The Rev. Manny Santiago attended gay-conversion therapy when he was 16 years old.
“It made me feel that I wasn’t worth it,” said Santiago, who was forced to attend the controversial therapy by his mother. “[I felt] that God had made a mistake creating me.”
Santiago, who is now 35 years old and the pastor of University Baptist Church Seattle, supports a bill lawmakers are considering that would ban gay-conversion therapy for minors in Washington State.
“The bill is not going to diminish the families or their orientations,” said Santiago, whose church welcomes LGBT members.
At a hearing in Olympia last month, supporters of the ban said the therapy, meant to change someone’s sexual orientation, is traumatic and dangerous. Opponents said the ban would limit options for minors and their families. California and New Jersey are the only two states that currently ban this therapy.
The American Psychological Association has opposed the practice since 1998. In a statement, the group said its risks include depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior.
Santiago went through the therapy in Puerto Rico with a pastor. He said he’s still working through trauma he suffered because of it.
“The pastor kept telling me how awful it was to have these sort of thoughts,” Santiago said. “There was a lot of hate.”
The proposed ban would prevent any licensed therapist, psychologist, social worker or counselor from administering the therapy. Unlicensed counselors and pastors who provide the therapy through church programs wouldn’t be covered by the ban.
Liberty Counsel, a leading Christian legal group opposing the ban, has appealed it in California and New Jersey, arguing that statewide bans on the therapy would limit the treatment options available for gay youths and their parents. Because of the pending appeals, the laws remain unenforced.
“Kids have enough of a hard time without us making it harder,” Santiago said. “We need to learn to listen to them and journey with them through their own transformation in life.”
Shortly after ending his therapy, Santiago left his church to attend the University of Puerto Rico. During his freshman year, he took a sociology class from an atheist, lesbian professor. After class one day, Santiago went to her office and told her what he was going through. She gave him the book Gay Theology Without Apology by David Comstock.
“This woman, who didn’t believe in anything I believed, gave me a book,” Santiago said. “Through that book, I started my healing process. I felt like I could finally be accepted for who I was.”
Thane Erickson, an associate professor of clinical psychology at SPU, said Christians and non-Christians need to ask if gay-conversion therapy has scientific backing. “There’s a scientific issue,” he said. “How good is the evidence that people can change?”
Erickson said there are other questions to ask about gay-conversion therapy that go beyond science. “In general, changing peoples’ behavior can cause a lot of harm,” Erickson said. “But if someone’s not happy with their behavior, we need to respect that, too.”