A few weeks ago, Silas Musick went to the Colorado State Capitol and testified in support of a bill to ban conversion therapy, a discredited practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. This year was Musick’s third time testifying in support of a ban in Colorado, and the fourth time this bill has been brought before the General Assembly.
The bill would prohibit state-licensed mental health professionals from practicing conversion therapy on minors. California was the first state to ban the practice in 2012, and as of March 28 of this year, 11 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted a similar law or regulations — and the dominoes continue to fall. This year, nearly 50 such bills have been introduced in 24 states.
All of the nation’s leading mental health, child welfare and educational organizations discredit the practice as unnecessary, ineffective and dangerous. On April 17, 11 of these organizations signed a statement urging states to make these bills a priority.
And yet it looks like this will be the fourth time Silas Musick watches Colorado’s bill die in the Senate.
Within hours of the House passing the bill, the Senate sent the legislation to the State, Veteran and Military Affairs Committee, known to Capitol insiders as the “kill committee,” a graveyard of sorts for bills in both chambers of the Legislature.
It’s personal for Musick because he underwent conversion therapy in his early 20s at the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family Institute, and later at the now defunct, “ex-gay” Christian organization Exodus International.
For Musick, who grew up in a loving but fundamentalist Southern Baptist home, the choice to seek conversion therapy was his own. He’d never had a same-sex relationship until college, when he and his roommate began a clandestine romance that lasted several years.
But when that ended, Musick shared his story — full of pain, confusion and guilt — with a leader at the conservative Christian school he was attending.
“Our scholarships were taken away, our leadership positions were taken away, we were forbidden to see each other, we were both required to go to a therapist and given a laundry list of things to do, one of which was telling my parents,” he says.
It was “horrible,” Musick sobbing while his parents blamed his roommate. He finished college, regularly going to therapy to address his homosexuality, but the feelings were still there, front and center, no matter how hard he tried to push them away. But his parents still thought there was a chance at “redemption” for their child.
“As far as I understood the world, I had screwed up to the point of no return, so I suggested Focus on the Family to them,” he says.
Musick is quick to point out that Focus has pushed back against his story, claiming they never offered a conversion therapy program. Their offerings were “absolutely religious-based,” Musick says, and not led by licensed therapists.
“But the content and goal was similar,” he says. The end goal, the only correct result, was to not be gay.
Musick sat through “super indoctrinating” classes on marriage and family and worldviews, “basically teaching us how awful and pagan the media and parts of our culture were.” It all re-instilled the things Musick had grown up believing.
He participated in an internship with Jerry Jenkins, the author of the evangelical Christian book series Left Behind, and was even once pressured into going on a “straight” date with one of his friends.
“There was a lot of trying to flee temptation,” Musick says of Focus’s program. “At the onset of having sexual desires, [learning] things to do to try to stop those.”
Though Musick’s experience was conversion-based, conversion therapy can involve extreme tactics such as shock therapy, violent forms of roleplay, and nudity and forced intimate touching.
Focus on the Family provided a statement about their stance on what they call “counseling for unwanted homosexuality”:
“We oppose action by the government, gay-identified activists or mental health groups to stigmatize or ban ‘sexual orientation change efforts’ by mental health professionals. We do not endorse any one specific or singular therapeutic model to help those with unwanted homosexuality. In actuality, a wide variety of methods have helped people leave homosexuality. God is infinitely creative and uses a wide variety of means to bring life, growth and change.”
Many who oppose a ban on conversion therapy use free speech as the foundation of their arguments, including Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs.
In 2015, Hill wrote a statement explaining why he voted no on the first iteration of the bill, saying he “was unconvinced about the need for legislation on what can be an internally moderated practice,” and that his “position as a legislator is first and foremost that individual liberties should be preserved.”
Hill didn’t respond to a request for comment before press time.
Daniel Ramos, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group One Colorado, says free-speech arguments misplace the focus.
“[Sen. Hill] is focused on the parent when we need to be focused on the minor,” Ramos says. “No young person should be told that who they are or who they love is wrong and should be changed.”
The pressure to change created so much internal conflict in Musick that about five years after attending classes at Focus on the Family, he attempted suicide. His partner found him and got Musick to the emergency room. He spent most of the summer of 2010 in a psychiatric ward.
Now, eight years later, Musick is married with two children. He’s almost two years into his transition from female to male — a truth about himself that came many years after his conversion therapy. It’s “infuriating” to listen to so-called ex-gays oppose legislation to ban conversion therapy by saying they never would have gotten married or had a family.
“If I think about it, had I been transgender when I was young I wouldn’t be alive today,” he says. “I’m almost certain of it because I didn’t have a support system. That’s how I can push past my own vulnerability and share my story for the young queer kids out there who need role models and support. And I’m a parent now. There are parents who are truly seeking the right outlets for their kids who are trying to discover their own identity. I think most parents are well-intentioned and they are looking for guidance, too.”