By John Paul Brammer
“My mom made me quit softball so I wouldn’t be lesbian,” Julie Rodgers said over the phone. “You can kind of tell at a young age if a kid is some version of queer, and she was very concerned about gays and lesbians. Especially lesbian softball coaches in sweater vests.”
Julie is from a small town called Tomball just outside of Houston, Texas. She knew she was gay when she was 12, she said, something she figured her mother wouldn’t approve of. Julie was homeschooled until high school to keep her away from “the gays and evolution.” When she finally did come out to her mother on Valentine’s Day during her junior year, she said her mother broke down in tears.
“She told me, ‘We’re going to get through this together,’” Julie said. “The next week, she pulled me out of school early and said she had made an appointment with someone who could ‘help me.’”
That person was an executive director of an organization under the umbrella of Exodus International, a group that sought to subject LGBTQ people to conversion therapy, a dangerous and discredited practice that claims to change a person’s sexuality or gender identity through a variety of means.
The organization met at a church in Arlington, TX. There were around 150 people in the room when she arrived, Julie said, along with comfortable chairs and a white board. She met the executive director, who gave talks about the Bible and divided the group into men and women.
He told the two groups to review each other’s sexual activity that week with a rating scale of one to ten in an effort to hold each other accountable. “Ten was sex, six was watching porn, and masturbating was a three,” Julie said. “They would start with the highest numbers, and the leaders would try to help you find the root cause,” which stems from the discredited notion that a person’s life experiences or family history can somehow be the reason for someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Contact beyond the parameters of the meetings was forbidden. “We weren’t allowed to share our last names or contacts because they were worried we’d hook up,” Julie said. “There was major policing if there was contact outside the group, and you were supposed to report people who tried to.”
Previously at school, there were coaches and teachers Julie had come out to before going through conversion therapy, she said. These people had accepted her, particularly the assistant principal. But in her time with the conversion therapy organization, she said the executive director tried to blame the supportive, affirming assistant principal as the reason that Julie was in conversion therapy.
“They told me she targeted me and recruited me and that I wouldn’t be gay if it weren’t for her influence,” Julie said. “They were interpreting the data from my life that way, and that’s what they saw. They couldn’t see the compassion.”
According to studies by the UCLA Williams Institute, nearly 700,000 LGBTQ people have been subjected to the horrors of conversion therapy, and an estimated 57,000 LGBTQ youth will experience this unprofessional conduct in coming years, often at the insistence of well-intentioned but misinformed parents or caretakers.
The American Psychiatric Association has clarified that “the potential risks of reparative therapy are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient.” The Pan American Health Organization, a regional office of the World Health Organization, concluded that conversion therapy, “lack[s] medical justification and represent[s] a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people.”
The Trevor Project is committed to working to end conversion therapy on minors through legislation, litigation and public education. It partners with mental health associations, youth organizations, LGBTQ groups, student clubs, faith communities and educational institutions in every state to promote the submission and passage of meaningful legislation.
Julie, who was involved with the conversion therapy organization for almost ten years, knows that for many people, efforts to change their sexual orientation or gender identity come from religious community figures rather than, or in addition to, licensed professionals. Despite this, she said she’s still a Christian, and she’s made it her work to reach out to LGBTQ young people of faith to let them know there’s nothing wrong with them.
She’s still waiting for her mom to come around, but she said her dad is in her life, and that she even took her wife to meet her 93-year-old grandmother, who was delighted. Just as important to Julie is her LGBTQ chosen family, people she knows she can rely on. She hopes to make sure LGBTQ youth feel they have someone looking out for them, too.
“I want all queer young people in faith communities to know they don’t have to choose between their faith and sexuality,” she said. “God delights in them exactly the way they are and there are tons of Christians who enthusiastically welcome queer people in their churches. I want them to know they’re not alone. They’re not a mistake. They’re a gift to this world.”