A Mormon mom of four, who survived conversion therapy, lost her marriage, her church, and her community when she came out as a lesbian.
July 19, 2021
By Jameela Hammond
Making bread from scratch was one of the many requirements that needed to be checked off of an exhausting list to become the perfect Mormon mom and wife. Grocery shop, make every meal, pick the kids up from school, soccer practice to karate practice, clean before the husband gets home, do laundry, put the kids to bed, and be a supportive wife. Rinse, wash, and repeat was the formula to get into heaven for Mormon mom of four, Elena Joy Thurston.
Given limited time to focus on herself, she began to have conflicted thoughts that she held inside. With her youngest child off to school, she felt unsettled. She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t happy with her perfectly crafted Mormon life. Thurston recalled those feelings:
” I was so ashamed that I didn't love my life because I knew exactly how privileged I was living an upper middle class life in an incredibly safe neighborhood. My husband had an abundant income. I drove the minivan, he drove the Tesla, our neighborhood literally had white picket fences. Every time I would hear the other stay-at-home moms in the neighborhood kind of whine or complain about something, I would always be hyper judgmental of them. What do you have to complain about, really? When I would hear the whining in my own head, I was ultra judgmental of that as well. Unfortunately, that prevents you from asking yourself the questions of what is going on here? I would just nip it in the butt and be like, oh, you little princess, stop it.”
Undergarments, the Mormon signifier of the covenant that church members have made with God. Meant to maintain modesty only when worn under clothing, the undergarments must always be covered — accountability that a church member won’t wear anything immodest. Thurston explained the undergarments in further detail, “there's a top piece like a shirt or chemise or something and it goes under all your clothes, including your bra. It has a little cap sleeve and a high neck to make sure you're not showing what we call the porn shoulders. Then the bottoms are kind of like bike shorts, I guess, except they go all the way to your knee to make sure you don't wear anything shorter above your knees.” Thurston hid in her undergarments and confessed, “I had been wearing those since I was 20. Actually, 19. It had been years since I'd actually looked at my body. I would get out of the shower, dry off, and put on my garments immediately, that's part of your covenants, you're not going to walk around without them. Here I am at 38, literally, not even knowing what my body really looked like because never would I like to look at that.”
The Mormon religion contributed to Thurston’s internal battles. “In the (Mormon) religion, your body is really something to suppress, to ignore. It's where all your temptation to sin comes from. It’s not, become one with your body. It's your job in this life on this earth to overcome your body. In the Mormon religion, once you've gone through the temple, and you've gotten married, you're wearing undergarments.”
Physical activity was the way that Thurston reconnected with herself. “Forcing myself to go through these very physical experiences with my body in order to chase that one moment of, ‘Okay, this feels good. This feels aligned, this feels safe’ and that's what started happening with the running. I was running crazy long distances. I'd hit that runner's wall, all the other thoughts are gone.” After doing weight lifting 6 days a week, she picked up fly fishing as a means to distract her mind. Fly fishing, a physical, mind, and body sport, allowed Thurston the time to listen to her body. She discovered her biggest catch, she had feelings for her best friend — a woman.
“Those experiences made me realize, it's safe to be in my body. I actually really like being in my body. When I'm quiet enough, my body is telling me things. By three or four months into fly fishing, I realized what my body was telling me was that I was completely in love with my best friend.”
Thurston, 38, was still married and wanted to make it work with her husband. She and her husband sought guidance with their bishop the next day. Thurston recalled the discussion from that day, “Elena gave into temptation. Elena needs to repent and fix this problem so that she doesn't give into temptation. Again, it was never, Elena might be gay. This might not have anything to do with the church, or with Chad or with anything else. Maybe Elena needs to figure out her sexuality. That was never, no one uttered, the word lesbian was never brought up. It was just a temptation.”
Committed to her family, she tried to stay the course, repent and fix the problem as it was advised by her bishop. “I was really struggling. I was really emotional. I could not get a handle on my emotions. One day, I'd be fine, reading my scriptures, saying my prayers, doing the whole thing. The next day, I couldn't get out of bed. It was that kind of roller coaster.”
A Mormon marriage therapist was later recommended by many of the couple’s friends — a source she trusted.
“Everyone said she's fabulous. She saves everyone's marriage. We signed up and we went. Of course, she wanted to meet with me separately after our first meeting. She told me, I have so many adult clients now whose parents came out to them as kids and it ruined them. Do not ever tell your children this, you need to take this secret to your grave.”
Thurston admitted after her session with the therapist, “I really took that to heart and that was the first time I thought about suicide because it felt like if I need to hide this for the rest of my life. I couldn't even hide it for three weeks. How am I going to hide this for the rest of my life? I didn't go back to her because I didn't know what else she was gonna tell me.”
Couples therapy quickly turned into a suggestion from a friend that a local man in town could “fix her.” The “fix” was gay conversion therapy.
Gay conversion therapy, a practice sought by religious organizations for members that are attracted to the same sex. Thurston shared the different types of conversion therapy practiced, “Any ‘therapy’ whose goal is to reduce the same sex attraction and results in heteronormative attraction, or a heteronormative gender identity, either one, same process. It could be very physically invasive and it could be just talk therapy. On the physically invasive side, people would think of electric shock therapy, and that definitely happened in the 50's, 60’s, 70’s at BYU (Brigham Young University). They were doing it in the early 80’s, but it has fallen out of favor. Now the most aggressive practices will use, it's usually kids, and they'll force them to watch homoerotic images. Then they'll make them drink a charcoal drink that will make them vomit so they create that mind-body connection.Then you have just talk therapy, which is usually done by either someone who calls himself a therapist or coach or oftentimes a religious leader. It can be simple things like every time you have a thought like that, snap the band on your wrist, or why don't you just talk to me every time you think you have an urge. It's a lot of talking, and a lot of the underlying concept is you're broken.” Thurston just wanted to feel “normal again.”
She was told that it would take a couple of months so she committed to 4 days a week, 2 hours a day, for 6 months at $270 per day for talk therapy. She sat in the reclined leather chair with her eyes closed while the therapist led her in breathing techniques. “You have someone who's saying you're broken, and I'm going to fix you. He tells me, something probably happened in your childhood that was traumatic. It caused you to think that you are attracted to women. If we can go back in your memory and heal that trauma, you won't be attracted to women anymore. Down that road, I went, and that made sense to me. The memories would come back. Like everything just came back really strong.”
Thurston remained in conversion therapy until she experienced a series of realizations — suicide.
“I was three or four months into it, and my husband was like, nothing's changing. This is a lot of money. That's the dangerous part of conversion therapy is one, it doesn't work. It's been proven time and time again to not work. How it's framed is that if it doesn't work, that it’s because you're not working hard enough, you must not actually want to change, you must not be committed. On the receiving end of that, not only is there all of that, but when you're from my religious background, it is, I am praying every day to God to make this work. It's not working. I must be too broken. God must not want me in heaven. God is not answering these prayers. It must be me, I must be the problem. That's where you start heading down that suicide road.”
Thurston had become a part of the 57% of people who become suicidal due to conversion therapy. According to a recent report by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, they found that non-transgender LGB (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual) people who experienced conversion therapy were almost twice as likely to think about suicide and to attempt suicide compared to their peers who hadn’t experienced conversion therapy. Some of institute’s key findings included LGB people who experienced conversion therapy compared to LGB people who hadn’t experienced conversion therapy were 92% more likely to commit lifetime suicidal ideation, while 75% were planning to attempt suicide and 88% were attempting suicide that resulted in no or minor injury. Thurston reflected on her routine while her homework was to focus on a particular memory to fix the problem. “I'd get up in the morning, get the kids off to school, go to the gym and workout. Then get to therapy, relive that memory for two hours, come home, and then it was kids coming home from school, get the homework done, get the laundry done, go to karate practice, do the piano practice, make dinner, wash the dishes, put the kids to bed, and then cry for hours because of what I had just done for that 24 hours, and then go to sleep and wake up and do it again.”
The day she planned to commit suicide, her best friend of over 20 years noticed something was wrong. “I knew exactly what I was going to do. And I was going out to breakfast with her to essentially say goodbye. I think she figured it out and she wouldn't let me get my car. She put me into her car, then brought me back to her house and bundled me into her bed. She just let me cry for hours and said to me, ‘You think taking your own life will stop the pain and it won't. It just spreads it around.’ I immediately thought of my four kids and to think of any of them having a sliver of the pain that I had been experiencing was unacceptable. So it saved me that day.”
Several days later, after 17 years of marriage, Thurston’s husband asked for a divorce. She felt defeated by her efforts and asked that same best friend to come over to moderate. “I'm literally losing my mind in order to stay in this marriage. That friend came right over and tried to help us work it out. It was in that conversation when she realized how bad things were in my head. She turned to Chad and said, ‘divorce is off the table. We're dealing with a mental illness and we need to get her help today.’ The privilege of my life was that three hours later, I was in a real psychiatrist's office, getting real help, and saved my life.”
Thurston divorced her husband and the church. She explained the complexities of parenting as a lesbian, “I joke around a lot that I'm trying to parent against my own ghost. I was a very intense, strict, anxiety-ridden parent. When you're raising boys in the Mormon Church, by the time they're eight, you are talking about not viewing porn, not masturbating, and keeping yourself morally pure. Now to think about walking into the room and saying to that same kid who's now 15. I'm gay. I know what you think about that because I taught you everything to think about that. It was horrible and I put it off for a really, really long time until I heard through mutual friends that my ex was planning to tell the kids for me. Then it was like, well, hell no.”
Now, the kids split time between both parents. Thurston remains encouraged to share her happiness and the new normal with her kids. “My girls were eight and ten at the time. That was super easy. It was no big deal. It took a while for them to figure it out. It took them watching my girlfriend and I behave as a couple for them to realize, oh, that's what she means by girlfriend.” She also discovered another reason she drug her feet to come out to her kids. “My son, my oldest, was 15 at the time. When you're Mormon, and a boy, you go off on a mission at 18. In my head, here's the other part of that, the Mormon Church came out with a rule in 2015 that if you have gay parents, you can't be baptized and you can't go on a mission. At the time, I was like, I have to stay in the closet, so that Jonah has the option of going on his mission, I can't be the reason that he doesn't get to do this thing that he really wants to do. So I'm telling her that, and this therapist responds back and it was like, mind blowing. She was like, he's not ever gonna really come home, Elena. You might be putting his mission at risk, but one that's not your fault. Two, are you really not going to give him an opportunity to live with his real mom, his authentic mom, you're going to take away that opportunity from him.”
Thurston began her new chapter: coming out as lesbian and on a new mission after her viral TEDx talk on how she survived conversion therapy was viewed more than 40,000 times. She had speaking engagements scheduled all over the nation, until COVID-19 happened — all speaking engagements were canceled. Scheduled to speak at different schools that were also canceled, students began to seek advice from Thurston on social media. Students became LGBTQ+ people that reached out. Support groups and conversations became online suicide prevention workshops manifested into a nonprofit she created, Pride and Joy Foundation. She wanted to reduce the rate of suicide and homelessness in the LGBTQ+ community. “What's been really great is that now, people who thought they were very alone, know that they're not alone, at all. There's a lot of us out there.”
Conversion therapy remains difficult to get on the voting ballot to ban in the United States. Religious organizations remain one of the highest contributors to anti-LGBT legislation which also comes with control to what will make the voting ballot, for example California’s Proposition 8. According to the L.A. Times, in the state of California, $39,046,062 was raised in support of the gay marriage ban, also known as trauma recovery, the practice remains legal throughout the world. Three countries have a countrywide ban, Germany being one of the bigger named countries. While the practice is illegal for minors in roughly 20 states, it is legal for adults to experience gay conversion therapy.
Thurston is dedicated to the contribution of the LGBTQ+ community that will continue to put on events that range from Pride and Joy’s Equity & Diversity Conference to the LGBTQ youth summit.
Watch the full episode w/ Elena Joy Thurston.