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Survivor: MIT grad student Samuel Brinton remembers ‘ex-gay’ therapy

HANNAH CLAY WAREHAM | Bay Windows
Thursday, August 25, 2011

On eve of a reparative therapy conference in New Hampshire, a 23-year-old draws on painful experiences to help others.

Samuel Brinton is not afraid to say he’s gay.

That is, not anymore.

The 23-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate student is the son of two Southern Baptist ministers, and endured years of reparative therapy designed to “cure” him of his homosexuality while living in Kansas. Sam is used to telling his story — he speaks often about his experiences in the hopes that others who have endured similar struggles will find hope.

Hannah Clay Wareham, Bay Windows
Samuel Brinton

On the eve of the Exodus North Atlantic Regional Conference — an assembly of religious activists gathering to “heal the sexually broken,” to be held at a small fundamentalist church in Auburn, New Hampshire from Sept. 16 to Sept. 18 — Sam’s story stands in contradiction to conservative Christian beliefs that it’s possible to “pray away the gay.”

Sam was a pre-teen, living with his parents in a conservative religious mission in Florida, when a copy of Playboy magazine was somehow smuggled into the eager hands of the community’s young boys. Overflowing with pride, Sam mistook his sexuality for sanctity and told his father that he was “so righteous, so holy,” that he wasn’t affected whatsoever by the pictures of scantily-clad women. He did, he admitted to his dad, sometimes feel that way about his best friend Dale.

“The next thing I knew,” Sam says, “I woke up in the E.R.”

12-year-old Sam had been “punched out cold” by his father, and would end up in the emergency room for similar reasons seven times in quick succession.

“He really thought if he scared me enough I would change,” Sam remembers of his father.

At Sam’s mother’s suggestion, he found himself in therapy, happy to face Bibles on a coffee table rather than lying to hospital staff about his injuries.

During his first one-on-one appointment, the session leader―who Sam specifies was a “religious therapist” and not a doctor―told Sam, “I want you to know that you’re gay, and all gay people have AIDS.” The therapist then showed Sam pictures of men dying from AIDS, using them as visual indicators of how Sam, himself, would die. Together, the therapist and Sam’s parents instilled in the boy the belief that he was the only living gay person in the world, that the government had killed all the other gay children, and that they’d kill him too if he acted gay. He carried this belief as truth until his second year of college.

Loneliness colored Sam’s thirteen-year-old world.

“I’m dying of AIDS, I’m completely alone, and the government is looking for me,” Sam remembers feeling. The worst part? Sam’s parents and therapist told him God had abandoned him and his chances at getting into heaven were shrinking every day. “The strongest thing my family has is its relationship to God, and now He hates me,” Sam recalls.

For the next few months, the journal Sam kept―read by his therapist―fueled the sessions, which were escalating in intensity. What Sam calls “the first step” of his therapy involved attaching his hands to a table with leather straps, palms up. The therapist placed blocks of ice on each hand and showed Sam pictures of two men holding hands, so that the young boy began to associate touching men with the “burning cold.”

“The second step” was similar, but the ice was replaced with copper heating coils that had been wrapped around his wrists and hands. The heat was turned on when pictures of two men holding hands were shown, but turned off when pictures of a heterosexual couple holding hands were shown. Following these sessions, Sam would shudder when hugged by his father, experiencing what he calls “heat flashbacks.”

“The third step” accompanied Sam’s first attempt at committing suicide (there have been five). He was strapped into a chair, and small needles were stuck into his fingertips. The needles were attached to electrodes, and Sam received shocks when shown pornographic images of two men engaging in sex acts.

“I’m ruined,” Sam says today. “I cannot get rid of the shock” when he hugs a man, when he shakes a man’s hand and feels attached to the electrodes once more. “I’ve gotten used to the pain.”

During the months of therapy, Sam was kept in his bedroom “24/7.” His parents told his younger sister that Sam had murdered someone, and they were hiding him from the police. Sam says he was “sequestered” to protect his parents’ reputation at the mission.

As for the physical side of his therapy, Sam says of his parents, “they knew what was going on. They said they were going to do whatever it took to save my soul. They wanted me to go to heaven with them.”

Sam attempted suicide again shortly thereafter. He said goodbye to his younger sister and climbed to the roof of the three-story commune his family lived in. Standing at the edge of the roof, Sam remembers telling himself, “If I don’t change, they’re going to kill me.” Sam’s mother―alerted by his sister―rushed to the roof to save her son, promising him, “I will love you again―if you just change.”

Sam decided then that it would be more painful to jump and not die than to live with a secret, and turned to his mother, faking it as hard as he could. “I think it’s done,” he remembers saying, and adds as an aside: “And then I began my acting career.” Instantly it was as though the months of painful therapy had never happened. The household returned to normalcy, and Sam continued to pray every day for God to make him straight.

“I was still convinced I was alone, gay, and dying of AIDS,” he says.

Upon moving to Kansas, Sam threw himself into extra-curricular activities at his public high school, continuing to keep his secret. It wasn’t until his second year at Kansas State University―where he had a dual major of nuclear engineering and opera―that Sam met another gay person. His lesbian friend was discussing her partner, and before Sam knew it, he was crying and yelling to their friends that she didn’t mean it, she didn’t know what she was saying―convinced that their friends would report them to the government and his worst childhood fears would be realized.

Despite numerous instances of discrimination and prejudice on the KS campus, Sam began to come out of the closet. Openly gay, he ran for student body president, telling himself, “I deserve this place here too.” News of his bid for president―amplified when he won the primary―drew statewide attention. Conservative Christian activist Fred Phelps and his followers picketed the campus, carrying signs that read, “GOD HATES SAM,” splashed with Sam’s photo.

Following an anonymous mass email slandering his campaign and personal life, Sam didn’t win the general election, but that doesn’t bother him. “I had made my point,” he shrugs, allowing that his thick skin helped save him from biased criticism. “You cannot really hurt me,” he says. “I know what true pain is.”

Sam went on to pass a city ordinance protecting LGBT people from discrimination in his college town of Manhattan, Kansas. He was named the Top LGBT Activist in the country last year by the Campus Pride organization. He serves as national secretary for a progressive fraternity for GBT men, and is studying nuclear engineering on an MIT fellowship. “My life is heaven,” he says, smiling. “My life is perfect.”

Sam has found that the very best part of his life, however, is helping others who are struggling with their sexuality or with reparative therapy. “My core goal is to make them know they are not alone,” he says. “You are okay just the way you are.”

Despite his positive, optimistic outlook, fears peek over the horizon. “We have a presidential candidate whose husband practices reparative therapy,” Sam says of Republican Michele Bachmann. “Not only would our country be led by someone who believes in this, but it would be politically supported.”

Sam says he’s living proof that reparative therapy is “killing people.” A support group to which he belongs began with ten members; eight have since taken their own lives. Sam is ever on the lookout for opportunities to help others in the same situation, with the message that not only does it get better―it can be made better.

“I know who I am,” Sam says now. “I know I can’t change it. I’m strong in my faith, and I’m strong in my sexuality.” And Sam is sure he’s still going to heaven.

Join the Impact – MA, of which Sam is a member, will be protesting the September Exodus conference in New Hampshire. For more information, please visit www.jointheimpactma.org.

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73 more reader comments:

  1. God bless him for sharing his story. Ignorance should not be painful or deadly to others but alas it is.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:02pm
  2. My heart goes out to this man…I can’t imagine the horrible torture he has gone through, at the hands of the very people who should have protected and nurtured him. THEY are the evil ones, and they will answer for their horrible crimes. God bless you Samuel, and I hope wish you the best, for you have lived a lifetime of hell in your 23 years.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:05pm
  3. God bless you,Samuel Brinton!you are as the Lord made you and He doesn’t make mistakes!anyone tells you differently is the 1 who’s wrong.<3

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:05pm
  4. This just sickens and horrifies me. What the hell is wrong with people??????

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:06pm
  5. Well, that’s some mindless ‘therapy’.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:07pm
  6. It doesn’t need a “cure” because it’s not a disease. It’s your preferences for finding LOVE.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:10pm
  7. We just need to find a cure for these sick twisted individuals who are too scared to realize that you are made the way you are, and you have no more choice in being born gay than you have in being born straight.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:12pm
  8. I am speechless. D:

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:15pm
  9. Sam’s story made me sick to see what kinds of horrible things these incredibly homophobic religious bigots are capable of. To be doing this to a young man, these unspeakable acts of what is basically torture, is appalling. They drove him to trying to committ suicide. It’s atrocious. I commend him for pulling through the pain, and becoming a better person. I hope he continues to help others, and that all those who did this to him are sent to a very bad place in the next life.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:23pm
  10. Those inflicting harm on LGBT people in the name of therapy are not healers. Reminds of the theme from Billy Jack.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:29pm
  11. I love you, Sam! I am so sorry for the things that were done to you, but I am thrilled that you have such a wonderful life now. I am eighteen years old; and I hope to see, in my lifetime, the eradication of such cruelty and bigotry here in the United States. If we can set an example in this country, maybe we can eliminate such ignorance the world over.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:46pm
  12. God bless you Sam, for your strength and courage to help others with your horrifying story

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:52pm
  13. “‘The next thing I knew,’ Sam says, ‘I woke up in the E.R.’”

    It was all I could do not to throw up right there. That one line sent chills up my spine; it’s even more terrifying to think that there still remains breeds of people with that sort of mentality. When you think about how many closeted gay children live in the United States that live in that sort of fear, every day of their lives, it’s madness.

    Even if the extremism has gone down over the years, the residue of remarks like, ‘All gay people have AIDS’ still seem to resonate within our political leaders. Michele Bachmann preaching that ‘gay is bondage’ and ‘personal enslavement’ comes to mind. I wish I could do more to help those that are struggling. To live a lie for years because of fear, it breaks my heart.

    A child shouldn’t fear the ones who are supposed to love them unconditionally.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:53pm
  14. SAM YOU ARE A WONDERFULL MAN .STAND YOUR GROUND .

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 6:09pm
  15. God is OK with who you are. He has not, and of course, will not abandon you.
    http://www.gaychristian.net/index.php?

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 6:27pm
  16. Thank you for sharing your story Sam. I hope it gives hope to other kids stuck in such a torturous and abusive situation. My heart aches thinking of what you went through, and I wish you every happiness in life.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 6:58pm
  17. I am so sorry that you had to endure this crime against humanity.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 6:59pm
  18. This is one of the most sickening and upsetting stories I’ve read. His patents and the ‘therapist’ should be arrested for child abuse.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 7:08pm
  19. This is sick and wrong! There is nothing wrong with someone being gay other then that it bothers some people. Well dandelions bother me but you don’t see me out there yelling at them or trying to take away their right to be a dandelion! Geez get real folks! Science proves that being gay is how someone is born! To say there is something wrong with that dynamic is like saying they are against the bible most of them love to preach about but don’t really understand. In the bible it says that we are ALL Created in the image of GOD! It does not say ‘only straight people are created in the image of God’! It also says ‘lest not thee judge, lest thee be judged’ and then it goes on to state that ONly God has the right to pass judgement. Anyway that is all the time this agnostic (but former well studied bible study student) has to enlighten everyone today. There is nothing in this text that states that being gay is wrong, I do want to state that in bible times, many times words had different meanings then they do nowadays so it would take more study to really fully understand the context beyond that is what some preachers version is on a Sunday pulpit! Think for yourselves people! heaven could be in the here and now if we all just opened our hearts and minds to one another and gained a little more compassion for one another.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 7:55pm
  20. I think Sharon has it right. Sam, if you ever read this, I am so sorry you had to endure that treatment. I am very glad you survived.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 8:09pm
  21. If this place where he received “therapy” is still in operation, it needs to be investigated because as far as I’m concerned, that’s child abuse. How could they possibly think that this stuff could change people? If anything it would make me fear straight people!

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 10:00pm
  22. That is not therapy, that is simple brain washing torture. If this was done to American prisoners the whole country would be ablaze with indignation.

    Shame America, for not only allowing this to happen, but for not charging and convicting the perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 10:12pm
  23. What a brave and enlightened young man. I wish him so many years of happiness.

    Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 10:34pm
  24. This is heart breaking, the amount this man has suffered in the name of God.. It brought me close to tears. Sam thank you so much for your bravery and courage when you were so alone, you’re an inspiration to everyone.

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 3:03am
  25. Right on!!!

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 3:31am
  26. I was taken to Shreveport, La. I stayed 6 weeks. Was 14 years old. I still have nightmares. Nothing short of torture!!

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 10:34am
  27. I read this in absolute horror. I’m so sorry for you and anyone who has been forced to endure this kind of torture and emotional manipulation.

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 10:36am
  28. Been there-Done that. This stuff will destroy you!

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 10:37am
  29. What the actual crap is their problem? I really want to hurt them. No one should do that. Absolutely NO ONE. That is awful.

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 10:39am
  30. I’m sitting in summer heat reading this and it sent chills through me. I don’t understand how gays can be christians but i guess its their right to be if they want to. I grew up in a heavily Christian environment as well and homophobia is pretty much the height of norm here. I grew up associating the phobia with christianity and felt so isolated that my faith dwindled to nothing. I felt like i didn’t have a choice; the pastors condemned me, the congregation condemned me, the society condemned me and even if i circumvented all of that the instructional book condemned me as well. I don’t see how you can go through all that and still keep your faith but kudos to you Sam your story is an inspiration although if i’m honest what i’m inspired right now to do is see those people that did this to you your parents included imprisoned.

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 10:44am
  31. Yeah because punching out your kid is just so CHRISTIAN! Man do I fucking hate hypocrites! They preach love but beat their kids for being gay?

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 10:45am
  32. Can we do reparative therapy on his parents? You know cold needles and such every time they discriminate, do something hateful, etc…. Why not?

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 10:48am
  33. Some parents cant bear the thought their child is an “abomination” — which is what they make you feel like. After they lay hands on you and pray over you lol. Had the mental side of the torture, myself. Least i can shrug it off now, cuz i know where i stand with god. Its kinda funny how some parents could make you want to die just so they can live with you and see you in heaven.

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 10:50am
  34. James I don’t “like” your story but I certainly applaud your speaking out. You may all find some support in my series on ex gay confessions: http://rescuejesus.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/fundamentalism-gay-spirituality/

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 10:53am
  35. Between the physical abuse, the mental torture, and shock treatments, I thought I was going to die. I have nothing to do with religion now, all this was done by our church,

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 10:56am
  36. It sickens me that any sort of decent human being would put anyone through that. Good to know who I need to stay away from.

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 10:57am
  37. I think it is truly sick that parents would do that to their own children. I didn’t even know this kind of torture existed. What do these idiots think putting young teens through that is going to accomplish? I can’t believe this. Sam, I hope you succeed in your attempts to help people that are in that situation. If there’s a God, which I can’t really believe there is, but I hope he blesses you for everything you’re doing.
    I’m a lesbian, and I’m very lucky to have a supporting mother and grandmother and all of my family who knows accepts me. I can’t imagine being put through this. I don’t think I could’ve survived this. The human race disgusts me.

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 11:03am
  38. Sam you are so strong I admire that greatly and I too believe you’re going to heaven! :)

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 11:22am
  39. What a story! God bless you Sam , for everything you’ve been through. Keep your head up high and yes, Sam “ You deserve that place there too.”

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 11:31am
  40. I think the most powerful message in this is that in trying to ‘turn you straight’ they instilled in you the desire to fight for fair treatment of others. The ex-gay movement created a powerful opponent. They’re fighting against themselves.

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 11:40am
  41. They tried to make him schizophrenic. That is the worst thing I ever heard.

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 2:25pm
  42. It’s amazing that religion can be so dangerous. So hypocritical when it’s hidden behind as just an excuse to be an a-hole to someone else.

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 3:10pm
  43. His parents deserve to be killed slowly.

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 3:53pm
  44. My god, what I heartbreaking story. My heart goes out to him. Thank you for writing this story, everyone should hear about this hell they call science.

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 4:48pm
  45. How awful!! My heart goes out to Sam. He’s so strong. Are these people being charged for child abuse?!

    Posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 7:19pm
  46. I read this story earlier this week and it just about broke my heart. God bless this young man, that he has the spirit left to let others know, it’s not your fault to be born the way you are!

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 12:32pm
  47. That is a powerful story. I hope he continues to live a great life. God bless him :)

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 12:40pm
  48. some people should be shot (like the people who run these therapy centers) fuck the haters <3 the gays

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 12:40pm
  49. such fundamentalist bullpoop

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 12:43pm
  50. This is one of the most heartbreaking yet inspiring stories I’ve ever read. To think that there are stories like this all over the world that have happened, that are happening and that will happen – it’s a heartbreaking and terrifying thought. Good on you, Sam. Your strength astounds me and you are someone to be admired! So glad he can now be proud about who he is despite all he’s gone through. Amazing.

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 12:44pm
  51. Samuel Brinton was also selected as one of Campus Pride’s Voice & Action Award Recipients http://www.campuspride.org/voiceandactionsamuelbrinton.asp

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 12:51pm
  52. You go Sam!

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 12:51pm
  53. That is my best friend! I <3 your Samuel Brinton!

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 1:03pm
  54. The irony just kills me….What they put this young man through can only be classified as torture, yet HE is the evil one? Brrrrrrrr.

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 1:07pm
  55. I admire this kid SO MUCH you know why? Because he understands. I saw his interview on youtube and he understands that his parents were doing what “they believed” and it amazes me the fact that he said “I would forgive them” why? because he’s not a hateful person, he is the opposite of what they are and in their “own way” they were “protecting his child” I blame the parents for hurting him emotionally and mentally but not for thinking the way they do because they are just contaminated by a “religion” believe it or not they are the victims of a hateful organization who’s mission is to separate families, hate our youth our people , and hate our country.

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 1:09pm
  56. Ryder, I know how much it angers you but don’t stoop to their level. Kill them with kindness, like Sam. He didn’t wish death on those, or result in name calling. He simply smiled, went on his way and made a positive name for himself, inspiring others. If we start calling names and etc… we are no different than the ignorance we are fighting against.

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 1:10pm
  57. INTERVIEW PART ONE http://youtu.be/usGKHdC19Mo

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 1:11pm
  58. INTERVIEW PART TWO
    http://youtu.be/15M-BlUUc5k

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 1:11pm
  59. great story. Too bad it has to be true.

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 1:12pm
  60. As a parent this sickens me to know that your own parent condoned such torture, but as a parent I am also very proud of what you have accomplished. You are a wonderful person and don’t let anyone ever tell you other wise!!

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 1:14pm
  61. God loves everyone. EVERYONE. I am blessed to belong to an “Open and Affirming” UCC congregation where GLBTQ individuals and couples are warmly welcomed. Hang in there Sam, and all who have walked your path.

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 1:17pm
  62. heartbreaking and enlightening.. keep fighting the good fight..

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 1:26pm
  63. Leoanna, it is an expression where im from

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 1:30pm
  64. The very thought of parents allowing this makes me want to vomit. I don’t think Jesus would have been advocating this type behavior.

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 1:38pm
  65. his parents whould have been arrested for child abuse.

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 2:50pm
  66. *shakes head*
    And this is what one of the candidates supports? Don’t let that monster win the election.

    Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 3:03pm
  67. This is inhuman torture, and I doubt legal to subject children to this type of activity. Is there nothing we can do to force the closure of such “camps”?

    Posted on Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 9:24am
  68. Somehow we have to make this torture stop.

    Posted on Monday, August 29, 2011 at 1:16pm
  69. the thing is when it comes to gay kids it seems the child protective system runs by a different standerd

    Posted on Monday, August 29, 2011 at 1:17pm
  70. Sam, you are an amazing man. Thankyou for sharing your story. It is an honour and a privilege to read your experiences, and I truly hope with all my heart that life gets better and better for you.

    Posted on Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 10:04am
  71. I think Sam’s parents are going to be very surprised when they don’t end up where they expect after their deaths. I’ll be praying they repent in time.

    Posted on Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 10:23am
  72. “I’m straight, you’re gay: I’m OK, you’re OK.” Thanks for sharing, respect and dignity should be used with everyone.

    Posted on Friday, October 21, 2011 at 12:30am
  73. I’m afraid to say I live in Kansas, and go to the same school as the Phelps. Some of them are in my speech class as well. Today, one of them made a homosexual slur that infuriated me to the point of almost walking from the room. This story and many others have influenced me to do my pursuasive speech on how people are born gay, it’s not a choice and you can’t change it. I’m going to cite this story and explain to my class that what these people are doing is wrong. Sam, you’re an idol. Stay strong, stay awesome. We’re all here for ya’.

    Posted on Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 6:16pm