Conversion therapy is "torture": LGBT survivors are fighting to ban "pray the gay away" camps

There has been local progress making conversion therapy illegal, but now there's an effort to make the ban national

Published March 21, 2017 10:59PM (EDT)

 (<a href=''>PChampion studio</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(PChampion studio via Shutterstock)

Samuel Brinton was told he was the “only gay person left in the world."

Brinton, now 29, was raised as a Southern Baptist missionary, growing up in Africa and the Amazon jungle. After returning to the United States, Sam wasn’t having the “urges” that other young boys his age had. It quickly became clear that Brinton was indeed having those feelings; they were just directed toward a male friend. Sam’s father attempted to “scare the gay away” through physical abuse, but when that didn’t work, his parents allegedly sent the 10-year-old youngster to conversion therapy in their home state of Kansas. Brinton describes it as having been “mental torture.”

It’s difficult for Sam to remember what the office looks like. Brinton, who is still suffering from the trauma of what he experienced, recalls a stack of King James Bibles on a table and a waiting area, just like any other therapist’s office.

But what took place there has been impossible to wipe from Sam’s memory. The conversion therapist allegedly told Brinton that the government “had come and killed off” all gay people because they “brought AIDS into America.” Sam claims that the therapist also said that homosexuals are an “abomination” in God’s eyes. When that didn’t cure Brinton of his same-sex longings, Sam says that the therapist attempted “physical aversion therapy,” burning or freezing the child’s hands when pictures of men touching other men were displayed. Brinton compared it to the Pavlov’s dog experiment, training a physical response.

When applying hot and cold didn’t work either, they moved onto electroshock therapy.

“I cannot understand how a mother hears her child screaming in the other room and doesn’t run in to stop it, but I know my mother was trying to save me,” Brinton explained. “She truly believed that what she was doing was going to save my mortal soul, and that was what mattered.”

These treatments — which lasted for two years — didn’t cure Brinton’s urges, but they did have harmful, long-lasting effects. The pain Sam experienced made Brinton “terrified” to be physically affectionate with men, even something as small as exchanging a friendly hug. Over 15 years later, Sam is still “constantly in need of mental health support,” often experiencing thoughts of suicide. This is extremely common. Statistics from the American Psychological Association show that survivors of conversion therapy are 8.9 times more likely than their peers to consider taking their own lives.

In addition to opposition from the APA, this high rate of trauma among survivors is why organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, and American Psychiatric Association have denounced the practice for years. The groups put out a report in 2008 calling for an end to conversion therapy. “Homosexuality is not a mental disorder,” their findings stated, “and thus is not something that needs to or can be ‘cured.’”

The rest of the country, though, is still catching up with science on the issue. While only five states, as well as Washington D.C., have formally banned conversion therapy, Brinton is spearheading an effort to end the discredited practice. Called “50 Bills 50 States,” Brinton’s goal is to introduce legislation to outlaw conversion therapy in every single state this year. Just two and a half months into 2017, the effort is off to a smashing start: Bills have already been introduced in more than 20 states, and New Mexico’s anti-conversion therapy legislation has passed its House and Senate, awaiting the governor’s approval.

“I never want to repeat the experiences I’ve been through,” Brinton said. “And I never want any other child to have to go through them.”

Conversion therapy, the practice of seeking to redirect same-sex attractions to heterosexual partners, traces all the way back to the work of Sigmund Freud — who treated his daughter Anna’s lesbianism through therapy. Although Freud once wrote that homosexuality was “nothing to be ashamed of,” he also argued that it stemmed from a “certain arrest of sexual development.” Joseph Nicolosi, the recently deceased father of conversion therapy, felt that sexual desire for a member of one’s same gender stemmed from childhood trauma, such as abuse or divorce.

Brinton said that conversion therapy clinics sprung up as a result of the APA’s decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. Love in Action, which was founded the same year, operates what the New York Times once referred to as “boot camps” around the country. Exodus International, the now defunct ex-gay network, popped up three years later. Nicolosi’s own National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) was founded a bit later — in 1992.

Many falsely believe that these centers shut down decades ago, but Brinton said there are “hundreds” across the U.S., and they are extremely hard to track. As a recent “20/20” exposé highlighted, many conversion programs operate underground, away from the public eye.

“For every center that advertises conversion therapy, there must be many, many others who do not,” he said.

Although Nicolosi has claimed a 33 percent success rate from his patients, few survivors of conversion therapy were “changed” as a result of their sessions. Many allege that these centers took advantage of parents that want to do the best thing for their children — but might not know what that is. Instead survivors claim that these sessions do irreparable damage to their families and their lives.

When Mathew Shurka, who grew up in Great Neck, New York, came out to his parents at the age of 16, his father claimed that he would love his son and support him no matter what. But he says his father quickly began to “panic.” He feared that Matthew would be bullied in school, and that being gay would affect his ability to get a job, have a family, or lead a normal life. His father found a conversion therapist in Manhattan who claimed that there’s no such thing as homosexuality and that what his son was experiencing could be cured. Shurka would remain in treatment for five years, which he claims were the “worst” time in his life.

“What drove me throughout the conversion therapy was the fear,” the 28-year-old said. What happens if I don’t make it? What happens if I fail? I did everything I possibly could to become straight.”

As a part of the therapy, Shurka claims he was cut off from his mother and sister. They were viewed as “feminizing” influences. He wasn’t allowed to talk or to interact with them for three years. Instead Shurka was advised to spend as much time as he could with other men, whether it was his father or the boys at school. If he were to become aroused, Shurka’s therapist told him to excuse himself to go masturbate in the bathroom — in order to keep from holding onto those thoughts.

“There wasn’t a moment when my actual attraction went away,” Shurka said. “If anything it was the opposite: It was only getting stronger.”

On the surface at least, it appeared to be working. Shurka became popular with the other guys at school and desired among his female classmates (because he wasn’t allowed to give them any attention). He claims his therapist prescribed him Viagra — at 18 years old — when he began to have intercourse with members of the opposite sex. The pills allowed him to perform in the bedroom. But he was miserable. Shurka says he gained weight, stopped leaving his house, and began taking drugs to numb the pain he was experiencing. Like Brinton — as well as so many other survivors — he considered suicide.

“It’s training for having a double life,” he said.

Although there’s no core set of principles practiced by every conversion therapist, what Shurka went through is very common. In order to create a narrative around childhood trauma, many counselors effectively blame the parents of LGBT youth for “making them gay.” Michael Ferguson, a 35-year-old survivor who lives in Ithaca, New York, said that his conversion experience was “focused on cultivating anger and rage toward my parents,” which he said doesn’t foster healthy relationships with your family after therapy ends.

“The only way to break out of those unhealthy attachments from my parents was to rage against them — to be so angry about what they did wrong that I would break the bonds and attachments I had from my parents,” Ferguson said. “I could then be liberated and realize the heterosexual nature my parents had been suppressing.”

As a result of these shattered bonds, many survivors have few support networks after leaving therapy — aside from a handful of groups around the United States. (Born Perfect, a project of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, is one option available to survivors.)

But advocates hope that the recent legislative push to end conversion therapy may spark a long overdue national conversation, helping survivors get the resources they need. Although New Mexico’s bill has been the most successful so far, several states have made significant progress in banning the practice. An anti-conversion therapy bill has been passed by the State Senate in New Hampshire, and the Colorado House has given its thumbs up to similar legislation for the third consecutive year, although the bill died in the Senate on previous attempts.

Meanwhile, Tampa’s city council voted last week to ban licensed professionals from offering conversion therapy. The ordinance, which passed unanimously, fines mental health centers $1,000 on the first offense and $5,000 on each additional instance that they are caught continuing to practice “pray the gay away” methods. There’s a caveat, though: The council decision leaves open an exemption for members of the clergy.

Passing further legislation is important because many survivors of conversion therapy are unable to advocate on their own. Ferguson was one of the plaintiffs in Ferguson v. JONAH, a successful lawsuit against Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. As a result of the 2015 suit, the New Jersey-based center shut down. Ferguson said, however, that this victory was the result of a “taxing” three-year process, one in which every facet of your private life (including emails and text messages) is made public. Many survivors, who simply want to walk away and move on, may be unwilling to subject themselves to that.

“Most people don’t want to relive over and over again the traumatizing experiences that they’ve gone through,” Ferguson said.

Shurka, though, believes that the legislative push is only the beginning. As part of his advocacy work, he contacts conversion therapists who are still practicing in order to dialogue with them. After a video went viral of Shurka detailing the horror of “ex-gay” programs, he reached out to his former therapist to discuss what happened to him. The two conducted a side-by-side interview about what the experience was like for both of them. Shurka has since reconciled with his former counselor, who has given up practicing conversion therapy.

“Yes, the laws need to be there, but we need to get the word out to people who think differently from us,” Shurka said.

Unfortunately, Brinton doesn’t expect that conversion therapy will “go away anytime soon.” Although Exodus International shut down four years ago, that organization would be rebuilt as Restored Hope Network, which holds an annual conference to promote conversion therapy. Love in Action doesn’t exist anyone, but that’s because it rebranded itself as Restoration Path. JONAH may have been forced out of New Jersey, but Ferguson claimed his therapist relocated to practice in another state.

But Brinton hopes that his legislation will help parents make informed decisions, rather than relying on the false hope he claims conversion clinics peddle.

“If you’re a mother or a father and you see that your state is debating whether this practice should even be legal,” he said, “maybe you shouldn’t be putting your child through conversion therapy.”

By Nico Lang