Before we go there: I love my mom. My mom is different now than she used to be. And the world is different. Imagine being the parent of a newborn boy in 1980. The year he turns 1, they discover AIDS. Couple years later, they discover what causes it (the French beat us to the discovery by a day). When the White House gets asked about AIDS, they literally laugh. It will be years before anyone figures out how it's transmitted.
In 1990, the year I turned 10, 31,110 people died of AIDS. In that year alone. Worldwide. The next year, 35,690 people died of AIDS, and the year after that, 38,334 people died of AIDS. The year after that, the same year Tom Hanks won the Academy Award for dying of AIDS in Philadelphia, more people died of AIDS than any year yet. To date, 39 million people have died of AIDS.
So you can understand my mom's terror, sitting in a car with me in the early 90s, or sitting in a movie theater in the early 90s, watching Philadelphia with me, her son who was really into musical theater. To be clear, I wasn't only interested in musical theater; I was also interested in putting on magic shows, balancing broomsticks on my fingers, and collecting marionettes. (Yes, I had marionettes. A witch, a duck, a clown, and Charlie Brown.) My favorite album was Les Miserables.
Before my parents divorced, Mom listened to top-40 love ballads in the car; after the divorce, she listened exclusively to Christian radio broadcasts. It was LA; you were always in your car; you had to listen to something. So instead of that heathen soft rock she would tune into the soft-as-sweaters voices of James Dobson and other soothing mega-pastors of the early 90s, all of whom were disgusted by gay people. They covered their disgust in concern, and invented a fairy tale about how God would never make anyone gay, and therefore if you thought you were gay God could make you un-gay, as long as you realized that being gay was a sickness and you were 100 percent committed to healing your sickness.
You couldn't help but think that these were really good people, these pastors on the radio, so moral, so worried about evil, and my mom, so aware of all the bad things out there, so aware of the fact that tens of thousands of gay men were dying every year and they didn't know why, tried to learn as much as she could. The man she married, my dad, is the son of a Republican state legislator from Orange County who wrote, among other things, anti-gay legislation. So the focus here on my mom is unfair, but it was my mom who all the memories are about because it was Mom I liked the best, Mom I was closest to, Mom whose opinions really mattered to me. Probably because of my marionette collection she would sometimes say things out of the blue like, "I wouldn't care if you were gay, I would still love you!" And before I could answer she would add, "I would still love you if you were an ax murderer!"
Or she would say, "If I had a gay son, I would tell him, 'It's okay, you have a sickness, but at least it's not a sickness that can't be cured!" And I would stare into the bumper of whatever car was in front of us, and try to act however someone who wasn't gay would act. I knew I could never, ever tell her.
Mom would turn back up the radio and it would be James Dobson interviewing some sad-sack, robotic man about how he's not gay anymore because of Jesus. I tried to learn what I could. If it was about willing it, well, I certainly had the will. I prayed every night not to be gay. I prayed over and over for photos of naked women to work for me—my own private gay-conversion-therapy attempt. I even forced myself to think about women while I masturbated. It never worked.
It's amazing how far we've come. And by "we" I mean the country (it wasn't until 2003 that the Supreme Court decided that gay Americans shouldn't be arrested for having sex with each other) and me and me and Mom.
The news that Barack Obama's administration "supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors" is huge, because it protects the teens stuck under the care of the religious and the easily fooled, and also teens who just don't know about the world yet.
According to the White House, gay conversion therapy "is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm." As a 13-year-old, and a 14-year-old, and a 15-year-old, and a 16-year-old, I thought deep down on some level beyond what's articulable that going to a gay conversion camp or therapy regimen was maybe a bad idea, but I didn't know it. It scared me. But as a minor, I knew I wouldn't be able to do anything to prevent myself from being enrolled in something like that once my mom knew the truth about me, so enamored was she of the Christian men on the radio, how caring they sounded. So I stayed in the closet and swore up and down I wasn't gay and did as many musicals as possible.
And then the week after I turned 18, I got the hell out of town. By waiting until I was 18 to come out—18 and far away—I spared myself the ordeal of compulsory gay conversion therapy.
But even then the conversations weren't over; I'd come home to visit and borrow the car and she'd tell me no problem, take the car, but there was something in the CD player she wanted me to listen to, and I'd get in the car and it would be James Dobson saying, "Homosexuals are really just heterosexuals attracted to the rebelliousness of alternative lifestyles…" Mom held out hope well into the 2000s that I would change my mind and do conversion therapy, and it ruined our relationship for years. Later, the people at her church made it clear that they weren't comfortable with the fact that she was a divorcee and that she was the mom of an unrepentant gay kid. (The advice she got from my Bible tutor was to disown me; to her everlasting credit, she decided that was bullshit.) She underwent her own form of alienation from the church, and we're much closer now.
Now gay kids who don't want to wait until they're 18, gay kids who can't lie to their parents, or gay kids who can't just up and move have something to say to parents who try to force them into conversion therapy programs. They can say, "Mom, the president says that can cause substantial harm."
It's a lot harder to torture and misinform gay kids than it used to be. Thanks, Mr. President.