Q: [to Stephen] Can you talk about the kind of “therapy” you went through?
A: [Stephen]What I had done to me, I controlled. The “therapists” who developed the programs that I was in would say that is the reason I didn’t “graduate” – because I didn’t take advantage of everything that was offered to me. I did do most of what they told me to do that I didn’t feel was damaging to me. Because I was old enough, I kept some control. The most common, really damaging therapies are the psychologically damaging practices. I know someone very close to me that went through this and also “ice bath treatment” where they would show you a sexually explicit image and if there was any kind of positive response then they would dunk them down in ice water, completely submerged, and hold them there. This would go on and on. My father suggested “electroshock treatment” to me and I told him if he ever mentioned it as an option again then I would never speak to him again. I did however go through the group sessions and individual sessions with a counselor where there was a constant shaming of the feelings that I was having. I think a huge part of the therapy was the shaming – the clarity with which you are taught that what you feel is evil and who you say you are is evil. They made sure that I knew I was evil and my desires were evil, and of the devil, and in order to go to heaven I would need to change my behaviors and feelings within myself. This was a constant reality in my life; not only growing up but also during a significant period of my adult life.
Q: [In response to Stephen’s Family story in the Architecture of Family] What was the basis for your change? Was it education?
A: [Stephen] The basis for my change was definitely education. There was a shift in me and it came through my own personal Bible study. The life that I lived was very much in the fundamentalist world where everything you did came back to the Bible – a very literalist approach to the Bible. I began to look at the Bible through different eyes and to see it differently. That is when I began to ask questions. I was then asked to leave the Ph.D. program at the seminary where I was studying because I asked too many questions. I wanted to learn. I wanted to understand what other people were saying and what the psychological world was saying about people like me. That was not a welcome idea at my seminary. So, I began my own process of learning and understanding. As a family we then entered into that process together and it is what brought us to where we are today: an openness to learning. This shift is present in a lot of my writings and talks – where dogma was the cultural narrative, now my cultural narrative is openness.
Q: What would you say are the best therapeutic approaches when you are working with clients who have been to these therapies?
A: [Michael] The best approach to begin with is to know that there are a lot of ways to look at this problem and some of them are more effective than others. I wouldn't begin by disparaging conversion therapy, I would just say that it is a different approach. Therapy is about getting better and feeling better about yourself and there are other, better, alternatives. There is a whole toolkit of things that I as a therapist, or you as a therapist, can share with your client including the power of positive affirmation which is cognitively self taught, and the continued use of community resources. Supportive psychotherapy – which is goal directed, and the goal being self-affirmation – is key. Absent affirming yourself and feeling comfortable in your own skin, there is really not a path forward for any of us. That is what I have found helpful in working with what I would call refugees from the conversion therapy approach.
[Stephen] And along with that, I would point to resources. There are more resources today than ever before for this conversation and this process. If I had the resources that are available now when I was a teenager then I would have had a very different life. I’m glad that I have the life I have now. I have worked my way through to embrace my past and claim it as my own – it is a part of what makes me who I am today – but I also think that we need to offer a different path and resources can help us do that. For example, on our [The Architecture of Family] resources page we point to a lot of other websites that have their own long list of resources. We have films, DVDs, other organizations, and books on our list that have been helpful to our family and people who surround us. There is a long, unending trail of resources out there.
Q: I know a kid that was rejected by his parents in high school and is basically on the street, which is horrible. Then I hear about all of the places that are supposed to help that don’t. How do you go back to the kid’s parents and say “My God! Why did you throw this kid to the wolves”?
A: [Stephen] Somehow that needs to be said. Earlier Michael talked about the ways we talk to each other – that much of our problem has been the judgment-filled conversations between us. It is really important to go into a situation like this with parents in an endeavor to understand why they are hurting, what they are hurting about, and where the hurt is coming from. Get to the source of that and work your way out with a sense of trust in each other. The reality is that parents have to want to hear, and at some point they have to want to understand. You can’t make people understand. That is why we have a lot of these problems.
[Michael] Sometimes if you take it back to a place where you know you can get an agreement and say to the parents, ‘You would take a bullet for them, you would do anything for them, right?’ ‘Well, yes, I would!’. Once you get that agreement you can then say, ‘what you have already tried hasn’t been helping and it has been tantamount to throwing them to the wolves. How about we try something else since that didn’t seem to work.’ When you can make a joining statement like that it invites them to join you instead of it being adversarial. So often the parents of these kids, for reasons of their own pain or their own righteousness, come to you wanting to seduce you into being a coconspirator with brutalizing their kid. You have to set a clear boundary and say you won’t do that – but you also don’t want to alienate them in the process. Going back to Stephen’s point on resources, there is a book by Daniel Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, which is helpful for kids. Knowledge is power. Biblical references are usually trotted out to justify why you are going to “burn in hell for all eternity” for being gay or lesbian but Daniel Helminiak’s book works within the context of the Bible – just as Stephen’s Bible study lead him to his epiphany – and gives young people, gives anybody, valuable information. This doesn’t make you a Biblical scholar, but makes you a lot more conversant with the kinds of arguments that are presented to justify shaming and punishing gay and lesbian youth. That is one of the resources I highly recommend to you.
Q: I know a young teenage girl who identifies as lesbian, who has a family who is Mormon, who is struggling with her identity, and getting acceptance from her family. What advice would give her?
A: [Stephen] Every family is different because every person is different. This reality is the foundation of my own personal new narrative. Look at all of creation and look at humanity: God is a god of diversity. There has never been anyone just like me or just like you – and there never will be. We are all individuals. And because we are all individuals, every person and every family will respond differently. So, this situation you describe needs to be navigated very carefully. In my own family, my birth family, I chose to leave that door open no matter what. That was my decision. But it’s not the right decision for everyone because any kind of abusive relationship needs to have boundaries. I created boundaries between myself and my parents where I could feel safe going to them. At various points I had to clarify with them where my boundaries are. My father was fine either way because his dogma is so central to who he is. It was also important for me to understand that as much as I wanted them to accept me for who I am and why I am that way, I need to do the same for them. It is very challenging because accepting the way that they are means I have to be ok with how they feel about me. I have to find a way to accept that. My mother grabbed hold of the opportunity to continue a relationship with me – that was our story and I still have a relationship with my parents. My husband isn’t what I would call “welcome” but he is tolerated, which is a huge step after decades of work. We are committing to stay open to one another in some parts of the dialogue and to maintain boundaries in other parts in order to feel safe.
[Michael] What I would add to that is what it shouldn’t include for this young lady is denying herself and withdrawing and becoming a projection of what her parents would want for risk of being disfellowshipped by the Mormon church. I would want her to incrementally take the risks she needed to be fully herself with those around her: setting boundaries, being open to the fact that her family may not fully appreciate who she really is, and go through that long process of accommodation and negotiation without surrendering self – because without that you are lost and dead in the water.
[Stephen] Another piece that I would say for a young person like that is to find safe places outside of family, outside of church. Family and church, in these cases, can often be judgmental. The Mormon church, the Catholic church, and even some Evangelical churches are making steps on a personal level but on an institutional level they are still holding firm to their dogma. This disconnect between behaviors on a personal level and dogma on an institutional level can become very confusing for people.
Q: Some passages in the Bible are interpreted as very anti-gay. As a religious person how do you reconcile that?
A: [Stephen] I wrote a paper on this that initiated a process that ultimately got me kicked out of the Southern Baptist seminary I was attending. In my Advanced Christian Ethics class I decided to do a paper on a biblical perspective of homosexuality. There are seven passages in scripture that are interpreted in a variety of ways but are used to teach the dogma against homosexuality. Six of them can be argued away very easily. If you go back to to the original languages and the cultural narrative at the time when they were written, it’s just not difficult to argue them away. There is no scholarly difficulty whatsoever to argue them away. The one that is used the most though is in Romans chapter 1 and 2. So, I went back to my professor of Christian Ethics, an old Southern Baptist minister with multiple degrees in Biblical studies, and told him where I was with my research and how I easily discredited these six passages but that I was having a hard time with the one in Romans. The passage I am referring to talks about homosexuals doing what is “unnatural” and they are therefore given over to their evil ways. I showed him this passage and he said, “At best this passage is ambiguous about homosexuality as we know it today.” He went on to explain the same clarifications found in a very helpful book: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality by Daniel Helminiak.
[Michael] There is another really great author named John Shelby Spong who has written several scholarly books that are along the same lines. What is important with both Helminiak and with Spong is that these are folks who chose to stay within the church – they did not repudiate the church. They are people of faith who found a way to re-understand the context of their faith – who ultimately grew in love and support of people with different sexual orientations.
Q: Since the presidential campaign there has been increased bullying toward Muslims and Jews and other people including LGBT. What are some ways to counter that?
A: [Michael] The very best way to counter that is by living in a different direction. Throughout this talk we have stressed the importance of community and resources and having a network of support. Bullying only requires one bully irrespective of whether they hold office or if they just live up the street from you or are a kid pushing another kid into a locker. There are very few of us in this room who haven’t probably had an experience of being disparaged or bullied. Personal empowerment and self-acceptance is the beginning point of change as well as having a community of support around you – people who are willing to speak out. The Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller says,
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
You can substitute into this poem a kid being bullied at school or a young lesbian who is struggling with coming out to her family or anyone who would be victimized by an us- versus-them mentality in the community or any level of government. The antithesis of that is the willingness of people to stand together and speak out and not tolerate it. The bullies will speak, the bullies will tweet. You really do have to speak up early and often.
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