‘You Will Find God’: Inside the Battle to Ban Conversion Therapy in Florida
Conversion therapy is quietly thriving in the Sunshine State, and central Florida’s LGBTQ activists have had enough.
“You will hate yourself.”
“You will pray that God will somehow provide a miracle so you will be free.”
Jordan Hunter, a 29-year-old Florida native, was shaking as he read aloud a letter to his younger self to a room full of activists, journalists, and lawmakers. Everyone at Orlando’s Stonewall Bar listened intently.
Hunter described the shame he would experience keeping his gayness a secret. He outlined the trauma he’d endure during conversion therapy, and the rejection that would come from his religious community. He explained complications squaring his identity with his strong evangelical faith.
Hunter was speaking publicly for the first time of his personal experience with conversion therapy at an event promoting a ban of the practice in Orange County, Florida.
Conversion therapy, or reparative therapy, is an effort to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity through psychotherapy, counseling, or intensive gender-performative camps.
While talk therapy is most commonly used, some practitioners have incorporated “aversion treatments, such as inducing nausea, vomiting, or paralysis” and electric shock treatment, according to the Williams Institute of UCLA.
The practices have been widely debunked and deemed dangerous by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association. Conversion therapy has been outlawed in 21 other Florida communities, including Miami, Tampa, and most recently Alachua County. Nationwide, it’s banned in 18 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
The Williams Institute estimates 20,000 LGBT youths (13-17) will receive conversion therapy from a licensed professional in states where it's permitted, and 57,000 LGBT youths (13-17) across all states will receive conversion therapy from religious organizations.
“[Conversion therapy presents] significant risk of harm by subjecting individuals to forms of treatment which have not been scientifically validated and by undermining self-esteem when sexual orientation fails to change,” the American Psychiatric Association said in a 2013 statement.
Orlando activists Andrew Chang and Eric Rollings started an online petition to ban the practice in Orange County. The petition, addressed to county commissioners, outlines the irreparable consequences of conversion therapy, and how LGBT youth in particular are the most vulnerable.
Orlando activists told The Daily Beast that similar statewide bills have died without a hearing, so activists are pushing the ban in as many counties, cities, and municipalities as possible to set a precedent for Florida’s capitol.
If enacted, the Orange County ban would specifically protect LGBT youth from conversion therapy by licensed therapists. Activists argue minors being subjected to this involuntarily is child abuse. Similar counseling through churches, however, would continue to be protected under religious freedom laws.
Conversion therapy is rooted in the idea that queerness, or anything outside of identifying as cisgender, is a mental disorder that needs to be “fixed.” As a result, patients who undergo this pseudoscience are often left with anxiety, depression, suicidality and PTSD.
Gay, lesbian and bisexual youth that are rejected by their families are eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those raised in affirming homes, according to a San Francisco State University study.
“It makes you constantly torture yourself mentally, it’s almost like it creates a sort of OCD state where you’re just trying to get rid of any thoughts that might be gay,” said Selkie MacNicol [not her real name, but a pen name she asked to use], a 23-year-old conversion therapy survivor.
At 17, MacNicol started conversion therapy with a licensed therapist in Winter Park, a ritzy suburb of Orlando. Soon after, MacNicol says her physical and emotional health deteriorated from porphyria, a chronic illness that flared from stress.
“It was triggered by the therapy, I ended up in the ER with stomach pain and pain all over. I couldn’t swallow,” she said.
MacNicol found solace in LGBT communities online and said they “rehabilitated” her from the toxic conditioning of conversion therapy. MacNicol now manages a blog supporting others in similar situations.
“I started to notice that the more I accepted myself, the more my health improved,” she said. “I’ll always probably have a disability. There’s varying levels; I can have a disability and be hopeful or I can have a disability and be helpless, and that’s much worse.”
Stephanie Preston-Hughes, a licensed Orlando therapist who specializes in care for LGBT clients and has treated more than a dozen survivors, said ex-gay therapy is almost always offered by Christian religious groups. “It’s inherently based on a judgement that homosexuality is wrong, it’s a sin, that it can be changed,” she said.
“From my perspective as a mental health professional, it’s really an intent to inflict religious beliefs on other people,” Preston-Hughes said.
“People commit suicide over this,” she added. “It is not an overstatement to say this is literally a life and death issue.”
“It’s all about who we are as men”
Two weeks after Jordan Hunter’s public address, he spoke with The Daily Beast at cafe in Downtown Orlando. Hunter sipped his iced chai tea in the late afternoon sun, armed with an infectious smile and fire-red hair. He has a deep-south politeness and accent to match.
Hunter grew up in an evangelical Baptist church in New Port Richey, a small town nestled in Florida's Gulf Coast. He first came out as gay at 15 to a youth pastor, confessing that he “struggled” with homosexuality and needed the church’s help.
“I had no idea what to do or what to think or how to feel,” Hunter said. “I didn’t know any gay people in the church.”
Hunter said immediately after coming out, the youth pastor and church clergy “fervently prayed” over the teen. The pastor offered to suggest books and set up counseling with one of the pastors in the church but, Hunter said, “He never talked to me about it again.”
Eyeing a future in ministry himself, Hunter later interned at a Methodist church and moved to a Bible college in Atlanta.
During his time at Bible college, Hunter had a same-sex experience, and, overcome with guilt, confessed to leaders at the college. The administration decided before he could continue his studies in Atlanta, he would have to “devote more attention” to his same sex attractions and recommended Big Fish Ministry, a conversion therapy residential treatment center in Orlando.
Big Fish Ministry’s owner, Matthew Walker, is vocal to readers of his blog about his experience “overcoming homosexuality,” and his site claims the ministry is for men over 18 who “struggle with Same-Sex Attraction (SSA) and homosexuality and seek to live a Christ centered life in regards to their sexuality.”
“I moved in with a total stranger who just wanted to pry into my life and pretty much have me divulge everything to him,” Hunter said.
A copy of Big Fish Ministry’s house rules reviewed by The Daily Beast showed participants were forced to install spyware on their computers to monitor their search history, and assigned “accountability partners” to deter participants from looking at porn.
“Our sex drive is a wild beast in need of taming,” the rules state. “I have no way to monitor this except through conversation and honesty… Masturbation is a childish way to ease our pain. We have got to attack our problems like men do. Head on!”
Experts told The Daily Beast exaggerated gender roles are a key component of conversion therapy.
“It was all about who were are as men,” Hunter said of the program. “It was very chauvinistic.”
Big Fish Ministry’s current programs include a four-day $350 fishing trip excursion for men seeking “mentoring for sexual brokenness” and hourly Skype and FaceTime counseling sessions.
“I was suicidal,” Hunter said of his time at Big Fish Ministry. “I felt like my entire focus was on my sex life. It wasn’t about what I wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t about building a career, it wasn’t about becoming a better person or learning or growing.”
For many, conversion therapy manifests as isolation and terror. Hunter said he felt he didn’t belong in the faith community because he was gay, nor the gay community because of his faith.
“I kept it all to myself,” Hunter said. “It was a lot.”
Big Fish Ministry did not respond to The Daily Beast's request for comment.
“You cannot change your sexual orientation”
Aside from all things Disney, Orlando doubles as a hub for evangelical organizations and megachurches.
Among them is the now-shuttered Exodus International, which reigned as the largest ex-gay organization in the world for more than three decades.
Change is Possible!—Exodus’ mantra—was misleading in that the ministry wasn’t in the business of changing one’s sexuality, but rather repressing it.
“I never called myself straight or heterosexual; I just didn’t call myself gay.” former Exodus International President Alan Chambers told The Daily Beast.
“You cannot change your sexual orientation,” Chambers said. “That’s why it’s important for me to be involved, not just as someone who experienced trauma, but as someone who caused trauma.”
Chambers said his shift from president of the largest ex-gay organization to an LGBT activist was not one that came easily. He alleged that as he started to challenge the practices and ethics of Exodus, many members of the church began to turn on him. Then, after telling CNN’s Lisa Ling that he believes Christian homosexuals can go to heaven, the theological infrastructure of Exodus began to crumble.
In 2012, Chambers publicly denounced conversion therapy and apologized. In 2013, the board voted to close.
Randy Thomas, another former Exodus leader, joined Chambers in denouncing the practice and is now working with LGBT activists to raise awareness of the dangers of conversion therapy.
Thomas told The Daily Beast after a close friend’s suicide in 2013, his “blinders were ripped off.”
“He couldn’t reconcile who he was as a gay man and his faith,” Thomas said of his late friend, between tears. “I couldn’t hyper-spiritualize that away.”
“It’s like the first time you ever put on glasses; if you’re nearsighted you don’t know you’re nearsighted until you put the glasses on. Well that moment made me see clearly: Oh my god, what have I been a part of? How did I get here?”
Though Exodus International has closed, conversion therapy quietly continues in the Orlando area. Several sources told The Daily Beast that there were between 12 and 15 known providers that practice conversion therapy and actively advertise it in Orange County.
Activists say they keep the list of providers confidential to protect the identity of minors subjected to the practice and to prevent providers from rebranding and moving locations.
“Pulse changed everything”
Brandon Wolf is a Pulse survivor and media relations manager for Equality Florida.
Wolf was in the bathroom washing his hands when his two best friends, Drew Leinonen and Juan Guerrero, were among the 49 murdered during the 2016 Pulse massacre. Wolf said he was once a “complacent ultra millennial,” but the mass shooting jolted him into action.
As he told The Daily Beast, “Pulse changed everything,”
The days following Pulse, Wolf explained, there was an onslaught of television talking heads speaking about the Orlando LGBT community and the pain the city was reeling from.
“I didn’t see queer people of color talking about how this impacted them,” he said flatly.
“I realized if I stayed complacent and didn’t become engaged with the political process, didn’t become engaged with my community, that some of our stories would never be told.”
Wolf, along with Equality Florida and a collective of Orlando LGBT groups, backed the anti-conversion therapy online petition, and are currently working with local lawmakers to bring the bill banning conversion therapy in Orange County to light. To date, the bill has died in the legislature several times without a hearing.
Orlando, especially post-Pulse, is celebrated as a progressive, inclusive pocket of Florida. Orlando’s mayor Buddy Dyer was recently championed “among the most vocal champions for the LGBTQ community” by the Equality Florida Action PAC.
There are memorials and #OrlandoStrong murals sprinkled throughout the city. The bandshell in the heart of downtown is freshly painted as a rainbow in honor of the Pulse victims.
Yet despite Orlando’s LGBT-friendly reputation, the reality is most people aren’t aware that conversion therapy is still practiced in the area.
“It’s all about exposure and how many people actually know this exists and the dangers of it,” said Jennifer Foster, Executive Director of One Orlando Alliance.
Foster said she’s optimistic about a conversion therapy ban passing in Orange County, but anticipates pushback from far-right religious groups like Liberty Counsel, who have challenged similar ordinances in the state.
Other immediate obstacles gaining nationwide attention threaten to stall the initiative—namely, the threat of an Orlando child detention center for migrants and potential hurricanes brewing in the Atlantic.
Last January, then-Orange County mayor Theresa Jacobs told the Orlando Sentinel conversion therapy was “not an issue that’s on our radar.”
After several activists, therapists, and survivors spoke at a September 10 Board of County Commissioners meeting, Orange County Mayor Demings responded that the while the board agreed with the ban, they were still investigating the legal ramifications for the state.
"While we may support you, we are still gathering information about whether or not at the county level it is an appropriate place to create laws or regulations [for conversion therapy]."
"We'll meet with you in the very near future," he assured.
Eric Rollings, an LGBT activist and spokesperson for the petition, said the next step is a meeting with Mayor Deming’s Chief of Staff and a county attorney on September 30th.
“You will find God.”
Back at Stonewall Bar, Hunter finished reading his letter to his future self.
“You will feel the love of God in the people around you and the community you build.
That love you find will take that terrible, dark secret you kept for so many years and it will transform it into a beautiful truth. One that you will be so proud of.”
He swallowed, blinking back tears. “I know you, I am you, I love you.”