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

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