Four men who experienced conversion therapy share their experiences of fear, love and what it’s like to be told your sexuality must be ‘fixed’
Every day across America, LGBT people of all ages are exposed to conversion therapy. That it is still legal to expose minors to a practice as traumatising, barbaric and, in many cases, lethal is a disgrace. Any hope LGBT activists had that the practices would be outlawed any time soon, even for minors, took a severe blow when Donald Trump and his evangelical vice president, Mike Pence, won the election. Pence has previously voiced support for ex-gay therapy and is infamous for introducing draconian anti-LGBT legislation in his time as Indiana governor. The four men interviewed below experienced conversion therapy in many of its predatorial guises. They survived. Though their stories are in many ways unique, what they were exposed to – and the scars they still bear because of it – is all too common for so many vulnerable LGBT people.
In October 2008, Charles Banta arrived with his family at the Focus on the Family welcome centre in Colorado Springs. For three days, the sprawling complex – complete with bookstore, soda bar and 170-seat theatre – would host the Love Won Out conference. Its purpose: to help those with supposedly unwanted same-sex attractions overcome them. It was a weekend of firsts for 16-year-old Charles: the first time he’d meet another gay person, the first time he’d kiss a guy, the first time he’d partake in group conversion therapy.
The conference was run by two infamous anti-LGBT organisations: the now defunct Exodus International, an umbrella association connecting ex-gay therapy groups, and Focus on the Family, one of the most well-funded anti-LGBT organisations in America. Despite UN condemnation and disqualification from the medical community, only a handful of US states (Vermont, California, New Jersey, Illinois and Oregon) ban the use of conversion therapy on minors. It is likely to be a contentious issue during the next presidency, with vice-president-elect Mike Pence having previously advocated the redirection of resources toward institutions that practise it. Charles’ own experiences with conversion therapy began immediately after coming out to his parents.
“I grew up in rural Iowa on a farm, (in a) real tiny town, down in the cornfields,” says Charles, now 23. “My parents were religious conservative. So obviously growing up I was very religious myself. I would often debate against gays and abortions and all that, using biblical lines, before I knew what any of it was.”
Through puberty, he prayed his sexuality was just a phase and immersed himself in extracurricular activities – band, choir, sports. By tenth grade, aged 14, the repression had made him suicidal. He explained as much and came out to his band leader. As he had mentioned suicidal thoughts to her, the school were bound by Iowa law to inform his parents. The next day, he was taken home by the school counsellor.
“Her obligation was only to tell (my mother) that I was having suicidal thoughts,” explains Charles. “At that point I didn’t think it was worth hiding any more, so I went ahead and just said it. The first thing that she said was, ‘Have you talked to God about this?’ After the counsellor left, we went to see a youth pastor. We went through some of the Bible verse that talked about why homosexuality is a sin.”
“They were telling me that I was surrounded by demons and that, through sessions, I could ward them away” – Charles
Charles’ parents took him to a variety of pseudo-counsellors, while at home he was made to watch movies (produced, he thinks, by Exodus International) about gay men who had supposedly converted. He wanted to believe in change, but grew skeptical quickly, simply going along to appease his parents. The extremity of one therapist, though, shocked even them.
“It was going to end up as an exorcism type-thing,” recalls Charles. “They were telling me that I was surrounded by demons and that, through sessions, I could ward them away. I just said I wasn’t going back. (My dad) did at least give me the choice of that.”
Charles was so far ahead in school that he was offered the opportunity to graduate a year early. His parents agreed to let him, on the condition that he attended the ex-gay ministries conference in Colorado Springs. Eight months after coming out to his parents, he found himself sitting in front of an ex-gay counsellor, surrounded by other gay guys. It was the first time he’d met other gay men. The class pored over Bible verses, counsellors spoke of Jesus’s power, while ‘ex-gay men’ discussed the abusive relationships and drug scenes that homosexuality had led them to. It was a turning point in Charles’ relationship with his sexuality.
“I had never looked for anything proactive, (anthing) pro-LGBT… So (when) I came out of it, I found PFLAG (a group for parents of LGBT children),” says Charles, who’s also raised over $25,000 for the LGBT group at his old college, thanks in part to his employer, Google. “The first one I went to, of course, was all mothers. I told them everything I had been going through, and I basically had eight mothers looking after me. It was perfect for what I needed at the time.”
Sitting behind Charles at the Love Won Out conference was Jerry Spencer, a young Texan, who had been taken there by his parents. “What was fascinating about it was how closely and immediately we all connected on a deep emotional level,” says Spencer. “While the counsellor was talking about Jesus, we were all passing around our cell phones to each other behind their backs and just entering our phone numbers. We snuck away, one by one, and went into the basement. I made out with Charles there in the basement bathrooms.”
Jerry not only gave Charles his first kiss, but went on to become his first boyfriend, too, the pair going on to date for a few years. Though they aren’t together any more, they remain great friends. Jerry’s own path to the Exodus International echoes Charles’ experience; after coming out to his mother at 13, she decided they would “fix him”. She sought out various therapists, rejecting those who said there was nothing wrong with homosexuality, until she found one with questionable credentials and an expensive programme who told her what she wanted to hear.
For five years, he attended intimate counselling sessions, sometimes at $400 an hour. At 17, he was going nearly every day after school, often not getting to sleep until midnight. It was either that or homelessness. “The idea was to pressure your child into doing it for fear of being hungry,” says Jerry. “There was this understanding that if I did not do it then I would not be fed, not be clothed, not be welcomed in their home. And I believe they thought that was the most loving thing to do. There were alternating points where I was living with my parents, sleeping on friends’ couches or staying in parks for long extended periods of time because I had nowhere else to go.”
“While the counsellor was talking about Jesus, we were all passing around our cell phones to each other behind their backs and just entering our phone numbers. We snuck away, one by one, and went into the basement. I made out with Charles there in the basement bathrooms” – Jerry
Though Jerry now has a good relationship with his parents (they’re somewhat besotted with his fiance) he is unequivocal in his condemnation of the psychological trauma they exposed him to. “This is torture, this is murder, this is rape,” he states. “Almost every single person I know who went through that thought about, attempted, or was successful in going through with suicide. They were going to this counselling that was telling them that what they were feeling in their hearts, the love they embodied, was wrong. (That) the very basic instinct of human love was something you should bottle up. To tell a child that is torture. To force them to go through that until they are willing and able to attempt suicide; that is murder.”
On the advice of one of the Christian counsellors, Jerry’s father took him to Reno, Nevada, and paid for a hotel and female prostitute. There Jerry experienced one of the darkest elements of conversion therapy – corrective rape. “My father would stand outside the hotel room while I had sex with these ‘sexual healers’,” he recalls. “These devout Christians thought the most beautiful thing to do was to send their child to be raped by this sexual healer. It’s unreal. I don’t know the percentages of how many were underage at that time. I do know that, regardless, it is still rape.”
Jerry recently gave testimony of his ordeal to The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organisation hoping to co-sponsor a national ban on conversion therapy.
When Eliel Cruz underwent conversion therapy, he did so not to appease his parents, but to conciliate the faith community that had exiled him. At 15 he was dismissed by his Christian academy in Georgia when he came out as bisexual; the only way to regain entry was to prove to them he was straight. “It was the space I grew up in, the only space I knew; to get back in with my friends and make everything go back to normal would have required me to be straight,” says Eliel.
For a year he attended one-on-one sessions with Christian counsellors, where he was exposed to numerous pseudo-scientific theories about the source of his bisexuality. He was told of ‘generational sin’, the theological belief that his sexuality was a punishment for the demeanours committed by someone in his ancestral line. “What another therapist was trying to do was figure out what bad, horrible thing happened to me in my childhood to make me the way I was,” says Eliel. “I knew it wasn’t working. I just felt I had to say the right things and do the right things to get back enrolled.” The therapy was unsuccessful at both changing Eliel’s sexuality and convincing his college to re-enrol him. After considering other schools in the local area and suffering from severe depression, he and his mum settled for home-schooling.
“I never thought anything was wrong with my sexual orientation until I was told there was,” says Eliel, who is now 25 and living in New York. As the executive director of Faith In America, he now fights religious bigotry towards LGBT people. “It was not a good time for me, faith-wise. I was just really angry with God. I took what these Christian therapists were saying as God’s work, but when I realised that wasn’t the case, it made me have faith again.”
Growing up in a Southern Baptist Texan household, Bryan Christopher internalised the idea that homosexuality was inherently wrong. At 23, he found himself falling in love with another man and vowed to change. For over a decade, he tried everything. He joined evangelical groups at college, paid for conversion counselling, embedded himself in cult-like organisations such as the Promise Keepers, read books written by supposedly ex-gay men and explored the works of Exodus International. “That was the world I got caught up in, and I was very convinced I could change,” says Bryan. “By 29, I had still not experienced this profound transformation that was seemingly possible through all the books that I was reading. And that’s when I sought out Joe Dallas specifically.”
Joe Dallas is something of a poster boy for conversion therapy. The self-proclaimed “ordained pastoral counsellor” is one of the most prominent figures in the ex-gay community, and once served as the president of Exodus International. He’s penned numerous books – many styled as self-help guides – and was a regular speaker at the Love Won Out conference. Naturally, Dallas charges handsomely for his counsel, whether it’s a two-day intensive conference ($1,000) or 50-minute phone session ($225).
“In my first session with him I said, ‘Listen, I’ve been following your recipe and I haven’t experienced what you seemingly have experienced – what am I missing?’” recalls Bryan. “His whole theology and philosophy is that there were needs I had as a young child that were not met... I didn’t bond enough with my father or other peers my age, other boys – which wasn’t true.”
For a year. Bryan took every Tuesday morning off work, driving 90 minutes from his Hollywood office to see Dallas. The irony that he had to ask permission from his gay boss for time off was not lost on him. Bryan’s insurance wouldn’t cover the sessions, so he footed the $50-$75 bill himself. Eventually, Bryan became distressed at his lack of change – a now-familiar theme – and finally began to question whether conversion was actually possible.
“I just began to question his own change; when I would ask him point-blank, ‘Are you attracted to women?’ he would never answer the question, he would say ‘I love my wife,’” says Bryan. “It led me to a very scary place as I just began to realise that everything I had chased after was actually a lie.”
After spending a year with the man behind the curtain, Bryan’s decade-long hunt came to an end. He abandoned repression, the internalised guilt and disgust subsided; he embraced his true self. Bryan now lives in Hollywood with his long-term partner – his old boss – and has published a book, detailing his journey.
In the USA, conversion therapy is still practised every day; 74 per cent of LGBT minors live in a state where there are no laws protecting them from it. In their own way, Charles, Jerry, Eliel and Bryan have all escaped the psychological trauma of ex-gay therapy to fight against the widely discredited pseudo-sciences that poison the minds of LGBT people. As Charles puts it, they have survived torture, rape and murder. They are the lucky ones.