After decades of debate, the last few days have seen more legislative action in different cities centered around conversion therapy, the practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation.
The Williams Institute says 700,000 people across the U.S. have received conversion therapy, while many health organizations, including the American Psychological Association, have strongly opposed the practice.
Brian Sullivan, who grew up just outside Memphis, Tennessee, has great memories of his hometown.
“It’s the home of the blues, the birthplace of rock n roll,” he said. “So much happened with the Civil Rights movement there. I love that I’m from there.”
Along with all the good memories Sullivan carries with him from home, there are dark days he carries, too. While studying to be a missionary at a college in east Memphis, some students encouraged Sullivan to take part in conversion therapy.
“I’d wrestled with my sexuality my entire life,” he said. “I thought maybe I can have a family and a wife and be loved and accepted by God. I was desperate to be healed of what I saw as an affliction.”
Sullivan began taking one-on-one conversion therapy with the ex-gay ministry Love in Action, which also ran conversion therapy group programs and a camp at a building across the city.
“What you’re taught is because of instances in your childhood, that’s what’s causing you to reach out for the love of another man,” he said. “It’s all a system of self-hatred. The onus is on you for any thought that pops into your head. It’s constant turmoil. They did not understand how dangerous what they were doing was. My mother did not want me to undergo this therapy. She could see it was canceling out my light. As a survivor of a suicide attempt, there’s a better way to live.”
Conversion therapy for minors is banned in 20 states and Washington D.C. Another four states and Puerto Rico have partial bans on conversion therapy.
What does a partial ban mean? In the case of Michigan and Wisconsin, for example, governors of both states have just signed executive orders to stop state or federal funds from going to conversion therapy for minors.
Bans enacted in the last few weeks include Lexington, Kentucky; Sun Prairie, Wisconsin; Norman, Oklahoma; and Columbia, South Carolina.
In the case of Columbia, a bill has just been introduced in the South Carolina senate called the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act, with the sponsor saying the banning of conversion therapy is unconstitutional and an overreach by cities.
Meanwhile, in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, a federal appeals court ruling prevents enforcement of any conversion therapy bans.
“Anyone who has been through this therapy will tell you, it catches up with you,” said Sullivan.
In the years after leaving Love In Action’s conversion therapy, Sullivan said he found refuge in a little place that leaps out with its purple paint.
“This is the Lipstick Lounge,” he said. “When I came to Nashville, I just remember thinking there was so many other people like me. It’s not just a lesbian bar. It’s an everybody bar. This is a very loving place for me.”
Despite some painful memories, Sullivan said there’s so much he has to love about his home of Memphis, though he said the years since have taught him so much about the many places that can make up home.
“It’s very important people get connected to love,” he said. “We’re trying to save lives by implementing the many bans taking place across the United States.”