I Spent Seven Years in Gay Conversion Therapy Programs Before Breaking Free

From Esquire

It began his junior year at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah: Michael Ferguson wanted desperately to rid himself of the sexual feelings he had toward men. His Mormon faith and his loving family would never understand. So he began to try to pray the gay away.

Thus began a seven-year journey through nine gay conversion therapy programs, also called reparative therapy, which included hypnotherapy, physical psychotherapy, evangelical spiritual groups, and a 12-step addiction recovery program. Such treatments were designed to "cure" homosexuality by changing a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. The American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have condemned such practices. President Obama supported a national ban, and some states have already passed such legislation.

But gay conversion therapy has re-entered the national spotlight after a draft of the GOP's official 2016 platform-much farther to the right than in years past, and far more conservative than Donald Trump's own positions-contained language that seemed to support its implementation and use. Underneath a subsection titled "Protecting Individual Conscience in Healthcare," one line reads, "We support the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children."

Ferguson began to try to pray the gay away.

The man most responsible for that language is Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council and an official committee member of the Republican Platform 2016. Time reports that Perkins "originally drafted a more explicit embrace" of conversion therapy, but walked it back after meeting with top RNC officials. CNN asked Perkins for clarification on the change and he said:

"It's what it says, it's whatever therapy that a parent wants to get for a minor child. There's states that are trying to restrict what parents can do for loving their children. Parents have a better idea I think than legislators or government bureaucrats."

(The official platform now reads: "We likewise support the right of parents to consent to medical treatment for their children, including mental health treatment, drug treatment, and treatment involving pregnancy, contraceptives and abortion.")

Furthermore, news recently resurfaced that Donald Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, during his first successful run for Congress in 2000, supported gay conversion therapy, writing on his campaign website, "Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior."

Meanwhile, Ferguson renounced his attempts to change his sexual orientation and was a plaintiff in the first landmark court decision to address reparative therapy. The 2015 ruling found that New Jersey-based conversion therapy organization JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) had committed consumer fraud, and the organization was ordered to pay the plaintiffs more than $70,000 in refunds. The program eventually shut down completely. Ferguson is now out and married to a man. In light of the GOP's seeming embrace of the programs that did him so much harm, Ferguson shared his story with Esquire.

ESQ: How do you respond to the Republican platform's alleged allusions to conversion therapy?

Michael Ferguson: It's pretty horrifying to see that the Republican platform included coded language for increasing the permissiveness of conversion therapy. You see this aligning of rhetoric on the right to create a narrative that religious liberty is under attack.

Were you surprised to see it come up?

I honestly was. Conversion therapy is one of those topics-even with people who are very biased against civil liberties and equalities for LGBT people-where people see what it looks like and how it operates and they are appalled.

Why did you start going to conversion therapy?

I grew up really happy in Mormonism. When I was on my mission I disclosed for the first time to a leader in the church that I was experiencing same-sex attraction. He told me to think really vividly of the crucifixion of Jesus and the nails going into his hands. He was prescribing mental-shock therapy, a form of aversion therapy.

Later, while enrolled at Brigham Young University, a bishop advised me to begin conversion therapy with a professional psychologist at the university's counseling center.

Did you believe it was going to work?

I totally had faith in it. I was counseled by the priesthood leader that this was something he had helped a lot of people overcome and that it was just a matter of turning down the dimmer switch on my attraction to men and turning up the dimmer switch on my attraction to women.

How many different kind of conversion therapy programs did you try?

I started in 2004 at BYU and was involved in various conversion therapy attempts through 2011. I tried nine different modalities, including an evangelical Christian group that tried to "pray the gay away" and a 12-step addiction recovery program because one bishop advised me that my same sex attraction was related to being addicted to attention from men.

Could you describe some of the exercises you were taught?

At the Journey Into Manhood retreat they used a psychodrama approach. We were deprived of all communication: no computer, no phone, no watches, no clocks. You create scenarios with groups and act them out to do high emotional arousal role-play. The whole weekend is full of them. In one exercise a group of twelve men formed a human barricade and someone had to break through to grab a pair of oranges on the other side. The oranges represented symbolically reclaiming your testicles. The idea behind it is that you were homosexual because either your mother had metaphorically castrated you and made you lose touch with your male power, or society had emasculated and feminized you.

What would the person do after grabbing the oranges?

They were coaxed to squeeze them and get really worked up and roar and be this primal man that bites oranges and shoves them down their pants. It's pretty Lord of the Flies stuff.

"I was counseled that it was just a matter of turning down the dimmer switch on my attraction to men and turning up the dimmer switch on my attraction to women."

Can you explain what "healthy touch" is?

At Journey Into Manhood the staff would model various holding positions for the participants and would instruct us to select someone to hold us and give us "golden father energy."

What is "golden father energy?"

People that have a certain type of energy that can heal your childhood wounds. Somebody who possesses magical "golden father energy" will be able to help unbind you from these developmental wounds that you are carrying. It's part of the overall ideology of the program. A golden child is a child that was inherently straight but who was screwed up by their parents. You have to find the innocent place before you go off-track and start on the path to homosexuality.

The first introduction to healthy touch is having one man seated on the ground while another puts his head in his lap and the first man strokes his shoulder. The deeper that you get into these communities, the more physically intimate the positions become.

Did you ever enter a relationship with any of the men?

Yes, one of the counselors from Journey into Manhood did end up becoming a sexually active partner. What do you expect to happen if you have these men who are extraordinarily sexually repressed and very isolated enter a world with men in the exact same situation and put them in high levels of emotional and physical intimacy? Of course feelings are going to start emerging between people.

How did you and the counselor feel about your relationship?

At the time we were in denial about what was happening. We were sublimating all of our contact and our intimacy into saying, "This is helping us to get to a place where we won't need this anymore."

Was it common for counselors and therapists to be gay?

Most of the men who I have encountered who do conversion therapy themselves are attracted to men.

"The deeper that you get into these communities, the more positions you are taught and the more physically intimate the positions become."

You testified that you took part in "holding nights." Can you explain those?

After a Journey Into Manhood retreat, you're now in contact with all of these other closeted gay men who are trying to make it work in their faith community or to marry a woman or to sustain a marriage they are already in with a woman.

A holding night involves getting an invitation to go to somebody's house. Thirty or forty guys are all lying down on couches or the floor and holding each other in cradling positions. Men are in dyads or tryads all over the house. You play Enya-like new age music in the background. It's a very intimate physical and emotional space. The theory is that America just doesn't have a cultural space for normal male intimacy so we need to create these spaces ourselves.

[contentlinks align="center" textonly="false" numbered="false" headline="Esquire's One Year Out" customtitles="A Massive Celebration of Marriage Equality" customimages="" content="article.44938"]

Are people clothed?

The ones that I went to, yes. I have heard of some ones that were not.

What would these groups do on other nights?

You would get together and watch a football game or a movie and talk about it. We watched Gladiator and talked about the archetypes of masculinity. The idea was that if we get together and immerse ourselves in all of this stereotyped male energy, real masculinity would saturate into our minds and into our nature and that would lead us to heterosexuality.

Were these groups religious?

The ones in Utah were overwhelmingly Mormon.

Were there other kinds of exercises you did?

There was a lot of bondage work. At Journey Into Manhood, the person who was the subject of the psychodrama selected someone from the group to represent their mother. That person put on women's clothing - they had bras, wigs, dresses. They were coached to act out the voice or presence of the first person's mother. I helped "hold space" with about 12 other men and we stood in a circle around the two men in the middle.

The person who was the subject of the exercise was tied to the man dressed in women's clothing, who would say all of these needy phrases like "Don't ever leave me! I wont be able to exist without you!" There was taunting. They said your mind is at its most malleable in a high emotional arousal state, when you get to your deepest core self. You were tasked with breaking away and escaping the ropes that were tying you to your mother. Then they did an exercise with fathers.

These exercises were all clothed but the Journey Beyond retreat was almost exclusively disrobed.

Journey Beyond is usually the retreat people go to after Journey Into Manhood, correct?

Yes there are induction levels within these communities. If you successfully prove your sincerity that you really want to overcome sexual attraction and you don't "act out" with any men for a period of sexual sobriety, then you are qualified to do the Journey Beyond retreat. You go even deeper into your psyche and you take even more of your clothes off.

Why did you not attend that one?

It was partly financial. As a student who was in the closet, I wasn't able to ask any family members for assistance. It's not like the JONAH program was billed to insurance. So all of these retreats and $100 private sessions add up.

What happened at your private sessions?

I had a hypnotherapy session. It was based on the unfortunately widespread theory that your homosexuality is related to absentee fathering and not having same-sex peers when you were developing, and that you projected sexual desire onto the absence of these male relationships in your life. It's totally nonsense.

Under hypnosis I was supposed to regress back to these places where the emotional attachment to my father supposedly should have been.

Once I was hypnotized the therapist told me I needed to take off your clothes in order to take off more of my inhibitions. He said that because of my addiction to men, he was inducing deeper hypnosis. He said that he needed to be the one I was attached to so strongly that it was going to feel like an addiction. That this was the only way to dig deep enough into my emotional memories and create an attachment to men and meet these unfulfilled needs from childhood development. Then, once they were met, I would be released from my homosexuality.

He blindfolded me and had me undress myself completely.

Reporter's note: Michael was uncomfortable going on the record about the details of what happened after he got undressed during hypnosis.

Why was it important for you to try and change your sexual orientation? What was your ultimate goal?

So I could go to the celestial kingdom where I would live in the presence of God for eternity. The only way to do that in the Mormon tradition is through a heterosexual marriage.

The psychodrama stuff is really common and it's really disturbing. It might seem like I'm harping on the religious component but it's hard to separate religiousness from conversion therapy and the actual practice of it.

"He blindfolded me and had me undress myself completely."

What made you stop going?

The hypnotism incident broke through and forced me to reevaluate. Because of the mental devastation that followed, I really deconstructed and closely scrutinized the assumptions and the levels of trust that I had placed into different claims and into different people.

How did you feel when you won the JONAH lawsuit?

I felt like a weight came off of my chest.

What would you tell someone contemplating conversion therapy?

Please learn from my pain.Please learn from what I tried for years and years to do and what I spent thousands and thousands of dollars trying to do. Please learn what other people are sharing so you don't have to go through wasted, painful years.

What can be done to help stop conversion therapy?

There's a Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act sponsored by Congressman Ted Lieu of Califorina. If passed, it will put into law what has been articulated by professional organizations: that efforts to change gender orientation or identity therapeutically are fraudulent in nature.

Do you still see it as a big problem in the U.S.?

It's still being used and being advertised openly. These programs are active. JONAH had to shutdown but Journey Into Manhood is run by an organization based in Virginia and is still going.

Reporter's Note: The People Can Change website advertises for the Journey Into Manhood retreat, with a calendar of upcoming events including retreats in Indiana, Utah, Poland, Texas and California in the next three months.

They say the retreat is not religious in nature, but it is "immersion in intensive emotional-healing work, designed specifically for men who are self-motivated and serious about resolving unwanted homosexual attractions."

This past February, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against People Can Change for "unfair, deceptive and fraudulent charges."

Have you had anybody reach out to you following the lawsuit?

My original conversion therapist at BYU private messaged me and apologize to me. He said 'I'm so sorry that I was misled at the time.' He has since renounced anything that he did to make us feel like we were less than we are worth as human beings. I was very pleasantly shocked.

Now you are married, correct?

Yes, my husband and I live in Ithaca. I'm a post-doctoral fellow in the human neuroscience institute at Cornell University. Part of the reason why I pursued an academic path that involved cognition and neuroscience and psychology is because I was trying to understand what was wrong with me and how I could fix it.

What's beautiful is in that process of digging deeply into neuroscience, I realized there's nothing wrong with me. It's actually beautiful to be gay.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.