“I came across your article. I’m in a desperate situation. I need help. I wasn’t sure who else to turn to.”
No matter how many times I receive email messages such as this, it is always somewhat of a surprise for me. My previous Counseling Today online exclusive “Conversion therapy: Learning to love myself again” has led me to receive a consistent array of messages from folks of all ages and geographical locations who are struggling with their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Some of the emails contain positive messages: folks who commend me on my bravery to tell my coming-out story. Many of those same people are also shocked I was able to navigate the situation in a manner that led to me having what most would consider a successful personal and professional life. However, the majority of emails I receive are from folks who are in dire need of support and are living in situations and communities where they do not have support or are unable to find support that is confidential. Without appropriate resources, many of these people are at their wits end. The struggles include being trapped at home with unsupportive, homophobic and transphobic family members; being stuck in a marriage in which one’s partner has no idea the other partner is hiding their sexual orientation; being bullied in school; or living one’s entire life with unaddressed trauma stemming from being forced to repress one’s sexual identity. (Please note that the stories and emails I share in this article have been altered to protect the privacy and confidentiality of those who have reached out. All identities remain 100% confidential.)
Conversion therapy throughout the world
First, let’s explore the current state of conversion therapy. Several places have bans against this practice. According to a Stonewall.org article on conversion therapy bans, Brazil led the charge by introducing a ban on conversion therapy in 1999. This ban on therapy relating to sexual orientation was considered groundbreaking at the time, and it helped to set the standard for other countries to follow. In 2000, Norway issued a similar ban, and Samoa banned “registered health professionals from practicing conversion therapy” in 2007. These types of bans continued in places across the world, including in Argentina and Fiji in 2010, Ecuador in 2014, Malta in 2016, and Uruguay in 2017. In 2021, Chile introduced a medical ban and India issued “directives to prohibit conversion therapy.” This year, France and New Zealand also passed laws banning the practice.
Canada initially started banning conversion therapy practices in various provinces and territories, including Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Yukon, and in December 2021, it banned conversation therapy entirely. The United States has had taken a similar approach. According to the Movement Advancement Project, California was the first state to pass a ban on conversion therapy in 2012, followed by New Jersey in 2013; District of Columbia in 2014; Oregon and Illinois in 2015; Vermont in 2016; Connecticut, Nevada, New Mexico and Rhode Island in 2017; Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire and Washington in 2018; Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Colorado, and Puerto Rico in 2019; Utah and Virginia in 2020; and Minnesota in 2021. In addition, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin have all partially banned the practice and signed an executive order prohibiting the use of state funding for conversion therapy for minors. And roughly 100 other U.S. counties, municipalities and communities have also issued ordinances banning conversion therapy practices. Please note that some states and districts may only have partial bans, meaning some aspects of conversion therapy may still be legal or eligible for state funding.
The good, the bad and the ugly
Although as a society we have made progress toward the expulsion of conversion therapy, we still have a long way to go, which is evident by the range of emails and stories I received after writing my online exclusive in 2017. And it is important that we do not forget those who may have been left behind or who have not had the opportunity to benefit from the successes of dismantling conversion. We must continue to recognize everyone’s unique experience in dealing with conversion therapy and other methods of identity repression. The following two stories represent a very small margin of the emails I have received from folks reaching out for guidance.
Feeling alone, scared and unsupported
I received an email from a young person who described themselves as trans-identified and stated they had recently come out to their parents. They were met with pushback and were encountering consistent transphobic and homophobic verbal abuse. They mentioned many of the issues I had previously written about in my CT online article such as feeling as if they had no outlet to be themself. They expressed fear for their future and wondered if they would even have a future. They said that when they purchased clothing that aligned outside of their assigned sex, their parents would find the clothing and throw it in the trash. They were literally and figuratively being stripped of their transhood.
When receiving a message such as this, it is nearly impossible to not immediately feel a sense of darkness and heartbreak — not simply for this individual but also in a grander sense. Homophobia and transphobia are issues that are plaguing queer youth, and they are not issues that simply end as one gets older. Eventually the negative messages they are constantly being fed consume their thoughts, and in turn, it begins to affect their mental health, physical health and any healthy sense of self-identity they may have one once held. The lack of familial support and downright abuse day after day after day will eventually break someone down, and this theme will often continue into one’s adulthood.
After reading this email, I knew this young person was in dire need of any support and genuine kindness, and they were purposefully being kept in an environment that didn’t provide or allow for that. It is important to note that the idea of being able to provide virtual support to a minor, who needs to keep everything a secret from their family, is incredibly challenging. It can also be dangerous for the younger person as they attempt to secretly navigate the situation. This youth put themselves at risk with every email correspondence with me. They were guarded in their emails and left out descriptors such as their specific age and geographic location, which made locating exact resources impossible. However, given the description of their small town, it seemed as though these potential resources likely did not exist.
I drew from my own experience and thought of the outlets I had used when I was under the age of 18 and dealing with conversion therapy in a small town without many LGBTQIA+ resources. I turned to my honors English teacher; she was the first adult I came out to aside from my parents. At the time, I was still living in an environment where I had to be secretive about my sexual orientation. Even after coming out, I was forced to maintain the façade of being heterosexual. My teacher was one of few adults I could trust, and I genuinely enjoyed taking her class. One of our assignments involved creating a CD of songs, along with a description of each song and an explanation of how the songs applied to our life. I used this assignment as my coming out story to her. This project resulted in my teacher giving me 100 bonus points (which meant I was guaranteed an A+ in her course), but more importantly, it also gave me confidence and the knowledge that coming out would not necessarily always be met with a negative response. Even in a very conservative area with seemingly no LGBTQIA+ supports, there were still folks out there who held compassion, understanding and positive regard for those whose identity falls under the queer umbrella.
I shared this story with the youth who was emailing me. We explored potential adults at school they felt they could trust. We also discussed the possibility that someone they thought would be supportive may not be. It is impossible to predict how somebody will react even if you feel you know them very well. And as queer people, we truly do not know how somebody will handle our queerness. Sometimes the benefits of coming out outweigh the risks, but sometimes they do not.
Understanding this risk, the young person decided to reveal their identity to a trusted teacher. Luckily, their music teacher was supportive and has managed to be a consistent outlet for them to express themselves and receive kindness and support in return. Obviously, this does not fix this youth’s entire situation as they are still under oppressive and transphobic control by their parents, but it does help to lighten this hardship. My English teacher was a major saving grace for me. Without her support, I fear that I would not be typing this today. I can only hope that the youth’s music teacher is as strong of a support system as my English teacher was for me.
Although my advice for this youth may seem simple or generic, it is important to remember that even in what seems to be the darkest hour, one can still find a light, no matter how big or small. Even in an area where LGBTQIA+ resources may be nonexistent or inaccessible, there are still folks out there who possess compassion and a willingness to go above and beyond to support someone who is in need. Sometimes we must go through the incredibly difficult process of attempting to trust another person with a secret — one we have already faced so much backlash for revealing. Being met with negativity when coming out just makes the process of coming out to someone else even more difficult. The story illustrates a common theme I have seen in the majority of emails I have received: folks who feel alone and unsupported.
The struggle of coming out
I also have gotten emails from people who haven’t come out yet. I received one at 3:04 a.m. I don’t often sleep much, so I was wide awake, and I read it immediately. The email was full of desperation. The man described himself as Muslim and said that he was attracted to men. He claimed his wife had no idea and they had been married for over three decades. He said that he was on verge of losing his marriage and children, and he was desperate to make things work with his wife. He had stumbled across my CT Online article and was able to relate to it because he remembered feeling stifled as a child. However, unlike me, he had never come out to anybody. He noted that this email was the first time he had expressed his feelings.
He described himself as a “frilly” child, which I interpreted as feminine. This had caused him to be bullied at school and at home, especially by his brothers, and it led to others making assumptions about him. He didn’t include many overt details regarding his school experience aside from stating that he did not have many friends — just one other boy with whom he had sexual relations when he was about 13-15. At one point, his brother walked in on them and discovered this sexual relationship, which resulted in him being physically beaten by not only the brother who discovered them but also his two other brothers. He was beaten so badly that he spent over two weeks in the hospital, and then he returned to the same home where the abuse occurred. His parents sent him to another school in a different neighborhood, and he said that he never saw his friend again. To this day, he has no idea what happened to him. These traumatic events resulted in an immense fear; one that has spanned the course of his entire life resulting in a fruitless marriage and the need for him to hide his true identity.
I will be honest and admit that it took me a long time to respond to this email. I even wrote several drafts before finally sending my response. This was a new situation for me: Most of the folks who reach out to me are in the middle of dealing with homophobic or transphobic issues, but his situation was different because he was still struggling with his sexual orientation. I researched affirming counselors in his area and provided him with a list of folks whom he could reach out to. I was also able to find an LGBTQIA+ support group in his city. And I did my best to provide kind words. I stressed that he was not a mistake and was actually a victim of his situation. It was clear he was holding a lot of guilt about keeping this secret from his wife and that it was eating away at him and his marriage. It was important for him to realize that his options at the time of his marriage were few and far between given the immense cultural and family pressure that was put on him to marry and have a family. That pressure mixed with the severe trauma and physical abuse he faced as a child pushed him deep into the closet.
I emailed him these resources and words of encouragement, and he responded almost immediately, saying, “Thank you for everything you have brought to this world.” This statement brought tears to my eyes. I am happy to be a voice for those who cannot speak up. However, my simple response to his very complex problems hardly seemed like enough. I left this interaction feeling discombobulated. I had provided him with resources, but I was in no way equipped to provide anything further regarding his marriage. That was something he would have to work on himself. Was there more that I could have done? Probably not. Did I wish there was more I could do? Definitely.
Trudging forward and making progress
I write this update to share a very small portion of some of the stories I have encountered since openly discussing my experiences with conversion therapy. It crucial that more people gain the courage to share their experiences so the gravity of the impact of conversion therapy can be fully understood. The more folks share their story, the more we are all able to connect and support each other. We are moving in a direction that is positive, but we must continue on this path to dismantle this harmful, dangerous and potentially life-destroying practice.
I had no clue the impact that my story would have on others. It is heartwarming yet terrifying that so many people are able to connect with and relate to such trauma. It became incredibly clear that I had accidentally distanced myself from the overall desperation one feels when trapped in a similar situation. Writing my previous article helped me to relive my experiences in a way that was healing, and the responses to that article serve as a brutal reminder of how much more severe one’s situation can be. These responses also remind me that many folks are not as lucky as I am to have parents who were willing not only to admit their wrongdoings but also to work through those mistakes and come out as loving and supportive parents on the other side. They are a testament to personal growth and willingness to understand. These are qualities that we need more of in humanity, and ultimately, these are the qualities that will help end conversion therapy.
For more on laws relating to conversion therapy, see stonewall.org.uk/about-us/news/which-countries-have-already-banned-conversion-therapy and lgbtmap.org/equality-maps/conversion_therapy.
Luke Romesberg is a licensed professional counselor and certified alcohol and other drug counselor. He is a doctoral candidate in the counselor education and supervision program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Currently, he works as the director of youth homelessness services at Center on Halsted and as a home study worker for the Adoption Center of Illinois at Family Resource Center.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.