Survivors of LGBTQI+ conversion therapy share their experiences on TikTok
By Rachel Savage
London - When Mike Dorn told his parents he was gay, aged 15, they tried to make him straight by sending him to a Christian camp in California for three months, where he was told he would go to hell, forced to dig holes and shoved if he disobeyed orders.
Dorn's trauma came to the surface when he was confined to his home for weeks during a Covid-19 lockdown in the United States in June and he decided to share his story on TikTok.
"I was going through a pretty dark time being at home all the time and I knew that I needed to talk about it," said the 30-year-old sign language interpreter, whose videos have been viewed 1 million times, with thousands of supportive comments.
"A lot of people were messaging me, and it was this form of love and support and family that I've never experienced before."
Dorn is one of a growing number of Americans sharing their experiences of conversion therapy on TikTok, amid mounting efforts to outlaw the discredited practice, with Canada, Britain, Israel and Mexico among those mulling bans.
The TikTokers have been overwhelmed by the response from hundreds of other survivors and young people who fear they will be forced to undergo the secretive practice, which is illegal for minors in 20 US states after Virginia banned it in March.
Nearly 700 000 Americans have undergone conversion therapy, half when under 18, according to the UCLA's Williams Institute, which can range from counselling and 'praying away the gay' to electric shocks.
President Donald Trump has threatened to ban the Chinese-owned short-video app TikTok - which boasts 100 million US users and is popular with young LGBTQI+ people for sharing niche jokes and making online friends - over security concerns.
Dorn said half of the roughly 600 messages he received on TikTok were from conversion therapy survivors in countries including Britain, Mexico and Indonesia, most of whom went through it as teens.
Several people, including one in the United States, said they had been given electric shocks while looking at same-sex images, some of them erotic.
"I didn't think it really existed, because that is such an extreme form of torture," said Dorn, whose parents locked him in his bedroom for about three months after he returned from camp.
"I do let them know I'm always here to talk."
It can be hard for LGBTQI+ people to find support when their families want to change their sexuality or gender identity, or to deal with the depression, suicidality and self-destructive behaviour that often result from conversion therapy.
Shannon Minter, legal director of the U.S. National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), said he gets two or three requests for help a year.
"It's very difficult for young people who are being put into conversion therapy, or threatened with conversion therapy, to reach out to anybody," said Minter, who has helped survivors with legal assistance and counselling since 1993.
"It's just a miracle whenever a child in that situation manages to get some legal help," he said, adding that while it was hard to legally remove them from their parents, the NCLR had succeeded in every situation in which it was directly involved.
Although films like 2018's "Boy Erased", starring Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, are helping to raise awareness of the damaged caused by conversion therapy, Minter said its popularity was not declining in the United States.
"There are still so many parents who don't want their children to grow up to be gay or transgender," he said. "It's very much market-driven."
Research by the Williams Institute found that 81% of U.S. conversion therapy survivors were subjected to it by a religious leader and 31% by a health care provider. U.S. legal bans only cover healthcare professionals, not religious providers.
After her girlfriend broke up with her, Merry blamed her anxiety about being gay - which had contributed to the relationship's failure - on a church counsellor's efforts to make her straight when she was 17.
So she took to TikTok, where she felt anonymous.
"I was just in a really dark place and I really felt like I didn't really have any physical person to turn to," said Merry, a 20-year-old music student from the southern U.S. state of Georgia, who declined to publish her full name.
"I got on the internet and started ranting."
One of her videos, "How to survive conversion therapy, part one", has been watched more than 500,000 times since December and she has received messages from about 50 teens at risk of conversion therapy and 20 survivors, from teens to late 40s.
Merry said a church counsellor forced her to put her hand in a bowl of ice until it melted while talking about her "homosexual thoughts" - an aversion technique aimed at making her associate attraction to women with pain.
The breaking point came when Merry's pastor told her to tell a younger teenage boy that being gay would make him miserable.
"I was just feeding him all this ... bullshit that I had been fed for the past year," Merry said.
"I remember watching this kid's heart just break and sink. I was like, I've really just turned into this monster. I'm now damaging this kid."
In her father's car afterwards, Merry broke down crying. The following week, she argued with her pastor and parents and moved out.
After posting her story on TikTok, Merry started receiving five or six messages from teenagers every day.
"I got some terrifying messages from some kids where I ended up seeking out legal intervention to get them out," she said.
One girl in New York, where conversion therapy for minors is banned, said her aunt and uncle wanted to take her to another state for treatment. Merry said she contacted child protection services who sent the girl to live with other relatives.
She was also contacted by a gay 18-year-old living in her town whose pastor was trying to get him to suppress his attraction to men.
Merry gave the teenager support after each session with the pastor and they now attend the same LGBT-friendly church.
Meanwhile, Dorn said he believes more conversion therapy survivors should speak out to ensure it is outlawed.
"The more that we tell our stories, the more that we educate people who don't even realise that this is happening ... (it can lead to) policies being made and hopefully full-on bans," he said.
Thomson Reuters Foundation