EDITORS NOTE: This is part one of a five – part series addressing the gay community and its relationship to organized religion. Parts one and two are a profile of a K-State student, whose name was changed for anonymity, who underwent a conversion therapy program as a child. The reference to LGBTQI stands for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, questioning and inter-sex.
It all began with a Playboy.
On a missionary compound, the Playboy magazine was far from ordinary and it caused quite a commotion among the teenage boys. Except one: Thomas Swanson, who saw the photos with his friends and felt confused.
“I went up to my dad and just asked him why I didn’t like this, but I liked my best friend very much,” Swanson said. “I had a crush on him, and that was the first night my dad sent me to the emergency room.”
Upon hearing Swanson’s question, his father, Mark, continued to punch him until he blacked out and later awoke in the emergency room. This was far from the first time Swanson, a K-State student who did not want his real name be used, had recounted his story of parental abuse and extreme measures to change his same-sex attraction.
An atypical childhood
Swanson spent much of his time as a child moving. While this may not be common for many children in America, for Swanson’s family of missionaries it was normal.
By age 13, he had lived in four countries and in more than 10 states. Spending so much time relocating, Swanson formed an intense bond with his family.
“My parents and I have a cement relationship, hours and hours of talking to them each day,” he said.
In many of the places he lived, no one but his family members spoke English, forcing them to bond.
Swanson’s options for friends and contact with the outside world were limited, as he was home schooled and had only one sibling.
Confused through puberty
The first time his father sent him to the emergency room, the family was living in Florida.
Having shared such a close relationship with his father, Swanson never gave a second thought to asking him about being attracted to boys. His father physically demonstrated his opinion about Swanson’s attraction.
“I like to call that the ‘beat the gay out stage,'” Swanson said. “He just kept punching and punching until I blacked out.”
This would occur six more times in roughly six months until Swanson’s mother, Carol, said the hospital was not going to believe he had tripped or kept falling down stairs.
To this day Swanson said he cannot understand how the hospital did not acknowledge the physical evidence of parental abuse. He said the hospital dealt with the missionary community on a regular basis and he thinks they would never have believed “these Christians who are changing the world” would abuse their children.
“I was screaming trying to get people to listen, and they just said ‘oh he just hit his head,'” Swanson said.
After seven hospital trips and no change in his sexuality, Swanson was confused and in a state of shock.
At this point Swanson said he did not even know what being gay was, or what was happening to him. His parents decided to take him to “therapy.”
Reparative therapy in action
Swanson entered the room cautiously.
He remembers the light yellow walls, the bibles stacked on a coffee table, a comfortable couch, and a welcoming man.
Swanson said he cannot remember the man’s name, a fact that bothers him to this day, but he does remember the man’s gelled-up hair and glasses — a “coffee-shop cool guy look.” Swanson still does not know whether the man he refers to as a “therapist” had formal training or certification in the field.
The man shook Swanson’s hand and offered no hostility, causing him to think therapy was a much better option than his father’s “solution.”
Swanson entered a back room and the therapy started immediately.
“He said I was an abomination and the first session he listed all the religious reasons why I was evil,” Swanson said. “Which to me actually hurt quite a bit, because I was missionary kid and I had memorized all the verses he was reading to me.”
Swanson said although he had memorized most verses the man referenced, he never truly knew what they meant and felt miserable that he was being damned.
The pair met every other week and during the second meeting Swanson was informed about the gay life he led. Swanson was falsely led to believe he had AIDS.
“Because all gay people had AIDS. Then he showed me everything that would happen with AIDS,” Swanson said. “He said you’ve already got this. You’re going to die, but we need to make sure you change before you die.”
For a 14-year-old who had had almost no contact with the world outside of missionary compounds, Swanson was terrified. He said he believed every word and wished he could change, hoping God would cure him of AIDS if he were to become straight.
Having AIDS was not the only lie his “therapist” told him.
“This is probably the most insane thing I have ever heard but I completely believed it until I got to college. That there were no other gay people in the world, the government found gay children and killed them,” Swanson said. “Somehow I had gotten through and the government would find me and kill me. My parents had already told me this, but he concreted it.”
As a result of this news, Swanson said he stayed awake for six nights fearful that his life was over.
But now he understands that his parents and the therapist sought his complete emotional and mental breakdown to ensure he would disconnect from his homosexual attractions. He referred to those two months as the “mental torture” portion of his therapy.
Physical torture begins
Swanson remembers moving to a new room for the remainder of his therapy. Unlike the first, this room lacked a comfortable couch. Instead he was seated in a chair with straps dangling from its arms.
“They hadn’t really explained male-male interaction. I understood that my affection toward another male was wrong, that was the abomination and that is what was killing me,” Swanson said.
Swanson said it was repeated that he should like girls, and he feared if he didn’t there would be repercussions.
After he was seated, each of his hands was strapped to the arm of the chair and softball-size ice blocks were placed in each palm. Then photos of men touching appeared on the screen. At times a heterosexual couple was shown, and the ice was removed. The ice was left on his palms, causing freezing pain, as many photos of homosexual men were shown.
“It was supposed to associate if I touched another man, I would feel pain. Which first of all really confuses a kid because he’s been hugging his father for years,” Swanson said.
The therapy lasted two sessions, each for one hour, and worked so well that years later when a gay man embraced him, Swanson literally screamed as pain surged all over his body.
The ice proved to be only the beginning. The week he returned after his final ice session, the man introduced heat.
Swanson was again strapped to the chair by his hands. Again photos were shown, but this time, there was a level of intimacy that had lacked in the previous sessions.
The men were embracing or perhaps kissing on the cheek and Swanson received intense amounts of heat transferred through gel pads applied to his hands.
“Now it was the burn sensation,” Swanson said. “I still had, for a few years, a huge pink mark across my hand because it would literally burn your skin.”
Swanson said the man continued to show photos, and turned the heat on or off depending on whether they were of a heterosexual or homosexual nature. The only relief Swanson found was when the pads were removed, temporarily, to turn his hand over to avoid causing permanent burns to his skin.
Escaping the pain
It was after this round of therapy that Swanson first tried to commit suicide. As ironic as it may seem, Swanson said he was terrified of pain. After five torturous therapy sessions he was willing to do anything to end his life, but was left with few options since he wanted to avoid a painful death.
“My first time was a simple overdose,” Swanson said.
He was prescribed a heavy dose of pain medication because of his therapy and decided to take 10 pills and just go to sleep.
The pills did not kill him, but caused him to sleep for nearly two days. His parents took him to the hospital, but to this day Swanson has not told his family or the hospital about his intentions.
Hurting all over
Trying to believe his parents and therapist were acting for his own good, Swanson said he continued with the program and was introduced to its final stage: electricity.
“Very very thin needles were inserted into my fingers, on all 10 fingers, still strapped down, and then the rest of my body was strapped down because they knew what was going to happen,” Swanson said.
As the man turned on the electricity, the pain was so horrible, Swanson still cannot understand why his mother sat in the lobby and did not race to rescue him as he screamed.
All types of adult images were portrayed on the screen during the electric-shock sessions. The therapist spoke very rarely but with emphasis.
“I block out a lot of things, but I remember him saying, ‘this is evil,’ the first time I saw a picture of a man and a man in bed together. I’ll never forget that one,” Swanson said.
While recounting his electric-shock therapy Swanson stares ahead in a haze. He repeatedly adjusts his pant legs and shifts in his chair.
“Electricity was excruciating,” Swanson said with a look of intensity. “I have no way of describing to people how hard I screamed; it was excruciating pain. The pain was horrible I would lose bowel control, consciousness, mental capacity, so many things with the electricity.”
The abuse was overwhelming; it had gotten to the point where Swanson feared riding in the car, thinking he was going to therapy.
Clinton Anderson, associate executive director and director of the LGBT concerns office at the American Psychological Association, said he is unaware of any evidence that would support using electric-shock therapy to change a sexual attraction.
“There is no reason for a child or adolescent to go through treatment to change their sexual orientation, from the APA’s standpoint, because we do not view it as bad or wrong,” Anderson said. “Certainly electro-shock therapy has been used for many years, primarily, for depression. There is some evidence electro-shock can have a role for people dealing with severe depression.”
However, Clinton said he does not think that treatment would work to change sexual orientation.
Swanson believes he is living proof that the pain of several electric-shock therapy sessions will not alter sexuality.
“Once we got to electrocution my life was hell. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. We were homeschooled so my education was OK,” Swanson said. “My parents were smiling every night, like everything was OK, like ‘this is working on our kid.'”
Read the Collegian tomorrow for the rest of Swanson’s story, and keep reading each day this week for the next part of this special series.