"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.
My family always brought up that I should be hanging out with girls. I never shared with them my actual thoughts. It was a very secretive life, almost a double life of being a heterosexual to friends and family and in the church and hearing people talk about how you should be dating girls. But then I had this secret life. I don't know if I even gave it a label or not, but I liked watching gay porn. That's what I secretly would do. I didn't tell anybody. I used our family computer but I was the only one who really knew how to use it. I didn't have to worry about anyone finding out.
Then there was this one time I printed off a photo of a naked man. I was 14. I left it out and my mom found it. She picked me up from church youth group at night and was like, "I need to talk to you." I was like, "Oh, that's not mine." "Well," she said, "It’s not mine, and it’s definitely not your father's." I continued to deny it.
Growing up religious, it was this new experience for me to come out as gay. After I did, I left religion behind. I felt that I had to choose one or the other. I was just living my life. I had a partner. We bought a house together at 18 years old. But then we broke up. This is the time just before the big recession. Of course, I was sad and depressed. I end up losing my job. Things weren't going well. I then started to think maybe it's because I have strayed away from my religion. I'm experiencing all this because I've turned away from God. I ended up talking with a roommate, who was a very religious person and actually wasn't fully comfortable living with two gay people. But her and I started just talking more and reading our Bibles. Then I finally decided I was going to this conference.
I was living in Kansas City, but I went to a “Pray the Gay Away” conference in Nebraska. After that, I was completely messed up. Everything they talked about was exactly what I experienced. I need to be straight again, I thought. I decided to start the process. I lived the straight life for about three to four years.
The conference was affiliated with Exodus International. It was at a really large church in Omaha. I remember seeing protesters, which I thought was interesting at the time. That must have been part of an LGBTQ rights group trying to sway people from going. The conference itself was very morose. It was almost this sadness that existed in the air, that everyone was there either because they were inflicted with this sin or to try to help someone overcome this sickness. We started off with a big group. A speaker introduced these schemes and then we all prayed together. Then they broke us off. You could go to different workshops, so I went to the ones for those currently struggling. They also broke it down by your gender or your sex.
Everything was stereotypes. They focused on how your dad wasn't a prominent figure in your life, and your mother really was. You've taken on that idea of just being matronly and you therefore think that you want to be with a guy. At the time that made sense. That was the one that I related with the most; this absent, non-prominent father figure.
After that, I surrounded myself with other strong-minded individuals that felt this could also happen. I was connecting more with my roommate’s family. I ended up moving from Kansas City down to Birmingham, Ala., to literally put myself in a community where I would be confronted. I guessed the Deep South meant traditional values and was more religious. I needed to be with more of those people so that the could help me continue to walk through this journey.
Then I went to a private Baptist college. I had done my associate's degree in Kansas City and then transferred to Samford University. That helped me too, because I would talk with the counselors about my gay experience and trying to be straight. They would help me try to fight off temptations and continue to remind me to be strong and pray. I started going to church very regularly.
I ended up having a girlfriend and going out with her for a while. Then once we introduced kissing, I laughed and was like, "No, I'm not ready yet."
But I did have these times when I would fall. I would watch porn and lust over another guy. There were a couple times that I would engage in activity with another guy. We didn't get too far in our escapades. But we would always feel awful and sick; both of us. I was with another person who was also going through the same thing. I remember with that person that happened one more time and he's like, we can't see each other anymore — this has to stop because we're awful people.
It wasn't until starting to leave Samford when I was finishing up my senior year that something switched. I've been praying and praying and praying for years to change, and I've changed my whole life around from what it was. I should be in God's good graces. I didn't get it; it didn't make sense that I'm still feeling this way. I still have these feelings when I've asked God to take them away from me.
Then I started wrestling with those thoughts and finally telling others about them. I heard there are several men going through this exact same thing here on campus. What? I literally thought I was the only one on campus dealing with this. I started scouting them out. I learned of someone — he lived in the hall across from me and was an active member of my church who I really respected. He was who I looked up to, as far as being the ultimate heterosexual who's found this amazing alignment with God and his religion. His whole life seemed peaceful. I learned he was struggling with being gay and I was baffled. That turned my life upside down.
After leaving Samford, I didn't come out again as gay for seven months. It took a lot of people around me just telling me "you're gay" to be okay enough with life to accept it again. It's like you retrace your steps. You've had these thoughts for a long time. You've really felt this way. At one point it seemed fine — just being around other gay people helped, because I completely isolated myself from anything LGBTQ-friendly. I made them the enemy. Then I let that back in to my life and was seeing how it's okay; it's normal. Becoming active again sexually, I thought, Oh I enjoy this. All of those things kind of led to this feeling of being okay.
Now, I would just consider myself non-religious.
I know today we have unity churches and different sects of churches that didn't even exist back then. I know that those places are out there and accepting of LGBTQ people, but I don't see myself becoming a Christian again. I've liked not having to think about religion. Sometimes I feel like I'm supposed to bridge the two. But I realize now that I was pretending to be someone completely different. I didn't feel like I was living my authentic self. Religion is cool. I still think it's fascinating. I love to hear people's stories about how they're experiencing their religion and their faith. But I don't miss it. It feels better without it.
Telling my mom I was gay was awful. And then when I told her that I was straight, she had just gotten used to the fact that I was gay and started to embrace it. Then when I told her I was gay again, she was like, "Oh, thank God. I’m so glad you finally realize." She saw I was not being myself. So now even my mom and dad are supportive.
JONATHAN DAVEY runs the Facebook support group “Religion & Rainbows.” He attended a conversion therapy conference in Nebraska.
If you'd like to share your experience with conversion therapy, email reporter Jacob Ogles at firstname.lastname@example.org.