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You Can’t Change What I Never Chose

I am living proof that what conversion therapy can destroy, self-acceptance can save.

Sam Brinton

Months before my seventh-grade year, I realized I had a crush on my best friend, who happened to be male.

I was too young to understand why anyone would think this was wrong and that not everyone would support me. After beatings failed to work, and at the beckoning of my church, I was put into conversion therapy, the dangerous practice used by some therapists and counselors to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. For me, and countless others like me, it can only be described as mental torture.

I was told I was sick. I was told God hated me. I was told every other gay person on earth had been executed. By the end of the so-called “treatments,” I believed the government was looking for me, that I had somehow contracted AIDS, and that I would die alone. The mental pain this caused is something I cannot fathom going through again, yet thousands of youth across the country are placed in the same situation every day.

When psychological abuse was not sufficient to change my sexual orientation, my therapist moved to what can only be called physical abuse. My hands were tied down and ice was placed on them while I was shown pictures of men. Later sessions would include copper heating coils, needles in my fingers, and electric shocks. Similar to Pavlov’s experience with dogs, I was supposed to associate the touch of a man with pain. By the end, even hugging my father brought on flashbacks.

To end the pain those years caused, I would go on to attempt suicide several times. During one attempt, I climbed onto the roof of my apartment building and looked down. In that moment, I decided I would rather lie and tell everyone I had become straight than jump. It worked. And for a while the torture stopped and my life returned to some degree of “normality.”

It wasn’t until college that I was able to come out and begin my life being who I am. Once I finally started living truthfully, everything got better. I threw myself into school, extracurricular activities, and advocacy. And it worked wonders.

This year, I graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with dual master’s degrees in nuclear engineering, and technology and policy. I am living proof that what conversion therapy can destroy, self-acceptance can save. I now use my experiences to serve as the Co-Chair of the #BornPerfect Advisory Committee, a group of conversion therapy survivors, child welfare and mental health experts, and faith leaders with unique insights into the harms of conversion therapy.

This torture continues to have repercussions with youth, but it doesn’t have to continue. We have the chance to save LGBT youth from ever having to experience what I went through. We have had amazing successes in passing legislation in California, New Jersey, and Washington DC protecting LGBT youth from licensed therapists offering conversion therapy. Courts have ruled that offering conversion therapy is consumer fraud. I’ve testified to the United Nations bringing the United States to accountability for not acting to end this dangerous and discredited practice. And even this past month, President Obama and the Surgeon General have stated their support for our efforts to end conversion therapy which they agree harms LGBT youth. We are winning and it feels good.

Today, I know who I am. I’m strong in my faith, and I’m strong in my identity. And I know that I can’t change what I never chose. But I’m not alone. Let’s remind the LGBT youth across the country that they are #BornPerfect.

Sam Brinton recently graduated from MIT and now advises Congress on advanced nuclear reactor policy and nuclear waste management the Third Way and the Bipartisan Policy Center. When he isn’t working, his passion is to end conversion therapy practices across the country with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the #BornPerfect campaign.