Gay conversion therapy: 'trust but also verify'

In the administration of every American president there are grubby stories. But the rise and fall of Sam Brinton, who was -- until yesterday -- deputy assistant secretary of Spent Fuel and Waste Disposition in the Office of Nuclear Energy, in the Biden Administration is unique.

Brinton’s professional qualifications for the job were modest – a master’s degree from MIT in nuclear engineering policy. But as an activist, a drag queen and flamboyant cross-dresser, he was exceedingly well qualified to be exhibited as “the first gender fluid person in federal government leadership”. In that role, he was peerless.

His profile (since removed) at the Department of Energy described him as “a well-known advocate for LGBTQ youth [who] helped to secure protections against the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy in more than half of the country.”

Brinton was, or is, a poster-boy for LGBTQI+ campaigns against “conversion therapy”.

In 2010 he related “the most shocking conversion story activists had heard since the 1960s” on an LGBTQI+ YouTube channel.

In 2014 he testified before the United Nations Committee Against Torture about his experiences as a survivor of conversion therapy. In 2016 he founded the #50Bills50States campaign to ban it across the country. In 2016 and 2018, he was the principal officer for the Washington DC chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

In 2018, when he was head of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, a LGBTQI+ youth suicide prevention group, he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, describing the psychological and physical torment that he had endured:

For over two years, I sat on a couch and endured emotionally painful sessions with a counselor. I was told that my faith community rejected my sexuality; that I was the abomination we had heard about in Sunday school; that I was the only gay person in the world; that it was inevitable I would get H.I.V. and AIDS.

But it didn’t stop with these hurtful talk-therapy sessions. The therapist ordered me bound to a table to have ice, heat and electricity applied to my body. I was forced to watch clips on a television of gay men holding hands, hugging and having sex. I was supposed to associate those images with the pain I was feeling to once and for all turn into a straight boy. In the end it didn’t work.

This all seems to have been an incredible charade. It ought to undermine campaigns around the world to legislate bans on conversion therapy. These inevitably prohibit not only the kind of torture that Brinton claimed that he endured, but also counselling, advice, and preaching against homosexuality. They are being used as levers to intimidate and silence critics of the LGBTQI+ lifestyle.

Arguments against these bans should begin by asking if they are necessary or if they are the equivalent of banning unicorn hunting. No doubt some same-sex oriented youths have experienced unwelcome pressure to conform -- but torture?

However, Sam Brinton said that nightmarish conversion therapy does exist. The New York Times believed Sam Brinton. Everyone believed Sam Brinton. Even President Biden, apparently.

Sam Brinton, it turns out, is a serial fabulist. He has been fired from his job with the Department of Energy after being charged with stealing women’s luggage from airport carousels in July and in September. When he was questioned by police about the theft, he lied.


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In the light of this scandal, a journalist for LGBTQ Nation, Wayne Besen, ruefully related his years-long scepticism about Brinton’s gay conversion stories.

The red flags regarding Brinton were overwhelming and obvious to all who cared to see them. Unfortunately, some of America’s top LGBTQ+ activists and organizations were willfully blind to Brinton’s shortcomings.

These organizations, such as the Trevor Project and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), ignored clear warning signs and incontrovertible evidence because Brinton provided these groups with a seemingly perfect ex-gay survivor story to expose horrific conversion therapy practices and ideology.

Besen is an activist whose “life’s mission” has been exposing what he believes to be “ex-gay” lies. He is also a conscientious journalist. So he was eager to confirm Brinton’s horrific stories. But Brinton always evaded his questions. He excused himself by declaring that he had been so traumatised by his experience that he could not remember the name of his torturer. There were other problems.

“Despite these eyebrow-raising inconsistencies, and Brinton being the only survivor spokesperson who could not recall the name of their therapist, major national organizations elevated Brinton as the face of their anti-conversion therapy programs,” Besen writes.

Besen warned the National Center for Lesbian Rights that Brinton might be an unreliable witness. NCLR responded:“we must believe all survivors.” To which Besen retorted, very sensibly, “Yes, we should trust, but shouldn’t we also verify?”

Besen also accuses journalists of gullibility and negligence. To take one example, shortly after he was questioned by police for the first time, he was interviewed by Brittany Jones Cooper, a journalist at Yahoo Life. He told her: “I work on nuclear waste management where transparency, honesty, and trust building are so critical.” His brazenness is shameful; her gullibility is appalling.  

“The media is also culpable in this scandal,” writes Besen. “In countless stories, not a single reporter from the world’s top publications pressed Brinton to name their counselor. What kind of journalism is this?”

There are three lessons in the Sam Brinton debacle for states which are considering banning conversion therapy.

First, verify.

Second, verify.

Third, verify.

Verify the survivor stories. Verify whether “conversion therapy” exists today. And verify claims that it does more harm than good. Is Sam Brinton really the only fraud out there?  

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator 

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