The Human Element: Making Conversion Therapy in the U.S. an International Human Rights Issue

Sam Ames and Sam BrintonBy Sam Ames#BornPerfect Campaign Coordinator & Staff Attorney

There we were. Around the illustrious circular United Nations briefing tables at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, among the 70 human rights advocates from across the United States, the largest delegation in the history of the U.N.’s Committee Against Torture (CAT).

Together, as leaders of the National Center for Lesbian Right’s (NCLR) #BornPerfect campaign, Samuel Brinton and I had spent a sleepless few days working around the clock to make Committee members aware of the dangers of convention therapy, especially for LGBT youth.

What happened this morning, we could have never imagined.

The moment the words “conversion therapy” left Rapporteur Jens Modvig’s lips, gasps filled the room. We had done it. Modvig, the CAT member from Denmark, asked the delegation from the U.S. State Department how conversion therapy could still be going on in the United States in 2014. Sam, a conversion therapy survivor, who had courageously testified through tears yesterday, grabbed my hand and squeezed so hard I thought it might break. We had done what we came here to do: For the first time, a United Nations committee had addressed conversion therapy as an international human rights issue. It was unbelievable.

But, before the shock could wear off, we heard the words again, this time from CAT Rapporteur Satyabhoosun Gupt Domah of Mauritius. Then, incredible, a third time, from Committee member Sapana Pradhan Malla of Nepal. For the first three times in the history of the United Nations, the Committee Against Torture was questioning a country on conversion therapy.

There was no going back. We had already won.

Today was a red letter day for underdogs. The CAT went in depth into many of the larger issues, like indefinite detention and the death penalty, but they also brought up a select few less likely ones, including the abuse suffered by transgender women in detention, racially targeted police violence in Chicago, and conversion therapy.

As representatives of NCLR, we didn’t do it alone. We have been in extraordinary company this week, and our fellow advocates here to testify on other important issues here couldn’t be more behind us. Yesterday, they lent me their strength as I testified before the U.S. State Department to ensure the voices of the survivors back in the United States were heard.

I testified that as many as one in three LGBT people have been subjected to some form of conversion therapy and that the American Psychological Association has linked it to depression, substance abuse, and suicide. I also told them that federal funds and juvenile justice systems are just two of the ways the government is implicated in its continued foothold in the United States. I’m confident that what I told them changed more than a few minds. But what Sam told them changed more than a few hearts.

Sam tearfully testified about the licensed psychotherapist who tied his arms down, wrapped his hands in hot copper coils, and stuck needles in his fingers to channel electric shocks whenever he was shown a picture of men kissing. The conversion therapy stories we shared brought tears to the eyes of U.N. and State Department officials.

Sam also shared his unbelievable strength with other survivors directly impacted by the issues before the committee, including Stephanie Schroeder, a survivor of military sexual assault Murat Kunaz, an exonerated prisoner held at Guantanamo Bay, and Martinez Sutton, Asha Rosa, and the parents of Michael Brown, whose families were devastated by police violence.

This week has been historic in ways we haven’t begun to realize. We did what we came to Geneva to do. But we couldn’t have done it without our fellow human rights activists. This week, we broke bread and shared stories with some of the most committed, inspiring activists in the United States. Their issues have also become ours issues, and they’ve made our issues theirs. Today, intersectionality took on a whole new meaning. It isn’t just about dimensions of oppression. It’s about dimensions of humanity. From Phoenix to Ferguson to Guantanamo Bay, we know none of us succeed unless we all do.

SAM AMES is an attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, where they oversee the #BornPerfect campaign to end conversion therapy. Follow NCLR’s journey to Geneva by following the hashtags #BornPerfect and #EndTorture, on NCLRights.org, and on Twitter @NCLRights@SamSAmesEsq, and @SBrinton. And feel free to share your own experiences with therapy using #BornPerfect.

NCLR Urges U.N. Committee Against Torture to End Conversion Therapy

By Sam Ames#BornPerfect Campaign Coordinator & Staff Attorney

This Tuesday, I will walk into the historic Palais de Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to meet with representatives of the United Nations and the U.S. Department of State as part of the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ #BornPerfect campaign to protect LGBT youth from conversion therapy, the dangerous and discredited practice of attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity through everything from talk therapy to exorcism to “orgasmic reconditioning.”

Under the Convention Against Torture, the United Nations has the power to address the practice of “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” including forcible or coercive treatment based on the false premise that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is a mental illness that can and should be cured. Shockingly, while two states have enacted laws that protect youth against this harmful practice, some unethical therapists continue to practice conversion therapy on children in 48 states. The result, especially for vulnerable youth, is lifelong damage that can include depression, substance abuse, and even suicide.

I’ll be joined in Geneva by human rights advocates from across the country, including Samuel Brinton, a survivor of these practices who travels the world advocating for the rights of LGBT youth. Sam is one of thousands of survivors who know the consequences of conversion therapy all too well. Sam, like many others, was told by a licensed therapist that being gay meant being alone forever. Over the course of therapy, Sam was subjected to lies and manipulation, physical restraints, extreme temperatures, needles, and even electric shocks.

According to a 2009 report by the American Psychological Association, other techniques used to associate being LGBT with pain include inducing nausea, vomiting, or paralysis while showing the patient homoerotic images; having the individual snap an elastic band around the wrist when aroused by same-sex erotic images or thoughts; using shame to create aversion to same-sex attractions; and satiation therapy. While many therapists have abandoned such crude techniques in recent years, they are far from gone, and it is still common to attempt to bribe or discipline children out of gender non-conforming behaviors, have patients snap a rubber band around their wrist whenever they have a sexual impulse, or pressure youth to attribute their identity to repressed sexual abuse.

Part of what makes conversion therapy so dangerous is that the same people arguing that being LGBT is a disease are the ones selling the cure. But they aren’t just selling snake oil; they’re selling poison. The conversion therapy industry preys on the confusion and anxiety of well-meaning parents, distilling genuine concern for their family’s well-being into fear that their children are sick. But, with study after study demonstrating how ineffective and harmful these practices are, it’s clear that proponents are not motivated by concern for their patients’ well-being, but by financial gain and anti-LGBT ideology.

Many of the groups who perpetuate the myth that LGBT people can and should be changed here in the United States also advocate for more extreme policies abroad. In countries like Uganda, home of the infamous ‘Kill the Gays’ bill, these myths are being used to persecute and murder LGBT people. Though the conversion therapy industry has undertaken efforts in recent years to make their practices more palatable, especially in the United States, there is a direct connection between the dangerous premises of conversion therapy and a resurgence of global efforts to demonize LGBT people, criminalize their very existence and incite both private and government-sponsored violence against them.

Next week, as representatives of the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ #BornPerfect campaign, we will bring the facts about conversion therapy to the Geneva and urge the UN Committee Against Torture and the U.S. State Department to help us bring this issue to the international stage. The time is long overdue for the United States and the rest of the world to address the devastation that the purveyors of these toxic practices wreak in lives of LGBT people. Next week, we’ll give them the chance to end conversion therapy for good.

You can follow us in Geneva by following the hashtags #BornPerfect and #EndTorture, on our website at www.NCLRights.org, and on Twitter @nclrights@SamSAmesEsq, and @SBrinton. You can also share your own stories using these hashtags.