The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) hosted a virtual panel, "Debunking Conversion Therapy," on April 23 that focused on how people have been negatively impacted by conversion therapy, what the Bible says and what the next steps on the policy front are.
Panelists included Boy Erased author Garrard Conley; author and theologian Reverend Brandan Robertson; Milwaukee LGBT Community Center Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse therapist/recovery coach Tiodolo Delagarza III; and Trevor Project Advocacy and Governmental Affairs Senior Fellow Casey Pick. Indiana State University master's degree students Corry Smith and Drew Taylor moderated the event.
Conley spoke about his journey of growing up in a small Arkansas town where the Baptist church was the place to find community and how that changed when he was 14 years old.
At this time, someone entered Conley's Sunday-school class, outraged that there would be a Pride parade in nearby Fayetteville and wanting everyone in attendance to sign his petition. Conley signed it even though he already knew he was gaywhich he said made him have a "disgusting feeling because I take great pride in what I stand behind."
A year later, his father moved their family to another town in Arkansas, where he found a girlfriend to "play it straight" for everyone around him. When Conley was 18 and in his first semester of college, he broke up with his girlfriendand, almost immediately, someone outed him to his parents.
Conley's mother immediately came to his college to bring him home, where his father threatened to cut him off financially and kick him out of the house if he did not go to a "conversion therapy" camp during the summer break. He knew he could not survive on his own so he went to the camp.
"This was classic brainwashing," said Conley. "It was stripping people down, making them feel worthless. This was a Christian-based conversion therapy camp that was exploiting people's relationship with God, in order to use God as a battering ram at someone's soul."
Conley said that after one very harrowing session, he demanded access to his phone saying it was an emergency. He called his mother to come pick him up, which she did. After that, his parents swept it under the rug for about 10 years until Conley decided to ask his parents questions about faith and their marriage. This led to both of his parents apologizing to him for all the harm they did which he noted does not happen with every LGBTQ child and their parents. (Editor's note: These events are reflected in Conley's memoir, Boy Erased, and the 2018 film.)
Robertson spoke about being forced to undergo "conversion therapy" in 2013, when he was a student in Chicago, adding that this virtual discussion would have been so helpful to him just a few years ago. He added that "conversion therapy" is still happening but that religious institutions have rebranded it with names like "reintegration therapy" to make it seem more acceptable.
"The problem that also exists is that while there are tons of programs like the ones Garrard went through, there are three times as many programs that take place in churches, and religious camps, that do not claim to be psychologically based but use all the ideas and practices in religious language that seek to change LGBTQ people's sexuality or gender identity," said Robertson.
Robertson said that his "conversion therapy" experiences happened at a Wheaton, Illinois church and in a professor's office at Moody Bible Institute, the college he was attending at the time, because he was fulfilling a calling he had at age 12 of becoming a pastor. At the same time that he was dreaming of becoming a pastor, Robertson also realized he was gaybut suppressed those feelings throughout middle and high school, even dating a cheerleader.
While at Moody, Robertson found an accountability partner who also said he was gay so the two of them "sought to overcome their sexual attractions." At the end of his junior year, he told a professor/mentor about being gayleading to that person and another professor forcing "conversion therapy" techniques on him in weekly sessions during his senior year. Robertson also spoke about what happened at that Wheaton church that further emotionally and mentally damaged him.
Robertson found an accepting church and once he graduated came out publicly. He began speaking about his experiences and has met 50 other Moody students who have also undergone "conversion therapy." Robertson said that these programs have a lack of consent and even though he was technically an adult, being a college student made it harder for him to resist these interventions from authority figures.
Delagarza said he identifies as a "person who has survived suicide" and spoke about his 17 years "struggling with addiction." He added that this journey also included sex trafficking and gang affiliations that led to becoming a six-time felon while also struggling with his sexual identity.
What changed everything was Delagarza's time in prison. There, he realized that he could change the course of his life, and he event got his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Springfield College. Delagarza said that in all the classes he has taken to become a counselor, no discussions of "conversion or reparative therapy" have come up because "it is not evidence-based" and does not work.
Smith asked Pick to outline what the Trevor Project is doing to highlight the dangers of "conversion therapy" for every LGBTQ person, especially the youth population. Pick said that far too many LGBTQ youth have reached out to the Trevor Project because they were forced into "conversion therapy" or because they are afraid to come out over fears of being rejected by their families and friends.
In terms of the numbers, Pick said there are still 16,000 LGBTQ youths at risk of being forced into "conversion therapy." She added that it is the Trevor Project's goal to reduce that number through legislation in every state that would ban "conversion therapy" by licensed mental health professionals on people younger than18.
"We know that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people in this country," said Pick. "And that 50 percent of all trans people have made a suicide attempt, many before the age of 25. LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight cisgender peers. But on the good side, we know that one accepting adult can decrease the risk of LGBTQ youth attempting suicide by 40 percent."
Pick spoke about the victories the Trevor Project has had in state legislatures, including in Utah and 19 other states, and about 80 cities and counties that have banned "conversion therapy" on LGBTQ youth by licensed mental health professionals. She added that there have been success stories due to the Trevor Project's partnership with Q Christian Fellowship where they created The Good Fruit Project to show how harmful "conversion therapy" is and how faith communities can challenge these practices within their churches.
A Q&A session took place and a Boy Erased movie clip was also shown.
See garrardconley.com/, brandanrobertson.com/ and thetrevorproject.org/ .