Illustration by Rob Dobi
On a recent hot afternoon, Marcus James, 33, sat in his Tacoma apartment as the smell of incense wafted through the room and Smokey Robinson’s “Ooo Baby Baby” played in the background. Dracula movie posters hung on the walls. A portrait of James and his husband kissing on their wedding day stood on a dresser. Near the dining table, photos of the spouses as kids, James in Tacoma, and his husband in Connecticut. They had both dressed up as Dracula for Halloween.
Even as a teen, James was certain that if God made everyone as He sees fit, then God made James gay. It was the late ’90s. HIV infections and AIDS deaths had ravaged the gay community for over a decade, disproportionately affecting gay and bisexual men and leading to more stigma. Then, in October 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old man, was beaten to death in Wyoming. The murder, at the time one of the most high-profile hate crimes in the nation, rallied the gay community and its allies. Students all over the country founded gay–straight alliances, or GSAs. One of the first was at Wilson High School in Tacoma, launched by James and his best friend, Shelly Alexandre.
“If not me, then who else?” James says now about the decision to start the alliance. “We needed to do this. We both felt that way.” Not everyone took the news well.
A classmate threw a drink at Alexandre in the cafeteria. Others followed them from school. James got beat up. Someone wrote a hit list in the boys’ bathroom; James’s name was on it. And one of the bullies suggested he and his friends put white pillowcases on their heads and appear at the GSA’s first meeting to kill attendees.
Shortly afterward, James, who had come out to his mother as gay in the middle of a fight, woke up late one morning. He asked his mom why she didn’t wake him up for school, and she told him he wasn’t going to school, that he had been expelled (he hadn’t been) because of all the problems he’d caused with the GSA. His family immediately cut him off from all contact with friends or the outside world. James didn’t know what was happening, until he got word from Alexandre: A school administrator had told her James was moving to Olympia. When he heard that, James knew what was about to happen.
That’s how Marcus James found himself in the car, crying nonstop as his stepdad drove him on I-5 from Tacoma to Olympia, with Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” playing on the radio. He would now live with his grandfather, an evangelical Christian who believed his grandson had the devil inside him motivating his same-sex attractions. Two decades later, James refuses to go to Olympia and suffers panic attacks whenever he’s on that I-5 south route. He still remembers that feeling.
“The feeling that my life was over, that I was better off dead, that I was going to die, that I would never see anybody I cared about.”
James was about to undergo what’s known as conversion therapy, a practice whose proponents claim it can alter the sexual orientation of a person attracted to the same sex. The same practice has been employed on trans people to change their gender identity. But according to the American Psychological Association, it doesn’t work. Instead it can lead to increased depression, anxiety, substance abuse, risky sexual behaviors, and suicide. Critics call it child abuse. Activists have tried to ban the therapy for minors through the state legislature since 2014, but blocked by conservative legislators and lobbyists, the bill struggled. Only recently has legislation passed to rescue minors forced into conversion therapy.
Back in 1999, though, there was no one to rescue Marcus James. He was at his grandfather’s house for just a few weeks before he considered taking his own life.
The therapy started with simple manual labor—for hours a day, trimming hedges in the yard and cleaning the church on the days it was closed. The labor accompanied talk therapy with a pastor, youth groups, and reading Bible passages. James was told he was an abomination, and he argued back.
He wasn’t attending school in Olympia, and he wasn’t allowed to bring anything with him other than clothing. No TV. No reading except for scriptures. No radio save one Christian channel. Yet he had stashed two Anne Rice novels in the leg of his folded pants in a suitcase, Interview with the Vampire and The Witching Hour. He hid them under his mattress and they became a lifeline. Especially Interview with the Vampire. The story concerns the past 200 years of an immortal man’s life, his companionship with the man who turned him into a vampire, and the suffering he’s endured since. James read it 10 times in the span of a month.
His grandfather forbade phone calls or contact with his friends or family, including his mother, but occasionally he broke the rules and walked miles to the nearest phone; the first time he connected with Alexandre since arriving in Olympia, he went to a nearby Gap in hopes there would be gay employees who would let him use the phone.
A few weeks into the therapy, James’s situation grew worse. His grandfather’s wife caught James talking to a friend just outside the church when he was supposed to be in a youth group meeting. His grandfather grew more abusive and fed him only breakfast to ensure he went to bed hungry.
“The intention is to break you and your spirit. The intention is to empty all that you are,” James says.
And for a time, it worked. Feeling utterly trapped and isolated, James one day snuck out of the house and walked for two hours straight, determined to kill himself, until he came across a bridge.
One thought stopped him—he wanted, no, he needed to write books; books like the ones hidden under his mattress. He was determined to become a published author and share stories for kids like him who felt as alone as he did. He resolved to make it his greater purpose. If you die, you won’t get to do that. They’ll win. And you can’t let them win, he told himself. “That became my revenge.”
Not long after, his mother, frustrated that her father wouldn’t let her talk to her own son, drove down to Olympia to retrieve James. He now considers her a victim of conversion therapy, too. She was a young, scared mom, James says, heavily influenced by both fear for her son and coercion from her husband and father. (Names of family members are not being used out of respect for James’s wishes.)
About a year later, his stepfather—who often deliberately excluded him from family outings—was deployed to Egypt for the army, and James began spending more time with his mom. They went shopping together, and soon her hostility toward James’s sexual orientation began to thaw, and they grew closer.
“I’ve thought about that throughout the years. What if I had taken this to heart?” he says, speaking of the time he spent at his grandfather’s. “I would’ve come back…and everything that my mom did love about me would’ve been gone.”
In November 2012, Washington became one of the first two states to legalize gay marriage. Activists at the advocacy group Equal Rights Washington knew what their next focus would be: Push for expanded health care for transgender people—and protect minors from forced therapy.
“It was our top priority,” says Monisha Harrell, Equal Rights Washington’s board chair. “We recognize that young people who are subjected to this type of abuse are significantly more likely to drop out of and not finish school, to self-medicate and potentially abuse drugs or alcohol; that their risk of self-harm goes up tremendously.”
The same year Washington approved marriage equality, California banned mental health providers from conducting conversion therapy—defined as “engaging in sexual orientation change efforts”—for minors. The legislation stood its ground through several lawsuits, with opponents arguing that it infringed on free speech rights of practitioners and freedom of religion. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected those arguments and upheld the law in 2013.
So then–state representative (now senator) Marko Liias, a member of the state’s LGBTQ Caucus, introduced a bill during the 2014 legislative session that looked identical to California’s ordinance. The bill would’ve banned licensed health care providers from trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity. They were careful to exclude religious organizations or nonlicensed therapists from the new regulation. In the state House, the legislation passed with an overwhelming 94-4 vote. Activists were optimistic. Public testimony included advocates with accounts of horrific treatments, such as electroshock therapy and ice baths—one method includes being shown gay porn and placed in and out of an ice bath in attempts to elicit an erection and associate sexual arousal with pain.
But blocked by the Senate Committee on Health Care, then chaired by Republican state senator Randi Becker, the bill stopped there. Though Becker seemed moved by the testimonies, she didn’t allow the vote. She told reporters it didn’t have enough senate support.
Proponents of conversion therapy largely frame the counseling as a self-directed choice that shouldn’t be controlled by the government. Joseph Backholm, president of the conservative Family Policy Institute of Washington, says the bill was politically motivated rather than an attempt to solve an actual problem. “As a very practical matter, ‘conversion therapy’ quote, unquote doesn’t exist,” Backholm says. “You talk to any clinician and it’s not even a thing.”
When I elaborate that I’m defining conversion therapy as deliberately trying to change someone’s sexual orientation, Backholm points out that there has been no known recent case of conversion therapy in Washington state. “The bill had nothing to do with actually protecting gay kids. And if it did, there would be wide support for it.”
Equal Rights Washington’s Harrell says the motivation for the bill in part stemmed from a hope that it would discourage parents, who are often unaware of the harms associated with the therapy, to pursue it for their own child.
When asked what he thought of studies that showed increased risk of suicide with conversion therapy, Backholm said he was unaware of the studies and declined to comment on that point.
Supporters of conversion therapy have a deep distrust of scientific studies that show its harmful effects. Seattle mental health counselor Alex Myrick, for example, blames scientific organizations like the American Psychological Association for making ideological decisions and ignoring certain research to advance left-wing beliefs.
“I believe in self-determination and evidence-based practice,” Myrick says. “If someone has a same-sex attraction and they don’t want to have it, they should be permitted to have some kind of intervention.” He likens that practice to treating addictions or teaching someone how to play the piano.
But the world of conversion therapy is one filled with contradictions, mind games, and language systematically used to disorient people into questioning everything they know. That includes basic definitions of words. Supporters of the therapy might claim that while you may be sexually attracted to the same sex, you’re not gay. “You will determine your own therapy,” the proponents might argue, but the goals in therapy aren’t decided by you. Or, “We’re not attacking LGBTQ members—we just think what you’re doing is sinful, that you should change, that your root causes of homosexuality or gender identity are just scars of your past.”
Every year, Liias reintroduced the same bill, and every year the state senate committee blocked the legislation for a vote. So in 2016, Equal Rights Washington changed its strategy.
If the state wouldn’t approve the ban outright, let a city come through first. That’s when Seattle stepped in. And with council member Lorena González’s sponsorship, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved a bill to ban conversion therapy for minors citywide in August 2016. If they could get enough cities to enact the ban, Monisha Harrell thought, a statewide ban would no longer seem like a risky political move for lawmakers.
“Sometimes the state doesn’t like to be the first, and you have to show them a different pathway,” she says. “Sometimes you don’t get it all in one shot. Sometimes, you have to take an incremental approach to progress.”
On June 8, 2012, Seattle-area therapist Josh Weed, after anxiously writing and rewriting for a month, published a blog post: “In Which I Come Out of the Closet on Our Ten-Year Anniversary.” He wanted the public and his clients to know. He’s gay. He’s Mormon. And he’s happily married to a woman.
Weed’s life changed the moment he posted. He made headlines across the country, appeared on TV, and in front of a national audience touted his great (straight) sex life. As a Mormon and a therapist, he told me, he had been approached by other Christians who wanted conversion therapy for their kids. Weed says he refused to provide it, and often came out to his clients in the process of explaining that sexual orientation can’t be changed.
“My clinical work as a therapist is taking me in the direction of helping clients who struggle to reconcile their sexual orientation with their religious beliefs,” he blogged in 2012. “I have decided to be open with these clients about my own homosexuality, and in doing so have opened the door to people finding out about this in ways I can’t control.”
Years later, he told the same audience that he had been fooling himself. He says now that internal homophobia and deep self-hatred had fueled his willingness—insistence, really—to be in a heterosexual marriage. At his two-story Covington home near Seattle this spring, he ruffled through piles of paper and kids’ toys strewn around the house to find two books he’d kept over the years. The first, The Miracle of Forgiveness, by a leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he read when he was 14 and absorbed a chapter on homosexuality called “Crime of Nature.” In it, the author laments that “all such deviations from normal, proper heterosexual relationships” are no longer met by the death penalty. He further writes that anyone who believes same-sex attractions are normal doesn’t believe in God, and “liberalizing” gay communities in cities who demonstrate for rights are contributing to the “deterioration of society.” The second book a church leader gave him at 16, when Weed sought advice and was referred to conversion therapy. You Don’t Have to Be Gay reiterates the common belief that childhood trauma can spur sexual orientation.
At age 22, Weed married his childhood best friend, Lolly, who knew he was gay. They had four biological kids together, but her husband’s orientation took a toll on Lolly. All that time, giving him romantic affection but never believing it was mutual made her an “emotional nub of a person,” she told me matter-of-factly.
On September 29, 2017, Weed found himself in a dark place. He was in Jacksonville, Florida, on a writing retreat with a lesbian friend who brought a love interest. He spent the evening with the two, looking out at the beach and talking about their hopes and dreams. When the lesbian couple paired off together, he remembered the loneliness he felt in school when he had witnessed all his friends pair off. And being in a place where he no longer felt shame about being gay, yet was still deprived of that love, the reminder wrecked him. He began texting a friend late at night. It was 1am, then nearly 2am.
He told his friend that he had been acting straight for 25 years. It felt long, so long. And he did the math—25 more and he’d be 62, and 25 more on top of that? “Less… Less would feel merciful,” he texted. He couldn’t believe he had survived for as long as he had, he continued. “I have craved to put a gun in my mouth more times than I can count.”
A few days later, he was back at his home in Covington, and on October 5, 2017, he and his wife had dinner at Claim Jumper. He ordered his usual, the black tie pasta. And they finally discussed what they had prolonged for 15 years. When they got to their parking lot, Weed cried until snot ran down his face. They signed divorce papers within the month.
Conversion therapy’s champions are right about one thing: It’s nearly impossible to track. Despite reaching out to several activists—Equal Rights Washington, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Southern Poverty Law Center—I still don’t know how many therapists or places have conducted conversion therapy in Washington state. Yet an estimated 700,000 adults have undergone the therapy nationwide, according to a study by the UCLA School of Law. The Seattle Office for Civil Rights, which fields complaints relating to conversion therapy, hasn’t received a single report of it in the city since shortly before or after that bill was signed in 2016, says spokesperson Roberto Bonaccorso. Sue Bonner, a woman who testified at city council, attended the Seattle branch of Exodus International in her adult years to try to rid herself of same-sex attractions; the organization closed down in 2013 with an apology from its leader, Alan Chambers.
Conversion therapy is difficult to pinpoint largely because pro–conversion therapy organizations and church communities have systematically removed language that would provide clearer insight on what they’re promoting. The term conversion therapy itself is loaded, often rejected by faith-based organizations. Sometimes those who have experienced the therapy don’t know they’ve been through it. Former organizations that once openly promoted therapy to thwart same-sex attraction avoid any mention of sexual orientation.
Four years ago, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, founded in 1992 and once one of the most well-known groups promoting conversion therapy, changed its name to the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity. (According to the church Marcus James attended in Olympia, it does not offer any kind of therapy to change sexual orientation. On its website, though, it does promote teachings from an evangelical pastor in Texas, Todd Wagner, who has publicly supported conversion therapy.)
But testimony in front of the state senate back in 2014 tells a different story. Danny Cords of Renton explained to legislators why people who have undergone conversion therapy stay silent and experience a deep sense of shame, how it led to his several suicide attempts, and how he still suffers and would “rather be dumped in spiders” than see another therapist.
“It’s terrifying for me to be in front of people who may disapprove of who I am,” Cords said. His body shook and his voice quivered as he spoke, on the edge of tears. “I screamed, I cried, I prayed, and my parents did that alongside me because we both feared for my salvation.”
Cords had undergone three years of conversion therapy with multiple licensed practitioners starting when he was 14, throughout that time carrying a cross in his pocket. He regularly kept a rock in his shoe as a constant reminder of God, sometimes bleeding from the friction. He had left home at the age of 17 and moved in with two gay friends. Still, he battled shame and guilt over his identity and the trauma from his therapy.
At 20, Cords made a plan to kill himself. He went to the apartment of his friend Sariah Phillips, where they had dinner. After he got home that night, he emptied out bottles of pills—Ambien, Tylenol, Adderall—and swallowed. During his drugged state, he reached out to Phillips. She hadn’t sensed anything wrong at their dinner, but then she began receiving cryptic messages from Cords about what their friendship meant to him. And he told her what he had done. She sped from her apartment on Capitol Hill to his place in West Seattle, with poison control on the line the whole time as she dragged him from his room into her car and drove him to Swedish Medical Center.
It wasn’t until he woke up from his suicide attempt, surrounded by loved ones, that social pressures for Cords began to fade.
Four years after Cords’s testimony, the legislative body shifted in Equal Rights Washington’s favor. In 2018, Democrats won a majority in the state senate, and now members of their party chaired committees. Liias’s bill that year got an early public hearing scheduled. And on March 3, 2018, the bill passed in the senate with a 33-16 vote.
Still, the bill came too late for activists. Monisha Harrell from Equal Rights Washington says the family member of a 14-year-old undergoing conversion therapy in Southwest Washington had approached her in early 2014, having seen the toll it took on the child and wanting the therapy to stop. Four years would pass before governor Jay Inslee would sign that bill into law, too late to help the high school freshman through his formative years.
“I really do believe that my youth was taken from me,” Danny Cords says of his own therapy. “That’s a huge experience that was spent sad and in the corner, worried about going to hell.”
Cords was on vacation in Palm Springs when he received a text from Liias telling him that the bill was heading to the governor’s office. The day the ban became law, on Cords’s right wrist, where he once snapped a rubber band to ward off his supposedly gay thoughts, he got a tattoo to remind him: Written under the palm of his hand, in cursive, “Nevertheless, I persisted.”
Marcus James stuck to the promise he made to his 14-year-old self that day on the Olympia bridge. He became an author. He’s written seven books, often set in Bellingham—where he later lived with his grandmother—and influenced by the author Anne Rice, whose vampire novels had saved him. In God’s Eyes, James’s novel published in 2008, is about conversion therapy. And most of what it describes, James says, is true.
Its inception dates back to James’s 19th birthday. His mother told him his grandfather reached out to her wanting to give him a birthday card. He didn’t have James’s contact information. She received the card and passed it along to James. Inside he found a two-page letter telling him that he would burn in hell, that he was possessed by the devil, that he was dangerous to children, but that he would pray for him.
James had escaped, survived, and then had put it behind him. But in that moment, reading his grandfather’s letter, his trauma came flooding back. He fell into a state of depression for six months, closing himself off from everyone. But little by little he began to write his book. It took a year to finish. In the acknowledgments, he wrote a message to those who were in the same shoes: “You’ll survive it too.” Part of the book sale proceeds goes to One Million Kids for Equality, a Seattle-based nonprofit that helps LGBTQ youth.
Today, James enjoys a good relationship with his mom and considers her to be one of his greatest allies. And when James got married in August 2016, she walked him down the aisle. It was finishing In God’s Eyes, though, that gave him the ending he had wished for when he was trapped in Olympia.
In the novel, high school friends of Travis, the character based on James, rush to his rescue, confronting his grandfather who holds him in a prisonlike room. They find Travis in the church, and whisk him away to freedom and a life with his boyfriend.
“You want to be rescued,” James says now. “You want to be rescued, and for someone to save you, and no one comes.”