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"We Can Cure This" — One Man's Troubled Journey Through Years Of Conversion Therapy In Utah

Photo of Fuentes.
Kelsie Moore / KUER
Arturo Fuentes spent years of his life in and out of conversion therapy.

Note that this story discusses suicide.

Standing alone on stage at the Salt Lake Public Library auditorium, Arturo Fuentes takes a deep breath, and begins to tell his story of torment.

“I am 16 years old and I am at the Springville City public library and my heart is racing,” Fuentes said into the microphone. “I feel like a criminal doing something inappropriate as I am trying to hide the book I have.”

Wearing a blazer and jeans, his dark hair closely cropped, Fuentes is there to share his painful struggle of trying to align his sexual orientation with his faith. His story was a gauntlet of therapists, dark moments of suicidal thoughts and a crisis — and ultimate abandonment — of faith.

'All you have to do is get close to your dad and everything is going to be be fine.' And I believed that.

Before a packed house of hundreds gathered to promote legislation banning conversion therapy, the 35-year-old fights back tears as he remembers the shame he felt that day nearly 20 years ago. He is in another library, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, searching for answers.

“The title of the book is, “Resolving Homosexual Problems: A Guide for LDS Men." I actually ended up reading every LDS authored book on that shelf,” Fuentes said.

Still in high school in Springville, near Provo, and desperate to not be gay, Fuentes sought guidance from a church bishop. The faith leader in turn arranged — without his parents’ knowledge — for the church to pay for him to receive a controversial form of psychotherapy known as conversion therapy. It has among its tenets that homosexuality is caused by a distant relationship with the father. The bishop told him:

“‘All you have to do is get close to your dad and everything is going to be fine.’ And I believed that,” said Fuentes.

So began a decade-long effort to change Fuentes’ sexual orientation, starting with conversion therapy once a week.

“Looking back, there’s something wrong about a high school student going to get therapy behind his parents’ back,” he said.

Conversion therapy is the focus of scrutiny as Utah lawmakers consider a new bill that would ban licensed therapists from practicing it on people under 18. The bill cleared an obstacle last week before it was even introduced when LDS Church officials said they would not oppose the legislation. Utah would be the 16th state to ban the practice. The proposed law has even drawn support from a one-time champion of conversion therapy.

From Shock to Talk Therapy

Conversion therapy purports to change or “fix” a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Like Fuentes, some young Latter-day Saints seek out conversion therapy because of church doctrine, which holds that a heterosexual marriage is necessary to get into the highest level of the celestial kingdom. The church doesn’t view same-sex feelings as a sin, but says acting on them is.

“I would be told by bishops, ‘You’re not going to do the any good to the church as a single man,” Fuentes recalled “‘If you’re single you don’t become a bishop, you don’t become a stake president, you won’t get to become a mission president or a general authority.”

Photo of Fuentes.
Credit Kelsie Moore / KUER
Arturo Fuentes has received messages from several people since he shared his story — some he knows, some from old conversion therapy groups.

The practice has a long history in Utah, dating back to the 1970s, when researchers at Brigham Young University — a church-sponsored institution — experimented on people using electric shock to produce an aversion to images of the same sex. Today, counselors use talk therapy, visualization and social skills training.

Around 700,000 adults in the U.S have received conversion therapy, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles. Roughly half of those received it as adolescents, like Fuentes.

But it’s been rejected by mental health professionals for nearly a half century. The American Psychiatric Association has said it is impossible to change a person’s sexual orientation and attempting to do so can cause harm.

When parents try to change their children’s sexual orientation and take them to a therapist or a religious leader for conversion therapy, youth depression rates can double and suicide rates can triple, according to a 2018 study from the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University.

“I would say at least 90 percent of the young people that we work with will talk readily about their period of suicidality, when they felt like there was something broken inside them that they could not fix,” said Dr. Lisa Hansen, clinical director for Encircle, a nonprofit that provides counseling for LGBTQ youth.

The state has seen a recent trend of rising youth suicide rates, although a direct link to conversion therapy has not been found.

About 80 percent of Encircle’s clients are Mormon, Hansen said. Demand has been so high that they recently opened a new location in Salt Lake City to serve Utah’s LGBTQ young people, and plan to soon open one more in St. George.

The clinic sees hundreds of clients each month with stories similar to Fuentes’, Hansen said.

They come there after other therapists have told them: “You don’t want to be gay, you won’t have much of life that way or you know what God wants you to do,” she said.

Years of Self Blame

Fuentes prayed. He fasted. He thought he wasn’t trying hard enough. He became severely depressed.

“I remember being in my parents’ shed with a rope figuring out where I could hang it from,” he explained.

I introduced myself and I actually said, 'I am addicted to men'. And I had never had sex with a man.

For Fuentes, therapists often provided more confusion than clarity. One counselor sent him to group therapy for others like him without telling him what it was about. It ended up being a sex addiction group without any gay people.

He leaned on his faith for answers but then the refrain repeated itself when a bishop referred him to a sexaholics anonymous group.

“I introduced myself and I actually said, ‘I am addicted to men’. And I had never had sex with a man,” said Fuentes.

The conflict between his sexuality and his faith, not to mention how he fit into expectations of church culture continued to dominate him.

He eventually turned to a therapy retreat hosted by LDS conversion therapy guru, David Matheson.

Dubbed “Journey into Manhood,” the peer-led, self-help program claimed to help men deepen their masculinity and diminish same-sex attraction. In a promotional video Matheson extolled how the program “helps men grow.”

“And when men grow, many men, as they mature, as they deepen their masculinity, they find that their feelings of sexual attraction for other men diminish a great deal,” Matheson says in the video. “And yes, absolutely it does work.”

“One of the biggest transformations I see is that men who have lived in a lot of secrecy and shame are able to let go of that,” He says.

But not Fuentes. During a weekend-long retreat in Phoenix in 2011, he was instructed to act out scenarios with other participants with the purpose of healing a supposed divide with his father.

In one role-playing exercise, he wrote a letter to his “father”, who was played by an older man at the retreat. The man then cradled Fuentes in his arms while reading the letter back to him.

The acceptance and camaraderie he experienced at the retreat — in getting to know other men who had same-sex attraction and were struggling to understand it — seemed to help at first. But it didn’t last long.

Within a week Fuentes felt lower than ever. He went to see a spiritualist who told him that female entities had attached themselves to him and he paid money to have them removed. That didn’t work either.

The Beginning of the End

Fuentes came out to his parents in 2012.

Through tears, his mother explained her heartbreak at learning her son had been struggling alone for so long. “I’m so sad and so sorry that he didn’t tell us.”

Learning his son was gay was challenging for the elder Fuentes, who is Mexican. The 76-year-old who grew up in Mexico said homosexuality was contrary to both his faith and the culture in which he was raised.

“For a Mexican, I grew up thinking that was the worst thing that could happen to somebody, being gay,” he said. “Because, here in Mexico we have this macho thing, you know.” 

Fuentes’ parents are still members of the church. After they found out he was gay, they suggested additional therapy to understand what was going on, and they hoped it might help him to be straight.

“And, bless their hearts, the first thing they wanted to do is for me to go to therapy,” he said. “They said, “‘We can cure this. We can cure this.’”

Photo of Fuentes.
Credit Kelsie Moore / KUER
Arturo Fuentes said he eventually left the church after years of trying to change himself to fit its doctrine.

He agreed to try one more time, with a new conversion therapist.

“Right when we started the meeting he had me go down the list of all the therapies I’d ever done,” Fuentes said. “So, I started — before I was done I was in tears and i couldn’t speak and he asked me, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I told him, because I feel bad for that kid who has believed everything all these bishops and therapists have told him, only to realize none of you know what the hell you are talking about.”

It was his last session.

That same year he told his parents he was gay Fuentes stopped therapy and left the church.

It was heartbreaking to leave his faith, Fuentes said, but more shattering was his self-hatred.

Over time Fuentes said his father and mother have come to accept his sexual orientation. And, he adds that the love his parents showed him during this vulnerable period, eventually started him on a journey towards self-love and self-healing.

“Now, instead of thinking of gays as somebody that just wanted to do something that is wrong, I empathize with them,” Erasmo Fuentes said. “Gays have a place in my heart now, a very tender place.”

A New Stance

Fuentes’ parents weren’t the only ones who transformed their views about homosexuality. As it turns out, one of Fuentes’ therapist has also changed his beliefs.

David Matheson — the charismatic leader of the therapy weekends Fuentes attended — now rejects conversion therapy. In January, he came out as gay and now supports the Utah bill outlawing it for licensed therapists working with minors.

“The term conversion therapy really means that being gay is a psychological disorder that can be changed in anyone and should be changed. And, I know that that is not true,” he said. “There are people who do experience shifts in their sexual attractions. I’m one of those, and I’ve met many others. But the idea that you could do it for anyone is just not true, as evidenced by Arturo.”

Credit Kelsie Moore / KUER
Arturo Fuentes has been sharing his story of conversion therapy at events hosted by civil rights organization, Equality Utah, leading up to introduction of the legislation the nonprofit helped craft.

Last week, as the bill was being introduced, several dozen people gathered at the Utah State Capitol where Fuentes spoke in support of the proposed law. He asked lawmakers to think of young people.

“We have to think of this burden that we are placing on their shoulders, that you can change if you try hard enough,” Fuentes said. “This type of expectation is not only unfair, it is dangerous.”

Although it’s unclear whether legislators will ultimately support the bill, the LDS church’s lack of opposition could be a big factor in its future. Church Leaders had worried the legislation could infringe on free speech or religious rights, but after seeing the bill, the church does not oppose it.

Ultimately, Fuentes said he put himself through years of needless torture for something that doesn’t work. And he hopes Utah lawmakers will spare other young people the pain he experienced.

“If we focus our efforts on helping with issues like depression, like anxiety, low self-esteem, low self-worth instead of making kids believe they can change something that’s so complex — that would be my hope,” he said.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the Utah Crisis Line at 801-587-3000 or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Unerased And LGBTQ Conversion Therapy In UtahA study shows that after certain conversion therapy efforts, LGBTQ kids are nearly three times more likely to attempt suicide. Monday, we're talking about it and about efforts to ban conversion therapy for youth in Utah. A recent study shows that after certain conversion therapy efforts, LGBTQ youth are nearly three times more likely to attempt suicide.

Daysha Eaton reports about religion and cultural issues, including social justice, for KUER.
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