The pain of gay conversion therapy: ‘I didn’t have the words to name it’

Jenna Howerton remembers almost nothing about her third session of conversion therapy.

“I’m guessing I said ‘OK’ and left,” she said. “At that moment, I felt so vulnerable. I wanted to get out of there. I didn’t have the words to name it as conversion therapy until later in life."

Howerton, now 26, works as youth program coordinator at Out Boulder. She said the teens she works with are way ahead of where she was at the same point in her life.

“They’re so mature, so smart. They’re activists already,” she said, many of them in gay-straight alliance clubs.

While gay relationships are more out in the open, that doesn’t make bullying less intense, or prevalent.

“I feel extremely lucky that in high school we didn’t have Snap-chat, didn’t have Instagram,” Howerton said. “There are so many avenues for bullying.

”Statistics from the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey bear out the pain of not being accepted. Half of gay, lesbian or bisexual students reported feeling sad and hopeless, more than twice the percentage of their non-LGB counterparts. Similarly, 40% reported they had hurt themselves without wanting to die and 34% had considered attempting suicide; that was roughly three times the percentage of non-LGB students.

“The numbers never seem to get better,” said Mardi Moore, executive director of Out Boulder. “The reality is that the LGBT community continues to be stigmatized. We get calls from the schools where kids get kicked out of the house by their parents.

”She added that lack of family support along with harassment by peers can make the world seem bleak indeed.

“It sets the stage (to think) you’re not good enough, that something’s wrong with you,” she said. “What do you do with that when you’re a kid? You try to stay in the closet as long as you can.”

That’s what Howerton did.

“I performed hetero-normative very well,” she said. “Part of me knew it wasn’t safe. I didn’t know anyone who was queer.”

After high school, she was still trying to come to terms with who she was.

“I suppressed it,” she said. “I was lonely.”

At around age 20, Howerton began to accept herself.

She remained involved in her church and planned to go on a mission trip. As part of the process, she filled out an application that asked if she had ever had non-heterosexual relationships. She opted to tell the truth.

“I got a call from the pastor asking to meet with me,” she said.

The first session emphasized that God loves sinners and that being gay was a choice, Howerton said. In the next session, the counselor picked out specific reasons that it was wrong to be gay. In the third, the counselor brought testimonials and brochures from the ex-gay movement, in which people said that through Christ they were able to stop being gay. Howerton was told she could choose.

Then the hammer dropped. If she wanted to go on the mission trip, she would have to break off her relationship.

“The third session was when they gave the ultimatum. That’s when I felt it was not OK, it should not be happening,” Howerton said.

Gov. Jared Polis has signed into law a ban on gay conversion therapy, although it only applies to licensed counselors, which a church counselor may or may not be.

After therapy, Howerton left the church and went on to finish college and get a master’s degree with an aim toward working with youth. She was later hired at Out Boulder.

Howerton said “it made all the difference” when gay marriage was legalized when she was in college. Living in a state with a gay governor also helps mainstream gay relationships. But for gay adolescents who feel isolated and ostracized, support closer to home is crucial.

“It has to come from the top,” she said. “They need to hear the principal, their teachers say, ‘This is a safe place right now.’”

by Cindy Sutter