"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.
I was in fourth grade when I realized I had attraction to other boys. But I grew up in an environment where I knew it was not the norm and it would not be acceptable.
I was smart, probably too smart. It was not only the school that taught me I was wrong. It was also my involvement with the church, my family's beliefs. It weren't things that were necessarily said; it was what was not said. The expectation was that you were going to be married to someone of the opposite sex. You're going to start a family. My feelings were not allowed or acceptable. That was never spoken, but I knew it. Some things my father had spoken about gay men in passing I connected to my feelings.
In my family you needed to fit a masculine mold. But I was a singer and musician; I played piano. My family loved that I had these talents, but it was apparent they didn't know how to approach it. I attached these talents to the fact that I was gay. In my mind it was connected.
I didn't say anything until I was 19. It wasn't really a "coming out," though. I was so brainwashed. I didn't come to them and say, "I'm gay." I said, "I need help." Being gay was not an acceptable option within the world I was in at the time. This is not what God intended. My family basically said, "We will do what we can to help you," because they had the same belief that being gay is not natural or right.
I went through something called Overcomers At-Home. You'd go through a program, but you are in your own home environment. You have a person you talk to once a week. You do some reading. It's more of the brainwashing, but it was through an organization.
I tried to date a couple of women in college, but that obviously was not going to happen because I didn't have feelings toward them. I'm completely attracted to men but not women. The biggest thing about the conversion therapy and trying to act masculine meant that I had to seperate myself from my art. It has taken time for me to reattach myself.
It was a strange deal. I remember one of the situations that came up was I was supposed to have a roommate off-campus for the first time as I was starting my junior year of college. My counselor with Overcomers at Home asked me flat out is there any chance I'm attracted to this guy. In my mind, because I had barely had any sexual experiences and anything that was masculine in my mind was very attractive, I said yeah; it's possible. He said you need to not be roommates with him. I actually had to cut out that arrangement in a very awkward way without explaining why. Then I had my own apartment. I was alone that year, trying to deal with all these things. It was a very strange time.
From there, I had an experience with a guy in college and felt guilty about it, so I went through a different program. It wasn't really a program -- just weekly meetings for about a year. That was through Exodus in Arlington. Those were actually in-person group meetings in my area. At some point, I met with a guy that was head of the program. I was having meetings with them every few weeks just to talk about things, and he asked me flat out, "Would you be okay if you never feel attraction to women? You need to accept the fact that that may never happen for you, and you have to make some pretty big decisions."
That freaked me out. I never thought about it in that light. When I came to that realization, I realized there were just a few options for me. Either I was going to accept this is a part of who I am no matter what, that maybe the God I thought was God was not all I thought he was, or I was going to end up in an insane asylum, crazy out of my mind.
Then I told [my parents] what was going on in my mind. That was dramatic and difficult. I moved in with this guy for a short time. And that was that. It was basically a switch. It's funny how you just do it. I did it all at once. I just pushed myself out of the situation. I had been staying with a guy because I was realizing I was going to go crazy if I stayed with the therapy. I didn't need to be staying with my parents because of their influence. I didn't know how to deal with it. Then I drove up to the house and made a decision to grab all my things and get out. My mom and dad were home.
They approached me. Some very heated, strange conversations took place. My mother said, if you make this decision now, there's no turning back. This is it. The words still stick with me.
That day, I basically told them, I'm either going to an insane asylum, or I'm going to make a decision to not continue on this destructive path.
My experience with conversion therapy was as a result of my family's pressure, and my own desire, and where I came from. I had so ingrained in me an understanding of what was right and wrong that it took me some time to actually begin to tear that apart. It was so ingrained in my psyche. That's true of a lot of churches and schools in the country.
Now I perform as an opera singer. I still have to process through the fact that me being an artist is beautiful and acceptable and wonderful and attached to my whole person. It's taken a long time for me to build up my own belief in myself. I have to work through the persecution. A lot of that is attached to the fact I hid it from myself for so long, then I went through these therapies that confirmed what I had thought through elementary school and through high school. I have to dig through those layers in order to defeat the other side. It's still something I have to work through.
I've come a long way. I've got a wonderful partner. We live out here in California and have a great life. We have a very loving relationship, but it's the internal things I still have to face. I believed any attraction to men or any feeling beyond friendship was unacceptable. I also believed anything that would not reflect masculinity was not acceptable. My father would really push for athleticism and being involved in sports. I'd always try and please him. In my mind, being athletic was connected to being masculine, which is not necessarily true. Being athletic is just being athletic.
Four or five years later, I sat down with my parents and told them at some point I'm going to have someone in my life that I care about, and if you aren't going to invite them in in some way, I'm not going to go to come see you during holidays -- or at all. Now they've actually met my partner, so things have gotten somewhat better. They still don't agree because it's not part of their beliefs, but at least they have opened up their minds.
BILLY LAWLEY is an opera singer. He grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and went through conversion therapy in Texas.