Conversion therapy is ‘abuse’ and ‘brainwashing,’ say its LGBTQ survivors
The Daily Beast
December 2, 2020
After the 11th Circuit delivered a pro-conversion therapy ruling, survivors of the practice reveal what they endured and how they recovered in this second of our special series.
Warning: some readers may find descriptions of the experiences and alleged therapeutic practices disturbing.
On Nov. 20, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down bans on juvenile gay conversion therapy in South Florida. The majority votes in the 2-1 decision came from two Trump-appointed judges, who argued that the therapists’ practicing this mode of therapy—resoundingly condemned by every professional body in the field—were having their freedom of speech violated by being banned from practicing.
LGBTQ campaigners do not know if the ruling will have a practical effect. It is presently an outlier and for activists an alarming example of Trump’s efficient packing of lower and higher courts with conservative judges, including the Supreme Court with its current 6-3 conservative majority (where a decision in a religious freedom/LGBTQ fostering case is already pending).
The 11th Circuit decision also unnerves activists who thought that a wide consensus had long been reached that conversion therapy—the idea that therapy can be used to turn LGBTQ people straight—was dangerous and wrong.
Mathew Shurka, co-founder of Born Perfect, a group for survivors of conversion therapy (like himself), told The Daily Beast that the ruling ran contrary to the 107 laws have been passed against the practice in 20 states, 84 cities, and with the support of over 2,000 elected officials, Republican and Democrat. It seemed until now that conversion therapy was an issue on which there was legal, medical, and political agreement.
Dissenting 11th Circuit judge Beverly Martin, quoting the American Psychological Association, said that this was a therapy that caused patients “anger, anxiety, confusion, depression, grief, guilt, hopelessness, deteriorated relationships with family, loss of social support, loss of faith, poor self-image, social isolation, intimacy difficulties, intrusive imagery, suicidal ideation, self-hatred, and sexual dysfunction.”
Conversion therapists themselves run from that descriptor, and yet still offer the therapy under new guises, Shurka said. Now re-labeled under phrases like “sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE), it remains prevalent: An estimated 700,000 people living in America today have been through conversion therapy, according to the Trevor Project. According to its 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 10 percent of LGBTQ youth reported undergoing conversion therapy, with 78 percent of that group saying they had it when they were aged under 18.
In this, the second of two special articles, The Daily Beast speaks to conversion therapy survivors about their experiences.
Randy Thomas, 52, is former vice president of the now-defunct Exodus International, which was the world’s largest “ex-gay” ministry before it shut down. He lives in Longwood, Florida.
It took Randy Thomas 22 years to “come back out of the closet,” as he puts it, “and realize how damaging conversion therapy is. There are people who thought I would never come out of that cult. I was such a true believer. If I can have my eyes opened to the damage and hurt conversion therapy does, our political leaders can too.”
While conversion therapy is the accepted description of the practice in the media and legal cases, Thomas said, “it is more accurate to call it child abuse and psychological torture.”
Thomas grew up in ‘80s Nashville. “There was a lot of homophobia when I was growing up,” he said. “I was definitely one of those sensitive young kids, given to being very conscientious and emotional. I was timid in a lot of ways. The other kids picked up on that pretty quickly. While the other boys were on the football field, I was over there organizing the fall leaves by color. But I thought what I was doing was fun, and what they were doing was ridiculous.”
Thomas was beaten up and picked on. His parents were Christian but not particularly religious, “but the religious influence was there in stigmatizing anything to do with being gay. It permeated everything. I knew from a young age that ‘God hated fags.’”
He had crushes on other boys, aged 10. “When The Dukes of Hazzard rolled around, I wanted to marry both Bo and Luke Duke. I thought they were so cute.” Thomas came out to himself at 13, and it didn’t bother him. He had “a really active gaydar,” and fooled around with “the Goth kid” at a neighboring school. As soon as he could, he got a fake ID and started sneaking out to Nashville’s gay bars.
Thomas was forced out of the closet, aged 19 in 1987, when his mother found a Valentine’s Day party invite in one of his pockets. When he was a boy, she had told him that when the rest of the world hated him, she and God loved him, “but that night she told me that God was going to curse me with AIDS and a lot of horrible things.” Then she threw her son out of the house.
“It was a devastating time on many levels,” Thomas recalled. “Since then I have had real counseling—not conversion therapy—and I honestly think a lot of her anger and malice was about the literal fear she had that I was going to die of AIDS. Later I was able to forgive her, even though it was wrong how she handled it.”
Thomas moved to Dallas and carried on partying and taking drugs. Hitting rock bottom one night, he looked in the mirror—literally—“and thought I looked as if I had already died. I was convinced that if I didn’t get sober and change my ways, I would die.”
Thomas entered a 12-step program and stayed in it for 10 years. Many of his fellow group members converted to Christianity. “As irritating as that first seemed,” said Thomas, “I watched them become more stable and less wild, that was something I was desperately yearning for at that time. Unfortunately, I got involved in a very toxic strain of theology.”
Thomas joined a group called Living Hope, which was about to become a member of the Exodus ministry. Thomas was 24 and expected the group to be “hellfire and brimstone, I went for the spectacle of it all.” He imagined it would provide gossipy grist for his next 12-step meeting.
But instead, the seminary student running the group was not overtly hateful. “I was very hostile. He said, ‘Randy, if you don’t want to come to this group you don’t have to.’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute, you’re supposed to threaten me with hell and make me play football.’ He said, ‘I have no interest in wasting either of our times.’ That made me think, ‘Damn it, I’m going to go.’”
At the first meeting, there was no talk of homosexuality, but rather about emotional dependency. “That nailed me between the eyes,” said Thomas. “It’s what hooks vulnerable people into these groups. They will address legitimate issues, like emotional dependency, and blame them on being gay. They were not helping a gay man deal with emotional dependency, they used my sexuality as a scapegoat and said, ‘The reason you’re emotionally dependent is because you’re gay.’”
At Exodus, Thomas found the constant, unasked-for “free therapy” supplied by conversion therapy counselors “irritating.” He was good friends with Dr. Joseph Nicolosi Sr., the so-called father of modern conversion/reparative therapy, until Nicolosi “started hounding me about my unfinished issues. He considered me too effeminate. I’m just soft-spoken and emotional and very animated. To him, that meant I somehow hadn’t dealt with my aversion to masculinity. I said, ‘I don’t have an aversion to masculinity. That’s what I’m trying to deal with here! I’m very interested in masculinity!’”
Nicolosi was not convinced that Thomas had “recovered enough. He thought I hadn’t done enough work to uncover my heterosexual potential. I was just fine with who I was.”
Thomas describes what he was subjected to as psychological manipulation, gaslighting, and spiritual abuse. He knows of other conversion therapy survivors who went through more physical torture, such as therapist Chris Austin, who made his clients wear rubber bands, which they then had to snap if they had sexual or romantic thoughts about members of the same sex. (Austin was also convicted of sexually assaulting a male client.) Thomas also heard of conversion therapists using ammonia sticks. If the client felt attracted to a member of the same sex, they were instructed to put the stick up their nose.
Thomas tried it. “It was like a COVID test 200 times over. It was like lightning through my cranium. It was terrible.”
Thomas said he was “one of the few” who did not lead a secretly gay life within Exodus. “I had learned to numb the pain and live in the pain. I had a falsely constructed sense of self to preserve. Even though it was a false sense of self, it was the only thing I knew.”
He said he convinced himself he was called to celibacy. If he saw an attractive guy—on TV, in the gym, on the street—“I immediately prayed against Satan and temptation, and removed myself from the situation. If I masturbated, I would confess it to my mentor. I felt such guilt if I did. We would then process what my attraction to men meant, and ways to cope with it. It was pretty terrible.”
Thomas believes that his being out on the LGBTQ scene before joining Exodus had been beneficial. “My whole sense of self had not been built within this cultish belief system. I had lived in the gay community. I had not been in the church closet my whole life.”
At Exodus, he had wanted to root out “all of the crazy people” in the Exodus network, such as those using ammonia sticks. “But over time we realized what we were doing was just as dangerous and deadly. We were just putting a smile on it. We weren’t forcing people to come into the groups, but the way we reinforced the false beliefs that conversion therapy puts across kept people within the system.”
Thomas met now-senior figures in the Trump administration like Mike Pence, when they attended the Arlington Group, which was composed of leaders of the conservative Christian movement. “I am convinced the only way Trump got the evangelicals’ support is that he had to take Pence as his VP. They sold their soul to him: ‘If you pick Pence, we’ve got your back.’”
An internal battle began at Exodus, with Thomas and others like him against the “old guard.” Thomas said he was determined that Exodus should become an organization open to questioning and change.
Then a close friend, Michael, died by suicide in 2013. They had met at 12-step, then both gone into “the church closet.” Michael had had a relationship with another man before his death. A mutual friend said that she thought part of the reason Michael had killed himself “was because he thought God was punishing him for ‘going back’ to being gay.”
Thomas’ voice cracked. “When Michael died by suicide I couldn’t hyper-spiritualize it away anymore. It broke me. It’s hard not to cry talking about it all over again. I literally fell to my knees crying because I knew the beliefs that had been reinforced in the group we had been part of. I knew that. I had bought into it, and now it had killed one of the best people I had ever met in my life. When Michael did what he did, the blinders were completely ripped off. I couldn’t blame it on Satan or a lack of spiritual maturity because Michael was one of the smartest, most brilliant people in my life. It was a belief we had both bought into, that God was punishing us just for being gay.”
Thomas was determined to quit Exodus and recommend its closure. “Not only had it failed in its mission, it was deadly. I knew it was deadly. It was impossible to weed out the craziness because it was all crazy. It made you feel a false sense of self and gave a false world view. It could not weather any true questioning. It would not stand for any real honesty or authenticity. It was a cult in self-preservation mode. After Michael did what he did, there was no denying it any longer. It completely tore my world apart.”
Thomas’ time since conversion therapy has been “very difficult.” He has learned lessons in dating he feels he should have learned in his twenties. But he and fiancé Dan Scobey have been together for four years (and parent a 13-year-old daughter) and plan to marry next year—the size of the ceremony depending on the scope of the pandemic.
“I learned through trials of fire how selfish and relationally immature I am,” Thomas said. He has also rebuilt his career and is now a tech support officer for a cable TV company. His supervisor saw video of him when he was high up in Exodus, and noted how “hoity-toity” he had seemed.
“Yeah, I used to get upgraded to First Class and eat out every night, but today I’d much rather help people with tech support, have a much stricter budget, and be fully and authentically in love. I lived a lie to get all these free upgrades, and I’m not willing to do that anymore.”
Thomas also notes that twice it has been the LGBTQ community that has embraced him at difficult moments. First, legendary Nashville drag queen Carmella Marcella Garcia, who died last year, took him in when his mother threw him out of the house at 19. “She told me to get my ass over to her condo and welcomed me into her home. She didn’t want rent or anything from me. She fed me, gave me a place to shower and sleep, and really helped me out.”
Thomas said that despite things he said while a member of Exodus, he never truly believed LGBTQ people and the LGBTQ community to be bad.
The second act of grace was being embraced and listened to by the community once he renounced not just conversion therapy but all the damage Exodus had done to LGBTQ people in its name. He had never experienced being loved and embraced like that while involved in “cultural Christianity.” Today, he calls himself a universalist Christian. “I have had too many spiritualist experiences in my life to deny there is the Divine in the world.”
Thomas is “very discouraged” by the 11th Circuit decision. “It just seemed like they didn’t understand the ramifications of a decision like that, and they couldn’t have possibly understood what they were deciding on. If they knew the true harm, there’s no way they would have overturned the bans. This being a federal appeals court gives it more weight. I’m very concerned this tactic will be picked up by those trying to overturn bans all across the country.”
Thomas wants people to educate themselves on what conversion therapy is, and how it is practiced. The bans focused on professional counselors licensed by the state, he said, but religious stigma was the most corrosive element for society to confront. “People are shocked that conversion therapy still happens, yet the Trump-led courts are trying to amplify it and spread the idea that you can change who you innately are.”
Thomas does not discount the seriousness of the 11th Circuit decision, but while “Trump appointees may have successful battles here and there, we are never going back to where we were. The younger generation isn’t buying into conversion therapy at all. But that doesn’t mean stigma against LGBTQ people won’t take on a different form. It will just be more obvious, and less tolerated.”
Thomas is concerned by the Supreme Court’s 6-3 majority, “but that should not stop us in our tracks. We will fight until we get the justice due to LGBTQ+ youth. When it comes to conversion therapy, we must not give up on our youth and children. They need our tenacity, intellect, wisdom, and experience. These are young people. This is child abuse. No community allows child abuse to happen to its young people. There’s never a wrong time to speak up for young people. Whatever happens with this case, or the next bill or policy, we must speak up for our kids regardless of what our leaders do. Conversion therapy is still illegal. It’s still fraud and our kids still need us. Don’t sit there and be silent.”
Jason Lindow is a 29-year-old math teacher, living in Salt Lake City, Utah.
When Jason Lindow signed up for therapy, he didn’t know he was getting into conversion therapy. He was 21 and—then identifying as a lesbian—had been dating girls for three years. A trans man, he began his transition at 27 (and uses he/him and they/them as pronouns).
Lindow told The Daily Beast, “As part of the LGBTQ community, we live our lives in the closet for so long, it makes no sense to me that if I figure out who I am and come out, then I would then somehow shove my past in a closet. I feel like most of my story makes no sense if no one knows that I was in conversion therapy because, before my transition, I was attracted to women.”
Lindow’s family is “extremely active” in the Mormon church. His dad is a bishop and his older brother teaches seminary. He grew up in a small community where exposure to the LGBTQ community was “minimal, and the word trans did not exist in my vocabulary.” His parents were supportive. It was a “mellow,” drama-free childhood. The family was not well-off, “but I definitely never felt like I went without.”
Growing up, Lindow felt “uncomfortable,” battling to dress as “masculinely” as possible in T-shirts and button-down shirts. He grew up in oversized clothing and wore his brother’s hand-me-downs. His parents didn’t push him, they just treated Lindow as a tomboy. He never wore make-up, tied his hair back, and never wore anything to accentuate his curves or breasts.
Lindow was attracted to girls, at 13 falling for a teammate on the school basketball team, but assumed “feelings for guys would come later.” Lindow stayed focused on school and athletics, then got into college and found the attraction to women still there. “I thought, ‘Oh, there is something here. I’m different from everyone I know,’ and that’s where the self-discovery portion of my life took off.”
When Lindow first heard the word “lesbian” at 18 years old, he thought, “Oh, that describes me, that’s who I am.” (Nine years later, a trans student in his class—Lindow is a high school math teacher—became the recognition-key to Lindow discovering his trans self.)
At college, Lindow dated a girlfriend for three years. “There was a huge battle for years between my identity and religion internally.” Lindow decided to serve on a Mormon mission.
Lindow had already told his bishop that they were in a lesbian relationship: “I said, ‘This is where I am, this is who I am, and what I want to do.’” The bishop said Lindow would have to have six months of therapy before signing off on Lindow going on a mission with a female companion. “The Bishop was a pretty loving guy,” Lindow recalled. “But he said I couldn’t have a relationship with a woman. Abstinence was the church’s view. I didn’t feel his language was judgmental.”
The therapist, from the church’s Family Services arm, gave Lindow sentences to repetitively write on pieces of paper. These included: “I can make my own choices, and I can choose not to be with women,” and “God loves me as one his daughters, and can help make me whole.” Lindow had to write the sentences 25 to 30 times a session.
“I’m one of those types of people who, when I make a decision, go 110 percent for it. So, at the time, I was like, ‘This is what I have to do to show I am capable of serving a mission.’ I didn’t realize the effects it was having on me until I was out of it. I knew I was getting depressed and my emotions and feelings were getting turned off. But I wasn’t aware of that until I was around people who were very accepting of me being a lesbian. Looking back, I definitely call it a form of brainwashing.”
Lindow felt the therapist was saying, “You’re in control of your choices. We’re going to teach you what to appropriately choose. So, in their eyes: I can choose to be or not to be with women, and can choose to be with men. The thing is, they’re making the choice for you.”
Lindow began to feel “like a robot going through the motions.” Life came to feel “colorless and grey. I found myself taking sleeping pills. I was very depressed. My body was there, but I wasn’t there mentally and emotionally.”
Lindow didn’t keep relationships and friendships intact, spending time mostly alone. “My brain went into a defense mechanism if I saw a girl, automatically shutting down. As the therapist had said, ‘This is a choice I’m making.’ People don’t realize how much love and attraction, and having ability to express that, adds to your life.”
The intention may have been to close down same-gender attraction, said Lindow, but the result was a closing down of so many more feelings and relationships as Lindow’s feelings of depression increased. Lindow said that at least as an adult he could walk away at any time; a younger person, placed into conversion therapy by a parent—like Mathew Shurka in part one of this series—would not have that option.
Near the end of the six months of therapy, Lindow took more and more sleeping pills, “in my head thinking I would rather be asleep than awake. I never necessarily wanted to kill myself, but I definitely felt this sense of ‘What is the point of living if this is how I feel being alive?’ I think if I had kept doing conversion therapy I’m not sure I would still be here. It’s a hopeless feeling—growing up with a sense of what life should look like for you to be a good person. You get told by a bishop to do this, and hit a point of not being able to go through with it. It makes you internalize, ‘I’m not a good person, I don’t know where I fit in.’”
That summer, Lindow stopped doing the therapy and worked for the Forest Service, with a kind and affirming boss who was “an angel and someone I consider a second mom.”
Being around nature was also restorative. Lindow stopped going to therapy and church, while remaining a member of it for another year. At one point, he was rushed to the hospital, having suffered a mild heart attack. “When it happened, I didn’t think about not being the best Mormon I could be, but more that I hadn’t been in a committed relationship. That was the moment I knew I had to walk away from the church.”
Multiple tests could not find a physical cause for the heart attack. It had occurred around the time of realizing he was trans, and once Lindow began transitioning, the symptoms—and anxiety—receded.
Now, almost three years since beginning his transition, Lindow feels “very much at home in my body, and interacting with other people.” High school friends tell him how much more outgoing, talkative, and happy he is. “My posture is different. I sit up straighter,” said Lindow. “It’s a journey for my family. Fortunately, they haven’t disowned me in any way. They don’t necessarily agree with my decision, but I don’t feel unwelcome.”
Lindow is very much in love with his partner Megan. They have been together for three years; she is “very open-minded and accepting,” and they met three months into Lindow’s transition. Her love has been “very validating. I knew who I was and I could love myself, and then it was great to find I could have a healthy, loving relationship with another person—and to realize I didn’t have to necessarily change to have that love and acceptance and share it with another person.”
Lindow’s family do not know he once went to conversion therapy. “I definitely think they believe to be truly happy, only one mold fits. I don’t think they’d want me to have gone to conversion therapy, but I definitely do think they wish I had never transitioned and been celibate.”
There is not much of a hangover from the therapy, Lindow said. “When I started transitioning was when I kind of left that behind, and part of transition—for me, anyway—meant a mental disconnect from my past self. That pre-transition person feels like a different person. Luckily, I was able to walk away from the conversion therapy.”
Lindow sometimes looks back and wishes “I had figured out I was trans at 18. Sometimes I feel late to the party. I went through puberty at 27 years old, and started to figure out small pieces of myself at 28 and 29. At the same time, based on my religious upbringing, if it had happened sooner I don’t know if I’d have been ready to hear it.”
Today, Lindow considers himself spiritual, while not identifying with any specific religion. “I do believe in a higher power or empathy, but I don’t necessarily call it God. I typically go out and hike every Sunday. For me, being in nature and surrounded by other creations is where I feel most connected and most spiritual.”
The “temperature and climate” of the Mormon church is slowly changing, Lindow thinks. “I don’t know if it will get to the point of accepting and honoring LGBTQ marriages. I do think it honestly and openly values people who consider themselves LGBTQ, but it still teaches abstinence and celibacy. At their core is ‘family,’ and their version of family is where a lot of their doctrine and beliefs come from.”
Lindow has seen more and more Mormons embrace LGBTQ family members and people they know. “Give it 10 or 20 years of that happening. The church has to follow suit, or it will lose a lot of people.”
Lindow is also incredibly proud of the kids he teaches, who—as well as being energized by the 2020 election—also set up the first Gay-Straight Alliance in the heavily Mormon area where their school is located.
Lindow is concerned by the implications of the 11th Circuit decision, and generally by the conservative packing of courts and what that means for LGBTQ civil rights. “A lot of conservative people have a closed-off mindset, a one-size-fits-everyone attitude, and any kid who doesn’t follow that is told, ‘Let me show you what’s true.’ Or, ‘Let me fix you.’ I would hope that future judges be open-minded enough to actually listen to public comments, pro and against.
“It’s very rare that you will hear someone who has gone through conversion therapy to be for it. It is definitely manipulation, and brainwashing is the best term for it. As a culture, we need to come from a place of celebrating and accepting a person’s differences, instead of chaining the person to an ideal of what you want them to be. Instead, step back and say, ‘You’re beautiful as you are. Nothing needs to be changed in you for you to gain self-love and self-acceptance.’ You should know that, no matter where you are in your life.”