When Jason Lindow went through conversion therapy, he started abusing sleeping pills.
The treatment, he told The Daily Beast, “was making [him] feel dead inside” anyway, so he took the pills to stay in a “mellow state all the time.” He knew there was a possibility that he might “not even wake up” if he took too many, he said, but he was so depressed that death seemed almost preferable to an emotionless existence.
The reason that Lindow, then a 21-year-old college student, sought out the treatment was so that he could serve as a missionary in the religion of his birth: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church.
In fact, Lindow says, his local religious leader—known as a bishop—had referred him to the therapist who in turn instructed him to “turn off or eliminate [his] feelings toward women” and to try to “feed [an] attraction to men.”
“It became kind of like a form of brainwashing,” said Lindow. “He kept having me repeat sentences or write things out over and over again, kind of like a little kid at a chalkboard. You hear it so many times that it just becomes your dialogue.”
Now, seven years after Lindow went through that ordeal, the LDS church has seemingly turned a corner on conversion therapy.
Earlier this month, LGBT advocates and Utah state legislators put forward a bill that would ban the practice of trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill is now in the House Rules Committee.
Crucially, the LDS church told Deseret News last week that it will not oppose the bill.
In a state where the vast majority of legislators are Mormon themselves, that lack of opposition from the church gives the bill a fighting chance. (In fact, the bill’s sponsor, Representative Craig Hall, is an active member of the LDS church.) If it passes, Utah would be the most conservative state in the country to have a conversion therapy ban.
Troy Williams, executive director of the statewide advocacy organization Equality Utah, has previous experience championing LGBT rights in the LDS- and GOP-dominated state legislature.
In 2015, he helped pass an LGBT nondiscrimination bill that received the approval of the LDS church and was signed by a Republican governor.
Williams is hopeful for a repeat of that win. He told The Daily Beast that Equality Utah and the bill’s sponsors “approached the church early on in the process” of formulating the conversion therapy ban.
“The church welcomed our request to discuss conversion therapy, and we quickly found that we had a major area of agreement: we don’t want young people harmed,” Williams told The Daily Beast. “And that became our focus.”
What made Williams hopeful about approaching the LDS church was the fact that the religion had “previously denounced conversion therapy.”
That opposition came in the form of an official statement issued in March 2016 which said that the church “denounces any therapy that subjects an individual to abusive practices.”
The Mormon and Gay website currently says: “While shifts in sexuality can and do occur for some people, it is unethical to focus professional treatment on an assumption that a change in sexual orientation will or must occur.”
For a religion whose leaders previously taught that sexual orientation can be changed—and which stated in official literature as recently as 2007 that “many Latter-day Saints … overcome same-gender attraction in mortality”— those new statements represent a major step forward.
Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Mormons are currently expected to abstain from same-sex relations in order to remain in good standing—and transgender members risk church discipline if they medically transition—but some LGBT Mormons opt to remain inside the faith, hopeful for change. (The affinity group Affirmation has about 10,000 members.)
Others, like Lindow, decide that an LGBT identity is incompatible with the religion and leave. Lindow formally resigned his membership in December 2018 but he hopes that the church’s lack of opposition to the conversion therapy bill is a sign of things to come.
“Maybe this is the first step in them actually fully embracing LGBT members, or even just the community in general,” he said.
Lindow, who was born in a small town in Central Utah that was almost exclusively Mormon, said that he grew up believing sexual orientation could be changed through faith.
That was a common attitude at the time. In 2010, the Associated Press reported the results of a Salt Lake Tribune poll finding that 54 percent of Utahns “agree with Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer that it’s possible for homosexuality to be overcome.”
“I didn’t have vocabulary like ‘lesbian’ yet but I remember in high school having these feelings for girls and still thinking in my head [that], because of my beliefs, I’m going to graduate high school, become attracted to men, get married, and have kids.”
But Lindow, who had not yet transitioned at that point, did not develop an attraction to men after high school. Instead, beginning at age 19, he secretly dated a woman for three years until he decided he had to test his faith before the relationship progressed too far.
“I felt like if I was going to go against what my family had raised me as, I had to know for certain whether I fully believed it or not,” Lindow told The Daily Beast. “So I decided to go serve a mission.”
Young Mormon adults can serve 18-to-24 month proselytizing missions in which they live and work alongside companions of the same gender while seeking to convert non-members in an assigned geographic region.
In order to serve, applicants must meet strict personal worthiness requirements and live in accordance with the faith’s teachings. That meant Lindow had to undergo some major life changes.
“I went to the bishop and he told me, ‘You have to first break up with your girlfriend,’ which I did,” said Lindow. “Then he told me that I needed to go to therapy. He never used the word ‘conversion therapy,’ he just said I needed to go to therapy and I had to have a pass from a therapist to get approval to go.”
That was when Lindow’s harrowing conversion therapy experience began. He was told that one of the purposes of the therapy was “so that I could handle having a female companion for so long.”
Overall, the treatment lasted for about five months, Lindow said, but he wasn’t even aware that it amounted to conversion therapy.
The consequences were immediate and palpable nonetheless.
“I’m the type that I can’t just turn off certain emotions, so I found that I was turning off all my emotions because of what he was asking me to do,” said Lindow. “I became extremely depressed. I was struggling with school.”
Most major medical associations have denounced conversion therapy for precisely this reason: Not only is it unsuccessful at changing sexual orientation and gender identity, it has the potential to cause tremendous psychological harm to those who undergo it, including a risk of suicide.
In its campaign for the proposed conversion therapy ban, Equality Utah is highlighting the stories of survivors to draw attention to those harms.
Utah still has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the country.
Reached for comment, the LDS church told The Daily Beast that it is not officially endorsing the bill but confirmed an earlier statement issued by director of government relations Marty Stephens to Deseret News: “We have repeatedly stated the church denounces any therapy including conversion and reparative therapies that subjects people to abusive practices in Utah and around the world.”
The LDS church declined to respond to questions about its previous teachings on conversion therapy and why they were changed.
Lindow speculated that the founding of a youth center called Encircle has helped the LDS church evolve on LGBT issues.
The center—which is based in Provo, Utah and just opened a new location in Salt Lake City—is not affiliated with the LDS church and offers programs for LGBT youth and their families, whether they’re Mormon or not.
“I think people like Encircle, who are building the bridge between [the LGBT community and the church] have helped both communities start seeing that we can coexist and it doesn’t have to be a battle,” said Lindow.
From his perspective as a longtime advocate, Williams would attribute much of the progress in Utah the work that LGBT advocates have done in Utah ever since the LDS church got involved in the 2008 campaign to roll back same-sex marriage rights in Californiavia Proposition 8. That move angered not just the LGBT community, but many Mormons as well.
“Keep in mind that Equality Utah has been meeting regularly with the church for the past 10 years,” Williams told The Daily Beast. “Ever since Proposition 8 passed, we have been actively engaging in dialogue.”
Emotions have run high at times, but Williams said that he has “become a huge proponent of never seeing people as adversaries.”
“Our ethos has always been to find common ground,” he said. “There are obviously many political areas where we disagree—but our intent was to discover that which connects us, and to see where we can move forward.”
That was the approach that led to the landmark 2015 nondiscrimination bill, which protected LGBT Utahns in the areas of employment and housing while also including language expressly exempting religious organizations.
Similarly, the proposed conversion therapy ban, House Bill 399, includes language that allows therapists to discuss extramarital sex “in a manner that is neutral with respect to sexual orientation” and makes it clear that “clergy member[s] or religious counselor[s]” can still advise their congregants.
These are not exemptions so much as they are clarifications that the ban only applies to efforts by licensed mental health professionals to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity. (Nevada’s ban, passed in 2017, includes similar language.)
The LDS church’s lack of opposition to the conversion therapy ban was not a guarantee.
In 2016, as The Daily Beast previously reported, a bill that would have added protected categories to the state’s hate crime legislation—including sexual orientation and religion—failed in the absence of LDS support.
But then, in 2017, the Utah state legislature repealed a “no promo homo” law which had banned the discussion of homosexuality in schools.
That 2017 victory helped Lindow, for one, breathe easier. After ending his conversion therapy and graduating from college, he became a math teacher in Murray, Utah. It was there that he met two students who identified as transgender. (“I remember at first being a little confused because I didn’t know what that meant,” Lindow recalled.)
After one of those two students committed suicide, a grieving Lindow did some soul-searching, sitting down one day to review his journal entries and an old photo album.
“You know sometimes how things are really obvious but they’re not until it hits you?” said Lindow. “It was kind of one of those moments. It just hit me really hard: Oh, it’s not just that I’m attracted to women. I am transgender. This is why I’ve always felt masculine. This is why I’ve always wanted boys’ clothing. It just made sense.”
He came out as a transgender man in August 2017, started testosterone treatment in January 2018, and underwent top surgery in August 2018.
By sheer coincidence, he went on a date shortly before his surgery with a woman he met online who turned out to be the surgeon’s medical assistant. They are still dating today.
It took Lindow “a while” after conversion therapy, he told The Daily Beast, to be able to feel emotion again—although transitioning accelerated his healing process. He is happy now and comfortable in his own skin—both relatively new sensations.
A conversion therapy ban wouldn’t have prevented Lindow’s conversion therapy from taking place—he sought it out himself after he already turned 18–but he is hopeful that the bill can help future generations of LGBT youth from Mormon families.
To them, he would say, “It does get better.”
He is living proof.