacted because I knew deep down inside of me I was still struggling. These desires, these feelings, these attractions, were still warring inside me. As a leader, you can't be honest. You can't say this is not working. So you just keep struggling. You keep peddling. You keep pushing. Ultimately it comes back to, there's something wrong with me, because it's working for all these other people. Come to find out, they were feeling the exact same thing.
One of the foundational premises is we don't say what we feel, we say what we want to be. We were told not to say "I'm gay." We were "experiencing homosexual tendencies," or we lived with "homosexual temptations." We couldn't say "I want to be straight." We had to say "I am straight in Jesus' name." It creates an environment where you're forced to pretend, but it's not a conscious decision to deceive. I didn't sit there from week to week and say, "I'm gonna lie to these guys today." I just felt like I'm failing. That's another foundational premise. If it's not working, it's your fault, not the program. It's your fault, not God's fault. You're doing something wrong. You're not praying enough. You're not believing enough. You don't want it enough.
Sometimes there's a crisis. In my life, there were two: The suicide of a dear friend of mine and the death of one of the guys in our group from AIDS. He left the group and moved to New Orleans. I'm assuming either he was HIV-positive at the time of the group, or contracted it when he was there, but seroconverted very quickly and moved back to Birmingham. When his parents found out, they sequestered him at home and told him this was God's judgment. They told him he was going to hell, but they wouldn't let anybody see him. As his pastor, I was not allowed to see him.
And then he died, thinking God had done this to him. It broke my heart. It's been 30 years and it still does.
All of a sudden I pulled back and said, something's wrong here. This is not what I signed up for. We are creating this environment where there's this guilt and condemnation. I just began to reevaluate, and I resigned from my church. I knew I had been doing everything known to man, but the feelings were still there. They were in my dreams. They were in my fantasies. Once I came to that realization, I knew "I'm lying." A few months later, my wife and I realized that church and ministry was about the only thing we had in common, so we agreed to a trial separation. Not long after that, some friends introduced me to a friend of theirs. Something clicked with me and this guy and we had this two- or three-week intense affair.
One night just sitting in my apartment, I had been drinking a good bit. I said if this is who I am, if I'm gay, then I'm walking away from everything I've ever done -- my family, my career, my ministry, my faith. I sat there with a bottle of bourbon in one hand and a pistol in the other. I thought, I can't do this. I remember vividly screaming into the room "I'm done." I was done trying, done pretending. Part of me was done living. But somewhere deep inside of me, this voice was going, "No, you're not." I put the gun away and made the decision to be the most honest, authentic me I could be.
Initially, I assume that if I'm going to embrace this part of me, my sexual orientation, I'm going to turn my back on everything I believe. I'm 37 at this point and I'm doing the bars and the one night stands I never did because I got married at 18. A few months after my divorce, I was offered a job in southern California. One night, a friend of mine and I were at a bar in Laguna Beach, and I saw a flyer on the wall advertising a Bible study for gay and lesbian Christians. I remember standing there laughing. And my friend, he said maybe we should go. So we did.
It was life changing because these were honest, genuine loving people working through what it means to be gay and a person of faith. I was definitely going down a rough road that was not healthy, with the bars and the drinking. They saved my life. I was able to come to a place where I can accept I am a person of faith and an openly gay man. I began to speak about my time as an ex-gay, and it turns out a lot of these people had been there and were hurting. They had been damaged, seriously damaged. One guy tried to drink Drano because he was just so horrified at these feelings. The friend of mine that took me to the Bible Study ultimately killed himself because he couldn't realize he could do this and be a Christian. So for 30 years, I've been speaking out about the deception and the dangers of these groups.
Minors in conversion therapy, it's like Fight Club. You just don't talk about it. It's this secret little society. They probably don't promote it as a conversion therapy camp, because terms go in and out of vogue, even in religious circles. I wish conversion therapy were outlawed nationwide. But I also know this is not going to stop even if you make it illegal. Conversion therapy grows out of and is inseparably tied to fundamental theology. Making a law only affects the licensed professionals who want to practice it as part of their faith in violation of their professional ethics. But the more it is outlawed and proven to be bogus, maybe the next time a parent who has a child that comes out and their pastor says we should send them to this camp, that parent will have a fleeting thought. Maybe they will do a little more research and not just take their pastor's word for it.
BILL PRICKETT founded the Coming Back ministry, but now speaks out against conversion therapy and has written three books on the subject. He now lives in Texas.
If you'd like to share your experience with conversion therapy, email reporter Jacob Ogles at firstname.lastname@example.org.