Conversion therapy, also known as “reparative” or “ex gay” therapy, refers to the practice of “curing” LGBTQ identities. While the method varies from prayer to talk therapy, it usually involves violence and humiliation. Though the practice has been discredited by the nation’s leading mental-health organizations, it’s still legal in 41 states and an estimated 20,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 17 will undergo conversion therapy with a licensed health-care professional before the age of 18, according to a new study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. The Cut spoke with Deb Cuny, a 37-year-old education worker, about the conversion therapy she endured when she was a sophomore in college.
I grew up in a town of about 7,000 people. My dad’s family is Catholic and Mom is a fundamentalist Christian. She would always say there are Christians and there are Christians. Our family was the latter: It was common for Mom to excuse herself and go speak in tongues, we believed in the rapture, my sister and I would physically pin classmates up against the wall demanding they give their lives to Christ. I was taught that homosexuality was a sin. If you were gay, you’d go to hell, simple.
Being a proper woman went hand in hand with being a proper Christian. But I was different. Even as a baby I passed as a boy (Mom put bows on my head because she hated seeing the confusion in people’s eyes); I loved suits and my dad’s shoes. I’d slick my hair back. One of my “things” was dressing up like Elvis. I played soccer and basketball and golf. I regularly wrote letters to my favorite LPGA players. But at school, I still wanted to fit in. I’d talk about “lezzies” and “homos”; you know, I was that kid who spread rumors about the PE teachers. It really sucks when you’re homophobic and you realize you’re gay.
I first started having sexual feelings towards women when I was about 11. I came out to myself during my second year of high school and I knew I couldn’t possibly tell my parents. But I went through a process of poking around to see how my friends would react and then, finally, when I was drunk, said it out loud.
As I was preparing myself to tell my parents, my youth-group leaders, a young married couple, took us to a retreat in Tennessee where the televangelist Jerry Falwell spoke. The first thing out of his mouth was: “There’s no such thing as Adam and Steve, only Adam and Eve!” Thousands and thousands of people stood cheering. I knew my sexuality was a problem but seeing my entire community chanting hate was terrifying.
The day I told my parents, we sat in the family room in darkness. I don’t remember what they said. I blocked it out. My mom pretty quickly began telling people, but my dad didn’t want anyone to know. Their way of coming to terms with my sexuality was to go to their first Exodus Church retreat. Exodus international ex-gay ministries are all about “helping” people return to their God-given gender expression and, you know, back into heterosexual relationships. My mom was delighted after she went there. She met people like them and they got to meet people like me; she even started working with a local ex-gay ministry.
I moved away for university. I went to a women’s college and it was the first time I had been in a liberal environment. I was finally full-on openly gay. Girls wanted to date me. I had sex and started a relationship.
When my girlfriend broke up with me, I felt totally disoriented. I was devastated; she kept me stable. I thought we would get married. I felt desperate, like I had become what my parents warned. I started to feel myself pull back to my Christian roots. I felt so guilty. I called my parents in the middle of the night begging for help because I thought I was being bombarded by demons. Then, when I went home for the winter break my mom suggested a deliverance. She explained that it was a Biblical practice where a minister prays over me to free myself from demonic forces that are hurting me. Looking back, it’s clear I was desperate to have connection and love from my parents. I decided I would do it.
I spent the first few days preparing: I had to fast for 36 hours. The deliverance was going to be held at an Assembly of God Church in Little Rock, which was about one hour away by car. I can’t recall the drive — I know I was weak from the fasting. I had been instructed not to wear any jewelry or elaborate clothes so that the demons wouldn’t get tangled up on me. When we got there I was taken, alone, to a small white room with the pastor and two assistants. Imagine knowing you are about to head into a small room to get demons out … I mean where would they go? Would they be swirling around us? Would I see them? I thought I was going to encounter Satan right before my eyes.
He started saying he would exercise the demon of the occult. I had what I would consider a full-body spiritual experience. I was shaking in my seat. I have theories about that now: I think it was a trauma response — when I was a kid I’d have constant nightmares about demons so I always believed that there was spiritual warfare happening over me — but at the time the shaking made me think it was actually going to work. When we got to the demon of perversion the pastor was praying, but this time he was so much more aggressive. He grabbed my head and put his hand above my eyebrows, staring into my eyes. He was about two inches away from my face screaming for the demon to get out. This went on for hours but that demon wouldn’t budge. The pastor got even more forceful and at this point two assistants were trying to hold me down, yelling and praying in tongues. This went on for six long hours. My parents were waiting outside the whole time.
At one point I asked: If you get the demon of perversion out, will I no longer be gay? The pastor was like, “Yes, yes.” And then I was like, so, I will no longer be attracted to women. He was like “Well, while the demon won’t be in you, it might still be around so there might still be some attraction, some pull …” In that moment nothing made sense. Why would the demon still be around? Why would I still feel “pull” if I was truly being spiritually cured? I said I wanted to stop. I told him I was finished. He was yelling, “You have chosen to take this path to hell, don’t ever forget that!” I walked out quietly with my head down. I was too scared to look at my parents, all I wanted to do was go home; I felt the most intense shame.
The next ten years were a steady flow of heavy drinking, pot-smoking, anxiety, depression, and feeling spiritually and emotionally directionless. While my life included many of the standard societal “successes,” I felt empty.
Today, I’m nearly four years sober; my life is so much more meaningful and serene. I’m single but I want to find life partnership with another queer person of faith. My mom has changed. She talks with Christian parents who are struggling to love their queer kids. She’s apologized for what they did. Things with my dad have improved. In October, they both walked together in their first pride parade and Mom told me that during a recent church event he spoke up against homophobic comments made by some congregants. But spiritual abuse causes trauma, and trauma doesn’t always go away when people say sorry. Many people don’t make it through conversion therapy. Suicide is common. I have always had someone in my life who loved me, whether it was a particular adult figure or a friend, and I know that’s something that so many people will never have.