I was born and raised in San Luis Obispo. I love many people there and have many happy memories of my times in SLO. I currently live in Michigan with my partner of three years, raising our 6-year-old son while attending Michigan State University to receive my Ph.D. in Neuroscience. Growing up, I attended local SLO churches and my family loved me greatly; on the outside most people would have assumed I was perfectly fine. However, there are spans of time during high school, years actually, during which I have very few memories because of the psychological trauma I endured. After years of listening to those around me degrade the LGBT population, all the while knowing that to be happy I would fall in love with another man, I could no longer hide my complete hopelessness and my parents realized something was wrong.
Out of worry, my parents brought me to a Christian counselor and he was the first person I trusted with what I felt was my shame: I was gay. However, he offered me something I had been desperate for, a solution called reparative therapy. He told me that if I could just make things right with God, I could be set back on the right path and avoid falling for the deceptions around me. He convinced me that all I needed to do was listen to him and follow his instructions; God would fix me in the end if I truly wanted it. This was the crux of the therapy, but over the course of many months he terrified me with the same lies I heard growing up, “all gay people end up using drugs”; “There are not any gay people in places like San Luis Obispo”; “Gay people have to live without love”… . He removed every possible hope I had for a happy life as the person I was and convinced me that I had two choices 1) somehow repair my relationship with God, or 2) live with my shame to save those I loved from sharing in it.
Option one is reparative therapy, which not only doesn’t work, but the majority of individuals exposed to it are severely traumatized by the experience because the only true option is number two. These are facts and not my opinion, so no matter how much I tried to follow option one, I fell short. The counselor made it clear, any failure was based in my own desire and willingness to be distracted by sin.
For almost three years I went through life hating myself, convinced that my inability to change was my fault. Eventually, I decided that somehow I would die before ever acting on my feelings, allowing my family to escape the shame of a gay son while preserving their happy memories of me. While my memories of this time are spotty, I remember many times crying with a handful of pills, asking God to just please change me so I don’t have to end it all. He never did. He couldn’t, but a person I trusted told me he could.
The danger of this therapy is reflected in California’s recent ban on such practices. However, the public is largely unaware of how seductive this idea is to a young LGBT person living in shame. Many would blame a child, even one misinformed by those around them, that willingly participated in such therapies.
Despite this ban and in spite of the vulnerability of LGBT youth, an educator at SLO High School (SLOHS) decided to share an explanation of how the LGBT population may do as I tried to do. He put students who run the school newspaper in the precarious position of having to publish his ideas, controversial even within his own religion, about the ability God has to alter one’s sexuality. If I were to paraphrase my counselors’ conversion therapy mantra, it would read out exactly like his letter. To be absolutely clear, I am stating that his letter is ex-gay conversion therapy propaganda. I know it because I lived it and I can tell you with absolutely certainty that if this was published during my time at SLOHS, I would have gone home and tried to take my life that very night.
No matter what this teacher feels he was doing and no matter what arguments people use to excuse his behavior, the ultimate result was this teacher took advantage of his power over our youth so he could advocate for a deadly and banned practice.
I now love myself completely but I know that many youth grow up in situations similar to mine, cut off from anyone in the LGBT community and receiving information only from those who would like to see that community disappear. Officials at San Luis Coastal Unified School District and SLOHS are quick to say that any issue with his letter is simply a difference of opinion and feel this teacher is protected by freedom of speech.
However, we must stop making excuses for these ideas and expose them for what they are: propaganda for a deadly and banned practice. It is time that those officials in charge of these institutions stop hiding behind the support provided by the faculty and staff in our schools that are taking calls and our amazing mayor and members of the community who are supporting these traumatized youth. Having a supportive mentor can only do so much when their peers are willing to excuse such vile rhetoric without looking deeper into the implications for our community.
To the supportive faculty and staff taking calls and to our supportive mayor and community, I would like to say thank you. To those in charge who continue to mistakenly categorize this as an innocuous opinion protected by freedom of speech, you have failed in educating yourself about the issues facing queer children, and your ignorance could result in someone taking their life.
Daniel Pfau wrote this commentary from Michigan. Send a letter to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org or send your comments through the editor at email@example.com.