First person

What seeking conversion therapy in my conservative county taught me

Jacob Gelman

I walked into my local church in Brevard County, Florida and approached the receptionist. “Hi” I said. “I’m here for Pastor John Patrick Riley.”

“Yes” she replied. “Come right in.”

The sweat from my forehead evaporated and my glasses cleared; I sat in an ugly green chair. That morning, in order to protect my cover, I removed the Pride pin I usually kept on. An emptiness filled its place. A mission fueled it: play the role of ‘vulnerable gay teen seeking ex-gay therapy.’ I came here to expose Pastor Riley and my town.

I looked up. “Jacob?” the pastor asked. Pastor Riley took me down a large cacophony of hallways and doors before eventually leading me to his office. He navigated the stacks of books scattered across the floor and sat down; the chair let out a large puff of air. That’s when he began talking.

The first half of our conversation was a treatise into the history of my family’s religion — all of which I lied about. The the real business began.

Related: Bowen Yang opens up about undergoing conversion therapy as a teen

Pastor Riley explained that the church viewed same sex attraction as a sin and that it’s my role to live a life of chastity. One of the keys to achieving it was diminishing desire. Through counseling, he believed it would be possible for me to tamp out my attraction and live a sin-free life.

“Any questions?” he asked.

“So it’s not possible for me to ​get rid of m​y desires?” I asked in return.

His face lit up. “Oh no,” he said. “It is.” He described to me the national “reparative therapy industry​” that helps people diminish or get rid of their desires and offered a referral.

“Yes” I said. “I would like a referral.”

He instructed me to read the ​Courage Apostolate ​and follow up with an email to schedule another appointment. A week later, I found the time to look up what he was talking about. Shocked, I found the Catholic church’s internationally organized movement to 12-step the gay away.

It became clear to me Pastor Riley was an expert for a reason, serving as my county’s leader for the ​Courage group of adults looking to live a chaste life. Diving deeper, I found two more groups in my county offering the same services. I called one.

Related: Former leader of ex-gay conversion therapy group admits it’s harmful and doesn’t work

Over the course of a five minute conversation two things became clear. First, minors are allowed treatment as long as a parent is with them. Second, there was a ​licensed ​psychologist in Orlando who offered these same services.

I called the Orlando therapist and our conversation was curt. He had no experience with minors, and referred me to some people in my surrounding area.

It became apparent how large this industry truly was. Within days, I had gotten the contact information for six therapists and Pastors offering reparative therapy for minors in my county, and some of them even took insurance.

To perform reparative therapy on any child is an abhorrent practice that instills in the psyche the imperfection of the individual. To strive for the betterment of this imperfection is impossible. The child ends up hating an unchangeable characteristic of themself. These harms have led to 20 states outlawing the practice on minors as of March 2020, with many organizations labeling it as abuse.

The government has an obligation to protect its citizens, including queer minors. It’s time for the practice to end once and for all.

Related: Canada presents federal bill to ban conversion therapy

The persistence of the ex-gay movement on children reveals the shortcomings of us as a nation to truly call out institutionalized oppression — to end practices that have been proven to lead to suicide.

Throughout my own journey exploring the scene, I have become increasingly angry. The church that finally referred me to reparative therapy is one that is deeply embedded within the social fabric of my town. That same church holds weekly gatherings of ​Life Teen ​which one-quarter of my peers attend.

It was throughout this process I realized the intersectionality of organized and weaponized religion.

When I expressed my distress, the response from even my closest friends was bemoaning.

“They don’t know,” they’d say.

“They’re so nice,” they’d say.

“It’s their parents,” they’d say.

I am done making excuses for those complicit in institutions of harm. I am done acting nice to those who believe I shall be tortured in eternity. I am done being friends with those who participate in youth groups because it’s ​fun w​hen they wind up being the financial donors of the system supporting reparative therapy. I am tired of not critiquing institutions because it may offend those who are “nice.”

Related: Once a poster child for conversion therapy, musician Nakhane now preaches queerness

It was in Martin Luther King’s ​Letter from a Birmingham Jail ​that he scathingly called out what he considered “the white moderate” in a time of racial distress. He called them the true barrier between the black body and liberation from segregation. He juxtaposed their inaction to being the action of harm causing the diminishment of Black America.

Today there is a new moderate. The moderate is those who consider the word ​ally ​a label instead of a call to action. The moderates are those who insist they are fine with gay people but don’t have the time to protest. The moderate is those who are more quick to defend the oppressor instead of the oppressed. The moderate is those who insist on waiting instead of organizing.

I have become an independent patchwork on the quilt of queer Brevard. I have become attached to those who tell me, in tears, how they lost their jobs because they marched in Pride, lost their jobs because they began to transition, lost a friend to suicide, or lost their son’s friend to conversion therapy.

I cry writing this thinking of the way I yell and the way no one listens, and of the pain I witness that goes unexpressed.

I cry writing this knowing that when I went to the commissioners to beg for human rights, the only response I heard was the deafening silence of inaction.

And ultimately I know that no matter how heavy my tears fall, they are not even one tenth the weight of the Black and Latinx trans women crying beside me. They are not even one tenth the weight of the trans femme crying beside me.

I hope to provide a call to action. I walked into that office thinking I would find nothing – instead I discovered my voice. Walking out I felt a fire I wanted to use for the burning of every nonsensical institution used for the subversion of the queer body — to burn the oppression of all people and build in its place liberation for all.

Jacob is a current high schooler at Viera High School who is working to ban conversion therapy in his county. You can keep up with his work on instagram @jacobgelman.