Editor’s Note: This story is the first in a running series on the global debate about the controversial practice of gay conversion therapy — also known as reparative therapy and sexual reorientation therapy — which has been widely discredited by professional organizations but remains legal in most places. The stories will explore the intersections of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) identities and mental health.
PHOENIX, Ariz. – Mateo Williamson’s mother still won’t call him Mateo. She prefers Kelsey, the name she gave him more than 22 years ago.
Born female, Williamson grew up feeling trapped in his own body. It wasn’t until he learned the term “transgender” at age 12 that he really understood what those feelings meant.
“I grew up in a very Catholic home,” Williamson said. “My mom was reminding me of what the church said...it was very difficult.”
After years of failed faith-based counseling and struggling to get his family to accept him, Williamson found a common ground with his mother and siblings. Now, as an openly transgender male, he fights for acceptance for the rest of the LGBT community by advocating gay rights and protesting treatments like gay conversion therapy that claim to “cure” homosexuality.
So Williamson was present outside the annual conference of the National Association For Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), a group dedicated to serving those who experience “unwanted” same-sex attractions, here in Phoenix this past weekend. Therapists and doctors from around the United States discussed reparative therapy and what they call an “authentic change” in sexual orientation.
Such treatments have created ripples throughout the country at a time when more states are changing their laws to legalize same-sex marriage and clamp down on “reorientation” therapies. Just last week, a New Jersey judge upheld the state’s ban on conversion therapy for minors, solidifying the state as the second in the nation to do so behind California.
While proponents of therapy argue it aids those who seek help, much of the LGBT community finds the mere suggestion that they can be changed or fixed offensive. Doctors say there is no scientific evidence to suggest the existence of a “gay gene,” and many assert it’s impossible to truly change someone’s sexual orientation.
“It’s like telling me I'm not Asian if I don't identify as Asian," said Dr. Terry Gock, a clinical psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association's Division 44, the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Issues.
Gock said the issue is not only that the therapy doesn’t work, but that it’s harmful to patients as well. Failed therapy can actually bring about depression and damage relationships, he said. And Gock isn’t alone – numerous medical organizations including the American Psychiatric Association and the British Medical Association have discredited this type of therapy as ineffectual and potentially harmful, particularly for children.
Yet despite the public outcry against these treatments, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that at least 70 practices advertise conversion therapy in 20 states and Washington, DC.
David Pickup proclaims himself a conversion therapy success story.
Emotionally and sexually abused at the age of five, Pickup said he struggled with not only clinical depression from his trauma, but also unwanted same-sex attraction. It wasn’t until he sought out reparative therapy that he was able to come to terms with his “authentic self,” and regain confidence in his gender identity, he said.
Now a licensed family and marriage therapist specializing in the treatment, Pickup said the California and New Jersey bans on the therapy for minors is an egregious attack on children, particularly those who were abused at young ages.
He harkens back to recent child molestation cases that have garnered national attention, such as the Jerry Sandusky case, as evidence that treating minors struggling with gender and sexuality identity issues can help prevent further trauma as an adult.
“When little boys are sexually abused by older men, one of the problems they have to work out is the confusion of having been stimulated by that,” Pickup said, shortly before leading a workshop at the NARTH Conference.
"So law actually furthers the sexual abuse of some children,” he added, referring to California’s law, signed by Governor Jerry Brown last September and upheld by a federal appeals court this August. “It violates religious rights. It violates parental rights. It’s stunning how detrimental law is.”
Pickup said he knows his views on homosexuality run counter to current national trends, which have leaned toward acceptance and equality -- rather than augmentation -- in recent years. But in his eyes, the recent legislation banning conversion therapy for minors is not about the welfare of children, but is rather “about forcing homosexual ideology, beliefs, and lifestyle into society.”
Brad Dacus, an attorney who defends parent’s rights to enroll their children in gay conversion therapy, echoed Pickup’s sentiments.
Among the more outspoken legal opponents of California’s ban on gay conversion therapy for minors, Dacus said the law ignores a host of anecdotal evidence that supports reparative therapy.
“To say it doesn't work is the epitome of intolerance,” Dacus said.
But to Williamson, the true show of intolerance is claiming that sexual orientation is a choice. He went through counseling for years, but his therapists and psychologists never offered up being transgender as a solution.
"I told them ‘I think that I’m supposed to be male’ and their reaction was, 'Let’s see how we can make you feel better about being female,' Williamson said as he stood outside the Phoenix Airport Marriott Hotel protesting NARTH alongside his fellow activists.
Jacqueline Williams, a Phoenix resident who advocates with PFLAG, the Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said she’s horrified by this type of treatment and shocked by how members of the LGBT community can lose their jobs and family members while also facing intense discrimination simply because of their sexual orientation.
“It’s just sad,” she said, waving an anti-NARTH poster during the group’s gay conversion therapy protest. “If these people are doctors, why aren’t they working on things that are a real problem instead of crap like this?”
The battle over conversion therapy comes at a time when LGBT rights and arguments over sexual orientation have come to the forefront of global conversation. At a time when acceptance of homosexuality is trending upward in many countries, conversion therapy has rankled legislators both for and against in the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil and Ecuador among others.
Protester Tony Pinzone says anti-gay violence around the world has compelled him to fight even harder against organizations like NARTH that demonize homosexuality.
As a teenager growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. he was bullied by his peers because of his sexual orientation — often times, they would tell him they wished he had AIDS. Like many members of the LGBT community, he was initially ostracized from his family. When he was 18, one of his closest friends committed suicide because he was afraid his family wouldn’t accept him for being gay.
And at the age of 21, he watched in terror as a group of six men brutally beat another friend, as he lay helpless on the ground. By the time Pinzone and the rest of his friends were able to reach the attackers, their friend had been beaten to death.
Pinzone draws upon his traumatic experiences to fuel his activism, hoping to be a voice for the LGBT community pushing for state legislation banning gay conversion therapy.
“Believe me if I had a choice, many, many years ago I would have maybe done something,” said Pinzone, 41, now a limo driver in the Phoenix area.
“Until they can turn around and show me how being gay is a choice, they can’t prove that I can be straight by choice.”