In the latest Out To Lunch Lecture, an advocate for the end of conversion therapy talked about the dangers of the practice, their personal experince as a survivor and their life as a nuclear engineer, vocalist, activist and friend to the Obamas.
The lecture by Sam Brinton was hosted by the Rainbow Center and sponsored by the University of Connecticut’s chapter of United Nations-USA, GenUN. They started the lecture by talking about the work done at the Trevor Project, where they are the head of advocacy and government affairs.
Brinton said the organization is the largest suicide prevention organization which works to help LGBT youth who have suicidal ideations through a 24/7 hotline. They said many of these calls come from people who have gone through conversion therapy.
“We hear from a survivor of conversion therapy every day,” they said. “No matter what we try to do, we aren’t always successful, and sometimes we have to hear them die.”
Then Brinton went over the history of conversion therapy and its connection to suicide in LGBT youth.
“Conversion therapy is rooted in historical science that has no place in modern society,” they said.
Brinton noted that early conversion therapy programs grew out of faith and religion and aimed to make people do stereotypically masculine or feminine things to turn them straight.
“Because, of course, chopping wood and vacuuming is all we know how to do,” Brinton said jokingly.
After about 20 years the focus shifted to psychology, the root of modern conversion therapy.
After this, Brinton started discussing their story. They grew up in a loving, southern Baptist missionary household and noted they are still a person of faith today. During their time traveling the world living in different communes, Brinton came out to their father. After that, their father became physically abusive to them.
“I understand where his fear was coming from,” they said. “All of the world was changing for him.”
Brinton’s mother decided the best route was to send them to conversion therapy and, while there, the conversionists used scare tactics against them.
“I was told I was the only gay child left alive,” they said. “That the rest have been killed off as children but somehow I had gotten through but that if I became straight, the government wouldn’t have to kill me.”
After the fear and isolation that came from this, Brinton attempted suicide. The conversion therapy continued, however, and they were put through aversion therapy where their hands were electrocuted while being shown images of men touching men.
“This is still legal to do in 32 states in this country,” they said.
To this day, they said they still feel a prick of pain when they even shake hands with someone they perceive to be male.
Despite this, Brinton has been able to slowly heal from the trauma. They said the first time they kissed their husband Kevin, they threw up and was in pain every time they kissed. However when they got married in January, things went differently.
“I walked down the aisle worried the same thing was going to happen,” they said. “I actually didn’t feel any pain at all when we kissed.”
After this, Brinton went into more facts about conversion therapy, including that 700,000 people have gone through conversion therapy. About half were children, and 20,000 got the treatment from licensed doctors.
Due to the traumatic nature of these attempted conversions, Brinton said 60% will attempt suicide. They said that though this cause may seem hopeless, there are things they try to do to help stop it.
“I cannot actually stop conversion therapy,” they said. “But I can stop a parent from thinking this is legitimate and that this is based in any type of science.”
Besides holding talks, Brinton is achieving just this through the “5 States, 50 Bills” initiative which is working to end clinical conversion therapy on children. In the past three years, the initiative pushed 40 states to start legislation or discuss the matters of conversion therapy.
Brinton also testified to the United Nations along with Michael Brown’s mother, whose son was killed by the police, as well as with a Guantanamo Bay prisoner.
“You kill us because of the color of our skin, you erase us because of who we love, and you torture us because of a past wrong,” they said during the testimony.
Brinton went into multiple anecdotes about his work as a congressional translator for nuclear issues. While working on the Iran Nuclear Deal, Brinton was invited to a dinner at the White House and talked to Michelle Obama about how nuclear reactors work and even helped her pick out heels for the event.
Brinton joked to Obama that there was a “national heel emergency” that needed to be solved and got to speaking with the former president about issues of nuclear energy as well.
President Obama asked what Brinton did when they weren’t working with nuclear reactors and they gave a run-down on the work they were doing to spread awareness of conversion therapy and told their story.
Brinton said their story moved Obama to tears and two weeks later, the president made a formal statement standing against conversion therapy. As a non-binary person with a non-conforming gender expression working in such a high-level position, Brinton said it is important for them to maintain their identity in the workplace.
“My gender expression is my own. It’s not for you,” they said. “I still walk into the Oval Office dressed in [a dress and heels] on a monthly basis, making sure the President of the United States doesn’t hit a big red button. You’re welcome.”
They do still work as an advisor in the White House and have in their contract that vice president Mike Pence, a known supporter of conversion therapy, cannot be in the same room as them.
Mia Flynn, a fifth-semester economics major and vice president of the GenUN club on campus, said they decided to invite Brinton to speak because of the energy and inspiration they felt after meeting them at a United Nations summit.
“Just hearing their story, the challenges they’ve faced and how they’ve been able to overcome that and become such an amazing person in spite of a space [of] negativity is really what we all need,” Flynn said.
Madison Ruta, a seventh-semester music major said she had similar feelings hearing Brinton, speak.
“It’s kind of inspiring to see how they’ve used their time on earth to do so many amazing things,” she said. “It was inspiring to hear them say that anything is possible and anything can be achieved.”
Gladi Suero is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.