5 Things I Learned At A 'Pray Away The Gay' Camp
One in three LGBT kids will go through some form of "conversion therapy" in their lifetime. But not all of them get away with an unhealthy dose of sex-shaming and a handful of ignorant lectures; some of those kids will be locked in a room and literally tortured.We spoke to Sam Brinton, a spokesperson for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and veteran of conversion therapy, about what happened to him. If you own a particularly fluffy puppy, now would be a good time to call them over in preparation for emergency snuggles.
They Tell You The World Is Some Dystopian Science Fiction Story
When Sam was just 11, he developed a crush on his friend. "I had never had the sex talk," he says. "I did not know how people had sex, but I knew I had a crush on Dale. That's what I understood sexual orientation as: 'I find you attractive, and I want to be around you.' I'd been raised on Christian cartoons like VeggieTales and had no idea what I was doing."
Sam's family reacted to the first inklings of puberty by seeking medical help. As distasteful as it is, "your kid starting to become a teenager" is not cause for professional intervention. Sam was taken to "conversion therapy," which started with lies, and quickly devolved into torture.
"Within my first weeks in therapy, I was told every other gay person on Earth had been executed. ... By the end of the so-called 'treatments,' I believed the government was looking for me because the gays had brought AIDS to America and that I now had this disease raging through me."
Then they asked him what he calls "overbearing Mother, absent Father questions." That is, they assumed that because he was gay, it's because his controlling mother and deadbeat dad had confused and irreparably traumatized his genitals. Only Sam's mother wasn't particularly overbearing, and his father was actually pretty present. In fact, they couldn't find any trauma to blame Sam's homosexuality on at all.
So they decided to create some.
They Physically Torture You For Being Gay
Telling a young child that he has a terminal illness, that everyone like him has been executed, and that he's being hunted by the government Enemy of the State-style probably already qualifies as some form of psychological torture. But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking real, physical, Quentin Tarantino movie-caliber torture here.
"My hands were tied down and ice was placed on them while I was shown pictures of men. Later sessions would include copper heating coils, needles in my fingers, and electric shocks," all while Sam was shown gay porn.
Then they'd take the coils away and show ... men and women holding hands.
"I was never shown heterosexual sex, just heterosexual attraction," Sam says. "I was just supposed to associate the touch of a man with pain."
Obviously, despite the old saying, you can't "heating-coil the gay away." The torture didn't make Sam straighter; it just made him terrified of sex, intimacy, and general human closeness.
"By the end, even hugging my father brought back flashbacks," Sam said.
Sam isn't alone -- according to literally every scientific study, that's exactly what happens to people who go through this kind of thing. Sex and physical intimacy are positive things that human beings seek out because they feel good, and you can't trick the human brain into thinking something feels good by zapping it or burning it with hot copper coils. It only makes the feelings negative. It's like these "therapists" watched Clockwork Orange but flipped channels just before the bad shit went down, and therefore came away from the film thinking that Alex went on to be a well-balanced dairy farmer.
The Only Way To Survive Is By Lying, But It Has Consequences
Sam attempted suicide several times during his torture. "In one attempt, I climbed onto the roof of my apartment building and looked down. In that moment, I decided I would rather lie and tell everyone I had become straight than jump. It worked. For a while, the torture stopped and my life returned to some degree of 'normality.'"
The persona Sam adopted ended up being a person with no sexual urges whatsoever.
"It's easy to pretend you're straight when no one around you is anything else," he said. "I knew I was lying, but I believed I was alone. I wasn't actually feeling straight, but I had no concept of what sexuality was."
In fact, he got so used to repressing his true self that, even after he came out, he wasn't entirely sure how to be: When he got to college and first encountered the gay community, he immediately "came out in a ball of glitter." He embraced a sparkly, Freddy Mercury-stage-show-lifestyle because he saw a bunch of out-and-proud homosexuals and thought that was how it was done.
"I'm very flamboyant, and that's partly because of how I was introduced to the idea of other gay men existing. ... I found out what a gay person looked like, and realized that was how I was supposed to act."
There's A Reason Some Gays Are So "Flamboyant"
Go to a hardware store on the day of the gay pride parade and you might hear an old dude with a beer gut lament, "Why do them gays have to be so flamboyant?" The answer, according to Sam, is that it's necessary to provide an example.
"I tend to stick out," Sam says, describing his mannerisms and the giant mohawk he wears. "And that's OK. By being out, I am trying to make sure that the horrors of feeling alone won't be repeated in our next generation."
"I'm OK being a poster child and taking some attacks, because I don't want anyone to feel alone."
The vast majority of homosexuals are -- shocker -- just people. Jeans and T-shirts abound. But if you see somebody sporting an outlandish costume, it's not about making homosexuality look fun to help "turn kids gay" (if Sam's gayness could survive electroshock torture, then we're pretty sure another kid's straightness can survive a few parades and some sequin boas); it's about showing closeted gay kids that homosexuality isn't automatically a lifetime of misery. And, OK, yes, it's also a little bit about dressing up like something from the Sgt. Pepper's album cover.
Related: '30 Rock's Gay Bomb Was A Real Thing
Both Faith And Homosexuality Can Be Equally Intolerant
"Many of my fellow survivors did not survive after therapy. Many of them committed suicide because of the anger and hurt in their heart."
Remember that Sam lost his family and was informed that an immutable part of his being was evil at the same time -- that time, you'll recall, was when he was 11 years old. How he managed to survive is nothing short of incredible.
"I realized very quickly that my hurt should not be directed at my parents. The only way that I can say that my mother heard my screams in the other room and didn't run in is because she thought those screams were necessary to save my eternal soul. She was wrong, and she should not have done it, but she thought it was right. I have to respect that decision."
Though his mother's faith led her to do evil things, Sam doesn't hate Christianity, just like he doesn't hate his mother. In fact, he's still a Christian.
"I was raised as a Southern Baptist, so I will always view faith through a lens of Christianity. That does not mean that my Christianity has to have any negative impact on any other people. Faith should only have a positive impact on others. Some people are using Christianity as a blunt weapon to hurt people. That is wrong. Neither the absence of faith nor the presence of faith allows a person to treat another person without respect. I'm in the middle ground: From some faith communities, I'm attacked for being gay. From some gay communities, I'm attacked as being Christian."
Well, there you go! Finally some common ground between intolerant homosexuals and intolerant Christians: intolerance!
Hey, nobody said "common ground" was always a good place. Sometimes it's all swampy and your neighbors are a bunch of assholes.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Realities of Being Gay in a Country Where It's Illegal and 6 Shocking Realities of the Secret 'Troubled Teen Industry'.
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