Mar 13, 2016

New book reveals Mormon girl’s hellish encounter with gay conversion therapy

JENNIFER DOBNER
The Salt Lake Tribune
March 12, 2016

Girl’s harrowing tale renews groups’ effort to get the FTC to put a stop to such treatments.

From breakfast to bedtime, Alex Cooper found herself facing a wall in a stranger's St. George home, a backpack loaded with heavy stones strapped to her spine.

The rocks would help her, the Mormon teen was told, "feel the burden she was carrying by choosing to be gay."

Choosing to be gay?

The LDS Church does not teach that same-sex attraction is a choice, but many Mormons — including Cooper's parents and the untrained, unlicensed couple who tried to change their daughter from lesbian to straight — believed it is.

The red sores on her shoulders, the persistent cramping in her back and the mind-numbing boredom were "just a tiny part" of her excruciating experience, Cooper says in a just-published book. "I felt angry, indignant, determined to find a way out. Then the loneliness settled in."

Her book — "Saving Alex: When I Was Fifteen I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That's When My Nightmare Began," penned with the help of LDS writer Joanna Brooks — tells a harrowing story of false assumptions, demeaning efforts and cruel tactics.

It speaks of Cooper's fairly idyllic Mormon childhood in Southern California, her awakening feelings for girls and her admission of that attraction and romantic involvement with another young woman to her parents in 2010 — who, at hearing the news, threw her out of the house for a time. Next came the plan to "fix" their child.

Cooper was told they were taking her to St. George to stay with her grandparents. She instead was dropped off at a couple's house for so-called "conversion therapy."

It could take three months, three years or until she was 30, the treating couple said. It depended on her willingness to obey, repent and change.

Eight months, at least one suicide attempt and several escape efforts later, Cooper managed to break free and get help to be herself from friends, lawyers and the courts. She reconnected with her parents after they agreed to an unprecedented court order in Utah not to try to change her orientation.

After that, the young lesbian was able to make up her junior year, graduate with her class and earn a cosmetology certificate to support herself.

Looking back, Cooper, now 21, living and working at a women's shelter in Portland, Ore., Cooper has one piece of advice for young gay Mormons: "Don't come out until it's safe."

And her reason for writing the book?

"I want," Cooper says, "to end conversion therapy."

Others, widely distributing her book to legislators and lawyers, share that goal.

Legal crackdown • Conversion therapy for minors already has been outlawed in California, Oregon, Illinois, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently moved to do the same through executive order after legislative efforts stalled.

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Conversion, or reparative, therapy has been largely discredited by health professionals, including the American Psychological Association. Even LDS Church-employed counselors don't advocate it. Still, some gay Mormons and others continue to turn to the practice.

One of the main activists pushing to do away with these treatments is Michael Ferguson, a former Utahn and gay Mormon who sought out conversion-therapy programs at age 26.

In 2012, Ferguson was among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) against JONAH — Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing — for violating New Jersey's consumer-fraud laws. The suit argued JONAH had claimed a success rate that wasn't backed by actual statistics and used therapy methods with no scientific basis.

Three years later, a jury handed down a landmark verdict against JONAH and an injunction against co-founder Arthur Goldberg and counselor Alan Downing, who is Mormon, from further engaging in conversion-therapy commerce in the Garden State.

The decision also spurred a recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint jointly filed by the SPLC, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

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The complaint asks the FTC to investigate People Can Change (PCC), a Web-based conversion-therapy group and referral service founded by Mormon Richard Wyler, that promotes change claims and therapies similar to those used by JONAH.

The organizations allege that PCC is engaged in "unfair, deceptive and fraudulent business practices" and urge the FTC to take enforcement action to stop PCC from advertising and marketing its services to vulnerable groups, including LGBT youths.

According to the complaint, those include group coaching, webinars, and the experiential weekend programs Journey Into Manhood and Journey Beyond. PCC also makes referrals to licensed and unlicensed counselors, therapists and life coaches who provide conversion-therapy services.

"The beauty of the FTC is that they have national jurisdiction," says Scott McCoy, an SPLC attorney and a former Utah state senator. "They interpret [federal] law, and they have the power to set national rules."

A statement on PCC's website counters that the FTC complaint is an attack on its First Amendment rights and amounts to "politically motivated bullying" of "gay, bisexual, ex-gay and same-sex attracted men — for holding beliefs and choosing life paths that are at odds with the goals of these mega-million-dollar political organizations."

The statement further says that those affiliated with PCC are responding to their attractions in a way that is consistent with their faiths and personal goals.

"We deserve as much respect as anyone who is 'out and proud,' " it says. "And, frankly, we deserve to be left alone and live our lives as we see fit."

PCC also posted a link to a petition aimed at garnering support for its peer-led experiential weekends, including Journey Into Manhood. As of Wednesday, nearly 500 people have signed it.

Asks Wyler, the group's founder, in an email: "Why aren't our stories of benefit just as valid?"

Wyler adds that he was unaware of Alex Cooper's story before being contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune. PCC does not offer services or referrals to minors, he explains, and "unequivocally rejects any form of shaming, abuse or coercive practices attempting to change or condemn someone's sexuality."

Spreading the word • Ferguson and his husband, Seth Anderson, who became Utah's first legally married gay couple in December 2013, have used the New Jersey case as a springboard for lobbying Congress to raise awareness about LGBT Mormons and the hazards of conversion therapy.

A week ago, the couple went to Washington, D.C., from their current home in Ithaca, N.Y., to meet with members of Utah's all-Republican congressional delegation. At each meeting, they gave staffers copies of "Saving Alex."

"If people will take time to read the book, or at the very least consider the themes in the story, they'll see that what we have is a case where there has been collusion by Mormon lay people and priesthood leaders to allow physical, emotional and spiritual abuse," Ferguson says. "It furthers a very disturbing dialogue that Mormon priesthood leaders place on protecting the institution, not protecting children."

Cooper's story, he adds, offers a rare perspective because she is female. Conversion therapy is more commonly associated with gay men.

For most of those Ferguson and Anderson spoke with, conversion-therapy abuses appeared to be new information. The two hope to form relationships with power players who can help take decisive action against the practice, even though the parties might disagree on other political matters.

"If we can't agree on protecting children from physical and emotional violence." Ferguson says, "I'm not sure where we can find common ground."

Cooper's story could help other Mormons better understand that efforts to change gay members not only prove unsuccessful, but also can be harsh and damaging.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that being gay is not sin, only acting on it is. Thus, there is no place in Mormon theology for same-sex relationships.

Nor does the Utah-based faith provide "any formal support or pastoral care for its gay members," says Brooks, co-author of "Saving Alex," leaving lay leaders and parents without guidance as to how to nurture the young gays in their midst.

That puts Latter-day Saints such as Cooper's parents — who remain active Mormons — in an "untenable position," Brooks says. They love their gay family members, but feel pressured to "change them" to fit the faith's spiritual expectations.

"I don't blame my parents," Cooper says, "I am able to share my life with them, and it's awesome."

She has one final message for Mormon families:

"What makes us different," says the determined and resilient young lesbian, "makes us strong."

pstack@sltrib.com jdobner@sltrib.com

http://www.sltrib.com/lifestyle/faith/3646204-155/new-book-reveals-mormon-girls-hellish?fullpage=1

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