Chance was 16 years old when she told her parents she was gay. They responded by sending her to reparative therapy, hoping it would convince her to be straight. Here’s what it was like for a kid to grow up in an environment where she’s told over and over again that who she genuinely feels herself to be, is wrong.
Jennifer Chance: Love is a big part of a person. And to say that that is innately wrong feels like that same enormous part of you that wants to love someone, shouldn’t exist. And the amount of loneliness you feel and what happens to you if someone just says over and over again that you shouldn’t have love … that’s abuse.
Narration: From the Texas Observer, I’m Jen Reel and you’re listening to Observatory: true stories of life in Texas. Our first show takes a look at reparative therapy — the controversial practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity through counseling. Lawmakers in many states are trying to ban this kind of therapy for minors, and in a few states, they’ve succeeded. But not Texas. We’ll hear one woman’s story of coming out to her conservative parents who sent her to reparative therapy as a teenager, and how the experience inspired her work today.
JC: I think when I realized I was gay — I started 8th grade — I got a very unfortunate haircut. I wanted to look like Katie Couric, I thought she was beautiful. And then I immediately started school at this new place and then I got called “dyke.” I remember thinking, “Oh my God, somebody else knows.:
N: That’s Jennifer Chance. With most people, she usually just goes by her last name.
JC: Jennifer is a very popular name, so Chance just kind of stuck.
N: Chance is 35 and lives in Austin, but as a teenager growing up in a conservative community in Tennessee, she struggled with telling people she was gay. Especially her family.
JC: We would go to church Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night.
It’s obvious when your family is that into religion that it’s just not going to be OK.
N: So she started out by first telling only two of her friends, people she thought she could trust. One of them was a girl she knew from church. This would be the conversation that would change everything.
JC: I was kind of comfortable talking to her because I felt, in the whole church realm, she was a bad girl. She would smoke and she would drink and she would sneak out of her house and have sex with guys and I thought, “Well she can’t really tell anything about me because I know about what she’s doing.” And I was really wrong about that, and she told her mother. And then somebody called the Baptist Board of Association because I had applied to be a camp counselor that summer. I had grown up in church camp so I was really looking forward to doing that. They called me to tell me I didn’t have a job anymore that summer. All the cool jobs in town were already taken and I ended up having to work at the Golden Corral.
N: Sixteen-year-old Chance was mortified. Not only had her sexuality become hot gossip around the church, but things got much worse. Someone told her preacher, who then summoned Chance into his office and told her it would tear the church apart if the congregation found out that he knew her secret but hadn’t told her parents. So he gave her an ultimatum — either she could tell them, or he would.
JC: I can’t remember how long of a time I had. I remember I had enough time to get stressed out. I ended up actually getting shingles. And then I remember the day came that I had to tell my parents. I remember saying to my mother, “Mom, I have something to tell you” and she started saying, “No, no, no don’t tell me … tell me … oh God I think I know, please don’t tell me,” and just kind of getting hysterical. I was like, “Mom, I’m gay.” And I remember these words, so clearly, that she said I was sick and I was disgusting, that I was going to go to hell and I was going to die of AIDS. So that’s where things started.
I remember my mom spending a lot of time in her room, in the dark, crying, and my dad came home and he was like, “See what you’ve done to your mother?” I remember them grounding me, and me just crying, “Why? Why are you doing this?” They said they were treating me the same way as if I were a drug addict or an alcoholic. They were like, “As long as you live here, then you need to go to this therapy.”
N: Her parents sent her to a Christian counseling center in Brentwood Tennessee that offered reparative therapy. For about a year, Chance made the 90-minute round trip to spend an hour with a woman who tried to convince her that she could be straight.
JC: I remember the first one I was hoping it was going to be a group therapy because I thought I could actually meet somebody who was gay but that didn’t happen. And at first I was thinking like, “Well I’m just gonna lie and say, ‘Hey look, ta-da! It worked.’” But at a certain point I didn’t want to live that lie. Like, it was bad enough but at least if it had already happened then let’s just ride that through.
Brentwood is a very affluent community around Nashville. You’re driving through these hills with big huge houses, mansions, you can see the horses and the hills. And then going to her office, which is sitting on the couch or the chair, whatever you liked. I always sat on the couch, very close to the right hand arm with a pillow in my lap and her just sitting in the chair across from me.
I know that I had cassette tapes that she would send me home with that I was supposed to listen to that were people telling their stories of how they, I guess, recovered. She gave lots of handouts, stuff about how I had damaged love receptors and that’s why that my relationship with my parents and people I would be attracted to was messed up because I wasn’t receiving God’s love in the right way. She wasn’t mean. I don’t remember her being mean, but just a little separated and not interested in the person that I was.
N: Reparative therapy was once widely accepted in the U.S., but today it’s opposed by a long list of professional organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association. Chance was going to this therapy in the late 90’s when it was losing credibility in the medical field, but gaining popularity with conservative Christians, who helped fund a big ad campaign called Truth In Love. They ran full-page ads in papers like The New York Times, USA Today, and the Washington Post, promoting the idea that gay people could be liberated from homosexual sin through a relationship with Jesus and through reparative therapy. This is the movement that Chance’s parents hoped would save her.
Chance didn’t buy into the therapy, but she was honest with the personal questions the woman asked her, and she never talked about her therapy at home. Which is why she was shocked when her mother mentioned something that Chance had recently told her therapist.
JC: Oh my God, my therapist is telling my parents what I’m saying in my therapy session.
N: Chance refused to go back to this therapist. But as long as she lived under her parents roof, she had to go to some kind of therapy. She had plans to study social work in college, so she asked her parents if she could see a licensed social worker instead. They said yes.
JC: To my parents, anybody’s going to tell me that gay’s not OK. That’s just how you live. That’s what we’re surrounded by. Anybody of good standing would know that being gay is a sickness and they’re going to try and help your kid out of it. Just like if your kid was a drug addict or an alcoholic like my parents kind of said to me.
But I felt that maybe if I got a licensed social worker that they wouldn’t be someone trying to persuade me in a different way from what I believed, and what I believed to be normal. I remember the woman being like, “Do you wanna change?” And me saying no, and her letting me know there was nothing wrong with me. I think it really was a life changer that someone told me I was OK.
N: Chance’s parents didn’t know that her new therapy sessions didn’t align with their beliefs, and she quietly continued these sessions for another year before moving away to college. But during her last year of high school, her parents kept a close watch on her.
JC: I had posters on my wall of female rock stars and stuff and so I had to take those down. I know I had a Melissa Etheridge poster, I think I had a Joan Osbourne poster. I couldn’t watch Ellen. I remember flipping through the channels just to try and see a little bit because I had never really seen another gay person, especially not one portrayed as normal.
One thing I remember is that they tried to become more loving toward each other. It seemed just very abrupt. It just seems like to me they were trying to set an example maybe of what a good relationship would look like.
N: Chance had a few crushes in school, but she couldn’t act on them. Her parents strictly forbade her from dating women. If she had liked boys, she could have brought one of them home to meet her parents. Her dad probably would have shaken his hand. Her mother might have offered him some iced tea in the living room. They would have made him feel welcome. But that’s not what she wanted. And like most kids who want something they’re told they can’t have, she found a way to get it. AOL chat rooms.
JC: I did end up getting an online girlfriend, which is a weird situation, but writing some notes back and forth. I even got a P.O. box so I could get letters and stuff from people so my parents wouldn’t know. And somehow through all that I found a Woman for Woman chat room, and she took the greyhound bus down to meet me in Tennessee. Which now I’m like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that” but that’s what happened.
N: How old was this person?
JC: Uh, definitely over 18. It was definitely mutual but I would have rather been dating someone my age.
So in high school, we had band class every day. I sat next to the same girl and finally I told her, and she acted like it was no big deal. And she actually had a conversation and she came in and said, “Well I’m going to find somebody for you to date. I’m going to come in with a list of all the lesbians I know.” The number one on her list was me. I was like, “Well this is not going to be very helpful.” Number two is this other girl named Jennifer who works at the egg roll stand at the mall. Number three is a guitar teacher who works across from the egg roll stand at the mall. Um, it didn’t take her standing up and joining a gay student group or anything. All it was was just treating me like a normal person, giving me a place to talk. That meant so much.
N: This music you’re hearing is Chance today, who let me record her singing a song she wrote and performed her senior year of high school at the annual talent show.
JC: I didn’t see it necessarily to be taken as a love song. There was definitely some of that behind it. I had a crush on a girl and I kind of told that in a very obtuse way and not direct. I just didn’t think, I thought it was more of a story, just a general story about a princess. And when I got off stage I remember the emcee, who was also a student, but he was just like, “Yo, that was brave.” And then I remember a teacher saying something to that same sense, of like, That was a really brave thing.” And I thought, “Oh my God, I didn’t know I just outed myself to the entire school but I guess that just happened.”
So after college I moved in with my parents for a short amount of time to try and find a job and I remember being at home and just flipping through the channels, laying on the couch, and kind of scrolling past MTV. And the Real World was on or one of those shows, and there were three or four girls in a hottub and they started making out right when my mom happened to be walking across the room and I was just like “ugh” just cringing. I knew she saw it, I knew it was because I was gay that I was watching it. And she said nothing, I kept flipping the channels by. And the next day I went in to watch tv and when I hit the MTV channel, it was just black and said ‘parental control block.’ And I knew that me being a 23-year-old, living in my mother’s house, I was still that 16-year-old who had just come out.
N: Eventually Chance found a job and moved out of her parents home for good. She met a woman and fell in love. They dated for a few years, moved to Austin and got engaged. This was in 2008 and in Texas they couldn’t legally marry, but they wanted to have a ceremony in front of family and friends. When they sent out wedding invitations, they mailed one to Chance’s parents, who never responded. Chance and her wife divorced two years later, and even then, she couldn’t go to her parents for support.
JC: It was just so hurtful. And what was even more hurtful than not coming to my wedding, was I remember after she left, I would say not even a month, my father asked me why I was so upset — that it wasn’t even a real marriage. And I told them that I never wanted to talk to them again. I was tired of being hurt. I couldn’t see anything positive really coming out of our relationship, because how much honesty and truth can you have in a relationship when you block out a whole big chunk of it?
It wasn’t but maybe six to eight months later I guess that they told me he had cancer, and it was bad cancer. A very quick, pancreatic cancer. I wouldn’t say we had much of a chance to resolve anything. Really the only thing we resolved was him saying he was proud of me. This was the last day in the hospital where the doctor said that all they could do from then on was palliative care and I remember him saying, “This means you’re going to let me die.” And it’s OK that we didn’t have resolution over the gay issue, it’s one of many issues that a family can have. It’s not the end all be all.
I’ve made an effort to try and call my mother more than I was before because it sucks to have your partner go away, and I couldn’t imagine the way she felt.
In a way this might be the best time to try and see what kind of relationship we can have, because when you’re in a marriage you have patterns. You have expectations of how each other acts and reacts, the truths and the beliefs that you hold together that kind of make the entity that is your relationship. And part of that is now gone and I thought, “Well, maybe now you don’t have to be this person that you always were. Maybe now there’s a chance to change patterns.”
I have a grandmother who’s lived in Mississippi, she’s very old, in her mid-to-late 80’s. We have a very close relationship and I remember when my grandfather, her husband died, I was the first one to get there and we’re staying up one night and she told me, “I understand how hurt you must have felt and how alone you must have felt when your wife left you.” And the fact that she equated my relationship with hers was just astonishing.
N: Chance’s mom didn’t want to talk to us for this story, but now that Chance has been in a serious relationship with a woman for a while, she decided to visit her mom and try breaking the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy they had settled into. She wondered whether her mom felt any differently after all these years.
JC: It’s always hard to start that conversation. I remember sitting on the couch just thinking like, “How do I just say, ‘Hey mom I’m dating someone that’s really important.’” And it wasn’t until the next day, we went to this Cajun restaurant and we’re sitting there and I just come out with, “Hey mom, I know that you’re not going to be happy about this, but I’m dating someone and I’m really excited about them and I just want you to know because this is a relationship that I care about.” So at that point we didn’t say much, because I have a really hard time bringing things up that I know are going to hurt my mom because when I told her in the restaurant, I could see her holding back tears. The next day I was getting ready to go around lunch time. I was giving her a final hug goodbye and I think I had one foot in the car and she told me, “Hey, tell your girlfriend I said ‘Hi.’” And to me that was a monumental effort on her part. I know she had to think about that, I know she had to force those words out of her mouth. I don’t know, that shows a bigger step than I thought would happen.
N: Reparative therapy can still legally be practiced anywhere in the United States on adults, but stories like Chance’s have prompted Oregon, California, New Jersey and Washington DC to ban conversion therapy for minors, and at least 18 other states have introduced similar legislation this year, including Texas. But Texas is the only state where reparative therapy is explicitly supported by the state GOP’s party platform. Here’s what the platform says:
“Homosexuality is a chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that have been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by our nation’s founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable alternative lifestyle in public policy, nor should family be redefined to include homosexual couples. We recognize the legitimacy and efficacy of counseling which offers reparative therapy and treatment for those patients seeking healing and wholeness from their homosexual lifestyle. No laws or executive orders shall be imposed to limit or restrict access to this type of therapy.”
Classroom audio, anonymous: So that’s it for me. Up next is Jen. Let’s give a big welcome for Jen. (Kids clapping.)
JC in classroom: Hey everyone. So I’m going to pretty much talk about what it was like growing up and coming out to my parents and what it was like for me.
N: That’s Chance, speaking in front of a classroom at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin. She volunteers for a program called Safe Schools, which is run by The Texas Civil Rights Project and sets up presentations for students about LGBT issues with speakers like Chance, who talk about growing up gay. Chance says she does it not only to reach the kids going through what she did, but also to make kids think about how they’d respond if a friend or family member came out to them.
JC: I kept this diary that I had in high school, and there was this entry in there that said, “Please God, just help me find the right Christian man so I can be free of this and be normal. And that was so sad at a later time to go back and read that when you’re like so happy, like “God, that kid. That kid in her bedroom writing this, feeling like nobody was there, feeling like she was a disappointment, wanting to kill herself at times. That poor kid that had no one there.” It really sucked feeling that way and sometimes you can’t help but feel that way, but there was something in me that was like, “OK, they’re not worth it. High school isn’t forever.”
JC in classroom: If we all can be a little bit more open, if we all can be a little bit more nice, if we can celebrate the differences in each other, I think that can make all of us feel a bit more safe than we are. And that’s pretty much it. *applause*
N: This is a new project for us here at the Observer. After this one, we’ll be bringing you a new episode of Observatory every month about all sorts of people around Texas.
Observatory was produced this month by me, Jen Reel, with help from my co-host, Patrick Michels. Anthony Barilla composed our theme and other music in this episode, with additional music by Kevin McLeod. Keep up with us by subscribing to our show on iTunes or Stitcher, and check out our show page at texasobserver.org/observatory. Thanks for listening.