I had lunch with a new friend at a sushi place in Salt Lake City a few days ago. He had been a student of mine last semester, and now that school is out and I’m moving on to another university, and so is he, we decided to meet up and get to know each other as friends.
He is gay. He was also the most beloved member of the class I taught last semester. Everybody loved him. He is funny and charming. He is caring and empathetic. He is creative and smart. He is a loyal friend. And I knew that he had been through a lot, having grown up LDS and gay, but I had no idea how much he suffered until we met for lunch.
(Read my own story of growing up LDS with a gay father here.)
He told me about being so medicated that his body was shutting itself down. He told me about being sent and kept on a mission because leaders thought with faith he could be “healed.” He returned home sick and nearly dying because of the medical treatment. He got healthy physically but ended up emotionally battered and suffered a recurrence of his eating disorder. He told me of sexual assaults from macho boys in high school and that administrators looked the other way. He told me of emotional abuse by classmates.
I saw similar things happen to one of my good friends growing up. He was always teased and called a “faggot.” I am sickened by the way kids treat each other, and even more sickened by the way adults continue to treat badly anybody who is different. The way we treat others has always been on my list of crusades, as I frequently yelled at the mean boys at my school to “leave alone” whomever they were torturing that day. I have also always felt tenderly toward my gay brothers and sisters.
My feelings have deepened after reading Saving Alex: When I Was Fifteen I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That’s When My Nightmare Began (2016) by Alex Cooper with Joanna Brooks. This book is about exactly what the subtitle says, that Alex Cooper came out to her parents and was sent to gay conversion therapy. However, her therapy is more gruesome and strange than I have ever imagined it could be.
Her parents drove her from their home in California to her grandparents’ in southern Utah, where they placed her with a family in their local church congregation that was known for taking in and reforming children who were troubled. The couple, Johnny and Tiana Siale, and their children kept her in their home for months, making her wear a backpack full of heavy rocks and also making her stand with her face against a wall with that backpack on for days and weeks on end. She had to agree to give them information about her girlfriend or do all of the chores and not run away or seek help to get out of that treatment. Her back ached and was permanently damaged by that treatment. They would shout “dyke” at her while she stood there aching and turning off all of her emotions. She attempted suicide at one point.
When Alex first arrived, she tried to run away and get help in public places by shouting or passing notes. However, nobody believed her, as the Siale’s constantly told her that everbody in town knew them and loved them and they would not believe Alex that she needed help. She ended up punched in the stomach and beaten by Johnny after they returned home for her efforts at seeking a way out. She was not allowed to speak with her parents for the first while, and when she finaly got to see them, they did not believe her.
After months and months, when she decided to comply in order to find a way out, Alex was allowed to return to public school. There, she kept her head down and did what she could not to provoke the Siales. However, the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at the school befriended her, introduced her to the quirky teacher that everybody loved and that provided a safe space, and she ultimately shared her story with them. They put her in contact with a lawyer. Eventually, Alex had to run away from the Siales, as they pulled her from school for being late to class one day. She was placed in DCFS custody with the help of the teacher, and a long legal battle ensued. Eventually she got what she wanted, to return to her parents with conditions granted by the court that they not try to change her. She won a legal battle that changed the way all LGBT minors could be treated by their parents.
She is now living in Portland with her girlfriend and advocating against sex trafficking and slavery. She had a good relationship with her parents, who still haven’t been able to believe her or talk about what happened or why they turned over custody to the abusive Siales. However, she is moving forward and finding a way for things to get better.
I am moved by her story and angered by the treatment she received. I am proud of her for enduring and for speaking up.
If you or anybody you know if suffering similarly, please see below the resources on the last page of Alex’s book.
You are not alone. You are not broken.