“Conversion Therapy” Is Abuse
In recent years, the destructive practice of anti-LGBTQ "therapy" was being outlawed across the country. Then Trump-appointed judges decided that the bans were a violation of free speech.
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The Friday before Thanksgiving, the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned local bans protecting LGBTQ youths from conversion therapy, claiming such protections violate First Amendment rights to free speech. Not surprisingly, two of the three judges on this court were appointed by the Trump administration.
When I heard about the most recent ruling, I reached out to a woman I know who was forced as a teenager to undergo conversion therapy, a controversial form of treatment based on the false premise that LGBTQ identity is a mental illness which seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. When she was 16, 39-year-old Kustom culture artist Cadilina Deville, who is trans, was committed by her father to a so-called “therapeutic boarding school” for troubled teens. Cadi and I are both survivors of the multibillion-dollar troubled teen industry. We connected online after she tagged some of her artwork #breakingcodesilence, referencing the movement of survivors and activists raising awareness of the abuses of the largely unregulated network of wilderness survival camps, residential treatment centers, and therapeutic boarding schools that took off during the Reagan era and continue to thrive, despite allegations of abuse, death, and lawsuits. These programs employ harsh confrontations, public humiliation, isolation, forced exercise, and deprivation of privileges to purportedly rehabilitate and reform so-called troubled youth, which include not only those suffering from serious psychiatric disorders and/or those grappling with addiction, but also those who have difficult family relationships, who have endured childhood trauma, who are unable to meet parental expectations for behavior, or who have defied social norms and expectations. No diagnosis is required for intake.
According to Maia Szalavitz, author of Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids, placement is frequently recommended by educational consultants who have ties to the troubled teen industry, even receiving kickbacks. Often, kids are sent away not for being LGBTQ, per se, but for purported “sexual deviance.”
In 1997, an educational consultant recommended that Cadi’s father send her to Montana’s Spring Creek Lodge, which has since been shut down due to rampant allegations of abuse and neglect, including the suicide of a 16-year-old girl. Cadi’s mother, an addict who was beaten by Cadi’s father, was unable to protect her daughter because she’d entered a drug rehabilitation facility.
Cadi, who says she knew she was trans as early as first grade, says her father didn’t like that she was queer. As a young kid, she was enrolled in Catholic school, where boys had to wear shorts three inches above the knees and girls had to wear skirts three inches below. “I immediately asked if I could trade in my shorts… and I got paddled for having impure thoughts.” Which is why he’d made the unilateral decision to send her to Spring Creek.
No sooner did he sign her up than a higher-up from Spring Creek Lodge that I will call Jason, allegedly transported Cadi to the program, pretending “to be my best friend,” says Cadi. During their drive, Cadi says Jason asked her lots of questions, learning where Cadi’s piercings were, asking about her sexual experience. When they arrived on the property, Jason stopped in a secluded area and let Cadi have one last cigarette. “He told me this could go one of two ways. You can play ball or have it the hard way.”
He allegedly coerced Cadi into performing oral sex on him.
“I thought I was paying for easy treatment, not even knowing how bad it was going to be for me,” says Cadi. “There was a point during the act itself when he grabbed my head, and I realized it was no longer friendly.”
When they arrived onto the campus, Jason gathered the other students into a group, and introduced Cadi as being “from the Gay Bay.” He asked the kids to tell Cadi what was about to happen.
She recalls them telling her they were going to cut her long blonde hair. Then they described “how they were going to get rid of my pants—how [my pants] looked like a dress, how I was never going to see them again,” says Cadi. “These kids are just raising their hands like little Nazis, almost getting off on the fact that my rights are being taken away.”
Before she could understand what was happening, Jason forced her to undress in front of the kids. Staff members restrained her as they shaved off her long, golden locks. The experience was humiliating and devastating. “I never heard of anyone being processed that way,” Cadi recalls. “My queerness was constantly the focus with them. The other kids would be like, Get away from me, faggot. It always went back to I’m going to die of AIDS. I’m going to be a hooker because faggots don’t belong in society. There’s no place for it. It’s a sin.“
Attack therapy is not uncommon—in fact, it’s a hallmark of most troubled teen facilities. According to Maia Szalavitz, many programs adopted their tough love methodology from Synanon, a residential treatment program for heroin addicts founded in 1958. Synanon’s core philosophy dictated that addicts could help one another recover by living together under rigid restrictions and brutally confronting each other about their flaws, gradually restoring limited freedom to those who were compliant.
At Spring Creek Lodge, kids were forced to endure seminars—72-hour sessions of encounter groups derived from 1970s self-improvement programs like est (Erhard Seminars Training)—in which the kids were deprived of food, sleep, and water until they were broken down psychologically. Such seminars are standard at programs associated with the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP). “Right when you have no more energy to fight, you’re supposed to release your truth, and then they take that truth and they use that truth against you,” Cadi explains.
“I’m watching 13-year-old girls confess they have been molested or whatever and then this man is screaming at them that they asked for it. I remember being kind of grateful I was a boy in that moment, because that didn’t come up for me.”
When it came time for Cadi to share her truth, she recounted the way her father beat her and her mother, only to be told that wasn’t enough.When she confessed to feeling abandoned by her mother, she says she was told by the seminar leader to dig deeper.
“When he asked me again, I dug deep into my heart and soul, and it was the first time in my life I not only said it out loud, but to myself. I said, ‘I wear women’s clothing. I feel more comfortable,’” only to be told by the program leader, “I don’t think that’s it.”
“That’s when the other kids started to pile on “They’re all like, ‘I knew it! Fucking fag!’ They were telling me I’m going to die, but then telling me it’s not enough, wanting to know what sexual shit I did in women’s clothing, how I whore myself basically, and I never gave it to him because that wasn’t the truth.”
Cadi was sent to solitary confinement, where she allegedly spent much of her stay. And where, she alleges, she was raped twice.
Finally, after seven unrelenting months, she was rescued by her mother, whom Cadi managed to call from the dentist’s office following an incident in which a staff member had broken her tooth.
Her time at the boarding school left an indelible mark on Cadi. She struggled with depression and suicidal ideations, and even became homophobic. “Before, I had been such a sweet person. Afterward, I became a completely different person. I didn’t practice any self-care. I was super dirty. I didn’t want to brush my teeth because I didn’t want to look in a mirror. I just lived in a garage and worked.”
It took a decade before she was able to reconnect with her friends or with herself. She began transitioning in 2009 and has since sought to heal herself by speaking out. Cadi is featured in the forthcoming troubled-teen-industry documentary The Kids Are Not Alright, directed by Mikaela Schwer.
For years, activists have been working to pass laws protecting LGBTQ youth from being subjected to conversion therapy. Not only is there no credible evidence that conversion therapy works, research shows that the practice leads to an increased risk of depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse, homelessness, and even suicide. More than 20 major medical associations, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the World Health Organization, have released statements rejecting the practice, and activists have successfully passed protections in 20 states and municipalities, only to be thwarted by the most recent ruling, which seeks to protect the religious beliefs of Christian counselors. Interestingly, just yesterday, on December 16, nearly 400 religious leaders worldwide joined forces to push for a global ban to “conversion” therapy.
It was only after I interviewed Boy Erased’s author Garrard Conley in 2016, that I began to recognize that I, too, underwent a form of conversion therapy in the early 1990s, at a fundamentalist Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic then known as Escuela Caribe, which is now closed due to survivor activism, though a new troubled teen program has reopened on the same site. Its current iteration is endorsed by Vice-President Mike Pence. My parents, evangelicals who believed that corporal punishment was Biblically based, sent me away at the age of 15 mainly due to my anti-authoritarian tendencies. However, they were also troubled by my emerging sexuality. At the time, I had only dated boys, but I had told them that I was also attracted to girls.
My first night at the school, I had an upper respiratory infection and wanted to go to the infirmary—there was no such “amenity,” though. When I tried to wake up my bunkmate, she screamed for the housefather, accusing me of making a pass at her. (Houses were overseen by housefathers and housemothers to reinforce gender norms.) Before letting me go back to bed, the housefather interrogated me, shining a flashlight in my eyes.
The next day, the head of girls counseling accused me of preying on the other girl. I wasn’t attracted to the other girl, but I knew not to discuss my sexuality. I deflected the accusation saying, “Where I come from, girls don’t like girls.”
That evening, I was made to take part in a round of forced exercise which culminated with me holding a stress position. No reason was given. The accusation and its implication followed me throughout my stay. My roommate made a point of always moving as far away from me as possible, actions copied by her friends. A year later, I was confronted by that same counselor for holding another girl’s hand as she cried. I had only been trying to comfort her.
Soon after, I was coerced into becoming a “high ranker”—essentially a form of Hitler Youth. One of my responsibilities was to supervise low-ranking girls during showers, checking to make sure their pubic hairs were soaped. I remember hating the assignment, forcing myself to go numb. To this day, I’m not sure whether I was given this assignment to provoke me personally or if the housefather was just perverse, like the founder of my program, New Horizons Youth Ministries, the Reverend Gordon Blossom, who is alleged to have been a pedophile.
Like most survivors of the troubled teen industry, when I finally graduated, I struggled with anxiety and depression. It took me years to seek friendships with women—to this day, I’m not sure what stopped me, whether it was my fear of women, or my fear that my intentions would be misinterpreted as sexual. Today, while I am still attracted to women, I am happily married to a man. And I remain impassioned about sharing other people’s experiences with conversion therapy in the troubled teen industry, so I put out a call on the Breaking Code Silence message board.
That’s where I met *Gabriel (not his real name), a trans teen who was adopted from Guatemala by a lesbian couple. He describes a life of upheaval, moving frequently for his mother’s career. He feels his parents were unable to connect with him, or understand his needs growing up in predominantly white and wealthy neighborhoods.
When he was in high school, Gabriel’s mother sent him to a wilderness survival program—in the summer of 2016, after same-sex marriage was legalized, after the ban on solitary confinement for youth and protections for trans rights were passed by the Obama administration. Until recently, because of the indelible impact of trauma, it has taken survivors decades to speak out, which has allowed these abusive programs to claim these criminal allegations happened in the past. But this past August, Paris Hilton released a documentary detailing her abuse in the troubled teen industry, and a whole wave of survivors, including young ones like Gabriel, have joined forces to speak out.
While at the camp, Gabriel admitted that, “I was not a woman and that I was not straight. I didn’t say I wanted to seek transition at that time but definitely asserted I was not a woman.”
An educational consultant recommended Spring Ridge Academy (SRA), an all-girls school which, among other things, claimed to help students with “deviant” sexual behavior. Often in the troubled teen industry, short-term programs like wilderness camps act as gateway programs to long-term treatment centers.
Gabriel says girls at SRA who did not identify as typical femme were given femininity assignments, where they were forced to wear dresses and makeup and curl their hair as therapy. He describes the way students were coerced to dress up as assigned characters during seminars. Gabriel was made to wear a red lace dress and “a ton of makeup,” and curl his hair and essentially “cosplay as the singer Natasha Bedingfield.” The seminar, he says, was set up like a “weird disco.” When the program director started playing Bedingfield’s hit, “Pocketful of Sunshine,” Gabriel started dancing, as he had been told. His heart began racing. He remembers his throat closing, collapsing to the ground, fearing he was about to die. He’d been diagnosed with asthma, but his inhaler was not available.
After a period of lost consciousness, he forced himself to finish his dance, otherwise he would lose his level and its privileges. Later, during a feedback session, the school’s founder told him his feelings about his sexuality and attraction were “unnatural.”
To this day, Gabriel is grappling with long-term health damage. Even though he is masking his identity, he finds it empowering to speak out.
Mary Martinez was, like me, raised evangelical. We became fast friends after I published an essay about being sent to Escuela Caribe. Mary was sent to Georgia’s Joy House in 2006, when she was 13 and identified as bisexual. She knew instinctively to “keep that quiet,”but a staff member discovered a journal entry where she had written that her first sexual experience had been with a girl, not a boy.
She alleges that several staff members pulled her into a room and began screaming at her. “I had on a shirt and they yanked it up high. They were always accusing me of showing cleavage and being provocative. I think because I was bi, there were a lot of misconceptions, and because I was in a straight relationship they didn’t focus on me, but it was very much of a warning that I needed to not explore that part of me, to stay away from women.”
She remembers that the staff made an example of another girl who identified as bi, forcing her to exercise excessively and then preventing her from doing her laundry. The other students would overhear the staff tell the girl, “We are doing this so you will smell terrible and so that everyone knows you’re disgusting and to avoid you.”
“Everybody there who was queer in any way could see that girl,” Mary says, “And know if I don’t stay quiet I’ll be hurt.”
Mary says they denied her sexual identity. “They said I was just acting out sexually,” attributing her interest in women as a result of prior sexual abuse. It was a tactic she found “brilliant and evil at the same time.”
“Eventually,” says Mary, “I came to believe ‘I am suffering from sexual abuse and cannot function sexually and everyone else who is LGBTQ is probably suffering from the same problem.’ I never hated myself or people who were queer but really believed there was something wrong with me. It’s something I am still in therapy for, and feel a lot of shame about.”
Mary says she believes the troubled teen industry is bound up with purity culture.“The entire point of these programs is to reinforce heterosexuality and the patriarchy. Everyone’s sexuality is damaged on a sort of spectrum. Straight men are being indoctrinated into toxic masculinity, straight women are taught to feel shame for expressing biological desire, and queers are being severely abused for challenging the whole idea of heteronormativity.”
Phil Elberg, the lawyer who successfully sued troubled teen programs Straight and Kids, Inc. says, “Therapeutic boarding school programs at their core remain puritanical and hostile to sex.”
He has serious concerns about the impact that the recent 11th Circuit Court ruling, Otto v. City of Boca Raton, will have on regulating the troubled teen industry. “I think one has to be careful about the creation of a regulatory system that legitimizes an industry that should be seen as anything but legitimate,” he says. “To be effective, in my view, any legislation ought to focus on the underlying premises, the intake process and the decision to send kids away. Any regulation should require treatment plans signed by licensed professionals. If professionals had to diagnose, supervise treatment, and then write discharge summaries you would see that consultants are far more reticent to sign their names and take their checks and insurance companies and school boards would be far more careful about paying for it.”
When Cadi learned that protections for LGBTQ youth were being overturned by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, she was horrified.“When the laws became legal for us to be ourselves I feel like it saved so many lives. Now this court ruling is going to make people justify conversion therapy. I know there are probably multiple children right now who are going to be sent away. They are going to go through the same hell and same fury I went through,” she told me. “When someone tells you that what you do is wrong, it doesn’t leave you. You might be able to turn down the volume, but it’s always there. Kids who might have been suicidal before because they can’t live their truth are going to be beat up for their truth. They’re going to be harassed for their truth. Those people,” she says, “Are going to have to live in fear now.”
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