One day, when Peter Nunn was 15 years old, his father told him they were going on a surprise trip together. He didn’t say where, leading the teenager to imagine all the places it could be—maybe New York or California?
What Nunn didn’t realize was that his parents had found a men’s workout magazine in his room. It wasn’t pornographic, but it was enough to confirm for them some fears they had been having. He and his father departed from their Paulding County home to the Atlanta airport, and it wasn’t until they were headed to their connecting flight in St. Louis that his father told him where they were really going—a Christian counseling center in Iowa that practices so-called gay “conversion therapy,” so that the boy could work out what his father called “whatever weird sexual shit” he was going through.
“My dad lied to me and told me we were going on a trip together and it would be fun,” Nunn tells Georgia Voice. “He took me under false pretenses and dropped me off there.”
He underwent two weeks of counseling, which would end up having life-threatening effects on him. The practice has been denounced and called ineffective and harmful by major medical and mental health organizations across the country, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. But it’s still legal in Georgia.
That’s why Rep. Keisha Waites (D-Atlanta) recently proposed House Bill 716, which would make it illegal for licensed professionals to engage in sexual orientation change efforts with anyone under 18 in Georgia.
Life at the counseling center
Nunn says his days at the counseling center while undergoing conversion therapy (also known as “reparative therapy” or “ex-gay therapy”) were regimented. He was put up in a hotel where he would wake up each morning, get dressed, read his Bible and pray. Then someone would pick him up and take him to the counseling center, where he would undergo eight hours of one-on-one sessions with the adult male counselors, with a break for lunch in-between and dinner afterward. Then they would drop him off at the hotel, pick him up the next day and do it all over again.
“It was terrifying to me because I wasn’t expecting any of this and it was all completely new,” Nunn says. “I was being told that something was really wrong with me and that I would die of AIDS. I thought it was the end of life as I knew it, so I was willing to do anything and everything they asked me to do to fix myself.”
Nunn says a lot of the counseling was religious in nature and that he heard similar things as he did growing up in a conservative, religious family—faith, salvation and lots of Jesus. But it was the in-depth questions about his body and his sexual fantasies that he says traumatized him.
“It was very intrusive. At one point in time [they] asked me the size of my penis and how often I masturbated.”
‘I felt completely hopeless’
Arriving home, and facing being sent to military school or being sent away someplace where he wouldn’t “influence” his siblings, Nunn told his family that the therapy worked. While his time at the counseling center didn’t involve the more extreme aspects of conversion therapy, which can include food deprivation or electroshock therapy, Nunn says what he calls the “mental and spiritual abuse” he endured led him down a dark road.
“I just remember this feeling of hatred toward myself—hating who I was and hating why I couldn’t be like everybody else,” he says. “I felt completely hopeless and trapped, like it was never going to change. I felt like every day that I was around, it was a lie, it was not who I was no matter how much I wanted to be the person that everybody else told me I should be. I went to church three or four times a week and would be praying and crying and really, really wanting God to take those feelings away from me.”
He struggled with depression, and at 16 he attempted suicide. While he survived, the feelings of depression and self-hatred continued for the next several years. He started dating guys right after he turned 18, but he still believed what he was doing was a sin. But then when he was 20, he went to his first Atlanta Pride parade.
“I saw the PFLAG group and their signs about loving their gay kids and seeing somebody supporting somebody. Really seeing the love and support made me realize that I wanted that and I wanted to do that for myself and love myself.”
It made him break down crying, then it made him have a breakthrough. He came out shortly after that, and the depression soon began to fade as he learned to accept himself.
Nunn is now 29 and lives in the metro Atlanta area with his husband, Monte, and he says they have a great relationship with his mother and siblings. And in a nod to what helped him come out and begin to repair the damage of conversion therapy, he currently serves on the Atlanta Pride Committee.
This is the first in a series on so-called gay “conversion therapy” in Georgia. Next, we’ll look at licensed professionals who practice conversion therapy. Have you undergone such therapy in Georgia? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with more info.