By Ryan Kendall
NCLR Guest Columnist
I was at home, deep into studying for my fall-semester class load at Columbia University in New York City, when I got the news that California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1172 into law, protecting young lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth from the same type of psychological abuse that I endured at the hands of mental health professionals who tried to change my sexual orientation.
It was a powerful thing to know that we had finally done something to stop the psychological abuse that had a defining impact on my life, and on the lives of too many LGBTQ youth.
I have known I was gay since I was a young boy growing up in a conservative, Christian household in Colorado, where I tried to hide my sexual orientation from everyone around me—including school classmates who tormented me with words like “faggot” because they thought I was different.
My parents discovered that I was gay when I was a young teenager—and suddenly the loving home that I had known began to quickly fall apart, with my parents growing increasingly worried and sending me to see Joseph Nicolosi, a Southern California therapist who told them he could make me straight.
Instead, my weekly sessions with this man set me on a devastating, decade-long course of self-destruction, as each session made me sink deeper into depression and drove me to the brink of suicide.
Eventually, I realized that the only way for me to escape the psychological abuse was to leave home. At 16, when most young people are making college plans, my sole focus became finding a way to stay safe and alive. I was forced to navigate my way through a complex social welfare system, surrendering myself to the Colorado Department of Human Services, and taking legal action to revoke my parents’ custody. Only then did my “therapy” finally end, leaving me to deal with years of depression, substance abuse, and occasional homelessness. It took more than a decade, but I finally rebuilt my life. Unfortunately, many other young people who are subjected to these abusive practices aren’t so lucky, sinking so deeply into depression that they are never able to see themselves as anything other than the “damaged” people these charlatans make them out to be.
I know firsthand how destructive it can be to believe that you are somehow defective or unworthy of love. The truth is simple: I did not choose to be gay any more than I chose to be Hispanic, brown-eyed, or short. There is nothing wrong with who I am, just as there is nothing wrong with the other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are still being harmed by these discredited practices, which include the use of shame and aversion techniques. Every day, more families across the country are destroyed, and more young people lose the chance to grow up knowing they are deserving of love and support just as they are due to these dangerous practices.
Over the years, I’ve become increasingly vocal about my personal journey—from testifying during the Proposition 8 trial in 2010 to recently sharing my story with members of the California State legislature as they decided the fate of SB 1172.
September 29, 2012 was an important day, because that was the day California Governor Jerry Brown signed this important bill into law. That was the day that we put into place a vital protection for our youth.
I cannot describe how deeply moving that is for me. The world is changing for LGBTQ youth, and we must be the people who change it.
Ryan Kendall, 30, is a student at Columbia University in New York City, and plans on becoming a civil rights attorney.