I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know I was different, even before I heard the word “gay.” I wore a ballerina leotard and red tutu when I was 5, in 1960s Selma, Indiana. I was practically an alien, beamed down to the cornfields from some exotic drag planet.
My well-intentioned parents, homophobic before that word even hit Indiana, didn’t know what to do with me. I was a bright-eyed, precocious, singing, dancing dervish with no interest in sports, Hot Wheels or toy guns. They hoped I’d grow out of it.
I learned the label for what I was when I snuck into my father’s bathroom to read the 1969 bestseller “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex: But Were Afraid to Ask.” I devoured every lurid detail about these so-called “homosexuals” and the tragic, furtive lives they were doomed to lead. It was cold comfort, but at Ieast I finally knew there were others out there like me, even if we could never be happy.
The childhood campaign to make me a Real Boy included forced work as a dairy farm hand when I was 6, military summer camp at 10, and spending sixth grade exiled to Nazareth Hall Catholic Military school. As my father hetero-splained, the discipline there would “cut the apron strings,” i.e., make me not gay. What it really made me was full of anger, afraid of straights and fiercely distrustful of authority figures and organized religion.
It was also a perfect introduction to the cruelty and bullying to come in school and in real life every time our community is trotted out to be demonized (for example, by Ron DeSantis and his “Don’t Say Gay bill,” etc.). I renounced the Straight White Male Patriarchy even before I knew those words.
My adult conversion therapy was triggered when my sister Nikki died unexpectedly following an epileptic seizure. She was 24 and I was 21, just finishing my junior year of college. Our already-dysfunctional family was both broken and broken open by her death.
I’d already come out officially, attending the first-ever National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights at 19; one of the proudest, most transformative events of my life. I chose a national stage to exit my closet, never to reenter it.
Or so I thought.
Most people hear “conversion therapy” and think of organizations like Exodus International. Sham counselors and therapists in private practice can be just as dangerous. Enter Bea, the architect of my conversion therapy.
My parents met Ecuadorian expats Bea and her husband Carlos while flirting with learning Spanish, hoping to become missionaries somewhere. I met Bea the summer before my senior year of college. Bea was a therapist, and even more so than my parents, deeply religious. She was also one of the most fascinating, funny and entertaining people I’d ever encountered, a bubbly confection of Charo and Dr. Ruth.
She was so fun to be around. It totally escaped me that behind her funny stories, she was studying me like a lab rat.
Once, she invited me over to meet a boy and girl my age under the guise of a casual social gathering. Years later, I discovered each was undergoing conversion therapy, and I was there like a freak in a sideshow, modeling the “before” they were each trying to leave behind while she helped them achieve their heteronormative “after.”
“The thing was, I truly needed and wanted therapy. I just didn’t know how to separate the parts I needed from the parts I didn’t.”
Days before moving in with my first boyfriend, Ken, friends of my parents threw a dinner party to celebrate our new life together, and Bea attended. I didn’t realize the real reason for the party was for Bea to find a way to invite Ken and me over the next day to launch my conversion therapy.
The next day, we sat at her table and she asked us some questions. She had us each draw a figure, give it an age and name, and write down what the figure was feeling. Based solely on that, she delivered her pronouncement: I was not gay.
According to Bea, I chose to be gay when I was 14 and needed a strong male role model. If my life were balanced and I had the chance to choose again, I would choose to be straight. Finally, even if I was gay, I couldn’t have picked a worse partner for myself than Ken.
Lying on the blue carpeting in my parent’s living room, sobbing with grief and confusion, feeling the most betrayed and violated I’d ever felt, I vowed never to see her again. Ken and I left the next day to start our lives together, still stunned by what had happened.
My fall quarter flew by. Ken and I barely made it to Christmas before breaking up, we were so haunted by Bea’s words. The one time I saw my parents, they came to see me in a production of “Sweeney Todd” and tagging along was Bea, the last person in the world I wanted to see.
Bea apologized to me for her words the previous summer. She only wanted to be friends. She encouraged me to tape my feelings and send them to her if I wanted her counsel on anything.
Back at school, I made one cassette tape about my feelings during winter quarter. I still didn’t know what to make of Bea or how to proceed to be around her. The thing was, I truly needed and wanted therapy. I just didn’t know how to separate the parts I needed from the parts I didn’t. A childhood spent raising your alcoholic parents and being bullied doesn’t usually lead to strong boundary-setting skills.
During spring break, I saw Bea every day for eight hours. She made her case against homosexuality — how it wasn’t natural and couldn’t be found anywhere in nature. She wore me down with biblical passages for every one of my challenges. We did hypnosis and desensitization and aversion exercises.
I returned to college for my last quarter a preemie-heterosexual, hoping the right exercises and prayers would make it stick. I cut all contact with my gay friends and classmates. I even had sex with a close girl friend. I moved to NYC, still pretending to be straight — but in truth, asexual, deeply wounded and totally confused.
I spent the next five years trying to maintain the pretense, ignoring my unhappiness and loneliness. Things finally erupted with Bea when I moved back to Indiana and continued therapy with her. I challenged her one day about the private information she indiscreetly shared with me about other clients of hers I knew, wondering what she told them about me. She burst into tears, and I left, totally freaked out and unsure of what to do next.
That was the last time I saw her.
A couple of years later, I mustered the courage to call a national radio call-in show to tell my story to psychiatrist Dr. Harvey Ruben. He took a deep breath, sighed, and I could hear the sadness in his voice as he offered a deeply compassionate apology for what had been done to me in the name of therapy.
He informed me that I had been the victim of serious psychological and sexual abuse, and he shared his hope that someday I could trust another therapist enough to seek help.
I hung up the phone and burst into tears, feeling heard and validated for the first time in my 30 years, the first ray of hope that I might find a way back to my true self someday.
I eventually saw a miraculous therapist (did I ever rake him across the coals during our first session). I came out again. I became a certified therapist myself, and I moved back to NYC, ostensibly to perform, but really for the gay finishing school I sorely needed.
It took me 15 years before I was able to fully explore my authentic sexuality, in my 40s.
I confronted my fears about sex and my extremely negative body image. I became a body worker, pleasure activist and sex educator — for 20 years, women (and a few men) have paid me to teach them how to give great head (and their boyfriends have thanked me!).
I’m 61 now. Eleven years ago, I moved to Madrid to marry my husband, a loving, beautiful man who is also a National Living Cultural Treasure of Spain as a flamenco dancer.
We live in the world’s largest gay neighborhood in a country that celebrates diversity and inclusivity. I launched my first music video as DaddyB, a daddy bear singer/dancer/songwriter. I’ve fully embraced the richness of my history and my place as a gay elder. I am both a warrior and a lover on behalf of my community.
I wish I could say what I went through is a relic of the past, but it’s not. For every parent who celebrates their child’s diversity, there are hundreds who support the anti-gay laws being proposed in 20 states. Twenty-nine states don’t fully protect queer Americans from discrimination. Texas Republicans just approved a platform that labels homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice.” Gay marriage is still illegal on the books in Indiana and in many other states.
Still, Biden’s executive order against conversion therapy is an extraordinary declaration on behalf of LGBTQ+ people. It brings tears to my eyes when I think of how it could’ve helped me. It also gives me great hope for the LGBTQ+ youth now and in the future, that they may always be allowed to be their authentic selves.