When Jonathan Fernandez was just 10 years old, his family sent him from his Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City to their native Dominican Republic. But unlike most who head to the tropical paradise for a vacation or family visit, Fernandez was unknowingly being sent for so-called gay conversion therapy.
Fernandez, now a 33-year-old makeup artist and cast member of VH1's Love & Hip Hop: New York, recalls the daily bullying he experienced, prompting his mom's choice to send him away. "Growing up, being gay was very taboo," he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. "Every single day that I walked into school, I was a target. It was like I was a walking bullseye."
Fernandez gets emotional when reflecting on the extreme guilt he harbored, not only at school but when he'd come home every day to find his mother crying over his well-being. "I didn't want being different [to be] the reason that my mom was upset," he tells Yahoo Lifestyle tearfully. "I didn't choose to be gay, and I know my mom didn't choose to have a different son."
Still, his mother believed the best chance she had at saving her son was to send him away. It was a choice encouraged by members of Fernandez's extended family, who lived in the Dominican Republic at the time; they told his mother about a local doctor they'd seen on TV, claiming he could "fix the issues" with nonheterosexual children. "As soon as I got there, I got the worst vibe ever from this doctor," he recalls now. "He had a mission: It was to kick the sissy out of me."
Fernandez says he experienced verbal abuse that later progressed to hormone therapy and, ultimately, shock therapy treatment.
"My legs would lock up to the point I wouldn't be able to bend my knees. They would ask me questions and depending on the answer, I would feel a shock all through my body," he says. "You're locked in a room for hours, and you're basically convinced that every single thing that you believe, that you like, is wrong. And you are broken down to your core."
Returning to New York months after his treatment, his family hid from him the fact that what he'd experienced was gay conversion therapy. It wasn't until Fernandez was in his mid-20s that he discovered his family's secret, and his prolonged guilt transformed into resentment toward his mother.
Fernandez was able to find solace and therapy in reality television, an outlet he claims was a "blessing" for him. He received a call from his friends, the producers of VH1's Love & Hip Hop, requesting that he join the cast and share his story with their viewers.
Fernandez came out with his experience publicly on the show in hopes to save LGBTQ children from enduring the same fate. And in doing the show, he explains, he was able to come to terms with his traumatic experience and subsequently heal his relationship with his mother, who appeared on the show with him.
"My mom is my literally my best friend," he says. "Had I never had that conversation with her, I would have never experienced that. What happened to me is unfortunate, and I can either let it break me or define me, or I can move on and be great in spite of it. And that is what I chose."