When the “Cure” for Homosexuality Is Torture

Ecuador led the way on LGBTQ rights, but abusive “gay cure” clinics persist.

Kimberley Brown August 1, 2018

Donato Sanchez is pictured here in 2010, the year he was released from the Bridge to Life "gay rehab" clinic at 19 years old, before his hormonal therapy.

ECUADOR — When Dona­to Sanchez, a trans­gen­der man, walked into a gay rehab” clin­ic for the first time, he didn’t know he was going to stay. His father had con­vinced him to check out the facil­i­ties,” noth­ing more. Sanchez had been told that if he chose to enter the clin­ic, it would be of my own free will.” At the time, Sanchez iden­ti­fied as a gay woman, which his par­ents nev­er accept­ed. He had run away from home at 16, return­ing only because he had no money. 

'All I ever wanted was for [my parents] to understand me. Nothing more. But that never happened.'

But as he and his father walked through the clinic’s cold, ster­ile hall­way, he was seized with fear — and when he turned, he saw his father was gone. A large guard appeared and grabbed him. Sanchez strug­gled and tried to scream, but the guard seized him by his throat and squeezed. Two nurs­es dragged him to a bath­room, stripped him, threw him in a cold show­er and dressed him in a hos­pi­tal gown. I didn’t see my fam­i­ly until four months lat­er,” Sanchez says. Not a call, not a mes­sage, noth­ing.” He was 18 at the time.

That was the begin­ning of Sanchez’s nine months in a rehab clin­ic in Ecuador called Puente à la Vida (Bridge to Life), to be cured.” The cure” includ­ed reg­u­lar beat­ings, ver­bal abuse, dai­ly Bible study and a bas­tardized ver­sion of the Alco­holics Anony­mous pro­gram, in which sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion was treat­ed like addiction. 

Local LGBTQ rights groups esti­mate there are more than 200 of these clin­ics in Ecuador, also known as gay-cur­ing cen­ters.” They are ille­gal and oper­ate clan­des­tine­ly, reg­is­tered as pri­vate clin­ics for drug and alco­hol addiction. 

Sex­u­al con­ver­sion ther­a­py” con­tin­ues to be prac­ticed in many coun­tries, includ­ing the Unit­ed States. The World Health Orga­ni­za­tion and the Pan Amer­i­can Health Orga­ni­za­tion have called these clin­ics a seri­ous threat to the health and well being of affect­ed people.”

The irony is that Ecuador has long had some of the world’s strongest LGBTQ pro­tec­tions and is one of the few coun­tries to out­law these clin­ics. Twen­ty years ago, Ecuador banned dis­crim­i­na­tion based on sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion in its con­sti­tu­tion. A decade lat­er, its 2008 con­sti­tu­tion legal­ized same-sex civ­il unions. But the clin­ics remain open.

Bridge to Life’s con­ver­sion treat­ment, Sanchez recounts, also includes berat­ing gay men to be more tough and mas­cu­line, and teach­ing” les­bian women to be more fem­i­nine. This has been report­ed in oth­er Ecuadore­an clin­ics, too, where women are forced to wear make­up, dress in miniskirts and high heels, and parade in front of guards in attempts to arouse them. In some cas­es, women are raped by male guards as part of the deho­mo­sex­u­al­iza­tion” process.

Those who don’t abide by the clin­ics’ strict rules incur harsh pun­ish­ment. At Bridge to Life, Sanchez says, peo­ple were sen­tenced to silence for days at a time, forced to sleep on the tile floors, deprived of meals, fed horse tran­quil­iz­ers or beat­en with the flat side of a machete.

Like Sanchez, most peo­ple in the clin­ics are placed there by their fam­i­lies, often by force. Some fam­i­lies drug their queer rel­a­tives or enlist the police to haul them in. Fam­i­lies pay the clin­ics $500 to $1,500 a month.

From a psy­cho­log­i­cal point of view, this destroys a per­son,” says Edgar Zuni­ga Salazar, a psy­chol­o­gist with the Ecuadore­an Net­work of Psy­chol­o­gy for LGBTI Diver­si­ty. Salazar says most of these patients expe­ri­ence post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der. Their symp­toms include night­mares, para­noia, self-iso­la­tion and an extreme drop in self-worth.

While Ecuador main­tains that these prac­tices are pro­hib­it­ed, pun­ished and in no way pro­mot­ed by the gov­ern­ment, local activists tell anoth­er sto­ry. Cayetana Salao with Taller Comu­ni­ca­cion Mujer, an LGBTQ rights group, says many clin­ics receive sanc­tions from the Min­istry of Health and tem­porar­i­ly close down, only to make a few admin­is­tra­tive changes and quick­ly reopen. The Min­istry of Health did not respond to In These Times’ requests for comment.

Ecuador con­tin­ues to see major anti-LGBTQ sen­ti­ment, main­ly from grow­ing Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian move­ments that receive major financ­ing from abroad, say activists.

In Octo­ber 2017, one of these groups, Con Mis Hijos No Te Metes (Don’t Mess with My Kids), orga­nized a mas­sive protest against teach­ing gen­der stud­ies in schools. The group is sup­port­ed by the inter­na­tion­al con­ser­v­a­tive group Cit­i­zen-Go, on whose board sits Bri­an Brown, pres­i­dent of the U.S.-based Nation­al Orga­ni­za­tion for Marriage.

One Ecuadore­an con­gress­man affil­i­at­ed with Don’t Mess with My Kids, Julio Rosas, received cam­paign fund­ing from U.S.-based Stephen Guschov, for­mer direc­tor of engage­ment for the evan­gel­i­cal Lib­er­ty Coun­sel, con­sid­ered an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the South­ern Pover­ty Law Center.

All I ever want­ed was for [my par­ents] to under­stand me. Noth­ing more. But that nev­er hap­pened,” Sanchez says. There’s no ther­a­py for that.”

Kim­ber­ley Brown is a writer, mul­ti­me­dia jour­nal­ist and anthro­pol­o­gist cur­rent­ly based in Quito, Ecuador, cov­er­ing region­al pol­i­tics, soci­ety and envi­ron­ment, with a focus on human rights.
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