Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne.
Alex: And I’m Alex Berg. And you’re listening to…
Both: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast
Phil: On today’s show, we dig into the Driftwood archives and hear two stories that confront the issue of conversion therapy. Up first, we have Scott, a gay law student whose coming out story involved a call from Harvard and how he put an ex-gay counselor in his place.
Scott: When you apply to law school nowadays, you can actually Mark on your application if you’re openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. And, you know, I put that down because I figured why not? I was.
And, you know, I did pretty well on the LSAT. And so this information goes out to a bunch of law schools. And so Harvard’s gay law students group called my mother’s house because that was my address and said, “We want to talk to Scott Blair.”
And she said, “Why?”
“Well, because he’s… he’s gay. We know he’s applying to law school. We’d really like him to go to Harvard.”
You know, and so we’re in the car at one point and she says, “Scott, I got this call from Harvard Law’s gay student group saying you were gay.”
I’m like, “That’s weird. Why?”
“Well, they want you to go there.”
I’m like, “Oh. Did you save the contact information?”
“Oh. How come?”
She was like, “Well, I thought you… I was hoping you were lying to them in order to get into a better law school.”
I’m like, “Well, I probably would do that if I was straight, but actually I am gay.”
You know, and then she replies. “All right. I almost want to drive this car into a tree.”
And I replied, “Can you let me get out of the car first and then go ahead?”
You know, it was very weird because I still maintain that as the best possible way for any mother to ever find out that their child is gay. And even though my father is an atheist and my mother is a nominal Catholic, they joined an Orthodox Jewish ex-gay group, as well as Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, which has an ex-gay movement surprisingly active in New Jersey.
And I looked at them and I said, “That is the opposite of the group you were supposed to be joining right now. I am pretty – they literally stole the name of the group, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. That is the group you should be joining.”
And they asked me to meet with somebody in this group, one of its leaders, to sort of understand what the homosexual lifestyle was about and what being gay was about. And I thought they were crazy. You know, I still think they’re crazy for thinking that, but to humor them, I said it would go if they tried to be a little more open-minded.
So I met this guy at my father’s office in the summer of my second year of law school. And he comes in and he just – first sits down and he asks me, “So, why are you gay?”
I’m like, “Well, I’m attracted to men.”
And he was like, “Why are you attracted to men?”
I’m like, “Well, probably pretty complicated. Maybe some hereditary thing, maybe upbringing. You know, sexuality is very complicated.” He sort of goes into this weird diatribe about how no one has ever found a gay gene.
And I’m looking at him and he tells me, “You know, every study that’s reported to find a gay gene has an authored by gays. No one else has ever found one.”
And I said, “I have no idea what studies you’re talking about, but sexuality is very complex. Everything that humans do is very complex. All a gene does is control the expression of a protein. I would be extremely shocked if one gene can control anything like that.”
And he looked at me and is, like, very confused, because I don’t think anyone had ever answered him in that manner before. And so we continue sort of talking and he asked me about my childhood.
And he says, “Well, I know your parents are divorced. How did that go affect you?”
And I said, like, “Lots of people are divorced, you know? It wasn’t great, but I’m doing fine now.” And he asked me if I hate my father for that, for the fact that my parents were divorced.
And I said, “No, not really. I was raised by my father after the divorce.”
And then he asked me, “Okay, were you – how do you feel about your mother?”
I’m like, “Why do you ask?”
“Well, a lot of times people who…” excuse me, “people who are angry at one of their parents – at their mother end up being turned off of women.”
And I look at him and I say, “Okay. So because – if I was angry at my mother, that would make me gay because I would be turned off of women. But you asked me how I felt about my father. My guess is what you’re going to say is that if I was angry at my father, that made me want to seek the company of other men.”
And the guy looks at me and says, “That was often – that is often born out by my experience.”
And I was sort of – blinked for a moment and I said, “Isn’t that sort of contradictory, no matter which one of my parents I hate,” which I don’t know if they’re ever watching this, “that made me gay.”
And he said, “Well, it’s very complicated, but basically it’s often something the parents have done.”
We tried to talk about how sexual immorality can lead to the fall of civilizations. And he brought up the Roman Empire and I got very angry about this because, you know, half the books on my bookshelf are about the Roman Empire. And the point that I made to him was the Roman empire only fell after it became Christian.
And he said, “Well, they weren’t really Christian in any sense of the word that we would use today.” And I pointed out to him that St. Thomas… that St. Augustine was one of the most famous Christian theologists ever. And according to what this guy was telling me, he wasn’t actually a Christian. And I wanted to know what made him say that that was the case.
And then he said, “Well, you know, they were very, very Catholic.”
And then I said, “You realize my mother is Catholic, right?” And he sort of moved and changed the conversation a little bit.
You know, one thing that he tried to do was say that gays are trying to restrict the rights of religious people by trying to make it… by trying to make it illegal to fire gays and lesbians. And I told them this is basically the same thing as saying African-Americans were trying to restrict the rights of KKK members during the civil rights movements. I didn’t see any difference and I still don’t see a difference.
And I was sort of like, “But, you know, I mean, if we’re sort of at this point in the conversation, I don’t know what we’re really talking about. All you’ve been really doing as far as I can tell was getting everything wrong. If you want a reading list, I’m happy to give you one.”
And then he was like, “Well, thank you for your time.” Then he walked out to go talk to my father for a little bit.
It’s actually hard not to feel a little sorry for him, because he was gay or.. you know, before he changed. And he changed in the – he claimed that he realized homosexuality was immoral in the eighties when he saw a lot of his friends dying from AIDS. And you kind of want to mock – and it’s, like, hard to mock somebody for that, right, because I do think that affected him. I don’t think it affected him in a healthy manner. I think there a lot of people who had a better, more productive outcome, but you know, it’s easy to see how that would affect somebody.
You know, my parents continued to be in this group for a little while longer after this happened. When he left, he told my father that I’m very much like him, which did make my father laugh a little bit because it’s certainly true. We both have a very strong argumentative and stubborn streak.
The relationship with my father now is interesting because we are very similar in a lot of ways. You know, we don’t talk about my sexual life at all, or my relationships at all, which is a shame. The last time we talked about it, I basically told them I’m not changing who I am. He can deal with it or become a smaller part of my life. So we’re seeing how that plays out.
I would tell him any kid who has to go to see an ex-gay therapist or somebody who’s telling them that it’s wrong to be gay, that they were smarter than somebody who thinks that. And they’re better than somebody who thinks that. And, frankly, any argument that somebody uses support, changing who you are and being straight is very, very bad. Very dumb.
Alex: I think one of the things that this story really illuminated all along the way was for me, the degree of hypocrisy involved with this particular movement. And I say that because he talked a lot about his family and it was interesting to hear about how his parents would really kind of cherry pick their religious beliefs based on what worked for them. And in this case, in terms of really buying into a lot of homophobic values.
So I say this because he talks about how his parents were divorced, how they actually were of different faith backgrounds. And I think that that was one of the really big things that jumped out to me was that they really gleaned onto these homophobic beliefs and joined this really dangerous group.
And I think one of the important points too, is that he said that his parents joined this group in New Jersey. I think especially being based here in New York, that conversion therapy… “Well, that is something that’s not happening on the East coast” Or “That’s something that’s happening in States… in other places around the country.” And I just think it’s really important to illuminate that this is something that your geographical location doesn’t determine the kind of beliefs that you have. So I also just really found it to be informative that he talked about that, that this group is actually very well-organized in New Jersey.
Phil: Up next we hear from John, a gay man, whose way of fighting back against conversion therapy was to go undercover and infiltrate an anti-gay clinic. Let’s take a listen.
John: I knew I was gay long before I knew what word to attach to it. I knew that the feelings that I was feeling were… were directed towards other boys and not toward the girls. I didn’t know that that made me gay. I actually… I actually found out about… I found that word out on the playground when other kids would call me that.
Throughout that whole struggle, my prayer, my thought was just… I was… I would ask God to take… to take it away.
I was hurting myself. I was inflicting pain on myself. I was… I was praying rosaries. I was doing everything that, you know, that the Catholic church and… and all these saints lives and all these prayer traditions said to do and nothing was working. And, but it was finally when I… when I… when I tried to end my life, that was what sort of snapped me out of it to realize that, yeah, I needed to, to somehow….somehow make peace with it.
Over the next eight, 10 years or so, my journey continued., I came out to my family. That was… that was a little bit bumpy at first, but ultimately they were… they were very supportive. I started to date guys. I met one whom I fell in love with and we got married. So it was a period of…. it was a period of a lot of growth for me in terms of embracing my sexual orientation.
In 2011, we moved out to Vermont so I could take a job with an organization that fights back against anti LGBTQ religious extremism, the pray-away-the-gay myth, conversion therapy and things like that. That was also the… the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. It was primary season.
After one of the debates the… the winner of that debate was Michelle Bachmann. She is a very far right conservative Congresswoman from Minnesota, or was at the time. A lot of attention started to come to the quote-unquote Christian counseling clinic that she and her husband ran in Minnesota. That clinic, there had long been rumors swirling around it that it offered a conversion therapy. They had always denied it. And nobody had ever been able to independently verify whether or not the rumors were true. So we decided that we were going to go in and try to verified these rumors ourselves, to see whether or not they were true.
So here’s little old, 26 year old me in a home office in Burlington, Vermont. And I pick up the phone and I call this Minnesota clinic and I tell them that I am, you know, I’m a young man who is struggling because I have feelings of homosexuality. I’m attracted to other men. Can you help me get rid of these things so that I can… I can… my life can be in accordance with my faith tradition.
The reason we did that was because we wanted to give them an opportunity to respond ethically, and any ethical mental health professional hearing, somebody like me say that to them and ask for that kind of help, quote-unquote would say, “You’re asking for something that actually can’t be done and that is actually going to be harmful to you.” They didn’t say that. They didn’t respond ethically.
They said, “Oh, sure, we can do that for you. We’ll get you set up with a therapist.” I booked my flights out to… out to Minnesota and I got on the plane and stepped – when I stepped off the plane and got ready for this experience, I didn’t just… didn’t just step into a new place. I sort of stepped back into… into a lot of painful memories in my own life.
I pulled up into the parking lot for that first appointment and… and I realized that my transformation couldn’t just be in my mind. It had to be a physical one. I took my wedding ring off and placed it inside the flap of the messenger bag I had with me. And I placed it right next to one of the cameras that I was going to be using to record… record the sessions. I had three recording devices on me. One was that pinhole camera in my bag, where I… where I put the ring as sort of a reminder of myself and of why I was doing this. I also had a spy camera in… in a… hidden in a wristwatch that I was wearing. And I – the third recording device I had was a sound recorder disguised as a thumb drive, flash drive key chain.
I sat down with this… with this therapist. It was an extended fishing expeditional through my life to try to find some kind of extrinsic factor to pin, you know, on which to pin my homosexuality, my affliction.
They gave me… they gave me a treatment plan. They said it would take about four to six months and that at the… at the least I could expect to get my homosexuality down to manageable levels. And was the word that they used. But at the most, he said many people are… many people are cured completely.
It was over a couple of weeks, five sessions in total. And during those I was advised everything from you know, getting myself a straight accountability buddy that – took to call anytime that I… that I felt the gay itch. I was… I was told that every time I saw a woman that was beautiful, even if I wasn’t sexually attracted to her, to recondition my mind and to remind myself that her breasts were for… were for me to be attracted to. I was designed to be attracted to those things.
I was given… I was given prayers. I was given referrals to churches and to pray away the gay support groups. After those five sessions was when we… when we realized that we had enough video evidence to show that conclusively that’s what they were doing. So that was when I disappeared and hopped a plane back to Vermont.
We were… we worked with a producer for ABC news and, yeah, we worked with their team and put it out and they – it ended up being… it was the lead story on ABC World News tonight. This expose really did help to recenter the conversion therapy issue in the national conversation and awaken many people to… to the dangers of it.
And in the years afterwards, we saw multiple states passing bans on the practice for minors. We saw President Obama come out against conversion therapy. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a groundbreaking lawsuit in New Jersey and won, suing one of these organizations on the basis of consumer fraud.
On a personal level, it felt like a victory, too, because after all of that… after all of that… that time I spent back and drudging up all of those… all of those memories and inhabiting that space, that scared frightened self-loathing desperate 14, 15 year old, who hated himself and who was cutting himself and who didn’t know where to turn and who would… who would cry at night and pray to God to make him different. It felt like… it felt like a way to strike back. It felt like a way to strike a blow against the religion-based bigotry that had… that had dominated so much of my life. And that was very satisfying.
There are still LGBTQ youth all across this country who… who live in homes where they hear things like this, where they hear these kind of anti-LGBTQ teachings, where they hear their parents or relatives or preachers tell them that they’re sick and that they’re… that they’re twisted and that they’re sinful and that they’re evil and that they’re going to go to hell for who they are. And they need to know that that’s a lie. They need to know that they’re just fine just as they are.
Phil: You know, one of the takeaways that I love about this story was how it felt like John revisited his past to go back into an environment where he was receiving messaging about how wrong it was to be homosexual, how wrong it is to be gay, and sort of met it. You know, he basically took it on and met it and came out this time on top. And I just thought that was such a powerful ending to the story.
Alex: I love your point about that, because it was also, like, in going and doing this, like, undercover sting operation, I mean, what a way to take back your power and be part of, you know, doing this huge expose. Just as a journalist, I was also riveted by this story to hear about the process of what he went through to do that, but it kind of felt like the ultimate way of taking hold of your autonomy as who you are, your independence as a queer person, and showing the world what this place was like and what the experiences of folks who have to go through this, what those are like. So I really loved that story.
Phil: It was a really incredible story. I’ve really loved it. But you know, let’s see if we can expand on this topic a bit and we want to welcome to I’m From Driftwood, writer, drag queen, comedian and cohost of the queer spirituality podcast, Lavender Mafia, please welcome Jack Bates. Jack, what’s going on?
Jack: I’m doing well. Thanks and thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Phil: Just to start off, would you mind telling our audience a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Jack: Yeah, absolutely. I’m Bi and trans-non binary. My pronouns are hey/they. And I write about queerness, Christianity, the Middle Ages, sometimes all of those at once. At least in the before times, I used to perform standup comedy in clubs here in LA. Now I do some of that online over zoom.
Alex: You mentioned the before times, and I feel like this is a very big question that I’m going to ask you, but given that we have just lived through a little over a year of undoubtedly, one of the most challenging perplexing times that I could possibly think of, We’d love to know how you’re doing?
Jack: Oh, yeah, it has been about a year, right? Happy apocalypse-iversary. I mean, obviously everything’s horrible, but if we’re, like, grading on a curve, I feel like I’m doing kind of okay. And I feel like we sort of have to grade on a curve. Like, for a lot of people in my circles, this is like legit, the first difficult thing that they’ve had to live through. And so I’ve been able to lend some, like, emotional support and strength to some of my friends who are having a little bit harder time.
Phil: You know, that’s so true, Jack. It’s like, you know, something… going through something really difficult does put you in the position to help someone else. And I think it’s wonderful that you are… you are able to sort of turn your focus to your friends and be a support to them. And I’m sure they’ve really appreciate that because I think at this time everyone’s needing a little bit of support some way, somehow.
You know, I’d love to bring you into the conversation we were having earlier. You know, I understand you have a very interesting life that includes brushes with conversion therapy.Would you mind sharing the details of your story?
Jack: Yeah, sure. So I came out as bisexual later in life. I’d been married to a straight woman for about 10 years and we had a newborn son and we’re going to a pretty conservative Anglican church at the time. And I told the leaders at the church also that I was a bisexual person and they told me that if I wanted to keep going to the church that I was going to have to have weekly meetings, sometimes more than weekly, with one or more of the priests there.
And because religion has always been really important to me, I went along with it. And at first, it was just kind of talking about my experiences, my background, but it quickly became sort of bad psychologizing of my experiences, like dwelling on – especially my relationships with my parents. Like, I don’t have a great relationship with my dad. If your listeners could see me, I think they could understand why. Not typically masculine. And they really, like, focused on that, and that relationship with my dad and other male figures in my life. Like, “Oh, that must be why you’re part-time gay.”
It wasn’t just, psychologizing eventually the meetings started also to include, like, attempts at exorcism. Like, they told me that I was bisexual because I had a demon in me, a demon of homosexuality. And they tried, like, week in, week out to try to cast it out. Fortunately rehab didn’t take, but it was… it was incredibly difficult.
And I know people probably hear my story and ask, like, “Why didn’t you just leave?” And sometimes I ask that of myself, but I was born and raised in the Christian religion and it was always one of the most important parts of my life. And it remains a really important part of my life. My marriage was also wrapped up in it. When I cooperated with what the church was doing, my wife treated me better. And when I kind of bucked against it, things kind of got rockier, so it was that kind of domestic contribution to the struggle as well.
The leaders of the church, they gave me a lot of rules that I was supposed to follow, like they hate it a lot about how I talked about myself as bisexual and they wanted me to talk about struggling with same-sex attraction. They told me, you know, “If you… if you identify as gay or bisexual, then it will be harder for you to be cured.” I had also started doing drag. They hated that. I think that might’ve been the thing they hated most because it messed with their ideas of gender. Like, I didn’t fit in their boxes and they really wanted me to fit in those boxes. So they told me things like, you know, don’t wear makeup, don’t wear nail Polish, don’t wear heels. They even told me not to wear pink, which I thought was kind of crazy.
I was also making queer friends, trying to explore queer culture and queer spaces. And they told me, you need to end all these friendships because these people are bad influences on you.
Alex: One of the things that I was struck by from what you said is this idea, of this question of, well, why didn’t you leave the church sooner? Do you find that – is that the thing that people ask you often? I mean, to me, that feels like such in a way, almost like a victim-blaming kind of statement to make, and doesn’t actually address the harm that a church or an institution would be doing in this context.
Jack: Yeah, I think that that’s absolutely right. And I have to remind myself of that sometimes because I’m still very involved in Christian spaces. And I still have friends who are queer people who believe that being queer is wrong, that God doesn’t like it.
And sometimes I struggle with thinking why… why don’t you just leave? Why are you accepting the sort of scraps that they toss to you instead of insisting on more for yourself? But churches that do the sort of religious-based conversion therapy, they have a way of really making you feel powerless and that there’s no other option for you.
I mean, I was threatened with hell I don’t know how many times. And for a Christian who is raised in very conservative circles, like that’s the worst possible threat, and they use it to keep people in these sorts of therapy situations.
Alex: So we also want to talk about your podcast, Lavender Mafia. What is the show about and where did the concept come from? Just switching gears a little bit.
Jack: Yeah. So Lavender Mafia is a podcast about queer spirituality and sexuality from a queer Christian perspective. My cohost Jess is a queer woman of color who’s poly and genderqueer. She works in the entertainment industry here in LA, as well as being a pastor. And we just have conversations with each other about navigating life as queer people of faith.
And we’ll talk about anything like gender identity and expression. We’ll talk about our families of origin. We’ll talk about, like, our best and worst hookup stories. The concept came from this queer-found family in LA. I sort of started it off and it kind of gained momentum. People started joining us from all over LA and Orange County, and it was based on that hunch that queerness and Christianity are like, two great tastes that taste great together. Like, if you are a queer person and you want to hold on to your faith, like no tea, no shade if you don’t. Like, I don’t blame you. Christians are so often terrible. But if it is something that’s still important to you, our podcast explores how we can be both at once. And how we don’t have to sacrifice either. Like, if you turn up the queer dial, you don’t have to turn down the religious dial and vice versa. Like, we explore what it looks like to turn both the queer and the religious styles all the way up.
Alex: So now, in what ways do you think that you are using the work that you’re doing to help those who are kind of walking through your old shoes?
Jack: Yeah, because I’m so grateful. Yeah, I’ve gotten out of those circles intact and had an opportunity to… I’ve really had to rebuild my life. I lost my marriage, my church, and basically all my friends and a lot of my family, because I love my life now and want other people have an opportunity to live their best queer lives, whether they’re Christian or not.
If you’re a queer person of faith, you can bring these two into dialogue and both of them will be better. Your Christianity will be made more vibrant by a relationship with queerness, and your queerness will also be made more vibrant by being brought into conversation with your faith.
Phil: And I think it’s just such a human thing sometimes to not understand how to hold to things, you know what I mean? Until someone reminds us. It’s like, Nope, actually you could do both of those things. It’s like, It doesn’t have to be one of the other. And it’s… I love that you are out there, you know, talking to people who are queer, who might have a faith and don’t want to have to give it up. You know, it might be a very… it may be the cornerstone of their lives and… but they’re still queer and they can have both, you know? So I just… I think it’s so important to have someone like you talking about that. So that’s really great.
So what would you say, what kind of advice would you give to a queer listener that has gone through conversion therapy and is having a really hard time processing it?
Jack: First, I want to tell your listeners, if you’ve gone through conversion therapy, either in a religious context or in different contexts, you’re not alone. It’s far more common than a lot of people realize, and it’s far more common than it should be. And if you’ve had these sorts of experiences, I think you might have the same voice in your head that I had for a lot of my life and a lot of the time that I was in therapy, but the little voice that tells you that what you are is bad, that it’s wrong, that it makes you not worthy of love or life.
And if that voice speaks to you, know that it’s lying to you. Queerness, your queerness, my queerness, other people’s queerness, it brings something beautiful and irreplaceable into the world. And if you’re a queer person, the world is better because you’re here. If you don’t have people in your life who love you for the amazing queer person you are, know that we’re out here. There are people who will love you just as you are. And we want to find you. There’s a queer family waiting for you. A beautiful, diverse, creative, sometimes messy and problematic, but loving family that’s waiting for you. So come find us.
One of the important things to keep in mind about conversion therapy is that it’s hard to overstate the damage that it can cause. It’s really torture, at least psychological torture. But often it involves physical abuse as well. And a lot of this can be shored up by social pressures.
Like, people are often compelled to stay in conversion therapy, either by parents or guardians, people have power over them. Or as adults, like I was compelled in part by my spouse, in part by religious leaders, in part by people that were my friends and that I loved him were important to me. And in addition to conversion therapy for minors still being legal in so many parts of the country, religious-based conversion therapy, even for minors, for mains legal, just about everywhere.
Unfortunately, a lot of churches hide behind this sort of separation of church and state to continue these abusive practices, even in places where it’s illegal in a clinical context. There is this impulse and even a pressure to choose between two things that seem difficult to hold at the same time. But I feel like so many of the most beautiful truths in life are contained in these sorts of paradoxes. And that when people tell you, you have to choose between being queer and being a person of faith, or you have to choose between being masculine and feminine, you can just ask them, like, “Who told you? Who made you the gender police? Why can’t I just have both?” I try to bring that, like, bi energy into all of my life.
Phil: Love that.
Alex: As a fellow, bi+ person, I felt that deeply, so… well, speaking of that, where can folks find Lavender Mafia and all that good stuff? Where can they find you online?
Jack: Yeah. Thank you. Lavender Mafia is on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, your favorite other streaming service. I’m most active on Twitter at @JackMB, M as in Mark, B as in Bates. And our podcast is also on Twitter and Instagram at LavMafia. L-A-V-M-A-F-I-A.
Phil: Wonderfu.l You know, Jack, thank you so much for joining us today. This conversation was so good. I definitely had a moment where I got a little misty.
Alex: I know!
Phil: Oh my god, Jack, you got me emo-
Jack: I’m glad y’all didn’t cry ‘cause I’m a sympathetic crier. I would have broken down.
Alex: Oh my gosh. After is not waterproof. I can do it.
Jack: … is not waterproof. I cannot break down.
Phil: Wonderful conversation.
Jack: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.
Phil: If you or someone you know is a victim of conversion therapy and need resources, please visit BornPerfect.org. That’s BornPerfect.org
The I’m From Driftwood Podcast is hosted by Phil aka Corinne
Alex: And Alex Berg, and is produced by Andy Egan-Thorpe.
Phil: It’s recorded as a program of I’m From Driftwood, a worldwide nonprofit LGBTQAI+ story archive.
Alex: I’m From Driftwood’s Founder and Executive Director is Nathan Manske. It’s Program Director is Damien Mittlefehldt.
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Alex: Thanks for listening y’all.