Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Time I Went to Conversion Therapy

Conversion therapy can take a number of forms. The essential premise is that homosexuality is a pathology that can be treated and corrected. While I’m not sure that I would call what I participated in conversion therapy, I did seek counseling to change my sexual orientation. Here’s the story.
In December 2007 I met a girl. In January we started dating. We got along remarkably well and could just talk and talk for hours. Being together made me happy and she quickly became my favorite person. I was 23, in my last semester at BYU, and it felt like life was finally falling into place. After our fourth date I wrote in my journal: “She’s pretty much perfect for me, except that I don’t find her attractive. She’s pretty, but I’m just not that attracted to her. Honestly, today I really wished that I wasn’t me. I finally find an awesome girl that’s interested in me, but I still have SSA (same-sex attraction).”
2008 when I was trying to get rid of my SSA
She was the 6th person I came out to (I kept track back then) and she responded so well. A week later she told her roommate that I was attracted to men, which I had given her permission to do. Her roommate said I should see a therapist about my attractions and my girlfriend agreed that was a good idea. When she told me this I was a little annoyed. There wasn’t anything that could be done to fix me, I thought.
I called my parents and complained about what my girlfriend had suggested. My mom said that she had spoken to their bishop about my SSA and he told her that Provo had the best counselors in the world to help someone overcome SSA. She and my dad recommended I see a therapist, too. I emphatically told them that I didn’t need a counselor to fix me, that if God wanted me to be different He could just answer my prayers and fix me Himself. My dad, who has had awful eyesight his entire life, calmly respond, “Ben, God could fix my eyes if He wanted to, but instead He gave me glasses.”
The next day a close friend called me and out of the blue said I should see a therapist about my attractions. Five people in two days had recommended the same thing to me. It felt like a sign. So I set up an appointment with a therapist for the following week. I wasn’t thrilled about going, but I was hopeful. I wrote in my journal: “What if this is my chance?” I had enough hope to believe that it could work.
It was my first time ever in a therapist’s office. I filled out what felt like stacks of papers. I wrote on one form that I wanted to become attracted to women and not men. When I walked into the therapist’s office, nervous and unsure, he glanced at what I’d written on the form and said, “Well, this is easy to fix,” and set the form down in a nonchalant way that felt dismissive of the gravity of the situation.
My impression of therapy from TV and movies was that I would constantly be asked, “And how does that make you feel?” That’s not how this was at all. He normalized my attractions by walking me through the different parts of male and female bodies that make them attractive to people. I said very little in the session and I felt extremely uncomfortable. He used words to describe the female anatomy that a gay and na├»ve Latter-day Saint like me had never heard. I wrote in my journal that day: “He also said that a lot of SSA is environmental and that it can be changed. I don’t know how to feel about that because I can’t think of anything that caused this. Basically, he wasn’t helpful.”
The previous year, before coming out to anyone, I had scoured the BYU library for books about what causes same-sex attraction and how to correct it. There were multiple books and I was certain I’d find an answer in them. I was so afraid that if I checked out one of the books that they would be forever linked to my name so I read them in the library. I’d sit in a study carrel with a few other books so if someone I knew walked by I could quickly conceal the books about the causes of homosexuality under books about Latin America. Then when I was done, I’d carefully reshelf the books and come back later. Going through these books in the quiet corners of the library became an obsession as I neglected school assignments to find answers.
I started this study with aspirations that I could find a way to fix this, because I had to fix it. But then I got really confused. The books discussed multiple causes of same-sex attraction. An overbearing mother and a distant father. Early sexual abuse. A desire to have close relationships with men that became sexualized at puberty. A failure to connect to one’s masculine side. Besides being bad at sports, none of the causes mentioned in the books described my life. So I had already dismissed these theories in my own head when my therapist explained that homosexuality was a learned behavior.
At the end of my first session the therapist told me that we would really get to work in the next session. So a week later I went back. He talked almost the entire session explaining how I had developed a thought pattern of seeing an attractive man and ruminating on his attractiveness. I needed to stop doing that, he said. And instead, whenever I felt aroused to think of the beautiful aspects of a woman’s body. That was the answer. I just needed to train my brain to find women attractive.

He gave me some homework that made me feel really uncomfortable and I left the office and scheduled a third session because I didn’t have the courage to tell him I didn’t want to come back. I called the secretary later that day to cancel the appointment. I never went back. I wrote in my journal that day: “I felt pretty lousy afterward. I had put a lot of hope into this and it ended up being an uncomfortable waste of time.”

I wish instead of trying to change my sexuality, my therapist and I had discussed my values. I wish we had discussed the things that are most important to me that guide my decisions. I wish we had talked about the importance of daily bread and living in the present moment. I wish we had talked about acceptance and self-nurturing. I wish we had worked to remove my shame. I wish we had talked about the desire I had to die so I wouldn't have to be gay anymore. There are so many things we could have done that could have helped so much.
23 year old me wishing I was straight
I consider it one of the great blessings of my life that I stopped after two sessions. And I’m so grateful that when I told everyone who had recommended I go to therapy that I had decided to stop that they all supported me in that decision. My parents have apologized a number of times for encouraging me to go.
I don’t know what would have happened if I had continued going, but I’m glad I didn’t. I know that I felt awful after both sessions. I wonder how I would have felt after 12 or 20 such sessions. I wonder what it would have done to me to dutifully do the homework I’d been given and see no change in my orientation. I wonder what it would have been like to be told again and again that change was possible, but that I just wasn’t doing it right or trying hard enough. I imagine that would have done some damage.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I think what saved me was the way I was raised. My parents were so loving and involved in my life that the notion that they caused my homosexuality by being distant or overbearing rang so hollow that I never considered it. I knew intuitively to reject that being sexually abused as a child made me gay because I hadn’t been. Had I not been so lucky, maybe I would have spent years in therapy blaming my parents for my orientation. But that didn’t happen to me.
The thing I find most remarkable about my story is that when I told my parents and friends I wasn’t going back to therapy, they were all supportive of my decision. No coercion. No “just give it a little longer.” They honored my agency and walked my path with me. I’m the lucky one.