(Adds details about Canada ban in para 12, study in para 28)
NEW YORK, June 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Growing up in a conservative, Christian cult in Missouri, Brad Reubendale says being gay was not an option.
“I couldn’t wear shorts and short sleeves or go to amusement parks or watch TV, much less say ‘I’m gay’,” Reubendale told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from his Denver home.
So, like thousands of other LGBT+ Americans, Reubendale, now 38, tried to “fix” his sexuality through conversion therapy, a widely discredited attempt to alter someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity through psychological, spiritual and, in extreme cases, physical means.
He underwent psychological therapy, spent 13 years with a “pray away the gay” religious organisation, and even became an ordained pastor.
But Reubendale is still gay.
And the slew of treatment took a heavy toll.
“This fight between my faith and my sexuality became so intense that I was going to kill myself,” he said.
“That’s when I started realising that all this therapy that I’ve been doing is actually leading me to a place of darkness.”
Reubendale’s story is not uncommon.
According to a study last year from The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law in California, nearly 700,000 LGBT+ adults have undergone conversion therapy in the United States.
This despite the fact that such treatments have been widely condemned by professional health associations — including the American Medical Association — as “harmful and ineffective”, according to the study.
Worldwide, Malta, Ecuador and Brazil have banned conversion therapy, while Britain, parts of Canada and Australia are mulling bans, according to ILGA, a network of LGBT+ rights groups.
Now a growing U.S. movement to ban the therapy, at least for people under 18, is gaining momentum.
Treatments range from counselling to hypnosis to electric shock therapy - and the fallout on mental health can be dire.
According to a survey out this month by suicide-prevention group The Trevor Project, 42% of LGBT+ youth who underwent conversion therapy reported a suicide attempt in the last year.
Eighteen states have banned conversion therapy for minors, with legislation pending in 21 more, according to Born Perfect, an advocacy group that wants to ban the practice. Most children are signed up by their parents, though many adults also seek treatment on their own.
Last month, Maine and Colorado both outlawed conversion therapy, joining New York and Massachusetts, which enacted similar laws earlier in the year.
For Reubendale, who spent five years testifying on the Colorado bill, watching openly gay governor Jared Polis sign the bill into law was something he will never forget.
“I was an emotional mess,” he said. “To see it finally get passed, especially by the first gay governor in the country, was one of the most special moments of my life.”
With at least a dozen bills introduced across the country this year alone, other states could soon follow suit.
“We’re building off several years of great success in the movement to protect youth from conversion therapy,” said Casey Pick, senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project. “We’ve seen continued momentum because the stories of survivors are getting out there.”
Alongside powerful real-life testimony in state capitols, the movie industry brought the issue into the mainstream with two big releases last year.
“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” won strong reviews for its portrayal of a teen sent to a gay conversion centre, while Golden Globe-nominated “Boy Erased”, with Nicole Kidman and Lucas Hedges, was based on the real-life Baptist boyhood of a student whose family offered him therapy or disownment.
“(These films are) informing people that this is not an issue of history: this is something that is alive today and really needs to be addressed,” said Pick.
Among the states currently considering a ban is North Carolina, where suicide among young people is a pressing issue.
According to child advocacy group NC Child and the North Carolina Institute of Medicine, the rate of youth suicide recorded in the state in 2017 had nearly doubled in a decade and the trend was particularly prevalent among gay and trans teens.
According to the report, 12% of straight students had considered suicide in 2017, against 43% of their LGBT+ peers.
“All this comes about because we are not providing a community, a state where they have that support, where they won’t have to face these harms being done to them,” said Allison Scott, director of policy and programmes at the Campaign for Southern Equality, a local LGBT+ rights group. “Having this (ban) in place will be one more piece to protect them.”
Legal experts say a ban makes a real difference.
According to the UCLA study, an estimated 6,000 LGBT+ youth who live in states that outlaw conversion therapy would have received treatment by age 18 had the ban not been in place.
“We expect the number of at-risk youth to drop with the passage of all the new bans in the last two years,” said Christy Mallory, director of state policy and education initiatives at the UCLA’s Williams Institute.
Yet some advocates fear the bans do not go far enough.
In most cases, they only apply to licensed therapists working with minors, meaning people like Reubendale - who engaged in therapy post-18 in a religious setting - would not be barred from seeking treatment.
“A therapist can still go to their church and say ‘I’m going to offer conversion therapy here,’ as long as they’re not doing it under licence,” Reubendale said.
“It should be illegal across the board.”
Bans have also faced stiff opposition in many states.
Outlawing the practice was voted down by Minnesota’s Senate in May; a Utah bill collapsed in March after lawmakers tried to substitute it with a version that left trans youth unprotected.
In North Carolina, the conversion therapy bill is still under consideration - and activist Scott is confident there is enough bipartisan support to turn the measure into law soon.
“This is one of those things that crosses all the boundaries, and all the lines,” she said. “We’re seeing that momentum building nationally. It’s part of the direction our country is going.” (Writing by Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)