I’ve spent so much of my life trying to be like everyone else, I sometimes wonder who I really am or who I would have been if it were not for decades of rehearsing to be a different character.
“Can you talk about the effects of conversion therapy?” Someone asked me at a recent speaking engagement. In milliseconds, my mind raced to the numbers, statistics, and research papers I’d read. I pictured myself sitting next to the countless people I’d interviewed, listening to their heart-wrenching stories of pain. My body tensed. Their stories, like mine, were merely anecdotal. I felt I needed to give hard facts if my answer was going to be effective. That’s what I told myself. My emotions shut down like the lights being turned off at an empty football stadium after a game.
“The most recent study was March of 2014,” I recited, “which is the largest study of its kind with over 1,600 subjects.” I went on to quote statistics on homeless youth and cautioned about reading the numbers correctly.
The audience member looked angry. When I paused to take a breath she shot back, “So you’re saying we shouldn’t try and stop conversion therapy for youth?!” I was taken aback. My entire message had been about stopping the lie of conversion therapy. How could that possibly be misconstrued?
I went home that night and replayed the encounter. In fact, I replayed the encounter for several days until I could put into words what I was feeling. I had dodged the question.
When she asked me what the effects of conversion therapy were, her question was much more personal than I wanted to acknowledge. I wasn’t ready to answer that question, yet. The last few months, however, have left me contemplating how to express what it’s like to be a conversion therapy survivor. If I could stand in front of that audience today, I would answer like this:
It’s easier to give you statistics and references to research than to talk about what my life is like every day. But the fact is, when I wake up in the morning, it’s not the meta-analysis lying on the pillow next to me that tells me homosexuality is a normal variation on human sexuality. Instead it’s the nagging feeling that I’m not normal. I will never be normal. I know that most of the men I see or meet during the workday cannot relate to what it’s like growing up and feeling that you are broken or weird.
They have never had to sit their kid down and tell her they were gay, and then watch her burst into tears. They’ve never driven the streets at night berating themselves for being a failure as a father because they simply can’t give their kid a “normal,” two-parent home. Their wives didn’t leave them because they struggled with feelings for the same gender.
Their parents have never said, “I love you, but you’re no different than a thief, a liar and an adulterer.” And that after spending decades trying to change, and then doing nothing but simply existing in their own skin.
The silent narrative in my head tells me to keep quiet and lay low. Avoid eye contact and don’t make a scene. Blend in. When I speak to a group of people I painfully work up the courage to stand in front of them. My body flushes with heat and my mouth dries out. Nearly every time. I’m afraid that people are looking at me with pity, or judgment.
The shame that consumes me often lies unconsciously below the surface. I know it’s there when I walk outside the walls of my own house and face a world that is full of heterosexual imagery and unstated narratives. I feel like I don’t belong there; I often feel like I don’t belong anywhere. I’ve learned to suppress the uneasy feelings by disappearing in a crowded room, or making jokes. I’ve gotten good at both.
I’ve spent so much of my life trying to be like everyone else, I sometimes wonder who I really am or who I would have been if it were not for decades of rehearsing to be a different character. I don’t always know what I really feel because I don’t know which character is speaking. I just know I don’t want to be abandoned.
While I feel tremendously empowered by using the analytical part of my brain, sometimes it only serves as a safety net. It keeps me from feeling anything at all. It occupies my mind like a teenager playing a video game, or an exhausted housewife watching TV. It feeds me information while sometimes starving me of emotional connection.
The very basis of conversion therapy says that people are broken, unworthy of love, and unacceptable to God in their current state. It’s not always overtly stated, but the consequences can be severe. And it doesn’t matter if the person has ever acted on their sexual feelings or not. Simply existing with same-sex attraction is an abomination.
More often than not, people are given ultimatums: go through conversion therapy or lose your family, your church and your friends. They are forced to either suppress their sexuality – which they often misconstrue for change – or go into the closet. So they hide their obsession with pornography, engage in risky sexual behaviors, or may even develop chemical dependencies. Eventually, the discomfort of the mental conflict overwhelms them and the lives they’ve built, now with spouses and children, come undone. Families get torn apart and the victims multiply from one to many.
I have learned that in nearly all cases, people most affected by conversion therapy are people like me, who grew up in fundamentalist religious homes. The values taught by those religions are as ingrained in their core as their sexuality itself. The conflict is intense and they often believe it is better to be dead than gay. They will do anything to rid themselves of the problem, and suicide isn’t out of the question. Many I’ve met have attempted it at least on one occasion.
Yes, there are disturbing statistics, but even more disturbing personal stories, if only anecdotal. The question is, how many stories do we need to make it stop? How many lives are worth ruining and how do we determine whose lives are least important?
To be clear, there is not a single person who has changed from gay to straight, despite the propaganda distributed by high-powered religious-political groups. None. If you listen to what the “ex-gays” are actually saying, the waters get muddy fast. Rather than give credence to former ex-gay stories, these organizations discard the old and move on to the next wave of young and willing spokespersons. It’s been happening since the 1970s. The list of castaways is long and includes once prominent names.
Sexuality and gender, like human beings, cannot be wrapped up neatly in simplistic terms. Those who wish to do so choose ignorance and intolerance in favor of the safety of their own misinformed ideologies. In the process they perpetuate the idea that changing people from gay to straight is as simple as reading the Bible “correctly,” praying, and being accountable to spiritual leaders.
In some cases, they believe, reparative psychotherapy, which has been discredited for decades and is now being outlawed, is necessary to reconnect a man to his father or a daughter to her mother. It is a business based on lies, driven by fear, funded by religious conservatives at the expense of LGBT youth, and protected by religious freedom laws.
I will answer the question about the effects of conversion therapy differently from now on. Truth be told, it is personal. Not just to me, but to millions of kids caught in the crosshairs of their religious faith and their mental well-being.
Photo – Flickr/Alejandro Herrera