When Garrard Conley’s father found out his son was gay, he began to look for a cure.
Conley met with a therapist one on one for six months, who tried to condition him to be ashamed of his attraction to men. When this didn’t work, Conley, now a New York Times best-selling memoirist, was sent to a camp where his sexual orientation was treated like a mental illness.
When Sam Brinton, who uses they/them pronouns, went to “conversion therapy,” Brinton was told the government had killed all the other gay children in the country so they couldn’t spread AIDS. Brinton’s “therapy” escalated to electroshock therapy to create negative associations with any kind of homosexuality.
Conversion therapy, which is legal in most of the country, is any set of treatments or therapies designed to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The exact methods vary, including talk therapy to practices like sleep deprivation, starvation and shock therapy.
The Mental Health Protection Act, a recently introduced bill, would make North Carolina the next state to ban the practice for minors. This bill, HB 516, would designate conversion therapy “unprofessional conduct,” and counselors, social workers or other professionals practicing it could lose their license.
“I am a survivor of conversion therapy, and I use the word survivor very, very specifically,” Brinton told a group gathered at Durham’s Northstar Church of the Arts on Wednesday.
‘Better than bleak’
Over 700,000 Americans have gone through conversion therapy, according to the UCLA Williams Institute, even though the practice has been disavowed by groups such as The American Counseling Association, the American Psychological Association and The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. According to Brinton, another 20,000 young adults are at risk of undergoing conversion therapy in the next few years.
But 16 states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, have banned conversion therapy for minors. According to the Movement Advancement Project, these states are home to an estimated 42% of the nation’s LGBTQ youth. Brinton, who is both a nuclear physicist and head of advocacy for The Trevor Project, the nation’s largest suicide intervention and prevention organization for LGBTQ youth, said 40 states have or have introduced legislation protecting LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy. Most of this legislation has been introduced within the last two years.
“The landscape is better than bleak,” Brinton said.
Equality North Carolina and Campaign for Southern Equality are leading Born Perfect NC, a grassroots campaign to end conversion therapy. The groups conducted a poll in February that showed strong bipartisan support for outlawing the practice. Eighty percent of those polled immediately said they think conversion therapy should be illegal for minors. When they learned more about the practice, nearly half of those who didn’t agree changed their answer.
Kara Angell, a 16-year-old mental health advocate from Charlotte, spoke at a press conference in support of the new legislation on Tuesday. Angell is grateful that her parents chose to support her no matter her identity, but she addressed parents who might think conversion therapy would help their child.
“There is a high chance that they won’t grow up at all,” Angell said.
The youth suicide rate in North Carolina has nearly doubled in the past decade, and LGBTQ youth are particularly at risk.
In North Carolina, 16% of high school students seriously considered committing suicide in 2017, according to a recent report by NC Child. When that number is broken down by gender identity and sexual orientation, the disparity becomes clear: 12% of heterosexual students seriously considered suicide, compared to 43% of LGBTQ students.
The CDC found that 8.2% of all high school students in North Carolina attempted suicide in 2017, compared to 35% of transgender high school students.
HB 516 specifically references a 2018 study the by the Family Acceptance Project, which found increased rates of suicide for LGBT youth who experience attempts to change their sexual orientation. These youths are nearly three times as likely to attempt suicide when compared to a young adult who had no conversion experiences.
“The future, our future, is teenagers,” Angell said. “We will inherit the world, and I for one want my brothers, sisters and gender-nonconforming siblings to be around to see it.”
Legislators filed two other bills related to LGBTQ issues last week. One would fully repeal HB 2, the controversial “bathroom bill,” and the other would expand protections against discrimination.
If you are an LGBTQ youth dealing with suicidal ideation, The Trevor Project’s 24-hour hotline can be reached at 1-866-488-7386 and chat services are available on their website, thetrevorproject.org.