Central Florida and Tampa Bay survivors of conversion therapy tell their stories

By : Holly V. Kapherr
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It’s been 46 years since the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses, yet the pseudoscientific practice known as “conversion therapy,” as well as other socio-religious theories intended to change homosexuals into heterosexuals still exist.

The American Medical Association says plainly that the theories behind the ideas that sexual orientation and gender identity are malleable are “not based on medical and scientific evidence.” They go on to assert that conversion therapy and other similar practices can cause “significant psychological distress,” including increased rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Yet, the “Pray the Gay Away” philosophies persist.

In my own journey to becoming a staunch LGBTQ straight ally, I learned of Stuart Matis, my college best friend’s cousin, who committed suicide on the steps of his Mormon church building.

Before Stuart’s death, he wrote a note referring to the Mormon Church’s suggestion that homosexuality is a choice, and members “struggling with same-sex attraction” could overcome that struggle. He wrote, “The Church has no idea that … there are surely boys and girls on their callused hands and knees imploring God to free them of their pain. They hate themselves … God never intended me to be straight. Hopefully, my death might be a catalyst for some good.”

Conversion therapy is currently banned in 16 states, as well as various counties and cities that have acted independently of their states. Purple-state Florida’s history on banning conversion therapy is pockmarked and marred by fits and starts. On Sept. 3, 2015, State Rep. David Richardson (D-113) filed a bill to ban conversion therapy against minors. It died in subcommittee in 2016. A similar bill died in 2017.

As of May 2019, several counties and cities have passed bans on the use of reparative therapies in minors, including Broward County, Palm Beach County, Alachua County, as well as in the cities of Miami Beach, Miami, West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Gainesville and others.

Tampa’s 2017 conversion therapy ban ordinance was recently challenged by Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal advocacy group. The city spent four hours in federal court in September defending the ban. On Oct. 4, Judge William Jung struck down the ban, stating that the law conflicted with a patient’s right to privacy and a parent’s right to choose healthcare for their child. The city has appealed the ruling.

The City of St. Petersburg, long known as a bastion of safe spaces for the LGBTQ community, has no ban on conversion therapy but passed a resolution in Aug. 2017 denouncing the practice on minors.

Orange County’s commissioners are currently hearing testimony for a potential ban on conversion therapy being used on minors. An event bringing awareness to the practice was held in September at Stonewall Bar on Church Street in downtown Orlando. Orlando activists Andrew Chang and Eric Rollings started the petition to ban the practice in Orange County. If enacted, the ban would specifically protect LGBTQ minors from conversion therapy by licensed therapists. Similar counseling by religious organizations, however, would continue to be protected under religious freedom laws.

In a recent interview with nonprofit organization Truth Wins Out, Commissioner Patty Sheehan came out as a survivor of an anti-gay church’s conversion therapy ministry, called Elutheros. In her sessions, she was told that homosexuality would exit her body as an orange mucous.

“It took me a long time to be able to heal from the … abusive things I was told about who I could be as a woman and how I could…positively express my sexuality,” Sheehan told Truth Wins Out in the interview.

Watermark spoke with two survivors of conversion therapy in Central Florida: David Olson of Orlando, and Nickolas Terinova of Tampa Bay. Through their stories, they hope to bring a deeper awareness to the long-lasting effects of conversion therapy in an effort to extirpate the practice from society.

Olson and Terinova have very parallel stories. Both became aware of their homosexuality at a time when it was an unacceptable lifestyle. Olson was “in and out of the closet” for years before he stepped foot in his first conversion therapy meeting. “We were told that we were broken,” says Olson of his first experience in group conversion therapy. “There was something wrong with us. They told us right off the bat that ‘God doesn’t make gays.’”

Terinova grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in north New Jersey, where bullying was rampant and it was common in town to gossip about the men seen going into the only gay bar in the neighborhood, Danny’s. “I knew when I was five years old that I was gay,” says Terinova. “When I was 14, I tried to commit suicide because I felt that I would never be ‘normal’ and could likely never have love. It took me four decades of trauma and abuse to learn that I was capable of loving and being loved.”

They both felt the pressure of society on their shoulders. In the 1970s, Olson was working as an entertainer on Orlando’s Church Street Station. He says, “As a single guy in my 20s with no girlfriend or wife, and no children, there was always that feeling that everyone was thinking ‘what’s wrong with you?’” He says there was so much guilt attached to being gay; he didn’t want to accept or acknowledge it.

Both felt the scourge of AIDS acutely. As “in vogue” as being gay was in the 1970s, in the 1980s, when Terinova and Olson both found the anti-gay Christian ministries peddling conversion therapy, gay men became the pariahs of the nation. Olson says, “We were told very plainly that AIDS was the judgment of God on gay men.” If there was a way to stop being gay and avoid death from AIDS, Olson says, he was all in.

Terinova was living in the gay enclave of West Hollywood, working as a vocalist and vocal coach and living what he describes as a “half-conservative, half-decadent” lifestyle. At the time, AIDS began to take its toll on the community, and fear was everywhere.

It was also the threat and fear of AIDS that first pushed both of them into conversion therapy. Terinova heard an ad on the radio for a Christian anti-gay ministry called L.I.F.E. Ministry, founded by Ron and Joanne Highley. The ministry is still in existence today. “It was a huge ministry in New York City, so I left Los Angeles and dove head first into everything they were teaching,” says Terinova. “It was a wonderful experience at first. I finally felt as if someone could help me.”

Olson saw an ad on television for an anti-gay ministry called Be Whole, founded in Washington, D.C., by Russell Paxton. The group met in different churches, and ran similarly to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. “I was involved with the ministry for about 10 years. I completely removed anything in my life that could associate me with being gay,” says Olson. “I quit my job and stopped being an entertainer. The only people in my life were those from the ministry. I got rid of anything in my life that could tempt me into the homosexual lifestyle again.”

For both Terinova and Olson, the relationships they lost as a result of entering conversion therapy were the most heartbreaking. “I cut off all my friends who were gay,” says Olson. “I have tried to repair those friendships over the years, but many just aren’t interested. It was too hurtful for them. I lost some very good friends, and permanent damage was done.”

Terinova was in a relationship with another man when he moved back to the New York metro area to enter therapy. “My partner at the time came to visit me in New York while I was at L.I.F.E. Ministry,” says Terinova. “I thought it was abhorrent that he stay with me, so I watched as he walked into the YMCA and my heart just broke. Two years later, he died from AIDS.”

Both Terinova and Olson stayed in the anti-gay ministries for a long time after their first experience in therapy. They both refer to having been brainwashed by the organizations, completely engrossed in the teachings and fearmongering they were exposed to. Both felt the pressure to prove that they were “cured” of their gayness.

Terinova finished his degree in psychology at New York University during his work with L.I.F.E. Ministry, and eventually moved to Florida to practice therapy with a group called Straight Ahead. “They wanted me to keep a photo of a woman and children on my desk,” he says. “I was always subject to suspicion. It wasn’t enough to work for and believe in the mission of the ministry. I also had to lie to my patients about having a marriage and a ‘normal’ family life,” he says. Terinova says it felt like a scarlet letter on his chest.

For Olson, to prove that he was no longer a homosexual, he dated and eventually married a woman from his Bible study group. “I finally felt like I had arrived,” he says. “We had a son and a daughter. I loved my family life.” But things began to unravel. They started fighting constantly. One night, Olson found himself outside a gay bookstore and met a man. He ended up having a tryst in the man’s hotel room.

“The whole time, I just kept thinking, ‘This is not what I want. I want my family,’” says Olson. “I thought I would do what any good Christian man should do and that is to confess to my wife. I figured she would forgive me and that would be it.” But that’s not what happened. His wife packed up the children and left. “I was devastated. I felt like the world fell apart. It is still, to this day, the hardest thing I have ever gone through.” Olson stayed in the conservative churches. He didn’t want to show his ex-wife that she was right, and wanted to be a good example for his children.

Both Terinova and Olson came to turning points in their experiences that turned them away from the anti-gay Christian ministries and toward living true to themselves.

When Olson heard Exodus International’s leader, Alan Chambers, come out and plainly tell the world that conversion therapy was a hoax and didn’t work in the long run, after all the damage done, Olson felt validated. He says, “I started asking myself, ‘why have I lived my life for other people?’” He immediately went online and started looking for affirming Christian churches and found many.

Every Sunday, he went to a different church. He met other Christian people who also identified as gay. “Something I thought never could happen, that you could be gay and Christian, came into focus,” he says. “If you look around in nature, God is a God of diversity. If there is so much diversity in the world, how can we say there’s only one form of sexuality or attraction?”

Since then, Olson has immersed himself in Christian service while living true to himself as a gay man. “I came out at age 55. There’s a lot of psychological baggage I’m carrying around. It’s hard to find a partner at my age,” he says. But he also feels that his experience has made him a better person, and doesn’t feel any resentment toward the people in the anti-gay ministries that he was involved with. “I have had to learn forgiveness,” he says. “Unforgiveness is like a cancer. It’s like ingesting poison and expecting the other person to die.”

In Terinova’s case, it was 1997 when he decided to completely rethink his practice and remove any hint of Christianity from his. “I needed to relearn everything,” he says. “I thought of myself like an embryo.” Terinova says it had to do with a survival instinct. He took new trainings, became a licensed hypnotherapist, and in 2003, came out as a gay therapist, not just a gay-friendly one. Now, he works with clients who are also healing from the trauma of conversion therapy experiences.

“I still feel resentful toward the people who put me through conversion therapy,” says Terinova. “I’m Sicilian,” he laughs. Terinova no longer identifies as Christian, and says that the moment he didn’t have to lie to his clients anymore was the most freeing time of his life. He had his first long-term relationship seven years ago, which changed his life and finally showed him his capability to love and be loved.

For those who are looking to heal from trauma, whether from conversion therapy experiences or any other, Terinova says, “Develop trust with a therapist—that should be your first goal. Find someone who understands what you’ve been through on a personal level and look to them to develop trust with you.

“You can rediscover your true self and have a rebirth just like I did,” he continues. “You are so many things, and so many beautiful things emanate from you. Accept the possibility that you are a beautiful, wonderful person.”

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