Survivor Tells U.N. Committee Against Torture: “A Therapist Told Me I Was Sick”

I never imagined I would be in Geneva, Switzerland, but last week there I was. I was no tourist, I was there to testify before the U.N. Committee Against Torture. To say this was surreal would be a vast understatement.

In the two minutes that I was given to address the U.N.’s Committee Against Torture, I fought back tears as I described how a psychotherapist, at the request of my parents, tried to change my sexual orientation through conversion therapy when I was 10 years old.

You can help NCLR’s #BornPerfect protect LGBT kids with your donation. Will you support us in our fight to end this dangerous and discredited practice?

I told the Committee how the therapist said I was sick, that God hated me, and that the government was exterminating all LGBT people. My voice shook as I detailed the physical abuse I endured in an effort to make me straight, including being restrained and physically hurt.

But last week, as part of NCLR’s #BornPerfect campaign delegation, I was finally vindicated. Our testimony resulted in the Committee addressing the issue of conversion therapy with the U.S. State Department for the first time in history. We brought international awareness to conversion therapy, a dangerous and discredited practice that is still wreaking havoc in the lives of youth across the country.

As co-chair of the #BornPerfect Advisory Committee, I hope that my testimony will save other children across the U.S. and around the world. No one should ever be told that they need to change who they are. WE ARE ALL BORN PERFECT.

Will you help us in our fight to end this practice in the next five years by donating today?

Onward,

Samuel Brinton
#BornPerfect Advisory Committee Co-Chair

Our Goal—End Conversion Therapy in Five Years

By Kate Kendell, Esq.

No child should ever be hurt because of who they are. That’s why we started the #BornPerfect campaign to end conversion therapy across the country over the next five years.

We need your financial support to make it happen.

All attempts to change their sexual orientation or gender identity through conversion therapy damage LGBT youth, causing depression, substance abuse, and even suicide. Conversion therapy has been condemned by every major medical and mental health organization in the country. But unethical therapists still continue to subject LGBT youth to this abusive practice.

Your donation of $10, $25, or $50 will support the work in progress right now to end conversion therapy. Will you join us in this fight? We are:

  • Testifying to urge the United Nations Committee Against Torture to take steps to end conversion therapy in the U.S.
  • Working with legislators and leaders in more than a dozen states to draft and pass laws to protect LGBT youth, similar to California and New Jersey where we helped draft, pass, and defend laws banning conversion therapy.
  • Fighting in courtrooms to defend conversion therapy bans.
  • Representing LGBT survivors abused by religious authorities, including recently a young man in Mississippi who suffered horrific abuse in a religious school.

We believe that every LGBT child is born perfect and that any young person’s identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender should be honored, celebrated, and supported. We are committed to a future where youth are free from this abusive practice, but we cannot realize that vision without you.

Will you donate today?

Onward,

Kate Kendell, Esq.
NCLR Executive Director

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.

Coming Out Against Conversion Therapy

By Sam Ames#BornPerfect Campaign Coordinator & Staff Attorney

Today, on National Coming Out Day, countless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people around the world will find the courage,  through one another, to tell the world who they really are. But this day is more than a just a celebration of the freedom to be ourselves.  It commemorates the 1987 National March on Washington, a grass roots protest against the Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick upholding criminal sodomy laws, and the Reagan administration’s refusal to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic. At a time when our nation’s leaders were trying to stigmatize us out of existence, silence wasn’t just death. Speaking was survival.

Today, much of the landscape is markedly different. In the United States, we celebrated two major marriage equality victories this week alone, and, in more and more communities, coming out is becoming an accepted rite of passage for LGBTQ adolescents. Sadly, however, the privilege of authenticity is neither secure nor universal. Only 16 years ago tomorrow, Matthew Shepard was murdered for being openly gay. For many queer youth, the risk of violence and the struggle to survive are still daily realities.  This National Coming Out Day, thousands of kids will come out only to face an impossible choice: try their luck on the streets or change the unchangeable.

As far as equal rights have come in the last few years, up to a third of LGBTQ people are still subjected to conversion therapy, among the most damaging forms of psychological abuse a person can endure. Conversion therapy is a range of dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Based on the false premise that being LGBTQ is a mental illness that can and should be cured, it can include everything from talk therapy to exorcisms to “orgasmic reconditioning.” Shockingly, it is still legal for licensed therapists to practice conversion therapy on children in 48 states. The result is lifelong damage that can include depression, substance abuse, and even suicide.

The conversion therapy industry preys on the confusion and anxiety of families who don’t know what to do when they discover that their child is LGBTQ. With few exceptions, parents don’t subject their children to conversion therapy out of hate or malice. Tragically, they are almost always motivated by love and concern for their children’s well-being and have no idea what they are risking. When Jane Shurka’s son, Mathew, came out, she and her husband worried that his future would be bleak. A conversion therapist told them he could turn Mathew straight in six weeks. Over the next five years, she watched in agony as her bright young child fall apart. He struggled with anxiety, his grades suffered, and he became seriously depressed. It took five years of turmoil before Mathew was able to embrace his true self. Earlier this year, Jane and Mathew testified together before members of the New York Senate in support of a bill that would protect youth under 18 from conversion therapy. That a licensed professional convinced her to try and change her son, she told legislators, was a tragedy not just for him, but for their whole family. But, like so many brave conversion therapy survivors, Mathew didn’t just survive. He went on to dedicate his life to making sure no one else has to go through what he did.

NCLR is working with legislators and LGBTQ leaders in New York and more than a dozen other states to bring similar protections to young people across the country. We’ve already succeeded in California and Jersey. Although most of these bills are still in the early stages of the legislative process, there is reason for optimism. When anti-conversion therapy laws come up for a vote, they receive broad bipartisan support from lawmakers and enjoy overwhelming backing from mental health practitioners, faith leaders, youth advocates, reproductive justice groups, and civil rights organizations. Protecting our kids from quack medicine is simply not a controversial issue.

Although regulating licensed therapists is an important way to protect LGBTQ youth, not all conversion therapy takes place in a doctor’s office. Some fringe religious leaders still engage in the unregulated practice of conversion therapy in schools and houses of worship. When Jeff White came out at fourteen, his parents sent him to a religious school that promised it could change his sexual orientation. For three years, he endured weekly counseling sessions at the hands of a teacher who routinely raped and sexually assaulted him to convince him that being gay was more painful than suppressing his sexual orientation. He kept his experience hidden from those closest to him, afraid that speaking out would place him and his family in danger. This August, NCLR helped him report the abuse he endured, and, fifteen years later, a formal investigation has finally been launched. Like Mathew, Jeff didn’t just survive either; he went on to found the Mississippi Gulf Coast Rainbow Center, where he serves kids all over the state struggling with intolerance.

In June, NCLR launched #BornPerfect, a campaign to end conversion therapy in five years by passing laws across the country like the one Jane and Mathew advocated for in New York, fighting in courtrooms to ensure the safety of kids like Jeff, and helping other survivors speak out about the devastating effects of these practices. By National Coming Out Day 2015, the state of conversion therapy in the United States could look very different.

But today, we recommit to fighting for those who cannot come out without placing themselves in serious danger at the hands of those who would rather change them than love them for who they are. We recognize the sacrifices many of our youth have made over the years, from Matthew Shepard to Mathew Shurka. We celebrate those who find their way out of the closet and honor those who must protect themselves by staying inside. And, most of all, we celebrate our community’s history of survival, whether by breaking the silence or by braving it.

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post on October 10, 2014.