TAG | reparative therapy
When I came out to my mom in November of 2003 (when I was 19), she asked the standard question that ignorant, religious parents like to ask: did you try to change?
And like every other gay person raised in a religious family (I’m assuming), I answered truthfully, “of course.”
You are taught from birth that being gay is bad and that you can pray for things, so that’s what you do.
You pray. You fast. You read the scriptures. You pay your tithing (as a Mormon). You do everything that you’re supposed to do.
And I did. By all accounts, aside from my “perverted temptations,” I was a perfect Mormon boy. I didn’t drink. I didn’t swear. I was active in Scouts, at church, and in the community. I was the President of the priesthood group for every age group I was in. I was the one you could count on to show up to shovel the sidewalks, to be early to church to prepare the sacrament, etc.
As a gay closeted youth, you do all of that for two reasons: (1) you’re supposed to be doing everything right if you expect to get your prayers answered and (2) you don’t want people to suspect there is anything wrong with you.
Then there’s the one thing you definitely shouldn’t do as a gay teenager in a religion like Mormonism: you don’t talk to anyone, especially your parents, about it.
That’s the one wish my dad expressed in a conversation on the subject. He wished I had talked to them about it sooner.
Doing so would have been the biggest mistake of my life.
When I told my mom that I, of course, tried to change, she insisted I had not because I did not go through any of the reparative therapy programs. (She didn’t use those exact words, but I know that’s what she meant.)
Today I read an article titled, “Survivor: MIT grad student remembers “ex-gay” therapy,” about Samuel Brinton, a 23-year-old who unfortunately let out his secret during his youth and was subjected to the horrors of reparative therapy.
Samuel was raised by two Southern Baptist ministers, and while living in Kansas at the age of 12, he innocently—something the author describes as mistaking “his sexuality with his sanctity”—informed his dad that he had no temptation for the women in a Playboy magazine, but that he sometimes had those feelings for his best friend Dale.
After some physical violence and intimidation from his father (very Christ-like of the father), Samuel ended up in reparative therapy.
During his first one-on-one appointment, he was lied to. The “therapist” (not licensed, of course), told Sam, “I want you to know that you’re gay, and all gay people have AIDS.” Sam explained how this lie, and others, led him to have an incredibly distorted view of being gay.
The “therapy” became increasingly more severe, both physically and emotionally, after that in what Sam describes in three steps:
“[T]he first step” of his therapy involved attaching his hands to a table with leather straps, palms up. The therapist placed blocks of ice on each hand and showed Sam pictures of two men holding hands, so that the young boy began to associate touching men with the “burning cold.”
“The second step” was similar, but the ice was replaced with copper heating coils that had been wrapped around his wrists and hands. The heat was turned on when pictures of two men holding hands were shown, but turned off when pictures of a heterosexual couple holding hands were shown.
“The third step” … he was strapped into a chair, and small needles were stuck into his fingertips. The needles were attached to electrodes, and Sam received shocks when shown pornographic images of two men engaging in sex acts.
Understandably, following this “therapy,” Sam says he cannot get rid of that shock sensation when he hugs or shakes a man’s hand. He’s also attempted suicide several times.
From my readings on these sorts of “therapies,” forcing baths in tubs of ice and other sorts of numbing exercises are common. Electroshock treatment, often with instruments attached to the genitals, are also common.
To get to my main point for this post, Sam notes that his parents knew what was going on, but that they were willing to do “whatever it took to save [his] soul.”
With that, I want to ask, how is this form of therapy not child abuse, both physical and emotional?
The therapy involves, I would argue, forms of physical torture. Inserting needles into your fingertips? Shocking your genitals? Sounds like physical abuse to me.
And the emotional and mental consequences are well-documented. Stunting sexual development? Depression? Suicide? Sure sounds like the results of emotional abuse as well.
The Child Welfare Information Gateway, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides a handy PDF with some quick guidelines (because I don’t feel like doing any in-depth legal research at this point).
The Gateway notes that at the federal level, there’s a Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. I’m assuming there are similar laws at the state level, as they also write that there are civil and criminal statutes at the state level.
Anyway, this federal act defines child abuse and neglect as:
Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
Nearly all states have a statute for physical abuse, which is generally defined as “any nonaccidental physical injury to the child.” Statutes also exist for emotional abuse, commonly defined as “injury to the psychological capacity or emotional stability of the child as evidenced by an observable or substantial change in behavior, emotional response, or cognition” evidenced by “anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or aggressive behavior.”
And if those statutes specific to protecting children don’t apply, how about a tort claim for intentional inflection of emotional distress?
Let’s go through the elements. (1) Acting intentionally. Check. (2) Conduct that is extreme and outrageous. Check. (Although, this is where the dispute would hinge.) (3) The act causes the distress. Duh, check. (4) Child actually suffers distress. Check.
Can someone explain to me how a parent who submits their kid to this type of conduct (and the therapists, acting as caretakers) would not fall under these statutes?
There is no evidence or support from any reputable medical society that types of therapies accomplish what they intend. And I can’t imagine religious pursuits grant immunity for abusing your kids.
So why are the parents and therapists not held liable for civil damages and criminally prosecuted, where possible?