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    Conversion Therapy Survivor Spearheads New Documentary in Development: We Just Want to Be

    By Sé Sullivan–

    Trans lives are under attack, and children are the primary targets. Many urgently ask, “What can we do to support?” Now, parents of trans and nonbinary children face criminal charges in several states, and doctors and teachers face threats for providing care and education that promote basic human rights. Mobilizing wedge issues to garner support at the ballot box in the upcoming midterm elections, right-wing groups weaponize social terror campaigns to gain unfettered power. Between 2018 and March of 2022, anti-trans and anti-LGBQ state bills skyrocketed from 41 to 238, according to the ACLU and Freedom for All Americans. These bills have historical precedent, but not in the law—rather, in the widely-discredited practice of conversion therapy.

    I survived conversion therapy at the UCLA Gender Identity Research Clinic in the late 1960s, and I am passionate about its demise. I’ve also learned that many are not aware of what it actually is. Conversion therapy is psychological torture used on trans and other LGBQ+ people who are seen as deviant, based on the gender and sexual norms of the day. It was developed in the 60s and 70s as a “cure” for alleged mental illness and then-criminal behavior: homosexuality or transsexualism.

    The diagnosis of transsexualism was developed through clinical interrogations that were aggressively coercive and focused on the relationships between children (as young as five) and their parents. In my interrogations by doctors, I was asked how I thought boys become boys, and how girls become girls. I responded, “I don’t know … we just want to be who we want to be.” Their pseudo-scientific methods became enshrined in the field of psychiatry as official diagnoses, masking the heteronormative anxieties of the all-white, mostly-male research teams.

    It is a well-known tactic of social control to target the children of a group to gain influence or to assimilate them into the dominant culture. We need not go far back in history to see how boarding schools were used to assimilate Native American children through religious conversion, or how public schools still use cultural and monolingual education to force immigrant children to shed their languages and traditions.

    Clinical conversion therapy is a part of this legacy of deciding who is “fit/unfit” to be a full member of society, forcing changes on people until they fit. In the instance of conversion therapy, psychiatrists exploited the 1960s suburban anxieties around gender, race, and class to develop pathologies of gender using research subjects who were exclusively white and middle class. They believed it was easier to change children to fit in than to change society to be more accepting.

    With the rise of right-wing fascism in the United States today, we should be wary of efforts to force people to fit into confining boxes. Those of us on the margins of public life are often the canaries in the coal mine—easy targets because we are reminders of the individuality, diversity, and beauty that is antithetical to fascist rule. To counter these efforts, we have to understand the historical trajectory of our targeting. To understand how trans children are targeted today, we have to understand this legacy of conversion therapy.

    Art, including public installations and documentary film, is a powerful medium for telling the truth about our lives and to help combat the violence of forced forgetting and assimilation. As a survivor of the immense trauma of conversion therapy, I needed help telling my story and have joined forces with Mauro Sifuentes, an accomplished non-binary scholar-educator and writer of mixed descent. Together, we have created an intergenerational and interracial trans storytelling partnership, and this venture has taken us from academic conferences to the present moment of developing a feature documentary film, We Just Want to Be. We are turning my story and our shared work into a film at the urging of a diverse community of supporters who have let us know just how urgent and timely it is to do so. 

    To help build awareness of our work, We Just Want to Be is hosting a very special two-day pop-up art show and fundraiser at SparkArts, a gallery on 18th Street in San Francisco’s Castro District, sponsored by The Curve Foundation. On Friday, May 6, 2022, there will be an art opening that is free and open to the public, featuring a range of art objects and installations I have created over the years that connect my own personal history of survival with the larger trauma that comes with surviving conversion therapy.

    On Saturday, May 7, 2002, we will host a powerfully curated staged reading of excerpts from my childhood medical transcripts at UCLA that lift the veil on the actual tactics used. This event is a ticketed event with seating for up to 60 people. Tickets are $60 per person. The evening features the following influencers, community leaders, and social justice activists who have agreed to participate as readers:

    For More Information:

    To learn more about our film, watch our first promo here:

    From there, please join us in-person at SparkArts on May 6th and 7th for what are sure to be two powerful nights of programming on the topic of conversion therapy!

    Sé Sullivan ​​is a scholar-educator, and a survivor of conversion therapy who has taught in the discipline of gender and women’s studies across public and private universities in California. They have been on the frontlines of LGBTQ+ activism since the 1980s, surviving and organizing through the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the lesbian sex wars, and our current era of trans awareness. As a nonbinary Irish-American Settler, Sé’s artistic work, including gallery installations and public talks, foregrounds questions of history, gender, and assimilation. “We Just Want to Be” will be their first film.

    Published on May 5, 2022