DISCLAIMER: Names have been changed and I was unable to verify some of the claims. Still, I think it’s a powerful personal story that needs to be shared to illuminate some of the hardships of the LGBTQ community.
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One of the center’s staff members told Caleb Kent, then a 16 year-old junior in high school, to take off his pants and underwear and sit down in the chair. Kent already knew from experience that it wasn’t his place to question orders. He knew to just do what he was told.
The staff member then strapped Kent into the chair and attached electrodes to his genitals, one on each testicle and one under his penis. The man then stood behind Kent as the silent, dark room was lit up with the images projected onto a screen. But they weren’t just any pictures; they were of semi-nude and completely nude males. With each slide, Kent’s genitals were shocked.
While it seemed to last forever, each electroshock therapy session lasted for about fifteen minutes, and they occurred about twice a week for the six months that he was at the center. Afterward, little, if anything, was said. He was simply told to get dressed and go back to group therapy.
The humiliation was agonizing. The pain, of course, was beyond excruciating. Still, he went along with it, too afraid to complain about it to anyone.
And that wasn’t even the worse experience that Caleb Kent endured during his time in conversion therapy, also known as reparative or ex-gay therapy.
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Caleb Kent is now 31 years old and works as a landscaper. He grew up in a very religious family, being the fifth generation to attend the Church of Christ, which, by Kent’s account, was very fundamental in many ways. The services included no music and all dancing was considered wrong and unbiblical. Women were not permitted to speak in church and were expected to conform to household roles.
Kent’s father worked in construction for most of his life, until 2003 when he started working in ministry. Kent’s grandfather was a minister at the Church of Christ, and his grandfather’s brothers were leaders or ministers in the church as well.
Between construction and ministry, Kent and his family moved around quite a bit. While he was born in Washington state, he also lived in California, Portland, Oregon, Dallas, New Mexico and Idaho while growing up. For a little kid, Kent told me, “It’s always tough at first because you get attached to an area and attached to people, but I took it in stride. I didn’t have much choice about the matter.” Most of his childhood was spent in Idaho, where he moved around 6th grade and where he eventually graduated from high school.
Around the age of 12 he started having his first same-sex attractions. He didn’t really understand why he felt that way and he kept it to himself, especially given that his family, like many people he knew in the conservative, religious Idaho, never really discussed sexuality at all, let alone homosexuality. When his parents did happen to talk about homosexuality, it was exclusively negative, putting down or bashing gays. For Kent, it wasn’t shocking to hear his parents say hurtful things about homosexuality because that’s what he expected from them. After all, he was always taught that homosexuality was wrong.
At 16 years old, Kent brought his feelings to the attention of his minister, who set him up with a personal counselor. Without his parents knowing, he met with the counselor twice a week for about four months. They would discuss his attractions and study Bible verses that supposedly dealt with homosexuality. For the counselor, Kent’s feelings were a behavior that needed to be changed, so he encouraged Kent to do things like wear a rubber band around his wrist and when he had homosexual thoughts he was instructed to snap the rubber band on his wrist, with the intentions of associating those thoughts with physical pain. Did the counselor help? “Oh no,” Kent told me.
“Being the very naïve teenager that I was,” Kent started looking at the men in exercise magazines around this time. His parents soon put the pieces together and they weren’t happy, to say the least. “It was Hiroshima. It was a nuclear explosion,” Kent explained. “Mom was just beside herself and dad was just fit to be tied. I felt like crying. I felt like I let everybody down at that point.”
His father, who had always been very stern and at times borderline abusive, “put the fear of God” in Kent. He went and talked to their minister and was angry when he discovered that Kent and the minister had kept the earlier counseling a secret. Realizing that Kent had already been to counseling, his father wanted a more aggressive approach. That’s how Kent ended up in a Christian counseling center in Boise, Idaho, where Kent would attend after school three times a week for five hours.
Kent declined to name the counseling center, which is no longer in business, because he doesn’t want any of his fellow members to have to relive the trauma of it.
Along with fifteen other kids about his age in the center, Kent participated in individual counseling, group therapy and Bible studies.
With similar aims of the previously mentioned rubber band method, the center conducted group sessions where the group members stretched out their arms and would tap their knees whenever they had homosexual thoughts. When they tapped their knees, a staff member would prick their arms with small pins, often until the kids’ arms were spotted with blood. If the staff didn’t think that the kids were confessing to same-sex thoughts enough, the kids would be locked into a dark, empty closet for periods of about twenty minutes – a common punishment in the center. For example, during one group session, Kent just naturally crossed his legs. The counselor abruptly stood up and threw him in the closet and told him that he couldn’t come out until he learned not to cross his legs, which was seen as unacceptably feminine behavior. On multiple other occasions, he was paddled multiple times for reasons such as talking about homosexuality in a positive light or hugging other group members.
While Kent’s not certain, he assumes that his parents at least had an idea of what was occurring at the center, but they thought they had to do everything that they could to ‘cure’ Kent of his homosexuality. Still, Kent never complained about it to anyone, and does think that if his mother, with whom he was a very close until she died of cancer in 2009, knew the extent of it she would’ve pulled him out of therapy.
But neither Kent nor his parents would have ever guessed what else Kent would endure at the center – waterboarding. During one group session he started bawling because he was overwhelmed by what he was going through. The staff members pulled him aside and told him to stop crying, told him that there’s pain a lot worse than what he was crying for. So they took him to a separate room, put him on an inclined table, and poured water on his face. “The most traumatic counseling experience I’ve ever been through,” Kent noted the obvious, “to say the least.”
While he couldn’t confirm it, staff members told Kent, very matter-of-factly, that multiple of his fellow group members had committed suicide throughout his time there. The kids couldn’t ask any further details and they weren’t allowed to talk to each other during the sessions either. At first, Kent didn’t know how he felt about the news. But the more he thought about it, he admitted, “I was kind of happy that they did commit suicide because they got out of there.” His time there was hell, so he assumed that it was just as bad for everyone else.
After about six months in the group, he confessed that he felt that he no longer had homosexual feelings. After being questioned and grilled about the confession, Kent’s parents eventually let him stop going to the center.
While at the time he did truly think that he had been cured, about a month later, his same-sex attractions were back to normal.
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In November of 2012, after failing again and again to change his sexuality, Kent had had enough. While living in New Mexico, he was “very depressed, very beside myself. I felt like dirt, like trash.” One night, he grabbed his bottle of almost 90 pills and scarfed them down. “I just couldn’t live with these feelings of attration to a man,” Kent sighed. “I just couldn’t do it. I tried to be what I thought was a good Christian at that point.” His roommate came home to find him passed out on the kitchen floor and called 911. Kent was rushed to the hospital, where his stomach was pumped. That’s when he decided to move back to Dallas.
Arriving in Dallas in January, he moved in with a family friend who also happened to be a minister. Still hoping to change his sexuality, Kent sat down with him multiple times and discussed homosexuality. But when the minister resorted to the same lessons and same Biblical passages as Kent had heard over and over again, it finally hit him. “I finally accepted who I am and I am gay and there’s no changing that.”
At the end of February of this year, Kent finally stopped attending sessions. In March, after looking for churches as well as looking into the gay community of Dallas, he came across the Cathedral of Hope, one of the world’s largest LGBTQ-inclusive churches.
While he still battles with depression and anxiety, he’s much more comfortable with himself now. His parents have made progress toward accepting him and his sexuality.
“My outlook is looking good. There’s going to be some bumps along the way, of course, but it’s looking really good so far,” Kent smiled. “I’m optimistic but cautious about what’s going to happen in the future. We’ll just see what happens.”