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Anger, pain, suicide: Conversion therapy's lasting impact, as told by a survivor

Posted: 8:21 PM, Nov 12, 2018
Updated: 2018-11-13 18:06:51Z
Conversion therapy leaves impact on survivors
Conversion therapy leaves impact on survivors

About 700,000 adults have undergone some form of a controversial method to change a person's homosexuality and suppress their feelings toward the same sex.

"Conversion therapy" is banned in 14 states, primarily on the west and east coasts. While the practice is highly criticized, it is still supported in Tennessee.

People like Brian Sullivan consider themselves survivors after experiencing conversion therapy. Efforts to change someone's sexual orientation are associated with poor mental health, including suicide, according to a report by the Williams Institute at University of California, Los Angeles. 

Conversion therapy is receiving more attention thanks to the newly released film featuring Nicole Kidman, "Boy Erased." It follows a college student as he undergoes conversion therapy at the same program Sullivan was a part of. 

Sullivan told his family he was gay when he was 19-years-old. However, that never stopped him in his journey to pursue his faith in God. 

"I wanted to please God," Sullivan said. "I sort of fell in love with this idea of God being the only entity that loved me unconditionally."

As a student at Crichton College in Memphis, Tennessee, now known as Victory University, Sullivan came across a program affiliated with Love In Action, a Memphis-based, ex-gay ministry aimed to convert homosexuals. 

"I voluntarily sought out a 'therapist' that was affiliated with them. I began to go therapy to convert or to change these feelings I had for men, and learn how to manage them and live life as a 
straight man," Sullivan said. "I wanted to keep that close relationship that I felt I had with God."

For a few months, he had one-on-one sessions in what can be described like an outpatient therapy. He had to keep a journal to keep track of his sexual desires and speak about them. 

Like many others, his sessions included that being gay was something you develop and is caused by issues within the family.

"You were taught you cannot be born gay and that there's something that had to cause it. They believe it was all environment. Since my father wasn't really in the picture, I was taught that maybe I was seeking out the love of other men," Sullivan said.

While Sullivan believed everyone involved had the right intentions to help people of the church, he said the approach of treating sin as a sickness left damaging effects.

"Being gay is something you cannot change, and trying to change it doesn't work. You're frustrated and you're angry and because you love Jesus and you want to be pleasing to God, the only place to direct
that rage and anger and hurt is inward," Sullivan added. 

Eventually Sullivan left the program when he met the woman he would be married to for eight years. However, he was still attracted to men which was openly discussed in their relationship. However, struggles with his identity on top of life issues motivated him to try to kill himself.

"If you don't heal from your wounds and the damage, then you will bleed on people who didn't cut you
and you will bleed on a God who didn't stab you, these are people who did this," Sullivan said.

Several child and family psychology groups including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry warn against the use of conversion therapy, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

"You have no real rubric for something to be dealt with," Covenant of the Cross Church Senior Pastor Greg Bullard told WTVF. "You're basically taking shots at somebody with a goal but you have no method of getting to that goal."

At 41-years-old, Sullivan has now been attending Bullard's church and "feels closer to God than ever before." Bullard's congregation is open to anyone regardless of their sexual orientation. 

Bullard said he's had some people come through who survived conversion therapy.

"It creates this dichotomy in this person's mind and psyche that causes them to never be able to put life back together again," Bullard said. 

Sullivan admits he still faces challenges emotionally and spiritually because of his experience. He said he doesn't want to knock down the church, but hopes people's stories will help others realize how damaging conversion therapy can be.