"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.
When I told my parents [I was a lesbian] I was kicked out of the house. I stayed with some friends for a couple of weeks. Then my parents told me that I was going to go stay with my grandparents in St. George, Utah for a few weeks while they calmed down. I was 15 at the time.
I grew up really religious; an LDS Mormon. We drove to Utah and the house we pulled up to was not my grandparents’ house. It was four blocks away. It was the home of a couple that went to the same church as my grandparents.
There were already other children living in the house. They had five of their own kids and then there were two boys that were also there for conversion therapy. This couple did everything themselves. They weren't licensed. I don't think they even finished high school. It was just their own made up therapy and punishments. This couple worked in treatment facilities in southern Utah for troubled youth and said we can take her instead of sending her to “one of these places.”
It was a lot of Scripture meetings. I had to wear a backpack full of rocks to feel the physical burden of being gay. When I still wasn't cooperating, I had to stand in front of a wall all day just wearing this backpack. I could stand up to that wall for up to 18 hours a day depending on what kind of mood they were in. I had three bathroom breaks — they had to be under two minutes — and I got a seven-minute shower at the end of the night.
The boys had it worse. While we were facing the wall, they didn't just have the backpack full of rocks. They had to carry encyclopedias as well. They would also have to fight each other, like box each other, and if they weren't boxing hard enough, then the husband would do the hitting for them. So it was just in their best interest to lay onto each other as hard as they could.
At first I wasn't allowed to go to school. They were afraid I would tell somebody. I just thought the situation was ridiculous. And there's no way that I was going to be staying there for a long period of time.
They wanted information on my girlfriend at the time, who had just turned 18 and they wanted to send her to jail. My parents wanted to press charges. They kept using the word "groom" like my girlfriend had groomed me into being a lesbian; that she was the root of all evil, that it was just this one girl, and I wasn't actually gay. I wasn't giving them any information on her. Because of that, more rocks were added to the backpack and I had to face the wall longer.
There was a time where I hoped they were right, that I could pray it away. And so I tried. I never thought that it would work but I definitely tried.
I tried escaping multiple times and it failed every time because the community was so small it just always got back to these people. It’s a small, religious community. Everybody knows each other from church. I tried to reach out at a grocery store and it ended up being one of our neighbors who also went to the same ward as us. I also tried to escape at a football game and it happened to be our next door neighbor’s gardener. It never worked out for me. I was punished for that as well.
My parents had come for Christmas and I told them what was happening. They didn't believe me and didn't really give me the opportunity to tell them what was actually going on. I just felt really hopeless. I tried to kill myself on my 16th birthday and it didn't work. So there was just no other option for me. I had to fake it. I had been there since September. I was allowed to go to school in May. I wasn't going to tell anybody what was happening because I felt like I had come so far. I didn't want to end up with the backpack facing the wall again.
I finally gave in and told them everything at the end of February. I gave them my girlfriend's name and address and all the information that they wanted. They actually put me on the phone with a District Attorney in California and coached me what to say to the D.A. They actually had me stop and asked if there was anybody coaching me. I had to tell them no. After I did that, I remember that day I was allowed to take the backpack off.
At school, there was this one kid, Jason, who sat next to me in every single class and he just knew something was wrong. I didn't have a cell phone. I didn't have any friends. I didn't hang out after school. And I was wearing floor-length skirts. It was just weird. After a couple of weeks, he got me to tell him what was going on. He was the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance of the high school. He introduced me to the teacher that supervised it. Jason introduced me to a lawyer, Paul Burke. We decided not to call Child Services because if they were to come into the home and not find anything, I would be left there. I was just telling him everything that had been happening over the last eight months.
We were slowly coming up with a plan. Then I was late to class one day, and these people got a recording saying your child was 15 minutes late. I was told that I wasn't allowed to go to school and I had to wear the backpack and face the wall. So that night, I just left. I left everything -- I took my journal with me and hid out at a bus stop until the buses started running. I asked the bus driver to take me to the high school.
I didn't go all the way through with pressing charges. I just I couldn't handle seeing them every day. But they lost their jobs in these treatment facilities for teenagers and they also had their kids taken away from them. I’m not sure what happened to them after that.
My girlfriend and I talked after I got out. She actually wasn't ever contacted about anything. She and friends had been calling every treatment center and Mormon-run facility in Utah trying to find me the entire time. But since I wasn't in a licensed facility, I was in somebody's home, they weren't able to.
I've never actually stopped talking about it. I’m 23 now. It’s been courtroom after courtroom, interview after interview. But being able to move away from Utah and go to Portland and pick my own family was a huge thing for me. I just have nothing but support everywhere.
Even from my parents now, they're incredibly supportive. They've read my book. They are just so sweet. I don't blame them. I don't think my parents sent me away to be tortured. I don't think any parent can or wants to do that to their child. What my parents did, they did because they wanted to save me from eternal damnation. In their opinion, and in their mind, they were doing what was best for me. I can't blame them for that. It was wrong, and it sucked. It was really terrible. But it wasn't done because my parents are malicious. It was done out of ignorance.
Sharing my story, the first people that I think about are parents who are considering sending their child away to conversion therapy, parents that are scared. Those are the people that I want to reach.
ALEX COOPER is a recruitment manager for a Portland-based company assisting nonprofits. With Joanna Brooks, she wrote the book Saving Alex, released in 2016. She is now a youth ambassador with the Human Rights Campaign.