What Conversion Therapy Is Really Like, From Someone Who Survived It

Thanks to Vice President Mike Pence's reported support of conversion therapy for LGBTQ people, we've been hearing a lot about this outdated practice in the news lately. But according to Sam Brinton — who survived conversion therapy as a child — it's unfortunately still happening, and we need to talk about it.
Brinton, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, recently spoke at the Equality Federation’s 20th Annual Leadership Conference about their experiences at a conversion therapy camp and what they're doing to end it.
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Born the child of Baptist missionaries, Brinton grew up all over the world, and would come back to the U.S. to live in a commune with other missionaries. When Brinton and their friends stumbled upon a discarded Playboy magazine one day, they realized that they didn't have feelings for the women in the magazine, but did have feelings for a friend named Dale.
"I did it so matter-of-factly," they say in a speech that has since been posted to Facebook. "I didn't realize I was coming out."
After unintentionally coming out at 11-years-old, Brinton first suffered abuse from their father, who was attempting to change his child's sexuality. They say in the video that their parents only turned to conversion therapy after their mom spoke up about the bruises and how they hadn't changed Brinton's love for their friend.
At conversion therapy, they were told that they were the last gay person left on Earth — that the government had killed every other gay person, but if they could change then no one need know. A few weeks later, they were told that AIDs was destroying the gay community because God hates them.
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Soon after, Brinton — who was still just 11-years-old at the time — attempted to kill themselves. They had learned at some point in life that taking too many pills could make you fall asleep and never wake up, so they took three Advil instead of two. It's a funny thought that someone would truly believe three Advil is enough to kill someone, but while Brinton and the audience shared a laugh over it, there's the implication that a child attempted suicide because someone told them they didn't deserve to live.
That is what makes conversion therapy so dangerous. Even before they experienced the awful practices we often think of when we hear about conversion therapy, Brinton already didn't want to live.
But they did live, and was then subjected to what's known as reversion therapy — during which a "therapist" harms someone whose sexuality they aim to change, often while making them look at images of the bodies they shouldn't be attracted to.
"My hands were bound, placed in ice, and pictures of men touching other men — just holding hands — were shown," Brinton says. "I was supposed to associate the cold I was feeling with the images I was seeing." When the ice didn't work, Brinton's hands were wrapped in wire, which was then heated to burn their skin.
When heat didn't work, they tried electricity. Brinton was shocked through needles in their fingers as they watched pornographic images of men. At some point, Brinton just lied.
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"I would say 'Mom, he's done it,'" Brinton says. "God had made it work, I can't do this any longer. I feel like I must be straight." It wasn't until college that Brinton realized they weren't the last gay kid left on the planet and started to tell their story.
And it's a story that still needs to be told. Ten states and the District of Columbia currently ban conversion therapy on children: Connecticut, California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Illinois, Vermont, New York, New Mexico and Rhode Island. But in several other states, the torture Brinton went through is still a reality for people.
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