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Gay Conversion Therapy Devastated My Family

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So-called reparative therapy, which attempts to make gay people straight, is not just futile -- it often causes serious harm, including increased depression, self-hatred, and even suicide. It can devastate not just a gay individual, but entire families. Like mine.

In 1958, just after my seventh birthday, my mother went in our bathroom, held my father's rifle to her head, and pulled the trigger. By some miraculous fluke, the rifle jammed. But my childhood was shattered. My mother was committed to a mental hospital for a series of electroshock treatments, severely impairing her memory while leaving her more depressed than ever.

I didn't know the secret of my mother's anguish. She had fallen in love with another married woman when I was a baby. They had a clandestine affair for two years, until her lover broke down from cultural pressure, and went off to a mental hospital. When she returned, she broke off the relationship.

Grief-struck, my mother started seeing a psychiatrist whose goal was to help her adjust to her marriage. Mom went along with it, because she'd absorbed the culture's homophobia, and believed that something was wrong with her. But she didn't adjust. Her depression deepened until she wanted to die.

My mother had never been in love with my father. When they married, she wasn't yet aware she was gay, but saw him as her best chance to avoid spinsterhood. Dad felt my mother's ambivalence toward him early on. He was a shy scientist, inexperienced with women, and my mother's lack of enthusiasm for him undermined his confidence. Once she began her affair, she said to him, "Let's stay married, but live like brother and sister." The rejection wounded him deeply. After the affair broke up, my father didn't know what had happened, only that his wife had become completely withdrawn. And then, she attempted suicide with his rifle.

At the mental hospital, the doctors found out about Mom's lesbian relationship, and she was assigned to a specialist in treating homosexuality. The psychiatrist told my father to have faith -- he'd helped other homosexual patients become heterosexual. "Okay," Dad thought, "if she had tuberculosis, I'd stay with her, so I'll stay while they treat her for this disease."

For two years, Dad raised me as a single parent. Every weekend, we made the two-hour drive to the mental hospital, where Mom took my hand for our walk on the grounds, Dad trailing bleakly behind. Mom returned home heavily medicated, deeply depressed, and simmering with anger toward my father, who she blamed for her incarceration. Her misery bled through the marriage. When I was ten, my father finally fled, leaving me to take care of Mom. Every night, I put my drugged, woozy mother to bed, and then hovered all night half-awake, listening in case Mom stumbled and fell on her way to the bathroom. Anxiety became my second skin. I had learned early on the stigma and shame of mental illness, so I spoke to no one about my life taking care of my mother, and made sure never to bring friends home. She attempted suicide three more times during my childhood, but survived for me to leave home at 18.

The women's and gay liberation movements saved my mother -- and me. In 1970, after I'd left the East for California, I came out as a lesbian, and a month later, back in New Jersey, so did Mom. She moved from the suburbs into New York's Greenwich Village, where she found a vibrant lesbian community, and reclaimed joy. The mother who had been so profoundly depressed throughout my childhood wrote me, "I wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and am so happy to be alive."

The destructive practice of reparative therapy -- also called conversion therapy, ex-gay therapy, and sexual orientation change efforts -- must be stopped. In California, a landmark bill, SB 1172, was affirmed by the Senate on May 30, and is now headed to the State Assembly. It would ban reparative therapy on minors, regardless of the willingness of a parent to authorize it. If the bill passes, imagine the lives that will be saved from great suffering.

Here's to the day when we can all feel affirmed in our various forms of queerness, and none of us has to feel pressured to be other than our beautiful, true selves.