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When Rebecca Lopez came out as a lesbian, her mother really didn’t know how to handle it. Her mother came from a religious family with preconceived notions about homosexuality, she said.
“She really didn’t know how to deal with it. I don’t really know what was going on in her mind at the time,” Lopez said.
The next several months would cast a dark shadow over Lopez’s life. She spent six months at what turned out to be a gay conversion therapy center, undergoing severe and torturous treatment.
On May 7, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, along with the Survivors of Institutional Abuse (SIA), will be hosting an event featuring Lopez and fellow gay conversion therapy survivor David Wernsman, whose story is depicted in the “Kidnapped for Christ” documentary.
The event, titled “Horrors of the Troubled-Teen Industry and the New Campaign to Regulate It”, is part of the center’s ongoing community forum, Big Queer Convo, which focuses on issues relevant to the LGBT community.
Lopez’s mother, after searching for teen behavioral help on Google, discovered a center that called itself a “teen rescue” facility in Whitmore, Calif., east of Redding.
“It was worse than prison because at least in prison you can talk freely, but at the center we weren’t allowed to speak to other people there. We couldn’t say anything,” Lopez said.
Additionally, Lopez underwent “no touch” therapy, where she was not allowed to touch or be touched by anyone until she had convinced the center’s staff that she was no longer a lesbian.
The center only allowed visitors once a month for five hours. When her mom visited her after six months, she took Lopez home after hearing about the abusive treatment.
“Until this day, my mom says that she’s sorry about putting me there in the first place. She’s sorry about what they were doing to me. She accepts me now. My mom has come such a long way,” Lopez said.
In addition to Lopez and Wernsman, “Kidnapped for Christ” director Kate Logan and SIA president Jodi Hobbs will participate in the panel discussion.
The event seeks to raise awareness about the abusive ramifications of troubled-teen programs that seek to change a young person’s sexual orientation or gender identity through force, often utilizing torture, according to David Garcia, Los Angeles LGBT Center director of public policy.
Garcia and his policy team at the center have been working to have state legislation passed to regulate these treatment facilities.
“What we found in the state of California is that all these centers have to do [to operate legally] is to file a private school affidavit. All that means is that they are telling the state that they are teaching these young people a curriculum … and that’s all they need,” Garcia said.
The centers are private, and often religious institutions to which parents are paying up to $45,000 to send their children, Garcia said.
Senate Bill 524 (SB 524), which was introduced by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) on Feb. 26, would put the California Department of Social Services in charge of overseeing all private treatment centers, mandating that the centers be licensed by the state and that programs be accredited by an approved organization.
“[Wernsman] was taken to one of these institutions. Sadly, he was taken to these so-called ‘troubled teen institutions’ simply because he was gay. He was taken simply because of his sexual orientation,” Garcia said.
After Garcia and his team researched gay conversion therapy centers, they discovered that there were approximately 12 centers in the state.
“We started to hear stories, horrific stories. One young man talked about being rolled up in a carpet and only given water. He was there for weeks at a time. It was horrific,” Garcia said.
Hobbs said that although she is optimistic that SB 524 will be approved, she hopes for federal legislation.
“This is a [national] problem, so California is just one place across the United States. We want to make sure that children are protected not just in California, but elsewhere too,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) will be introducing a bill in mid-May that would, in many ways, complement Lara’s bill, by providing minimum federal standards for behavioral treatment facilities.
“You can have a center in one state, and then it closes down and pops up in another one, so we hope to bring about some uniformity with a minimum of standards, prohibiting abuse and regulating conduct in these facilities, as well as enforcing a reporting mechanism so that these places are held accountable,” Schiff said.
The center’s May 7 event will take place at The Village at Ed Gould Plaza at 1125 N. McCadden Place. Admission is free, but reservations are recommended. For reservations, call (323)860-7300 or visit lalgbtcenter.org/theatre.
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