On April 25, a handful of Democratic senators introduced a bill in Congress to ban sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) — more commonly known as “conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy.” SOCE is the practice of attempting to alter one’s sexual orientation and gender identity through psychological, medical, and/or religious methods.
This bill — which has slim chances of passing through a GOP-controlled Congress — declares that LGBTQ persons do not have deficient sexualities, and any effort to change their sexual orientation or gender identity is misleading and fraudulent.
The proposal draws heavily from statements made by the American Psychological Association and other professional medical guilds, which declare that SOCE is useless at best, and damaging at worst. If passed, the legislation would authorize the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to prosecute individuals or organizations that are involved in selling conversion therapy.
This congressional effort symbolizes the advancement of the national conversation around LGBTQ identity. For me personally, it reminds me of how far we’ve come since my teenage years, when I was subject to conversion therapy.
I didn’t have the privilege of coming out to my parents, as my internet search history gave away my sexual orientation. It didn’t take much imagination for my sleuthing mother to connect the dots when she saw that I had Google searched “Am I gay?” My parents come from a conservative, Catholic, Hispanic culture, and they were shaken to their core when they found out I was gay. For them, this was the worst thing that could happen to someone they loved. They saw homosexuality as a curse, damning that person to a sad, selfish existence. Before my father found out about my sexual orientation, he used to joke that he would “beat a gay son straight.”
Thankfully, my parents were wise enough to understand that neither violence or complete rejection would be a loving reaction. Instead, my mother cried a lot and my father pretended like I was perfectly straight. Eventually, my mother decided that she could not watch as her firstborn son waltzed into the “homosexual lifestyle.” My family started worshipping at our local evangelical megachurch, and there we were quickly introduced to the world of sexual addiction, ex-gay ministries, and conversion therapy.
I was 13 when I was first subjected to efforts to change my sexual orientation, and I finally gave up this fruitless effort when I was 19 years old. In those six years, I went to a Christian counselor that told me that I was too attached to my mother and too detached from my father to be a healthy heterosexual. A Catholic therapist forced me to show him what images of the type of bodies I was attracted to. My mother cajoled me into joining an online “Bible study” that connected me with a mentor that would hold me accountable regarding my “homosexual urges.” I read half a dozen ex-gay memoirs and pseudo-scientific manuals for successful reparative therapy. My mother dragged me to church at 5 a.m. to have an elder perform a “deliverance” on me (like an exorcism), where he prayed against the “demon” of homosexuality inside my body. After my deliverance, the elder told me that I should avoid certain feminine behaviors and mannerisms to avoid feeding the unclean spirits inside me. During my first year in college, I joined a support group with other “sex addicts,” where heterosexuality was possible if I was vulnerable to the community, read my Bible, and prayed enough.
It isn’t surprising that I have struggled for most of my adolescence and adult life with issues of low self-esteem, self-hatred, self-sabotage, and long seasons of depression. The negative consequences of reparative therapy are also evident in the way I relate to my family members and close friends. As my mother continued to believe in the “hope” of ex-gay efforts, my relationship with her suffered. It’s been an incredibly painful process to confront the fact that my parents contributed to one of the darkest moments of my life. With my closest friends, I’ve had to consistently fight the voice inside me that tells me I am not worthy of their love because I am gay.
Today, I have found freedom and hope — not by becoming straight, but by embracing my queer sexuality and coming out of the closet. New research on the science of sexual orientation as well as personal stories of well-adjusted and happy LGBTQ people helped me reject the religious system that told me there was something wrong with me because I was gay. Recently, the word “survivor” has felt as an appropriate label for myself in relation to reparative therapy, and I am so thankful to be in a much more welcoming environment today. But I cannot ignore the fact that many people today, including a lot of children and adolescents, are still being subjected the psychological torture that is conversion therapy.
My story is embodied evidence of why laws that ban SOCE are necessary and life-saving. Supporting LGBTQ people in their queer identities isn’t just a personal decision, but an institutional objective our society must strive toward. Anecdotal research has shown a strong link between those who are subject to ex-gay efforts and suicidal ideations. And studies have shown that the mental health of LGBTQ people is directly correlated to how welcoming a state’s legislation is of queer identities.
Banning conversion therapy is an important signal to queer people, and particularly children, that they are welcome and accepted just as they are. And legislation like this will continue to stigmatize harmful “reparative therapy” efforts, to the point in which they will become completely obsolete.
Most of the major religious groups in America have historical baggage around supporting SOCE for queer folks. Repenting of this sin involves reparations of activism and solidarity. It is important for people of faith to actively support government efforts to end reparative therapy. Religious institutions hold a strong moral authority over Americans’ societal conscience, and have an opportunity to use their pulpit to advocate for the ethical treatment of all of God’s children — including LGBTQ people. Who knows how many children we can save in the process?