‘There was no fix for me’: A conversion therapy survivor speaks out
By Simone Kaho
‘For people who have been abused by it, it’s a tender conversation’. As the government moves to ban conversion therapy, survivor Doron Semu shares his story.
In late February, Green MP Dr Elizabeth Kerikeri launched a petition calling for urgent government action to ban conversion therapy. The campaign was flooded with support, with over 150,000 people signing in a week.
As Dr Kerikeri and her supporters brought the signatures to the Beehive, Justice Minister Kris Faafoi announced the government’s commitment to banning conversion therapy by 2022.
“Accelerate the law-making right now,” says Doron Semu, “but also, let’s make this conversation a lot softer, because for people who are at stake and who have been abused by it, it’s a tender conversation.”
Today, Doron is an acupuncturist and studying a Masters in Nursing, aiming to specialise in Pacific Island and Māori mental health. But not long ago he was a vulnerable teenager, undergoing conversion therapy in his church, which until that point, had felt safe and inseparable from home.
Conversion therapy is the term used for any efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Or more specifically, trying to force gay people to become straight or transgender people to become cis. It’s been known to involve extreme methods like electric shock treatment.
There are multiple studies linking conversion therapy to increased rates of depression and suicide.
Doron Semu comes from a multi-generational family deeply connected within The Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints. His great-grandfather was a mission president who helped establish the church in Pesega, Samoa.
Growing up, the Mormon church was an everyday part of family life. Doron and his five brothers and sisters had a key to the chapel across the road.
“We could let ourselves in, use the piano, play basketball, had a tennis ball, whatever. We had free reign.”
The church had a programme of activities that started at primary school. Seminary classes began at age 13; Doron’s mother taught them at 6am every morning before school.
Around this time, Doron’s Tuesday evening youth classes began to focus on sexual purity. The bishop held one-on-one interviews about the matter with young congregants. At one such meeting, with Doron, the tone became interrogative. After asking if Doron watched porn, or masturbated, the questioning went further.
“There was more pressing and more pressing to know more. ‘Doron, I feel like there’s something you’re not telling me. I need to know everything so that we can sort this out for you.'”
Doron, who felt intense shame if he lied, eventually admitted he’d watched homosexual porn.
“I was pressed” he says, “for the first time, and even before I’d even had conversations with myself about it that I was gay. I was telling an adult who was in a position of power, who I knew but didn’t really know, didn’t really trust, the most intimate detail of my life at that time. That was how I came out.”
The bishop’s response compounded the distress.
“I actually remember this really clearly because I really didn’t like it. He was like, ‘Well, I’ve been expecting this conversation.’”
From that moment on, Doron felt self conscious in groups of men or teenagers his age.
“I was constantly asking myself, does everyone know that I’m gay?”
The bishop put Doron on probation, which meant he could no longer take part in church activities like praying in public or taking the sacrament.
“I felt the need to sit away from my family because I didn’t want them to see me not taking the sacrament because I wasn’t worthy of it.”
Years of unsolicited advice from church leaders followed, at first at Doron’s own church and then at others.
It wasn’t a prescribed programme, Doron says. Plans and ideas seemed to emerge on the fly, like wearing a rubber band and snapping himself, or watching straight porn. The consistent message was to deny his sexuality, to suppress it, and to keep it secret.
“I was just made to feel that there’d be a lot of shame, that there would be abandonment and that I wouldn’t belong to this unit (my family) anymore.”
At 19, Doron came out to close friends, and then in his mid-twenties, his parents. Looking back he says he feels lucky to have survived the experience.
“There were many dark nights” he says, “when I’d wonder if being alive was worth it. Because there was no fix for me.”
In late 2020, a young teenager in Doron’s community came out. The teenager was explicitly advised by a church leader to try conversion therapy.
It was a tipping point for Doron, who felt compelled to share his experiences as testimony and insight into the impact conversion therapy has on young vulnerable people.
“To feel gross within their own skin. I don’t want anyone to feel like that and for anyone to push that on a child, that’s gross.”
There are no specific services to help survivors of conversion therapy, Doron points out.
Despite concerns that speaking out could lead to his ex-communication, Doron is committed to pushing for change.
“I’d love to see people becoming aware and more sensitive about the conversation and becoming actively engaged. And not defend conversion therapy as freedom of speech and not think that we’re attacking religious freedom and practise. This isn’t what I’m trying to attack here. It’s abuse. And to recognise that conversion therapy is abuse.”