As a survivor of "ex-gay" conversion therapy and the author of a memoir that addresses my experience, I'm often met with incredulity when I talk about the nature of what people are subjected to while undergoing conversion therapy or asked how our society can allow such brutal discrimination to happen. And while these questions are typically well-intentioned, they can seem naïve to individuals who have experienced such cruelty firsthand. It's a privileged worldview that sees the brutality of the past as isolated from our enlightened present; it sees progress as a straight line, and not as the treacherous struggle it actually is.
Despite criticism of the practice from the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the Obama administration, throughout the majority of our country, conversion therapy is still legal. This means that 76 percent of our LGBTQ population currently resides in a state where they can legally be asked to detail all of their sexual fantasies in an attempt to lead them into feelings of deep shame and regret. This means that a child can be told that memories of their parents are false, and that some form of early abuse must have "turned them gay." And though more than 20 states have attempted to pass legislation banning conversion therapy, legislators in states like Florida and Virginia have struck down similar bills. Meanwhile, Iowa's Board of Medicine, which is made up of "doctors and citizens... appointed by the governor," is set to "look into" a proposal to ban the practice in the state, according to the Des Moines Register.
"But you don't have to attend 'ex-gay' therapy to be in 'ex-gay' therapy," I tell skeptics. "All you have to do is dare to be queer in America. The bigotry will come to you."
I point out that LGBTQ adolescents make up 40 percent of all homeless youth. Like many queer rights advocates, I believe that the recent string of anti-LGBTQ legislation policing health services and facilities in states like Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and North Carolina is not unconnected from Orlando's Pulse Nightclub massacre, and that outside a few pockets of safety and privilege in our country, queer lives have always been, and continue to be, expendable.
"Freedom" and "safety," for the Republican Party, means freedom and safety for those who are a product of the "traditional marriage and family," and not for those marginalized Americans who need it most.
Yes, we now live in a country with national marriage equality—yet we also live in a country where one of our two major political parties is currently advancing an agenda to legalize anti-LGBTQ discrimination based on ambiguous notions of "religious freedom." Referring to the Obama administration's inclusion of transgender rights in its interpretation of Title IX, the 2016 Republican platform, using reactionary language, has declared that Democrats wish to "undermine religion and drive it from the public square." The GOP's solution? The First Amendment Defense Act, which would allow "healthcare professionals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and organizations" to turn away customers based on "the rights of [their] conscience" and potentially deprive LGBTQ individuals of their services, a discriminatory practice already legal in states like Arkansas and Tennessee.
Perhaps most troubling is language included surrounding therapeutic practices for minors. Conservative Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, a longtime proponent of conversion therapy, fought hard for the inclusion of the right of parents to "determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their children" in this year's platform. In addition, Trump's running mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, has advocated for "institutions which provide support for those seeking to change their sexual behavior."
In other words, in the GOP's conception of "religious freedom," parents and healthcare professionals should have the right to subject children to brainwashing tactics. In the ideal future of our country under GOP leadership, children should, if parents deem it necessary, be forced to detail all of their sexual fantasies to conversion therapy counselors who wish to lead them into deep feelings of shame and regret. If deemed necessary, those children should be told that memories of their parents are false, and that some form of early abuse must have "turned them gay." A child should be made to believe that their gender identity is a sham, as was the case with trans teen Leah Alcorn, who tragically committed suicide while undergoing such "therapy."
The lie on offer from this year's iteration of the Republican Party is that freedom exists in a vacuum, that everyone in our country has complete access to freedom at all times, and that safety is a matter of personal choice. The GOP's platform "call[s] on state officials to preserve our public colleges, universities, and trade schools as places of learning... [and] not zones of intellectual intolerance or 'safe zones,' as if college students need protection from the free exchange of ideas." Republicans, as such, believe that all ideas are truly equal, that hate speech doesn't exist, that minorities do not suffer academically and mentally when subject to bigotry and discrimination. To the GOP, creating safe spaces for these individuals would be "unfair"—a fact that could only be true if we lived in a truly egalitarian society.
"Freedom" and "safety," for the Republican Party, means freedom and safety for those who are a product of the "traditional marriage and family," and not for those marginalized Americans who need it most. This has long been evident to anyone fighting for minority rights in our country, but it seems that now more than ever, as another wave of Republican legislation attempts to limit our freedom in the name of "freedom," we must stay alert to these attacks on our lives.
In 2004, when I was in "ex-gay" therapy, my counselors told me that "the mainstream US media" was trying to brainwash me into being gay. "Your professors are in on this, too," one of my counselors said. "Don't trust anyone with too many degrees." I was told to trust only the Bible and my parents instead, a sentiment reflected in this year's GOP platform: "A good understanding of the Bible being indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry, we encourage state legislatures to offer the Bible in a literature curriculum as an elective in America's high schools."
This kind of anti-intellectualism followed me for nearly a decade, inhibiting all of the critical thinking skills that could have helped me escape from the self-doubt my counselors instilled in me. It also made it easier to fall into depression and suicidal ideation. In 2016, we cannot allow this blatant anti-intellectualism to control our country's legislative process. It's time: We must turn our incredulity and anger into action.
Follow Garrard Conley on Twitter. His memoir, Boy Erased, is out now from Riverhead Books.