For 14 months, Seven Atsila’s life was a nightmare.
The then 15-year-old Waxhaw resident, who was assigned female at birth but now identifies as two-spirit, an indigenous term used to describe someone who has both masculine and feminine traits, had been struggling with his gender identity along with other behavioral issues.
His parents thought it would be helpful to enroll Atsila at Solstice East, a treatment center outside of Asheville for adolescent girls struggling with everything from ADHD and academic issues to substance abuse and addiction, in 2015.
This is where Atsila, now 22, says he was forced to undergo conversion therapy while he continued to struggle with his gender identity.
“I was 10 times worse when I left Solstice East than when I went in,” Atsila says.
Last week, several Democrats in North Carolina’s General Assembly introduced a bill, House Bill 452, to ban licensed professionals from practicing conversion therapy—a blanket term for the practice of attempting to alter an individual’s sexual, or gender, identity—on minors.
North Carolina is one of 30 states in the country that hasn’t banned conversion therapy and it took an executive order from Governor Roy Cooper, in 2019, to prohibit state funding for entities such as treatment programs and churches that performed the practice on minors.
“This legislation will move North Carolina forward and help us build a state where LGBTQ people are respected and protected, no matter where they live,” said Rep. Vernetta Alston (D-Durham), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, in a press release. “Too many LGBTQ people—especially those who are BIPOC or transgender—experience discrimination and violence in North Carolina, and our laws right now leave them vulnerable.”
Conversion therapy remains legal in every state in the South, with the exception of Virginia, which outlawed the practice last year. Democratic legislators and civil rights advocates say that the lack of legislative action to ban conversion therapy has allowed, and even encouraged, its use in North Carolina.
But this isn’t the first time Democrats have tried to ban conversion therapy. A similar bill was introduced in the General Assembly last year. It didn’t just fail—Republican leaders wouldn’t even give it a committee hearing.
For the first eight months that Atsila spent at Solstice East, he says that the center refused to let him go by his preferred name and pronouns and would punish any peers who attempted to address him the same way. The staff discredited his transgender identity countless times, Atsila says. They forced him to destroy some of his gender-affirming garments, including binders, and tried to make him wear a bra. After confiding in a peer about his plans to medically transition in the future, Atsila says the staff forbade the two from continuing to speak to one another.
“They said that it would be better for our therapy that way,” Atsila says. “That we would only be able to heal—and this is what my guide told me—if I took my gender, and set it aside, on a bench, and pretended like it didn’t exist so that I could get through all of my other problems.”
Atsila said that four months after leaving Solstice East, he attempted suicide. The estrangement from his family also left him homeless for a period of time. Atsila says he continues to struggle with PTSD since leaving the treatment center.
Last month, Atsila and others took part in a protest in downtown Asheville, where they recounted years of mental and emotional abuse while in the program. Protesters called for the treatment center’s closure. And Atsila, and others, continue to campaign through social media and online resources for Solstice East to shut down.
Three staff members at Solstice East, including its clinical director, refuted Atsila’s account of his time there.
“It’s been really difficult for me to hear these allegations because this is just not that kind of place,” Talin Brown, a science teacher at Solstice East, who is also a transgender man, told the INDY.
The group’s executive director, Rick Pollard, also denied the allegations that were brought up at the protest.
“Any practice of conversion therapy is dangerous quackery, which we do not practice, engage in or condone in any way and we fully support legislative and policy efforts that prohibit the unscientific and dangerous practice of sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts,” Pollard wrote in a statement to the INDY.
With HB 452, even treatment centers accused of performing conversion therapy would benefit from legislation that clearly defines what conversion therapy looks like, and provides a way for entities to either prove, or disprove, their practice of it.
“When we get into ‘A patient says this …’ and ‘A therapist says this…’, that can’t be aired in public for confidentiality laws,” says Allison Scott, a director at the Campaign for Southern Equality, an Asheville-based advocacy group that works across the South. “But these [state] licensure boards, they can do those things. […] But in order for them to do that, they need to have a clear statute, or something, to go by to say this is happening.”
Scott, who is a trans woman, says that when she was a minor, her parents enlisted their local church to perform a form of conversion therapy on her.
“It was horrible for me at such a young age for people to berate me personally, harass me, threaten me,” Scott says. “Even though they never physically did any harm to me, the mental assault that I went through was brutal.”
Part of the difficulty in drumming up support for a statewide ban is that it’s impossible to track how prolific the practice is. Nationally, research from the Williams Institute at the University of California School of Law, Los Angeles, estimates that 700,000 LGBTQ people have undergone conversion therapy, and that another expected 80,000 LGBTQ youth will undergo the practice before they reach adulthood.
Research also shows that four out of five instances of conversion therapy occur at religious institutions but that very few churches in North Carolina openly advertise these services.
The ramifications of conversion therapy can be deadly. A 2020 study from the Williams Institute found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who had undergone conversion therapy were twice as likely as those who had not to attempt suicide.
Despite these grim statistics, supporters say the outlook for HB 452 isn’t much better than it was for last year’s anti-conversion therapy bill.
“There just seems to be a lot of hesitancy from a certain amount of lawmakers for anything that has to deal with client-patient healthcare or LGBTQ issues,” Scott says.
“The [General Assembly’s] leadership has very tight grips on what bills move, and what bills don’t,” says Rep. John Autry, a Charlotte Democrat who co-sponsored the bill.
Republican legislative leaders did not respond to interview requests from the INDY.
“I’ve never discussed this with leadership in the House,” Autry continues. “I’ve discussed it with other members on the other side. They don’t see the need for it. They don’t see [conversion therapy] as a problem, or an issue.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Talin Brown, the science teacher at Solstice East quoted in the story, is a transgender man. We apologize for the error.
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