A Gay Man's Story from Conversion Therapy Survivor to Proud Escort
Virgil Mathis studied political sciences and is a gay porn actor and escort. He was born in Florida and grew up on a small farm with fundamentalist Southern Baptist parents. He is also one of many gay conversion therapy survivors. These often religiously motivated “therapies”, meant to supposedly “heal” non-cis-heterosexual people from their “sins”, often lead to suicide and are still allowed, not only in many US states but also in Germany and other European countries. ORGYSMIC's founder Jeff Mannes talked to Virgil about his experiences and about how he was not only able to convert his own shame, but also that of other people via his escorting job.
[This interview was originally conducted for Berlin's SIEGESSÄULE magazine. A shorter version of this interview in German can be found on their website.]
Virgil, how old were you when you went to the conversion therapy?
My parents sent me there when I was 15. Now, I don’t believe my parents are bad people. I just think that they are not very intelligent people. They put me there simply because they didn’t know what to do. They believed all these silly things they’ve been taught. Like, for instance, never to question the Bible's authority. It’s like Karl Marx said: Religion is the opiate of the people. Religion is used to control people. And my parents allowed themselves to be controlled by religion.
Right, I guess that religion also played a big part in the therapy? How long did it last?
For about two and a half years. It was really terrible. The shame that they would make me feel. The guilt. The confusion. I was fortunate that my therapy did not include electroshock, contrary to a friend’s therapy. In that respect, I have been fortunate even though the damage that has been done to me is something that will last until the end of my life. But maybe I should start from the beginning of my life?
Of course, please go ahead.
I was a very feminine child. You could tell by my voice and my mannerisms that I’m gay. Everyone always knew. It was never a question. So I never had to come out to anyone, including my parents. When I was 10 years old my parents caught me looking at gay porn. So every night, we would be on our knees on their bedside trying to pray the gay away. And they would be crying every night. They would say things like “God please take away this terrible sin in Virgil’s life”. Or we would say “Heal me and make me whole again.” This is when my feelings of shame and extreme guilt began. I cried myself to sleep almost every night for most of my childhood. That went on for about 5 years. I still wasn’t straight by then, so my parents decided to start this conversion therapy with a therapist from the church I grew up in. I would meet with him and he would play these audiotapes from this group called “Exodus International” which has now been shut down by the US government. They were testimonials of gay people that have “come out of living the gay lifestyle” and that have “successfully accomplished having straight relationships”. Oftentimes, it would just be a gay man paired with a lesbian. After that, I and my therapist would talk about this. Mostly he would just shame me.
How would he shame you?
He would ask me questions like “have you snug out of your house to have sex with other men?” And I am terrible at lying. I always have been. And of course I had done this, I was a very sexual child. And he made me feel very terrible about that. He would shame me. He would try and convert me. We would pray a lot in these sessions.
Just like you did with your parents?
Yeah. And I never understood it. I didn’t get this whole praying thing. I just couldn’t feel it. I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be feeling. I am happy to say now that I am not a Christian anymore. I don’t believe that Christians or other people who believe in organized religions are bad people. But it’s just not for me.
So coming back to the therapy: For these two and a half years, you would listen to these audiotapes?
Yes, the whole therapy. Twice, however, we met with large groups of people where they would give their testimonials in person. They would talk about how they had “overcome” their sexuality. This “overcoming their sexuality” was something that they would say a lot. I was always extremely sad after these meetings. Because I knew I would never not be gay. I never had the desire to have sex with a woman and I never will. I was always crying after these meetings because I knew it would never work for me. I was extremely depressed. I feel like describing it doesn’t do it justice for how terrible I actually felt. I’ve forgotten a lot about it because that’s what you do when bad things happen in your life. You mentally block them out.
That’s heart-breaking! How did you manage to get out of this?
After these two and a half years, I told my parents that I didn’t think the therapy was working. So they let me stop going. But they still didn’t accept me. When I was 21, I told them that I was going to live my life as a gay man. My parents cried and they told me this will lead me down the path of destruction. Later my sister and my brother-in-law met me to tell me the same things. My sister is two years older than me and is now also a gay conversion therapist. I haven’t spoken to my family in the last five years. I have no desire to speak to them ever again. They not only don’t want and never will accept me as a gay man. They also won’t accept me as a non-Christian. They won’t accept me as an escort and a porn actor, either. They will never give me the relationship that I want to have with them. Which is just for them to accept me.
It’s a horrible experience for any kid when parents don’t accept them as they are.
Yeah, my parents wanted me to be a Southern Baptist minister. Which is so ironic, now that I am a “whore” and a porn actor. But when my parents initially decided to try to pray the gay away when I was 10, that was also when my feelings of suicide started. And they never ended. It’s something I still struggle with until this day when things don’t go exactly the way I want them to. My first thoughts are always thoughts of suicide. The American Psychological Association says that when parents do not accept you for your sexuality, it doubles your risk of suicide. If a religious leader or a therapist is brought in, it triples your risk of suicide. If one of your parents coincidentally also struggles with depression or something, it can quadruple your risk of suicide. It’s just all these factors. I forgot the numbers of how many LGBTIQ people actually committed suicide in the US but I know it is extremely high. I decided to write about my story because this new film “A Boy Erased” just came out. I decided to write about my experiences because…
[At this point, Virgil’s voice suddenly becomes shaky and his eyes tear up. He is about to start crying.]
… because the story that this movie tells is exactly my story. It’s heart-breaking for me to even watch the previews of it. Because I can relate to it so well.
[He stops and breathes. When he continues, his voice is steady again.]
I am excited that all these mini-revolutions are happing all around the world to ban it now. Canada, the US, Australia: They all have movements to ban these therapies.
Have your parents never wondered that these conversion therapies simply might not work? I mean it did not work on you, but you said that even your sister is now a conversion therapist. Doesn’t your family experience some cognitive dissonance?
The way they have been brought up is with the belief that everyone is born with sin. And everyone is born with a different sin. This is literally what they would say: Some people are born with the sin of wanting to steal. Some people are born with the sin of wanting to murder. And some people are born with the sin of being homosexual. That’s what they compare it to. They believe that homosexuality is a sin. And I believed it myself until 5 or 6 years ago. Even after I told them that I was going to live my life as a gay man I still believed homosexuality was a sin. So they believed that being gay was the specific sin that I was born with but that I should simply never practice it.
So they believe that the reason for your therapy not having worked is because you did not want to work on your sin?
I see. So when did you decide to become a porn actor and escort? Was that within the last 5 years?
Yes, when I moved to San Francisco. I have a college degree as well but it’s not easy to get a job in that field.
What did you study?
Political science. But when I moved to San Francisco I had difficulties finding a job and paying my bills. So that is when I got into sex work. With this, I am fortunate that I found a job that I love and thoroughly enjoy. I mostly enjoy being an escort. It’s a way for me to feel like giving back to people. Like helping them. I have had two men that hired me that have previously been raped. And they wanted to have a positive sexual experience. I have had a number of men that I have been able to encourage to come out. I have had a number of men that I have been able to encourage because they had a lot of body issues or they were very embarrassed of their bodies. So it’s a job I really enjoy.
I know quite a few people that are sex workers and they have had beautiful experiences where they were able to help people. It’s a highly undervalued job. But maybe one last question about the therapy: You said that you had a friend that went through electroshock therapy. How does this work?
Every therapy is different. It’s estimated that 700.000 people have been through conversion therapy in the US alone. I don’t know the numbers for Europe or Deutschland. I am part of a group and we try our best to ban conversion therapies here in Europe which has proven to be a bit difficult with Jens Spahn.
Really? But Spahn is gay himself and he said that he wanted to ban those therapies.
That’s what he says. But he hasn’t actually taken any action yet. He’s not very favoured by liberal people here, also not by “regular” psychotherapists. But yeah, coming back to the electroshocks. My friend underwent therapy that had, I believe, connectors to his arms. And they would ask him questions. If he said the answer they did not want to hear he was electroshocked. There are also some therapies where they will put an electroshock-ring around your dick. Then they’ll show you images and if they show you images of a man and you get aroused then they will electroshock you through your penis.
Virgil, it’s clear we need to ban these therapies everywhere in the world. Thank you so much for taking the courage to talk so openly about these difficult times in your life and for sharing your experiences.
Virgil's website can be found at theamericanrefugeeinde.home.blog
If you want to help ban conversion therapies please consider signing the following petitions:
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