Growing up, many LGBTQ+ youth are not in spaces where they are accepted as who they are. Often, they grow up hearing that being gay is a damnable sin, that it’s an abomination, and there’s something wrong with you if that’s who you are. Even now, nearly 50 years after psychiatrists declassified homosexuality from the DSM as a mental illness and seven years after Minnesota legalized same sex marriage, people struggle with reconciling their innate sexual identity from what they’ve been told is socially and morally wrong for years.
Embedded in this culture and ideology is a practice known by many names: conversion therapy, ex-gay therapy, sexual orientation change efforts, and reparative therapy. It involves efforts made by both licensed psychologists and religious leaders to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and it has been widely denounced by major medical organizations, including the American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. And although certain people believe in “praying the gay away,” not all denominations of faiths believe it’s wrong. Several religious bodies in Minnesota have signed resolutions against conversion therapy.
Despite all this, it’s actually quite prevalent in the Twin Cities, says Cat Salonek, the organizing and policy director at OutFront Minnesota.
“We don’t want to see Minnesota be a safe haven for bad medical practices,” she says.
To prevent conversion therapy from being practiced in a professional setting, the Minneapolis City Council passed a ban that took effect November 30, making it illegal for licensed professionals to practice conversion therapy on minors. And if found to be violating the ban, it would result in a fine of $500 for the first offense and $1000 for additional instances.
In June, a national conversion therapy conference was held in the metro, and various organizations and clinics around the state still practice “reparative therapy.” In the past, Marcus Bachmann, husband of former Rep. Michele Bachmann, was exposed nationally for offering conversion therapy at his clinic during his wife’s presidential campaign.
In fact, activists are trying to reframe the phrase “conversion therapy” to “conversion abuse” to reflect the trauma and suffering that the practice can cause. Many people who attempt conversion therapy don’t realize the damage it can do before they experience it. Out of the LGBTQ+ youth who have undergone conversion therapy, 42 percent have attempted suicide, compared to 17 percent for those who have not, according to the Trevor Project’s 2019 national survey on LGBTQ+ mental health.
“It’s important to recognize that families and parents that encouraged their sons, or daughters, or children to go to a conversion therapist were doing it because they loved their kids. They were doing it because they genuinely wanted the best for their child,” Salonek says. “And for the young people who maybe were tricked into believing that conversion therapy helped them, they were doing what they thought would be the best for themselves. They didn’t know what the risks were. No one told them that conversion therapy is harmful.”
There is no evidence of conversion therapy actually being ‘successful’ in changing a person’s identity, according to the APA and Dr. Margaret Charmoli, a former president of the Minnesota Psychological Association.
“There’s insufficient evidence to support the use of conversion therapy, and not only that, but that it leads to harmful effects in many cases, and those harmful effects are depression, anxiety, engagement in high risk behavior, suicidal thoughts, feelings, and attempts, increased self-hatred, negative perceptions about same-sex attractions,” Charmoli says. “So, there’s just a lot of bad things that come out it.”
In the Cities
Right now, conversion therapy has been banned in 19 states, and has been signed into law with bipartisan support, most recently in Utah, where the Church of Latter-Day Saints also approved the measure.
“We know that we can’t stop people from doing shady things in the dark corners of their basements, right? But we can say that you can’t do this in the light. You can’t go and do conversion therapy as a legitimate medical practice,” Salonek says. “And as we see more and more conversion therapy bans pass around the country – those providers who are doing the shady business are going to come Minnesota, are going to come to these islands where it’s still allowed, and they’re going to do their conversion therapy here.”
Over the summer, the Minnesota state legislature attempted to pass a conversion therapy ban, and while it was approved in the House, it did not make it through the Senate. But the effect of the Minneapolis ban is already being felt through municipalities around the state, with cities reaching out to OutFront to get their own conversion therapy ban, according to Salonek. Following in Minneapolis’ path, Duluth just passed a ban, and the cities of St. Paul, St. Louis Park, and Golden Valley are also actively working on similar legislation.
“This way we’re just getting more community education out... Our hope in the long term is that the Minneapolis conversion therapy ban helps inspire Minnesota legislature to pass a conversion therapy ban to protect LGBTQ youth in every corner of our state.”
To help advance legislation in Minnesota, those who have been victims of conversion therapy are speaking up and sharing their experiences. Survivors Roger Sanchez and Jack Richter have been instrumental in educating the public through their stories.
Sanchez, who grew up within the Church of Latter-Day Saints, still experiences nightmares and the negative effects of conversion therapy. He’s had to attend medically-approved therapy to help with the trauma.
“It’s mental torture, for some, physical. It completely hinders a person’s capacity to love, capacity to trust, capacity to develop, and it definitely leads to substance abuse for some,” he says.
When he was a teenager, he told his church bishop that he was struggling with his sexual orientation.
“Growing up, I was taught that homosexuality is wrong, and it’s not a good thing,” Sanchez says. “It wasn’t really talked about. So when, I was gay, back then I didn’t really have the words for it. I didn’t really have the vernacular.”
The bishop and Sanchez’s father then recommended conversion therapy, in which the therapist tried to rewire Sanchez’s thoughts, desires, and personality.
“He had activities for me to do, like this week try to be more masculine, try to play a sport, try to connect more with men—straight men,” he says. “For me it was very depressing—I did contemplate suicide a few times.”
He went on his Mormon mission to make his parents happy, at the same time he underwent conversion therapy.
“Honestly, based on what my religion taught me, I really thought there was something wrong with me. I thought I needed to change. I feel like if you are for conversion therapy because of your religion, then there’s something wrong there,” Sanchez says.
Eventually Sanchez quit conversion therapy and got true help from a different therapist to deal with the damage. Now he’s with a supportive partner as he continues to struggle with the lingering effects of the abuse.
“Conversion therapy was designed to erase a group of people and to invalidate their existence. And we are here, and we’re not going anywhere, and we’re making our stance,” Sanchez says. “It’s just a business trying to erase a group of people in a system that wasn’t meant for them. It’s just a business preying on innocent parents who don’t know any better and on poor children who are just trying to survive and make their parents happy.”
For Jack Richter, conversion therapy touched practically every aspect of his life. He experienced depression and suicidal ideations, his dream career became sidelined, rifts were created in relationships with his family, and his close friends who went through the therapy committed suicide.
“The horrid thing about that is each night when you go to sleep, and you have the inevitable sexual dreams that come up… I would wake up screaming in the middle of the night,” Richter says of when he was heavily involved in conversion therapy programs.
When Richter came out, his stepsister showed him a Bible with highlighted passages and told him he would go to hell if he didn’t become straight.
“She told me that I was deviant,” Richter says. “My whole world crashed around me. She told me that I would never see my mom again, because I would go to hell. And I would never see my mom again in heaven. And my mom is the most important person in my life.”
She then presented him with a solution: conversion therapy. She had the literature all prepared. Richter agreed to it, and went on to spend 12 years of his life with the mission of becoming straight.
“The ex-gay movement told me, and this was at the age of 22, that I was gay because my brother molested me. At 22, you just can’t wrap your head around that,” Richter says. “Being molested as a kid, you’re already dealing with so much shame. And the ex-gay movement tells me that’s why, and I am very surprised I didn’t suicide. I mean, I came close, but I fought that, partly because of the huge teaching in the Catholic church that if you suicide that’s a total mortal sin, and you’ll go immediately to hell. So, it’s a horrible, horrible place to be, because you’re literally damned to hell if you suicide, but yet you’re still damned to hell if you act on your sexual orientation.”
He now finds healing in atheism, speaking his truth, and in educating people about the reality of conversion therapy.
“Healing is a daily process for me... I believe in what I can see, hear, feel, taste, and touch, and nothing beyond that.”
In the Church
Many religious leaders in the Twin Cities recognize the damage conversion therapy can do not only to a person’s mental health but their faith. And these pastors and religious bodies have spoken out against the practice.
At Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Reverend Javen Swanson helps people heal after experiencing conversion therapy by reconciling their faith with their LGBTQ+ identity.
“I think conversion therapy organizations are almost always so-called Christian ministries that are built on harmful and objectionable theology. I think conversion therapy organizations inflict spiritual violence on people,” Swanson says. “At best, I think conversion therapy destroys peoples’ faith as they are told God hates them the way they’ve been created. And at worst, I think conversion therapy leads to increased impotence of depression and suicide.”
While he sees the impact of the city bans on conversion therapy, he thinks they’re limited and hopes to see a statewide ban.
“People don’t think of me as their gay pastor, they think of me as one of their pastors. And, ultimately that’s the type of world I want all of us to be able to live in. Where we’re accepted as we are, that’s not a defining aspect of our identity, but one aspect of our identity,” Swanson says. “And I think that’s the kind of world we’re all working for.”
While Swanson’s congregation advocates for LGBTQ+ equality, he recognizes this is a bit uncommon, and people working in ministry identifying as queer still face discrimination. One such person, Reverend Jia Starr Brown just realized she was queer in April but found herself working in a denomination that does not support queer members of the clergy.
“I was terrified about not only coming to this realization about myself, but also about sharing it with my congregation and with the community, because I did not know if I would be embraced or if I would be accepted,” Brown said. “I’m also a mother of five. And I made a decision that I was going to be transparent and be open about my identity.”
She sees the church and religious leaders having a responsibility to take a stance on not just conversion therapy, but on all discrimination.
“I’m hoping that the ban will not just communicate that it’s unlawful to adults, but that it will also send a message to our young people that they are enough as they are,” she says, but also adds that it’s just the beginning. “It’s a huge step to ban that and make it unlawful. But I think that an action has to come with that so that people can understand the reason why it’s banned and get to the root cause of the reasons why some people even have the impression that conversion therapy is needed in the first place.”
Additional religious leaders are working locally on countering the damage done by conversion therapy.
“My job is to reinforce a very simple message that you are loved no matter what,” says Reverend DeWayne Davis, a gay senior pastor with All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church. “Some survivors from conversion therapy are thriving. They are full of love and even though they struggle sometimes, they are full of love, they are in loving relationships and they are thriving now.”
And when people come to him with their stories, he listens and helps redirect the damaging messages they’ve heard. Reverend Dan Adolphson also offers a shoulder to cry on.
“You listen. You give them space to tell their story. Sometimes you have a lot of Kleenex. Because for some people, they’ve been able to reconcile with their families, others have not,” Adolphson says. “You try to connect them with a therapist or mental health professional for help.”
Ask the Mental Health Experts
Mental health professionals who are LGBTQ+ friendly will not use unfounded practices like conversion therapy. Margaret Charmoli, a licensed counseling psychologist, former president of the Minnesota Psychological Association, and a former member of the APA’s Council of Representatives, has advocated against conversion therapy in testimony, and has treated people who’ve experienced it.
“The biggest problem with conversion therapy is that it’s based on the premises that there’s something wrong with an individual being gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender, and therefore it needs to be fixed. So, people come into therapy believing that something’s wrong with them, and those attempts to do conversion therapy to correct that, so to speak, have created more harm with a sense of feeling shame, sometimes estrangement from family, depression, suicidal—all the things,” Charmoli says.
She adds that it’s a discriminatory practice, as it does not target heterosexual or cisgender people, but instead a marginalized population.
“The sexual orientation in of itself is not a problem. The problem is being marginalized in our culture. And there is a robust finding in the psychological literature called minority stress,” she says. “The problem is not with the person. The problem is with a society that marginalizes people and the minority stress that it creates for people.”
Additional stress is created when people lose the love and connection that they need as human beings.
“To be separated from love is one of the most painful things I’ve ever encountered as a psychologist,” Charmoli says, whether that be one’s parents, partner, or god.
To help people deal with the minority stress she teaches different coping mechanisms for being able to live a happy, healthy life.
“If you’re looking at evidence-based practice for psychology, the approaches that seem to be the most effective and the most helpful are affirmative, multicultural approaches that help people understand stress, develop positive coping skills, nurture resilience, seek social support, and get accurate information.”
Beyond experiencing medically-approved therapy, it’s also essential for people to see their own government protecting them from harm. And conversion therapy certainly causes a great deal of harm.
A statewide ban on conversion therapy would not only further discredit the abusive practice, but it would also reaffirm that LGBTQ+ identities are valid and protected by the government.
“Passing an LGBTQ conversion therapy ban statewide is going to take our lawmakers being willing to step out of partisan divides in order to put the health and wellbeing of young people first,” Salonek says. “I think it will take Minnesotans and people from across our state coming forward to tell their stories about their values and why they think this should be banned.”
- Kait Ecker