Mitchell Gold, like many gay North Carolinians, cannot understand why there isn’t already a state law banning so-called “conversion” therapy.
Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., now ban the practice, which aims to “cure” lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people.
And polls show a law forbidding it in North Carolina enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support.
Yet a new bill to ban the therapy, which has been linked to higher rates of suicide among LGBTQ youth, faces a tough road to even getting a hearing in the North Carolina General Assembly.
The bill would prohibit licensed therapists, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists or paid pastoral counselors from attempting the therapy on anyone under 18 or on disabled adults. They could risk losing their licenses if they don’t comply. The state would be prohibited from subsidizing the practice, covering it through insurance or giving money to organizations that practice it.
“This is a practice only an adult who has the mental capacity to consent should engage in, if they so choose,” said Kendra Johnson, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group Equality NC.
Gold doesn’t buy the support for the therapy among religious groups as legitimate.
“It’s time for America’s faith traditions to see their rejection of LGBTQ people because of their innate sexuality, and the insistence that they change through harmful so-called therapy, for what it is – bullying,” said Gold.
For Gold, it’s an intensely personal issue.
Today, Gold is one of the biggest names in American furniture.
His Taylorsville company, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, has its own national chain of branded stores. During their years in the White House, the Obama family chose two pieces of the company’s furniture for America’s most famous home.
But in 1971, none of that seemed possible.
A young college student from a middle class Jewish family in New Jersey, Gold was struggling with what then seemed like a terrible secret. He was gay and he couldn’t imagine a world in which that might be okay.
“In my teenage years, really starting at 11 years old, I thought God hated me,” Gold said.
He couldn’t imagine coming out to his parents and couldn’t imagine them accepting it, given their religious background.
“My parents were wonderful, terrific people, but I was in a position where my religion is teaching that it’s a sin and an abomination,” Gold said.
On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Gold finally talked about his problem with a psychiatrist.
“The doctor said, ‘What can I do for you?’” Gold remembered. “And I said, ‘I’m gay and I want you to cure me.’”
It seemed almost like an inevitable conclusion in 1971, Gold said. This is what happened to young gay people. They were sent to doctors, institutionalized, submitted to electroshock therapy – all with the goal of making them straight.
Famous gay men from backgrounds similar to his own had experienced it – Lou Reed, Allen Ginsberg. Before current films like “Boy Erased” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” illustrated the harmful effects of what is now commonly called “conversion therapy,” it was the frightening but inescapable fate of many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people.
But amazingly, Gold’s psychiatrist said “no.”
“He said, ‘I can’t cure you,’” Gold said. “But he said, ‘I can help you learn to love yourself.’”
It would be another two years before the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which categorizes psychological problems. But Gold’s psychiatrist was ahead of the curve, helping him to understand his problem wasn’t his nature, but rather the difficulty of living in a society that didn’t accept it as “normal.”
That, Gold said, opened up a world of possibilities to him – setting him on a road to self acceptance, personal and professional fulfillment and ultimately, advocacy.
Gold has been a member of the board of the Human Rights Campaign. He was also a North Carolina delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, where he helped force discussion of gay rights in the party a decade before the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
More recently, Gold has zeroed in on religious bullying of LGBTQ youth.
In 2010, Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student, leaped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate used a webcam to broadcast him having sex with another young man on the Internet.
Clementi was from an evangelical Christian family who, after his death, left their church. Gold befriended the couple and supported them in the formation of the Tyler Clementi Foundation to combat the sort of bullying that drove their son to suicide. Mitchell’s own non-profit, Faith in America, merged with the foundation in its work.
In 2010, Gold edited the anthology book “Youth in Crisis: What Everyone Should Know About Growing Up Gay.” The book, which collects many personal stories just like Gold’s, grew out of conversations he had with young people who continue to face the same pressures and fears he did decades ago.
“In my own community, there are 13- and 15-year-old kids who want to take their own lives,” Gold said.”I feel very fortunate where in my own community I’ve been able to talk to young people, talk them off the ledge.”
Gold said he’s seen people of faith turn around on LGBTQ acceptance and become powerful advocates for equality. But those who are deeply invested in inequality still hold too much power.
“I would like to believe, like Anne Frank, that all people are inherently good,” Gold said. “I would like to believe that with education, [Senate leader] Phil Berger and all of these legislators will open their hearts and minds, to learn what other peoples’ lives are like.”
Gold said he’s spoken with Baptist ministers who have turned on the issue in their hearts but can’t bring themselves to do so openly for fear of losing their jobs and being exiled from their religious communities.
“And then there are people like the Phil Bergers, who have dug themselves in a hole and don’t want to say they’re wrong,” Gold said.
“I’ve been wrong in my life, I’ve made mistakes,” Gold said. “But a person of integrity learns, they stand up and say, ‘I’ve been wrong and now I have to fix this.’”
The Mental Health Protection Act is a chance to do that, Gold said. It doesn’t require anyone to denounce their religious beliefs – it just ends a practice that has been studied and found to be ineffective in its goals and harmful to those who undergo it.
Last year, the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at UCLA School of Law released a study on the practice, finding that:
- 698,000 LGBTQ adults (18-59) in the U.S. have received conversion therapy. That number includes 350,000 LGBTQ adults who received the treatment when they were adolescents.
- About 20,000 LGBTQ young people (13-17) will receive conversion therapy from a licensed healthcare professional before they reach the age of 18 in the states that did not, as of last year, ban the practice.
- About 6,000 LGBTQ young people (13-17) living in states that do ban conversion therapy would have received the therapy from a licensed health care professional before they turned 18 if their state had not instituted a ban.
- Across all states, about 57,000 LGBTQ young people (13-17) will receive conversion therapy from religious or spiritual advisors before reaching the age of 18.
According to Kendra Johnson, information on the number of North Carolinians who have undergone conversion therapy is not readily available because the individuals and organizations who practice it are often not very transparent about it.
“You cannot support electric shock therapy to change someone’s person, you cannot support sleep deprivation, starving children – all of those different things. Child abuse is not a parental right,” she said.
Gold said he couldn’t agree more.
“This legislation wants to let LGBTQ people have full equality. Who are the people against it?” Gold said. “Why are they against it? They believe we’re sinners and immoral and all of that. Because of their ignorance, they’re willing to let people be second class citizens. That is immoral.”