- Jerod Harris / Getty Images / provided
- Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs, speaks onstage during The Trevor Project’s TrevorLIVE LA 2018 on December 3, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California.
Sara Cunningham is the founder of Free Mom Hugs, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights. She went viral last year after volunteering to be a stand-in mom at same-sex weddings where couples’ parents refuse to attend. But before she became an advocate, Cunningham thought being gay was an ultimate offense to God.
“Our youngest son spent his whole life coming out to us, and when he turned 21, he said, ‘Mom, I met someone, and I need you to be OK with it.’ Up until that time, we had both absorbed this idea that being gay and suicide were the ultimate offenses to God. So when I had to face the reality that I have a gay child, and living as a woman of faith in a very conservative state … it was devastating to me,” she said. “Quite frankly, we just prayed the gay away. I had to re-examine everything that I believed. I didn’t know where to look for resources. ... The church did not know how to minister to us; I felt like I had to choose between my faith and my child.”
After doing research, hearing testimonies and attending a Pride parade, Cunningham felt like she had been tricked into believing LGBTQ+ individuals weren’t worthy, so she became an advocate. Cunningham said she wants to be that resource for parents she so desperately needed when she began her journey.
“I believe that as a Christian society, we have been duped and it’s caused great harm and great devastation,” she said. “I learned that conversion therapy, reparative therapy, anything type of practice that will try to change a sexual orientation or a sexual identity of another human being is still legal, sought out and paid for in the state of Oklahoma. And I realized that my straight son has more rights than my gay son. That’s the power of fear and ignorance, and I was there, smack-dab in the middle of it.”
Conversion banState Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, introduced the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, a bill that would ban conversion therapy for minors and allow licensing boards to revoke a professional’s license.
“I believe when you’re an adult, you have the right to choose what you want to do,” Dunnington said. “I don’t think it’s the purpose of the state to take that away from you as an adult, but it is our job to protect children to the best extent that we can.”
The bill defines conversion therapy as “any practice or treatment that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
“What we’re talking about is forcing a child to go through a process of being convinced that they’re something they’re not,” Dunnington said.
The bill would not affect anyone without a license. Bills banning conversion therapy across the country read the same way, said Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, a national suicide prevention and crisis intervention nonprofit for young LGBTQ+ people. They said religious leaders would only face consequences if they are also licensed.
Despite this, Dunnington hopes the bill is able to broaden the conversation and make more people aware of the harmful effects it has.
“My hope is that the conversation will permeate out into the state and more folks will be educated on the issue and less likely to ever subject their child to this,” he said.
If the bill passes, Oklahoma would join 15 other states and Washington D.C. in banning conversion therapy for minors.
Most national health and medical organizations have warned against the use of conversion therapy. An estimated 698,000 LGBTQ+ adults have received conversion therapy, and about half received it as minors, according to a 2018 study by The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
The next step for the bill is to see what committee it will go into.
“All the committees are run by Republican chairs and vice-chairs, so we’ll need someone from the other side of the aisle to join us when it comes to defining this as child abuse and protecting children,” Dunnington said. “Unfortunately, many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle get a little squeamish when we start talking about protections for the LGBT community, which is unfortunate. People are people, so you either believe that all people should have equal rights or you don’t. I think all people should have equal rights and equal protections; this is the 21st century.”
- Valerie Rollins / With U In Mind Photography / provided
- Sara Cunningham is the founder of Free Mom Hugs, but she credits her advocacy to people who came before her and paved the way for LGBTQ+ rights.
“In my case, it was a lot of heat or ice or electroshock trying to train me to no longer be gay,” Brinton said. “It clearly didn’t work. In fact, every major medical association, every single one, has come out and said that this is not effective and it could be very harmful to LGBTQ youth.”
Brinton also said their relationship with their parents suffered immensely, something Trevor Project representatives hear often when people call their lifeline.
“The family feels like they’ve failed this child by them somehow being gay. The child feels that they’re failing the family because no matter how hard they try, they can’t change,” Brinton said. “Both sides of the relationship are being damaged by a licensed mental health professional who’s just outright tricking a family into this trauma. I haven’t been able to rebuild the relationship with my family; some survivors have.”
Instead of conversion therapy, The Trevor Project advocates for affirmative therapy, which is therapy with the goal of getting to understand a person and helping them accept themselves.
“We also do work with organizations of faith to make sure that they know what the best practices are for suicide prevention and how to affirm and support youth no matter who they are,” Brinton said. “I myself am a person of faith, and although I don’t think everyone needs to be a person of faith … I also want people to know that faith organizations don’t have to be sources of strife and pain. They could be amazing support mechanisms to help these youth build community.”
Cunningham remembers that a turning point in her relationship with her son, after moving away from trying to pray the gay away, was being able to watch him truly express himself without fear of judgment.
“As the months went by, as Parker was being true to himself, being authentic, not having to check himself at the door, or at the church or in his school, he was able to live authentically and be happy,” she said. “Seeing him happy was really a pivotal moment.”
If you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal, contact The Trevor Project's TrevorLifeline 24/7/365 at 1-866-488-7386. Counseling is also available 24/7 via chat every day at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting 678-678.