Sam Brinton, a nonbinary LGBTQ+ activist and outspoken opponent of conversion therapy, has been charged with felony theft. They allegedly stole a woman’s suitcase worth $2,325 from a carousel at the Minneapolis Airport. Brinton, who served as a nuclear expert at the Department of Energy before being suspended from their duties, has a December 19 hearing. They face up to five years imprisonment, a $10,000 fine, or both.
The criminal case against the activist is damning. Brinton had no checked luggage, precluding this being a case of accidentally taking the wrong bag. Video surveillance captured Brinton removing the suitcase from the carousel and putting the bag’s tag in their handbag before leaving “at a quick pace,” the police complaint read.
While this is a personal calamity for Brinton, the fallout faced by the LGBTQ+ community could have easily been avoided. The red flags regarding Brinton were overwhelming and obvious to all who cared to see them. Unfortunately, some of America’s top LGBTQ+ activists and organizations were willfully blind to Brinton’s shortcomings.
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These organizations, such as the Trevor Project and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), ignored clear warning signs and incontrovertible evidence because Brinton provided these groups with a seemingly perfect ex-gay survivor story to expose horrific conversion therapy practices and ideology.
While these advocates were well-intentioned, they took a shortcut, looked the other way, and elevated them without ever asking: Is Sam Brinton’s story too good to be true?
It remains an open question whether Brinton’s story was contrived or embellished to manipulate high-profile leaders to elevate themself into the upper echelons of LGBTQ+ activism and achieve a level of celebrity. But ex-gay conversion therapy needs no sensationalism, and Sam’s story, if truly fabricated or exaggerated, adds to that destruction by undermining credible survivor stories.
Sam Brinton burst on the scene on October 1, 2010. In a riveting two-part interview with I’m from Driftwood, they revealed the most shocking conversion story activists had heard since the 1960s. It involved Brinton coming out to their parents at age 11 and their father reacting with a swift punch to their face.
“Dad just started punching,” Brinton said. “That was the first day that I was sent to the emergency room, because I had ‘fallen down the stairs.’ I was sent to the emergency room about six more times for ‘falling down the stairs’ or ‘tripping on the sidewalk.’”
“I’m in this constant state of fear,” Brinton also claimed, “My dad has held a gun up to my head multiple times.”
Brinton says that they were then sent to a cruel and sadistic Florida conversion therapist, who they saw for two or three years [Brinton’s timeline periodically changes depending on the media interview]. Brinton alleges this practitioner used aversion therapy, which included sessions where they were tortured with extreme heat, ice, and needles.
“We then went into the ‘Month of Hell,’” Brinton alleged. “The ‘Month of Hell’ consisted of tiny needles being stuck into my fingers and then pictures of explicit acts between men would be shown and I’d be electrocuted.”
The idea was to associate homosexual feelings with extreme pain so that the urges would disappear. While such practices were more common in the 1950s and 1960s, it was exceedingly rare to find such cases when Brinton allegedly attended therapy, approximately between 1999-2001. The paucity of active cases that employed such barbaric techniques meant that added due diligence was necessary to ascertain the veracity of Brinton’s explosive testimony.
Brinton also claimed that conversion therapy led them to attempt suicide, and they were later thrown out of the house by their parents.
As an LGBTQ+ activist fighting against conversion therapy with my organization Truth Wins Out and the author of Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth, I had hoped to work with Brinton to expose the harm of conversion therapy. Their story was compelling and could influence public opinion against “ex-gay” practices, which has been my life’s mission.
I excitedly reached out to Brinton, and they were oddly inaccessible, communicating indirectly through intermediary LGBTQ+ activists in the Boston area, where they were attending MIT. The reason for Brinton’s scarcity had to do with two simple questions I had asked them: “Who was your conversion therapist, and in which facility did the therapy occur?”
This basic inquiry was critically important for two reasons. First, to share Brinton’s story, we had to verify if it was true. Second, Brinton’s testimony involved a torture center where hideous abuses were presumably still occurring against children at least as young as 11. If such a place existed, there was a moral imperative to rapidly identify the abusive therapist and contact the authorities to stop the atrocities.
Why was Sam Brinton the only survivor of conversion therapy I’ve encountered since 1998 who refused to answer these questions? Not only had every other survivor provided this information willingly, but they were eager to fight back and shut down their own therapist or “ex-gay” minister.
Rapidly embraced by activists enamored by their story, youth, and charisma, Brinton began widely sharing their story in Boston. Soon, people began asking me why I wasn’t promoting such a powerful example of the harm caused by conversion therapy. On October 11, 2011, I wrote in the comments section of Queerty, “Until he provides more information to verify his experience, he makes it impossible for us to use him as an example. Indeed, it would be grossly irresponsible for us to do so.” [At this time, Sam did not use they/them pronouns]
In response to my public comment, Brinton finally addressed my questions at Queerty, “I was indirectly in contact with Wayne and although I know he wants me to send the information of the therapist that is simply not an option. Counselor after counselor has seen me revert to near suicidal tendencies when I try to dig deep into the memories of the time, and I simply don’t have his name. I can picture him clear as day in my nightmares, but his name is not there.”
Brinton’s reply raised some serious questions. If Brinton was in such a psychologically fragile state, why were LGBTQ+ activists having them talk to the media and lawmakers? Wouldn’t this be a cruel exploitation that put Brinton’s mental health at risk? At Truth Wins Out, we vet our spokespeople and would never expose a person enduring this level of trauma to intense public scrutiny.
To believe Brinton, one would have to suspend reality and buy their explanation that they couldn’t recall the name of a therapist that, “for over two years, I sat on a couch and endured emotionally painful sessions.” Does this sound plausible? Or is Brinton more concerned about keeping their story unverifiable?
One also wonders how Brinton can recall vibrant, unusually specific details about their therapy experience but not the identity of their therapist. In one striking instance, they told NBC News, “There were seven King James Bibles on a stack on the coffee table,” recalling the conversion therapist’s small office in an Orlando, Florida strip mall.
I checked with a top expert on conversion therapy in the Orlando region. He said that no known conversion office in a strip mall existed during the years that Brinton attended therapy. After the airport incident, I called Brinton’s mother, Peggy Jo Brinton. She told me that her child had attended therapy, but that “it was not a conversion therapist.” She refused to provide the name of the mystery counselor, but added, “I do love them [Sam] dearly.”
For the record, she also denied that Sam was physically abused or attempted suicide. Of course, let’s not deny there is a compelling interest in refuting these serious allegations.
In their Queerty post, Brinton said, “I can picture him [the therapist] clear as day in my nightmares.” If that’s true, why hasn’t Brinton tried to identify this monster by finding his picture online? After all, how many conversion therapists are there in the Orlando area? Have they ever reached out to experts in the region to help find this abominable culprit who is presumably still preying on children?
Other holes in Brinton’s story have emerged. In some versions, Brinton claims that they went to a Florida therapist. Yet the Des Moines Register reports that they “began a series of out-of-state treatments.” Why won’t Brinton clarify which state the reporter was referring to?
A 2011 LGBTQ Nation story reports that “Sam specifies [their counselor] was a ‘religious therapist’ and not a doctor.” Yet Brinton penned a 2014 piece for the National Center for Lesbian Rights that described their counselor as a “psychotherapist.” The same year they told the U.N.’s Committee Against Torture in Switzerland, “When I was a child, a licensed psychotherapist tried and failed to change something I never chose.”
So when Brinton was trying to specifically ban licensed conversion therapists from practicing, they suddenly upgraded the credentials of their mystery therapist. Interesting.
Despite these eyebrow-raising inconsistencies, and Brinton being the only survivor spokesperson who could not recall the name of their therapist, major national organizations elevated Brinton as the face of their anti-conversion therapy programs.
I warned NCLR that they must verify Brinton’s testimony before using it. I said that if Brinton isn’t who they say they are, it would undermine our reputation and anti-conversion efforts. NCLR responded that “we must believe all survivors.” I replied, “Yes, we should trust, but shouldn’t we also verify?” Apparently not.
The reason we scrutinize potential spokespeople is to protect the LGBTQ+ movement and ensure that we don’t offer media platforms to charlatans or elevate morally suspect people who would do something like steal luggage at an airport. But NCLR seemingly wanted a perfect anti-conversion story so much that they were willfully blind to the glaring imperfections of the storyteller.
The media is also culpable in this scandal. In countless stories, not a single reporter from the world’s top publications pressed Brinton to name their counselor. What kind of journalism is this?
Not once did they ask them, “How do you justify crisscrossing the world to ban conversion therapy, yet you won’t lift a finger to stop your therapist, who was far more egregious? Are you not concerned he’s out there still torturing kids?”
They could have asked, “How do you remember every detail of your experience except the ones that would confirm the veracity of your story?” This failure of modern journalism is a black eye for the profession. If they want respect, they must do better and not behave like third-rate hacks.
Finally, the utter shamelessness of Brinton themself is revealed by their unquenchable desire for self-promotion, even when it comes at the expense of the LGBTQ+ community they purport to represent. In their 2011 Queerty response, Brinton said, “I don’t want to be the poster child for the anti-conversion movement.”
This claim was belied by Brinton doing two major interviews, one with USA Today and another with Yahoo! Life, as late as October 27, 2022, which was published after being questioned by police for theft on October 9.
In the cringeworthy Yahoo Life story, Brinton says, “I work on nuclear waste management where transparency, honesty, and trust building are so critical.” But I guess not revealing they are in trouble for felony theft isn’t worth mentioning. In the most painful moment, the host, Brittany Jones Cooper, says, “Sam, I want to thank you for joining us, for showing up so authentically.”
Is Sam Brinton a fabulist or a legitimate survivor? After 12 years, I can’t definitively say, although the totality of the evidence is troubling.
However, that’s not the point. Brinton should never have been given a platform by national LGBTQ+ organizations without having crucial details of their story confirmed. LGBTQ+ groups were sloppy, ethically negligent, and shockingly unprofessional, choosing expedience over prudence in turning Brinton into a national spokesperson. They were warned but didn’t listen.
There were literally dozens of articulate survivors with powerful testimonies they could have chosen instead of Brinton. Tragically, they picked the one person with an unverifiable flashy story, and now we suffer the consequences. The negligence of these organizations has resulted in hundreds of scathing, homophobic right-wing stories this week that could have been avoided had they used scruples.
In the case of the colorful Brinton, all that glitters is not gold. The LGBTQ+ movement must learn from this embarrassing lapse in judgment. I used to hammer the religious right for the bizarre “ex-gay” spokespeople they’d promote, such as John Paulk, Anthony Falzarano, Janet Boynes, and Jeffrey McCall. Every time the right-wing used dubious spokespeople, it ended up backfiring.
In the case of Brinton, we’ve stooped to their level, and it has backfired too. We must reflect on this grave error and reclaim the high ground that we have surrendered.
In their Queerty response, Brinton wrote: “I thank you for challenging the validity [of my story] since blind-faith never served anyone.” If only the LGBTQ+ leaders who promoted Brinton would have listened to their sage advice.