Long decried by LGBTQ activists as pseudoscience, the scars of conversion therapy linger in Michigan 

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Metro-Detroit Political Action Network protests against conversion therapy in Riverview. - METRO-DETROIT POLITICAL ACTION NETWORK
  • Metro-Detroit Political Action Network
  • Metro-Detroit Political Action Network protests against conversion therapy in Riverview.

An inflammatory incident in metro Detroit this year, however, illuminated to the public that conversion therapy was still alive and well in Michigan, and that its advocates had merely changed the way it was marketed in response to mounting pressure. In February, a post by Pastor Jeremy Schossau of Metro City Church in Riverview advertised a $200, six-week workshop targeting 12 to 16-year-old girls who are gay, bisexual, or transgender. The post promised an "Unassumed Identity Workshop" to "help your girl be unashamed of her true sexual identity given to her by God at birth."

The backlash was swift. Less than a week after the post, more than 300 people gathered outside Metro City Church's location in Riverview, holding signs calling for Michigan to become, at the time, the 10th state to ban conversion therapy. The Metro Detroit Political Action Network, the group that organized the protest, called for a formal investigation of the church and for more demonstrations until the workshop ended.

"We think an investigation will unearth that conversion therapy is practiced and hope that the attorney general will issue a permanent injunction against Metro City Church from practicing conversion therapy," MDPAN chairperson Brianna Dee Kingsley told Metro Times after the Feb. 8 protests.

Schossau made the media rounds to vehemently deny that the workshop was conversion therapy. In a February email to Metro Times, Schossau promised to continue the workshops and to hold similar ones in the future. He ended the email saying, "the hypocrisy of the gay community is so incredible because they are not seeking to understand and making totally wrong assumptions."

Schossau also posted a five-minute video to YouTube defending himself, saying in the video, "A lot of people are calling this conversion therapy, and if you think conversion therapy is grabbing somebody, forcing them into some sort of pastor's office and then beating them over the head with the Bible, and condemning them and spitting on them and judging them — that is wrong, we oppose that in every single way."

This May, however, Schossau was honored in Washington, D.C. by the Family Research Council, a self-described "leading voice for the family" whose defamatory practices against the LGBTQ communities have branded it a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In 2014, the FRC also testified in opposition to legislation that would ban conversion therapy in Washington D.C., citing "abundant anecdotal ... and scientific evidence" that these therapies work.

And although Schossau has distanced himself from the conversion therapy label, Seth Tooley, an 18-year-old transgender man, said he underwent conversion therapy at Metro City Church when he was younger. Tooley says that he was 13 years old when his mother put him in counseling sessions in the church to treat symptoms of depression. After the pastor who was counseling him had learned that he was transgender, Tooley says that his next session became an exorcism. According to Tooley, Schossau and two of the church elders appeared at his next therapy session and surrounded him holding Bibles. They began to chant, "The demon must leave this girl." Schossau's role in the ordeal was indelible.

"Jeremy was there, they were his backup, his sidekicks," Tooley tells Metro Times. "It was Jeremy who orchestrated it."

That was the last day that Tooley and his mother went to Metro City Church. But although the therapy session prompted them to leave voluntarily, the Tooleys allege that church leaders threatened to call the police on them if they returned.

"I was terrified to sleep in my own bed because I thought that I had a demon inside of me. Now, I can't step foot inside a church now without thinking to myself that everyone thinks I'm bad," Tooley said. "I love God, but I hate church."

There are others, Tooley says, who have gone through similar experiences but won't speak out for fear of retribution.

"I have many friends who have went through conversion therapy in other churches," Tooley says, "but they will not speak out because of their parents, or the church, or because of stigma."

Liam Vella, who says that he underwent conversion therapy at the Inter-City Baptist School in Allen Park, agrees that it is difficult for survivors of conversion therapy to speak publicly about their experience because they feel isolated within their communities.

"Looking back, there were other kids at my school and church who were going through the same things," Vella says. "It's kind of a shameful thing. There are no announcements or support groups for people who had gone through with it."

As a teenager at Inter-City Baptist, a small private Christian school that operates within the church, Vella says that over the course of months he was forced to attend regular therapy sessions with school administrators and church pastors. They shouted at him during therapy, saying he would go to hell if he did not repent and recited Bible verses to him. He had to fill out worksheets designed to condemn homosexuality and convert him. During these sessions, Vella says he was threatened repeatedly with losing the school and church social circle that he had been a part of since he was 2 years old.

"These were esteemed figures that I had known for a long time," Vella says. "As a kid in eleventh grade who's still developing and figuring out who you are, to hear these people you are supposed to trust in bully and threaten you — tell you you're going to be expelled, lose all your friends, sent to a different state — you feel trapped."

As the pastors and school administration grew dissatisfied with Vella's inability to change after months of therapy, they brought him to the principle and issued him an ultimatum: Say whether you believe being gay is abominable, or be expelled from school and excommunicated from the church. Vella answered negatively. That was his last day at Inter-City Baptist.

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Michigan has long had a poor track record in upholding protections for the LGBTQ community.

According to FBI data, Michigan had the fourth-most hate crimes in the country in 2016, and has seen a wave of attacks on LGBTQ individuals in recent years. There was Coko Williams, the transgender woman who had her throat slashed and was fatally shot in 2013. Then there was Calvin Lipscomb, another transgender woman, whose body was burned so severely that she could not be identified for 11 days. Then came an incident in which a 28-year-old Michigan woman was beaten unconscious by three men after they recognized her from the television coverage of her same-sex marriage, then a woman in Brighton, who was approached by two men and allegedly told, "Just so you know, we hate fucking dykes and so does our president."

And then there was the young man in Muskegon Heights, who was stripped and beaten because of his sexual orientation, but whose attacker could not be prosecuted under Michigan's hate crime law, known as the Ethnic Intimidation Act, because it leaves gender identification and sexual orientation off its set of protections. D.J. Hilson, the Muskegon County prosecutor, says his office was barred from pursuing a felony charge of ethnic intimidation against the suspect because of Michigan's current hate crime laws.

"I don't get to make the laws, I just get to enforce the laws that are made," Hilson told Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV. "And we're hoping that this will highlight the need to make change in this particular law."

Additionally, Detroit was named the most dangerous city in the nation for gay travelers by Alternative Luxury Travel by Bruvion, a 2012 survey by The Guardian placed Michigan's LGBTQ protections on par with Mississippi, and Michigan law also makes surrogacy for same-sex couples illegal. And although LGBTQ advocates have been energized by the recent election of Dana Nessel, who will serve as Michigan's first gay attorney general, there remains much work to do in order to undo the crippling policies conjured by Michigan's two most powerful government officials.

In 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law that permits child placement agencies to not provide services that conflict with their religious beliefs, a move that LGBTQ advocacy groups say bars same-sex couples from adoption. The ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit challenging religious discrimination against same-sex couples in Michigan's public child welfare system earlier this year. In July, Attorney General Governor Bill Schuette signed an opinion that undercut the Civil Rights Commission's reinterpretation of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections against discrimination for LGBTQ people in housing and employment. As a state senator in 1996, Schuette also cosponsored a law that outlawed gay marriage in Michigan, and as attorney general, he defended the state's gay marriage ban in a drawn-out legal battle that was ultimately struck down in a 2015 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case.

On the snowy February night when nearly 300 protestors had gathered outside Metro City Church to denounce conversion therapy, many had Michigan's complicated history with protecting LGBTQ rights in the back of their minds. A ban on conversion therapy, advocates argued, would be a way for Michigan to reverse course and demonstrate that it cares about protecting its LGBTQ communities.

But signing legislation that banned conversion therapy would also be more than just a show of good faith. In January, the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law published a major study that estimated that nationwide about 20,000 LGTBQ youths currently between the ages of 13 and 17 will undergo conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before the age of 18 and another 57,000 will undergo the therapy from a spiritual or religious figure. And 700,000 LGBTQ individuals, the study further estimated, have already undergone conversion therapy at some point in their lives — nearly half of whom had underwent it as adolescents.

According to Christy Mallory, the state and local policy director at the Williams Institute and the lead author of the study, laws that ban conversion therapy could protect the many thousands of teenagers who are currently at risk. Since 2012, 14 states, 45 localities, and the District of Columbia have banned conversion therapy for minors.

"Our research shows that laws banning conversion therapy could protect tens of thousands of teens from what medical experts say is a harmful and ineffective practice," Mallory says.

In Michigan's state legislature, however, legislation has seen little progress.

State Representative Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) first introduced legislation to ban gay conversion therapy for minors in 2014. House Bill 5703 would have prohibited mental health professionals from attempting to change the sexual orientation of minors.

The legislation did not pass. Rep. Gail Haines (R-Waterford), chair of the House Health Policy Committee, told the MIRS subscription news service at the time that she believed "creating new laws that intervene in the relationship between parents and a child seems unnecessary," and that her committee had other bills to consider that year.

Zemke tried again to pass legislation in 2016, this time with a republican sponsor on the bill. Again, the bill went nowhere.

After the Metro City Church incident in February, Zemke and Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstone Township) once more introduced the bill, now known as House Bill 5550. They also wrote a letter to Attorney General Schuette to investigate Metro City Church as a matter of fraud for violating the Michigan Consumer Protection Act by marketing and selling proven pseudoscience sessions for $200.

But the bill has stalled in the house legislature, and Zemke and Camilleri have yet to hear back from the attorney general. Neither expect to see progress any time soon.

"Republicans don't seem to believe in conversion therapy at all," says Zemke. "They don't want to be seen as being anti-consumer or anti-LGBTQ, but their base views this is as a religious issue. This is a medical issue, not a religious one."

Even if the legislation were to pass, Zemke acknowledges that enforcement would be difficult. It would rely largely on individual reporting to seek out and punish the therapists who perform the therapy, which Zemke says is standard practice for the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs' licensure revocation. But many of the individuals who perform conversion therapy, especially in spiritual or religious circles, are unlicensed, making it difficult to go after Mike Jones, who was unlicensed, or even Schossau, who previously told MT that he purposefully uses non-licensed therapists for this very reason.

Camilleri believes that the Consumer Protection Act is one way to address the gap.

"What makes it difficult is that there is a perception that this bill alters the separation between church and state," Camilleri says. "What we are really trying to point out is that they are charging residents and selling them a product that does not scientifically work."

For now, Zemke and Camilleri say they must wait until the midterm elections to see if seat changes in the legislature bring in more people who believe that conversion therapy is prevalent and pressing.

"It's a real issue everywhere and it's really a real issue when it gets into children," says Zemke. "Every person who has called my office, every person who I have talked to about this, literally every individual who has gone through this, has talked about the lifetime of trauma. This stuff doesn't work, period."

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click to enlarge Patrick McAlvey. - COURTESY OF PATRICK MCALVEY
  • Courtesy of Patrick McAlvey
  • Patrick McAlvey.

Today, McAlvey works in human resources at a global technology company in the Netherlands. McAlvey decided to go public with his experience nearly nine years ago in a YouTube video and then through tweeting about Jones to the president of Exodus International. The video and tweets resulted in Exodus International dropping its ties with Jones, citing its opposition to the "holding therapy" that McAlvey endured. Shortly after, McAlvey was approached by East Lansing's CityPulse, where McAlvey worked closely with a young reporter who booked four therapy sessions for $250 with Jones.

In the years since he published the video, McAlvey says he has heard from hundreds of people from not only Michigan, but also all across the country and the globe, who have undergone similar treatment. Their stories range from failed marriages to women to still trying to become straight in adulthood to living a life of celibacy. But each one shares the same scars left by the treatment.

"There's been a lot of sad stories where a lot of people are hurting and are still confused," says McAlvey. "They don't want to lose their family or their community, but they are living in limbo, in some sort of in-between where they might be out in some parts of their life but not in other parts."

Despite speaking out about his experience, McAlvey still carries the lasting emotional and mental damage it caused with him in ways that he says will never be healed. Like McAlvey, Zemke has heard from many survivors of therapy in Michigan since he first introduced legislation in 2014, who are traumatized years after the treatment.

"Young people feel shame, I've seen depression, anxiety, people attempting or commiting suicide," says Zemke. "The effects are just devastating."

"I think a lot of it happens in communities that are a little sequestered away from the mainstream, so it's hard to reach those people or know those people exist," says McAlvey. "There are definitely lives at stake."

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