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IN-DEPTH: The ongoing effort to ban conversion therapy in Michigan

Posted at 12:00 PM, Nov 17, 2021
and last updated 2022-01-25 11:08:21-05

LANSING, Mich. — Daniel Pfau meets us at their Lansing home and brings us into the backyard for our interview.

Toys are strewn around the swing set – Daniel and their husband Brian adopted their three nephews several years ago, and Daniel politely apologizes for the mess.

When we sit down and I ask Daniel about themself, they begin by telling me they are genderqueer and use the pronouns they/them/theirs.

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Daniel Pfau during an interview with FOX 17.

Daniel is a neuroscientist with a Ph.D., currently researching at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Their project: a mouse model of gender-affirming hormone therapy.

“I feel very blessed and privileged, truly, to have found everything that I have,” Daniel says with a smile.

Daniel is also a survivor of something that almost took their life, miles away from Michigan, in the small town of San Luis Obispo in California – the town where Daniel was raised.

Conversion therapy in Michigan

“When I was growing up, I found myself sort of feeling more comfortable behaving in ways that might be,” he pauses, “or people considered to be more typical of girls.”

It never bothered Daniel – they were comfortable with themselves. But at school, as far back as Daniel can remember, they felt their differences hanging in the air. They were bullied in class, a pattern that made Daniel grow angry and depressed towards family and peers. Daniel internalized almost all of it.

“I could already formulate what they would tell me if I explained what was going on in my mind,” they say, “and my parents obviously noticed me becoming very depressed.”

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Daniel Pfau at his Lansing home, 2021.

At home, Daniel lived with what they describe as a conservative family, surrounded by conservative neighbors.

“They had this parenting style where we were very cut off from, sort of, more popular culture,” Daniel says. “And because of that, really the only culture and community I was exposed to was the church community that I grew up in,” they continue.

“One of the first things they did was take me to a therapist,” says Daniel.

At their first meeting, Daniel explained to his therapist, a deacon at the family’s church, how they were feeling and what they were going through because of it. At 14-years-old, it was the first person Daniel had ever come out to.

“And she basically told me that, you know, these kids that were bullying me - they were right. That it wasn’t okay for me to ask them to be comfortable with the way that I wanted to be,” says Daniel. “They saw the discomfort of my peers as what needed to be addressed.”

Daniel says that session, on that day in San Luis Obispo, California, was the first day their conversion therapy began. It would last for years and nearly end in Daniel’s suicide. Along the way, they would deepen their depression and develop self-harm ticks.

And Daniel considers himself luckier than some because Daniel survived.

In June of 2021, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed Executive Directive 2021-3. The order defines conversion therapy as “any practice, treatment, or intervention that seeks or purports to change an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity, including efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions or eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings towards individuals of the same gender.”

The definition in the executive order is nearly identical in language to many major LGBTQ advocates’. It sought to ban the practice in limited scope: on children, and in clinical settings only. The order would strip state funding in any form, including Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), from state-licensed counselors found to be practicing conversion therapy.

Senate Bill 367, first introduced in April 2021 and prior to that in previous iterations, seeks to do the same thing but hasn’t yet made it past an introduction.

“Most people are shocked this is still legal,” Senator Mallory McMorrow (D – Royal Oak), who sponsors the bill, told FOX17. “I think it’s important to talk about it for what it actually is, which is child abuse.”

In 2019, the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that 698,000 LGBT adults ages 18-59 in the U.S. have received conversion therapy. That number includes an estimated 350,000 LGBT adults who were subjected to the practice as adolescents.

A separate study by advocacy group The Trevor Project estimated that 13% of LGBTQ youth in the U.S. reported being subjected to conversion therapy. Various studies show that LGBTQ people who undergo conversion therapy are twice as likely to commit suicide compared to LGBTQ counterparts who don’t experience it. That statistic doubles for LGBTQ people who experienced it as children.

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Scores of mental health organizations have denounced the practice, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, Mental Health America, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Federation of Teachers, National Association of School Nurses, and the National Association of School Psychologists among others.

“We’re talking about 25,000 LGB people in Michigan – lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Michigan – have experienced conversion therapy in their lifetime,” Gary Harper, PhD, a clinical child psychologist who has devoted work to studying conversion therapy and its effects at the University of Michigan told FOX17. “If we had a pill that had 0% efficacy and had a 50% chance of causing suicide, do you think we would continue to allow that to be used? No, of course not.”

Harper says the number jumps to 33,570 people who’ve experienced conversion therapy in Michigan when you factor in transgender individuals.

Full interview with Psychologist & CT Researcher Gary Harper

“I was living life, as I went through junior high and high school, just not expecting to live much longer,” Daniel tells me.

They’d been undergoing the therapy for months, to no avail. In fact, Daniel said as the intensity of the therapy ramped up, so did their anxiousness and depression. They were asked to list their hopes and dreams – love and a family – and was told they would never accomplish those things as a queer person. Daniel was instructed by his counselor to pinch themself each time they had a same-sex thought or attraction.

“And it actually turned into a self-harm tick that I ended up with, scratching myself until I bled,” they said. “Then I think the worst part happened which was, having already been so sexualized as a child, I was told by a Christian counselor therapist to pleasure myself sexually, as a 14-year-old, thinking about women. And looking back it was just so wrong.”

Daniel says the less and less the therapy worked, the more blame was heaped on them. Yet, Daniel persisted.

“It truly does sound reasonable to a child, to someone who doesn’t have much information,” they said. “Doing these things of course sound reasonable. Why wouldn’t you want a safer life? Why wouldn’t you want to be loved by the ones that are in your life and be safe?”

Eventually, Daniel’s parents realized the therapy wasn’t working and sought the help of another non-denominational therapist, one Daniel says affirmed his lifestyle as a member of the LGBTQ community immediately.

“It was only after I’d been in therapy for two years and started seeing a different therapist who wasn’t a part of our conservative church community that I was eventually able to come out and when I did, I couldn’t even look her in the face,” Daniel said. “And as soon as I said the words I started crying. And when I looked at her, she was crying too, and she told me how proud she was of me. And in that moment, there was suddenly a future that I could see. And suddenly a capacity to push against what had happened to me.”

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The UCLA Williams Institute study estimates 20,000 LGBTQ youth will receive conversion therapy from a licensed healthcare professional. An estimated 57,000 will receive conversion therapy from a religious or spiritual leader by the time they are 18, as Daniel did.

“Christopher, let me have your phone.”

Pastor Tim Cross beckons to a church employee sitting behind us, encouraging him to hand over his cased iPhone with a wave.

He’s invited us out to his church, Living Word in Muskegon, to explain how and why he practices conversion therapy.

“I do this for a reason,” he says, phone in hand. “This phone is a great tool.”

He holds it up for the camera.

“But we’ve probably all seen people take a phone or take something and try to use it as a hammer,” he chuckles.

“You can take this and use it as a hammer – you can try that – but it wasn’t designed to be a hammer,” Cross says. “Before long you’re going to damage this phone. You’re going to damage it because it’s a violation of design,” he pauses.

“Now to me, people that are homosexual or gay or lesbian, et cetera,” he says, “it’s a violation of God’s design.”

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Pastor Tim Cross of Living Word Church holds up a cell phone, making an analogy to conversion therapy.

Every Thursday morning, Cross holds a bible study, he says, with the county prosecutor, county sheriff, the chief district court judge, county administrator and city manager.

“I’m connected, if I could say it that way, in the civic arena,” he says.

There’s a twang in his voice – something distinctly southern. I ask where he’s from.

“Well, I grew up in Kalamazoo,” he says, “but my momma was from Arkansas and my daddy was from Alabama.”

Cross tells me he’s always had a deeply biblical view of the world. His issue is over the ability to freely practice that biblical worldview – the governor’s executive order, despite the fact that it doesn’t bar conversion therapy from being practiced within church walls – is an attack on that ability, he says.

“Why is it that she’s shutting down the right of churches, the right of conservative pastors, the right of counselors that have a biblical worldview, why is she shutting them down and saying ‘you can’t share that’ but allowing the other side to share anything they want?” Cross asks. “A Christian counselor should have the right to practice their religion and their religious beliefs.”

Cross says in his practice of conversion therapy, he doesn’t incorporate anything physical in nature at all, he only uses bible verses, like Romans 12:2, which he recites.

“Don’t be conformed to this world, be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” he says, reciting by memory, “that you might prove what is that good, acceptable and perfect world of God.”

Or a portion of Jesus and John, Chapter 8:

“If you continue in my word, you’ll be my disciple indeed and you’ll know the truth and the truth will make you free,” Cross says.

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Pastor Cross is aware that many scientific groups have denounced the practice of conversion therapy.

“The American Psychiatric Association, etc., they can do their stuff, but we should have the freedom to minister to people, present truth, and in one sense let them compete in the realm of ideas,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s science or not. Has somebody thought a certain way, and came out of it.”

Also at our interview is Pastor Dan Smith, who’s since retired from ministering full-time but still preaches and practices conversion therapy alongside Pastor Cross.

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Pastor Dan Smith during an interview with FOX17 News, 2021

“We’re not trying to impose on people, we’re just trying to share this is what God wants you to do,” says Smith. “So if we can help somebody to come to a point where they are peaceful in their heart, mind and soul, that’s good mental health. That’s what we’re trying to take them from – the things that are destructive to something that makes them truly happy.”

Smith and Cross both say they don’t solicit for conversion therapy; they say everyone they’ve treated has sought it out on their own. I ask Smith how many people he has successfully converted in his time practicing the therapy.

“Oh I haven't kept track,” he says. “There have been so many over the years I didn’t even think of a statistic like that. I just take them one at a time.”

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The steeple of Living Word Church in Muskegon, where Pastors Dan Smith and Tim Cross say they practice conversion therapy.

In Michigan, several places including Oakland County, Royal Oak, and Ferndale have all criminalized the practice on minors. To date, 25 states the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have laws restricting or prohibiting the practice of conversion therapy.

However, in November of 2020 the 11th Circuit Court, a federal appellate court in Florida, upheld a ban on laws prohibiting conversion therapy, inching the case closer to the Supreme Court of the United States. It was viewed as a major victory for religious rights groups who advocate for the free practice of conversion therapy.

Cross and Smith see the proliferation of bans in the U.S. on conversion therapy as a direct threat to religious freedom.

“As a minister of the gospel, the governor can’t tell me what I can and can’t preach. I don’t care who doesn’t like it,” said Cross. “She can’t tell me what I can and cannot preach. And God help us if we ever get to that point.”

“We didn’t start a fight,” said Smith, holding up a Bible he’s had on his lap since the interview began. “The communities are picking a fight with us by telling us that we can’t take this book and tell people what it says. That’s the issue here.”

A few weeks later, Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow shepherds us into a stiflingly hot chapel at Metropolitan Community Church in Clawson. The digital thermometer reads 90-degrees and Reverend Stringfellow wipes his brow with a towel.

Rev. Stringfellow grew up in the Baptist Church and was ordained there.

“During that time I struggled with my sexuality and just really thought it was something that I needed to overcome,” he says, “and so on my own I sought out help.”

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Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow, pastor at Metropolitan Community Church in Clawson, Michigan.

Desperate to free himself from his own sexual orientation, Reverend Stringfellow enrolled in Exodus International, a since-disbanded group that practiced conversion therapy on a global scale.

“I was called a demon and was brought before the people, yelling at me ‘demon of homosexuality come out!’ And they smacked me on the head and I fell out and they thought I was slain in the spirit,” said Stringfellow. “I was slain in embarrassment. And I refused to get up off the floor, a friend literally had to come and pull me up.”

Eventually, Stringfellow left the group unchanged and seeking spirituality outside the Baptist Church.

"I didn’t leave God, in fact, I just went to another church that did accept me."
Rev. Stringfellow

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Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow, around the time he underwent conversion therapy through Exodus International.

Stringfellow would go on to pastor at MCC, an affirming church with the moniker ‘Radically Inclusive since 1972’ on its website header. The goal is to help people struggling with their sexuality in the same way Stringfellow did find the intersection of faith and their LGBTQ lifestyle.

“When you read a particular passage you have to read it in the context. You need to understand why it was written, who it was written for, the audience, and how it was applied then,” Says Reverend Stringfellow. “I believe that it comes down to understanding the love of the law as well as the letter of the law.”

Stringfellow sees conversion therapy as a form of ‘spiritual violence,’ in his words.

“There’s a spectrum of who we are as human beings, and all human beings should be welcome. What conversion therapy does is tries to place someone into a box that they don’t belong into,” he says. “Many of the national conversion therapy groups like Exodus International, have pretty much shut down because the people who have tried this and know this have realized that there’s no credence to this.”

In 2013, Exodus International dissolved and former CEO Alan Chambers apologized for the ‘pain and hurt’ the group had caused those involved.

Reverend Stringfellow’s congregation is made up of many people who’ve also been victims of conversion therapy, like Seth Tooley, who is transgender and experienced conversion therapy when he was just 13-years-old.

“It was just traumatizing,” said Seth, who explained a family pastor had used biblical versus to try to change his gender identity. “You talk to any member of this church and they will tell you it changes you, to have that acceptance, to be able to be who you are.”

Reverend Stringfellow doesn’t subscribe to the idea that conversion therapy falls within the bounds of free speech or religious rights.

“People who feel like they need to feel that this is their first amendment right, I would really say again, yes, but look at how you’re, in a sense, muzzling someone else and their expression,” he says. “Let go and let God love you exactly as you are. That is the key. And I hope and pray that many more people have that courage to do that.”

Back in Lansing, Daniel tells me they have come to that peace over the years. They still suffer symptoms of PTSD from the treatment and when I ask Daniel if they are still angry, he tells me absolutely.

“I almost died because of this,” Daniel says with some strain in his voice. “Where’s the people standing up for me having almost died and telling them that they need to answer for that?”

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Daniel Pfau pictured with his adopted daughter, 2021.

Daniel survived. They know others didn’t.

“Something isn’t free if it costs lives. Nothing that is going to result in the death of a person should be free. There’s nothing about this situation that’s creating freedom for those individuals,” Daniel says. “The only thing that little Daniel needed to hear was that they were wrong. And that was it. That they were wrong and they are wrong.”

For more information and resources, click the links below to connect with organizations tracking and aiding victims of conversion therapy:

The Trevor Project


OutFront Kzoo

GR Pride Center

Born Perfect

National Center for Lesbian Rights

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Correction: Figures from The Williams Institute show 698,000 known victims of conversion therapy in the country, not 705,000 as appeared in a previous version of this article.

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