I was racing my motorcycle down I-95 in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2007 as words and statements from years of conversion therapy repeated in my thoughts. Sinner. Sexual deviant. Doomed to hell. You’re not a woman; you weren’t born one and you’ll never be one.
I hit the throttle. My bag shifted and I reached back to steady it. The next thing I remember is lying on the side of the road and praying for death.
Although I survived the accident, I committed myself to another three years of conversion therapy, hoping to change not my sexual orientation but my gender identity.
Following recovery, I believed surviving the motorcycle accident was God’s way of giving me a second chance at living as the man members at my church wanted me to be. I did not want to risk losing this faith community who provided more support than my family growing up.
The fact that large numbers of trans individuals are and have been subjected to conversion therapy is often a surprise to people. Most often, the stories shared on television and in the media focus on conversion therapy attempts to change sexual orientation. But conversion therapy can be just as dangerous when targeted toward one’s gender identity. I know: It nearly cost me my life.
For as long as I can remember, I always identified and felt like a woman. But I also knew I needed to stifle those feelings to maintain respect from my church community. I loved and feared losing that community, and I desperately wanted to get rid of those feelings for the sake of my faith.
Nine years earlier, I joined Urban Hope Community Church in Kensington, where rumors of me being a “sexual deviant” spread among church members, simply because I identified as a transgender woman. According to the pastor, I was doomed to Hell. He told me that my gender was a lifestyle choice, not who I was.
To maintain my membership in the church, I agreed to participate in conversion therapy at Harvest USA — a local ministry of the now defunct Exodus International — whose purpose is to “transform the lives of those affected by sexual sin.” Sometimes called “ex-gay” or “reparative therapy,” conversion therapy attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. According to the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) Born Perfect Campaign, conversion therapy can happen anywhere, in any part of the country, and in any setting — from a therapist’s office to a church group.
When I proved resistant to the efforts of Harvest USA, church leaders at Urban Hope urged me to join Setting Captives Free, an online sexual addicts group for men. It seemed odd for me to join this group as I was not struggling with sex addiction, nor did I identify as a man.
Like Harvest USA, Setting Captives Free told me my transgender identity was on par with pedophilia and murder. I was told that God did not design me to be a woman, so I needed to “stop pretending” I was one. They further counseled me to stop my “irrational thinking” and to destroy all relationships, group affiliations and material possessions that were attached to my life as a woman.
There were times when members from both of these groups came to my home and bagged up hundreds of dollars worth of women’s clothing and accessories I owned, often ending their visits by praying over me. But taking away my things couldn’t and didn’t change who I am.
And while these experiences have scarred me emotionally, I finally found the strength to walk away from those that denied my existence as a transgender woman.
Now working with counselors who align themselves with a number of major medical and mental health organizations that have denounced conversion therapy as harmful and ineffective, I understand how my time at Urban Hope, Harvest USA and Setting Captives Free was neither therapeutic, helpful or calming.
I know I am not alone in my conversion therapy experience, as nearly 700,000 people in the United States have been through these discredited practices, and many will still undergo them. According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, an estimated 20,000 LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13 and 17 will undergo conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before turning 18.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s comforting to know that 14 states and the District of Columbia now have laws prohibiting conversion therapy for minors. But the fact that the majority of states do not have laws explicitly banning the practice demonstrates just how much work there needs to be done.
My experience is just one of the many stories we don’t hear from transgender survivors of conversion therapy. Now in the process of healing, I don’t want my life to be spent in hate, remorse or turmoil. Looking back, I see myself as a living testament to the determination and power to live and be authentic in my identity as a transgender woman.
I am Robyn. And I am a survivor.
Robyn Ryan is a transgender-rights advocate and public speaker currently living in Philadelphia.