It’s been more than five years since I found myself surrounded by a group of people screaming at me to renounce my “homosexual demons” while strangling and battering me in the sanctuary of my church.

Five years later, I can still feel the pain from the psychological wounds that were inflicted that day.

The two-hour beating was the culmination of my three years with a church, which I joined at the age of sixteen with my family, shortly after I came out as gay. My family didn’t accept my sexual orientation and neither did the leaders of the church group, one of whom quickly urged me to keep it a secret among my peers in the congregation when I confirmed their suspicion.

Very early on in my life, I received the message that being gay was not OK. Like many other LGBTQ teenagers, I grappled with my identity, trying to will myself to be straight, or at least attempt to be perceived as straight, but it didn’t work. I could not change my sexual orientation any more than I could change my birth date or my eye color.

When members of the church realized I was unable to alter my sexuality on my own, I became the subject of a “blasting” prayer: a loud, violent ritual that involved attempts to exorcise evil from someone who had supposedly deviated from God by screaming spiritual commands at their body while choking, slapping, and punching them. One of the leaders shouted at me that I was gay and “had made a deal with the devil.”

Recently, I’ve been frequently reminded of this experience by news stories about “conversion therapy,” a dangerous and debunked practice that involves therapists trying to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. 

It’s been encouraging to see state after state take action to protect LGBTQ minors; right now, eighteen states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico refuse to license mental health professionals who engage in this practice. Earlier this month, Governor Cooper made North Carolina the first state in the South to take statewide action with an executive order prohibiting public funding for conversion therapy.

Laws and policies like these protect LGBTQ youth from the abuse and harm of conversion therapy. These actions take us closer to a time when LGBTQ youth will be met with love and acceptance rather than condemnation when they come out. 

What happened to me was not the traditional form of conversion therapy, but many of the tactics and the underlying philosophy behind formal conversion therapy are similar to what I experienced.

Mental health professionals who practice conversion therapy try to drill into young people the myth that they can—and should—change this central, and beautiful, part of their identity, or else face a lifetime of societal rejection. In extreme cases, young people in conversion therapy programs are subjected to institutionalization, isolation, or “aversion techniques” like electric shocks and physical harm. Underlying most of the tactics is an insidious feeling of shame, which can lead to depression, social withdrawal, feelings of guilt or helplessness, and even suicide.

Cooper’s executive order is an important step toward addressing this here in North Carolina—but it does not close down or abolish the private companies that still offer conversion therapy. To fully protect our young people from the practice, North Carolina lawmakers need to pass the Mental Health Protection Act, which was introduced in the General Assembly in March with more than thirty cosponsors. Polling from Protect Our Youth NC suggests that a bipartisan supermajority in the state—Republicans and Democrats alike—supports protecting youth from conversion therapy.

No child should ever be subjected to a practice that we know puts them at risk of depression, suicide, and other self-harming behaviors. That’s the kind of practice conversion therapy is. When I hear stories about young people who endure this in a clinical setting—the type that would be barred by the bill in the legislature—I can’t help but be brought back to memories of people from my church physically and emotionally abusing me with the goal of making me straight.

As long as North Carolina continues to license mental health professionals who engage in conversion therapy, our state is sanctioning this kind of treatment of LGBTQ youth.

My hope is that no one else ever has to experience what I did or carry the scars of that with them through life. North Carolina lawmakers can join together right now and protect all young people from the horrors of this debunked practice.

Comment on this story at Matthew Fenner lives in Durham.

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