No one wanted to be “not gay” as badly as Joel Barrett.
A husband, a father, a pastor at a church he founded — he could feel the crippling weight of it all grow with each passing day.
Barrett had always known he was gay, even at a young age growing up in St. Louis. But growing up in the conservative independent Baptist church scene, he thought his “controversial thoughts” were a sinning problem, something that could be cured by doing the right thing and being a good member of the church.
“I really spent my life trying to do the most right things in hopes that God would change me,” Barrett said. “I was always thinking, whatever is around the corner would change me. I really thought I could overcome it.”
In his early 30s, he reached out to Exodus International, a nonprofit that connected Christian men with licensed counselors and therapists to help combat their “homosexual thoughts.” Barrett underwent therapy and treatments for over three years, during which he fell into a deep depression. He resigned from his church, got a divorce and even considered suicide.
Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis County, has filed a bill known as the Youth Mental Health Preservation Act, which would stop minors from being exposed to the kind of therapy and counseling Barrett underwent. The bill states it will “focus on banning so-called ‘conversion therapy.’”
Conversion therapy is defined as psychiatric therapy aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation, based upon the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder requiring therapy, according to the American Psychiatric Association. The APA deemed conversion therapy unethical in 2009, stating in a report that, “direct risks of conversion therapy include: depression, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, shame, social withdrawal, and distinct rise in suicidality.”
Conversion therapy is also referred to as reparative therapy, ex-gay therapy, or “pray the gay away” therapy.
“This bill focuses on those seeking or holding professional registration through the state of Missouri,” McCreery said.
However, according to Jim Persinger, department chair of psychology at Emporia State University and board member of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network Kansas City chapter, which advocates for LGBTQ youth, having a license isn’t required to practice some “therapy.”
“They may or may not actually have a license per se, which would be affected by the proposed bill,” Persinger said.
The bill would prohibit licensed psychologists, behavior analysts, professional counselors, social workers, and marital and family therapists from engaging in conversion therapy with minors, according to the bill’s official summary.
While the bill includes language such as “licensed psychologist,” which clearly states the psychologist must hold a medical license, it also includes terms such as “family therapists,” which are unregulated in the state of Missouri. That means the bill wouldn’t apply to them.
Nine states have legislation similar to the Young Mental Health Preservation Act, including California, Connecticut, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Illinois.
Under the proposed bill, those caught practicing conversion therapy would face repercussions that could result in loss of medical license. There would be no punishment for adults who submit minors to the therapy.
Ricky Lomax has a master’s degree in psychology from Webster University and works with minors who have issues accepting their sexuality, including homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexual relationships. Lomax does not practice conversion therapy. He says his sessions with clients focus on what the individual is specifically looking for, and he does this through a style of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a form of psychotherapy that treats problems and boosts happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors and thoughts. According to the National Library of Medicine, CBT is a popular form of therapy used to successfully treat depression.
“We discuss, do they accept their lifestyle? Do their friends accept their lifestyle? For most clients, it’s a battle within about navigating their beliefs and their sexuality,” Lomax said. “It’s important for them to realize that there are places that accept them; there are churches and organizations that accept them.”
Lomax supports the bill but is also nervous about what it will accomplish. The bill leaves out a glaring aspect of conversion therapy — religion. Under McCreery’s bill, there is no protection for minors undergoing conversion therapy through religious organizations.
“That’s intentional,” McCreery said. “Missouri is a conservative state. I feel like my approach to this is a conservative approach.”
The bill has been read twice in committee, but has not yet made it to floor in the Missouri House of Representatives.
According to a study by UCLA School of Law released in January, an estimated 20,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 17 will undergo conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional. The same study also notes that 57,000 additional LGBTQ youth will receive treatment from a religious or spiritual adviser.
Multiple sources asked about conversion therapy practices in Missouri say that there are both practicing religious organizations and licensed professionals where parents can send youth. However, no one would disclose the names of these individuals.
Exodus International, the organization Barrett turned to, shut down in 2013 after issuing an apology on its website for “years of undue judgment by the organization and the Christian Church as whole.”
“I was desperate for hope of a light at the end of the tunnel,” Barrett said of his time at Exodus.
Barrett acknowledges he did not have it bad when it came to his conversion sessions. There was no being beat over the head with a Bible or chanting, like an exorcism.
“They would try and search for the root of my problem,” Barrett said. “As you are sharing stories in a counselor’s office about your life, I’m processing that, tears form, then all of a sudden it was, ‘Oh something is here. We need to stop and pray and ask for forgiveness.’”
But, he does know for some, that is not their experience.
“I’ve heard horror stories about electrocution and the showing of straight porn, all kinds of crazy things,” Barrett said.
Barrett finally stopped therapy after he realized he was seeing no success and was tired of being ashamed for who he was. He is now an LGBTQ writer and speaker who has been happily married to his partner for more than a decade.
“I went through some of the darkest days of my life during this,” Barrett said. “And I’m still dealing with to this day, almost 20 years later. Had I gone through that when I was 12 to 13 years old, I don’t know if I would have made it. This is all rooted in religion. You can call it whatever you want, but it is.”