“I’ve had many days of my life when I wanted to just die.”
Wil Sampson-Bernstrom was a teenager in Alabama in 2007 when he attended a conference run by Exodus International – the largest “ex-gay” Christian organization at the time. That was one of his first experiences with conversion therapy.
Now an ordained minister who lives in south Minneapolis with his husband, he remembers being separated from his parents and forced to sit through hours and hours of classes. He doesn’t remember clearly what all the instructors told him. Some said the reason he thought he liked boys was because of some grave error his parents made raising him – that they were going to make him right again. Some tried to cure him of being gay by making him act and talk a certain way – to sit without crossing his legs, to speak with a certain voice.
Sampson-Bernstrom was sent to Exodus because he was gay and his parents were worried about him, and because the psychiatrist they’d taken him to see had recommended it. When the treatment was all over, he reunited with his parents and told them resolutely that he loved God. And he still loved boys.
It wouldn’t be the last attempt to make Sampson-Bernstrom into a straight man. Before he even turned 18, he’d spent time in a Christian counselor’s office in Panama City, Florida, where a “therapist” would lead extensive sessions trying to root out “false memories” – some horrible event that must have traumatized him and made him queer.
Whenever the therapist picked out a memory deemed to be “false,” Sampson-Bernstrom was told to replace it with “the love and light of Jesus Christ.” It sounds strange, even spooky, but he swears he saw those scenes in his life obliterated in a blinding white flash.
He had nobody to talk to – nobody to turn to – nobody but the God he had to believe still loved him.
“I know in my deepest soul that God made me the way I was meant to be made,” he says. If he didn’t believe that, he might not have lived through it.
Conversion therapy is a trite pair of words for what it actually describes -- an attempt to change a person from gay to straight, or make them identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. In reality, it is not “therapy” -- in that it frequently does not involve a licensed therapist -- and it is not a “conversion,” because the medical and psychological communities overwhelmingly agree that it doesn’t work. Gay people remain gay. Trans people remain trans.
But they seldom escape the experience unscathed.
When people picture conversion therapy, they usually picture a church basement somewhere in a rural town -- a place that hasn’t come to understand that it’s 2018, that same sex marriage is legal, that it’s okay to be gay or trans. They may picture Marcus Bachmann, husband to one-time Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who came under fire some years ago for providing “gay-to-straight” conversion therapy in a clinic in Lake Elmo. Bachmann has variously admitted and denied that his clinic provides such therapies.
But OutFront Minnesota Director Cat Salonek says conversion therapy happens in Minnesota even today -- in the metro area as well as outstate. Bachmann’s clinic hasn’t gone anywhere since it was in the national spotlight in 2011; it expanded, and now includes an additional facility in Burnsville. An estimated 20,000 queer and trans youth in this country will undergo conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional sometime this year. That’s compared to the 57,000 who will receive it from a religious or spiritual advisor.
Roughly 700,000 queer and trans adults living in the United States have already undergone the practice in some form or another.
“We like to think this all stopped in the ’70s,” Salonek says. She and OutFront have worked with countless survivors over the years. Whether it takes the form of talk therapy or something more spooky or invasive, conversion therapy often has the same alarming effects: post-traumatic stress disorder, high-risk sexual behavior, and either contemplating or attempting suicide.
It’s also a practice that largely targets the young: kids trying to figure out their feelings and identities and seeking the advice of their parents and pastors. Because of the trust they place in their parents, their pastors, their doctors, or their principals, these kids come to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that there is something deeply wrong with them.
Advocates for the queer and trans community have been trying to do away with conversion therapy for years. It’s already illegal in 14 states, plus Washington, D.C. A bill was attempted in the Minnesota legislature as recently as last year, but it didn’t get a lot of traction in the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Nobody, Salonek says, was that optimistic about it.
But now, before the new session has even begun, Minnesota House Rep. Elect Hunter Cantrell, a Democrat from Savage, is proposing an all-out ban on administering conversion therapy for vulnerable adults and anyone under 18.
“This is something I’ve been very concerned about for years,” he says. The responses to his proposed ban, he says, have been “overwhelmingly positive.” Most people, in fact, are surprised to find out it’s still legal in the first place.
OutFront, meanwhile, is preparing for the inevitable backlash. Salonek is anticipating arguments about how a ban would supposedly impinge on religious liberties, maybe even an appeal to a now mostly conservative Supreme Court.
For a while, OutFront has considered approaching conversion therapy through a consumer fraud bill rather than a ban, punishing organizations making worried parents pay for therapy that ultimately doesn’t work. Better that, they reason, than tempting the wrath of a national conservative outcry in the name of religious freedom.
But then again, who knows? Cantrell is feeling “confident” that they have the support -- even the bipartisan support -- to get this done. This year could be the year for Minnesota.
“It feels like people care,” Sampson-Bernstrom says. “But I don’t know why that is…. These stories have been out there for a long time. I’ve shared [my story] with legislators who have told me to mind my business.”
Sampson-Bernstrom says he’s in a good place now. His parents have accepted him for who he is, and he’s accepted that they, like him, had been tricked into believing something false and dangerous.
He doesn’t blame them. He blames the people who sold them that story.
He’s angry, and grateful, and healing. He’s alive, and he doesn’t take that for granted.