It was almost 20 years ago I learned my daughter Amber was questioning her sexual orientation. Amber wasn’t someone who would question something like this easily—I knew this was a deep, painful struggle for her, and I was terrified of what it meant for her life and our family.
Amber was raised in the evangelical Christian faith—which teaches homosexuality is a sin—so, it wasn’t a mystery why she was in turmoil. When I found out, I was actively involved in a church here in Albuquerque and held traditional, conservative views. I didn’t have friends who were openly gay or lesbian, and my understanding of homosexuality was limited to what I learned as a child and into adulthood, through my faith.
My biggest concern was what Amber would encounter in her life. I often heard of gay people being attacked, discriminated against, and even killed. Regardless of how I came to terms with my daughter being a lesbian, I knew I didn’t want her to be targeted or suffer.
When parents witness their children hurting, we want to help them. We turn to communities we know for support, and what I knew at the time was the church. I reached out to one of the pastors at my church, and he recommended I get Amber in counseling. Back then I didn’t know the term “conversion therapy,” and it wasn’t a term used by the pastor or psychologist Amber saw throughout her senior year in high school. But, as I learned years later, that’s exactly what happened.
Amber was subjected to therapy steeped in guilt and shame to try and make her change. She was made to feel afraid of what might happen should she live her life as a lesbian, including rejection by her family and friends, and eternal damnation in hell. I never indicated or said that I would reject her, but that fear was manipulated against Amber by people in whom I placed great trust and in a place I thought was safe.
Amber left home after high school, and returned to live here in Albuquerque after 15 years. It took several years for Amber to come to terms with herself—a period for her marked with depression, self-harm, and self-hatred. While I eventually left the church and came to embrace and support Amber as a lesbian, that didn’t change the impact of what happened to her. Amber was diagnosed with PTSD several years ago, struggles with anxiety on a daily basis, and tends to isolate. It can be difficult for her to participate with our family and in the world. Unfortunately, as I now know, this is the case for many—if not most—survivors of conversion therapy.
No loving parent would purposefully do something that would hurt their children, and that includes me as Amber’s father. Had I known then what I know now, I would have turned to a therapist who understands that trying to change a young person’s sexual orientation through therapy is a long discredited practice that often causes long-term mental and physical harm.
A recent poll shows 71 percent of New Mexicans support prohibiting the practice of conversion therapy. With such broad support, this isn't a partisan or faith-based issue—it's about protecting children from the trauma of conversion therapy. My greatest charge in life as a parent is to protect my child. While I can’t undo the decisions I made or the harm done to Amber, I can help ensure no other children experience what she did, and no other parent experience the pain and guilt I do.