Q & A with Peter Gajdics

Editor’s Note: While Peter is no longer a youth, we thought that having him share a bit of his story would be relevant to LGBTQ+ youth today. As of right now, there are only 8 states that ban conversion therapy for youth and 16 cities with the same ban. This is an issue that needs more coverage because they are very literally torturing kids.

The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir details the six years author Peter Gajdics spent in a form of conversion therapy that attempted to “cure” him of his homosexuality. Kept with other patients in a cult-like home in British Columbia, Canada, Gajdics was under the authority of a dominating, rogue psychiatrist who controlled his patients, in part, by creating and exploiting a false sense of family. Juxtaposed against his parents’ tormented past — his mother’s incarceration and escape from a communist concentration camp in post-World War II Yugoslavia, and his father’s upbringing as an orphan in war-torn Hungary — Gajdics’ story explores the universal themes of childhood trauma, oppression, and intergenerational pain.

How do you hope your book will help LGBTQ youth in the future?

I wrote The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir for many reasons, including as a means of speaking up and not remaining silent in the face of adversity. Many people, of all ages, face prejudice and discrimination for a host of reasons; when the kinds of oppression that LGBTQ people encounter are compounded by the already difficult passage of youth, the affect can be devastating. I was 24 years old when I met my former psychiatrist in 1989 — not exactly “young,” but I was still struggling with my sexuality, particularly since I’d also been sexually abused as a child. In my early twenties I still correlated the sexual abuse with my homosexuality — as if one had “caused” the other. This flawed thinking led to a great deal of confusion, shame, and self-destructive behaviour as a young adult. Sadly, my former psychiatrist only added to this suffering by reinforcing the idea that sexual abuse had “made” me gay. As his logic went: since the abuse had “created” my homosexuality, my “job” in therapy was to therefore face my own history of abuse in order to, in effect, “unmake” my homosexuality — or, as he often said, “correct” my sexuality and revert to my innate heterosexuality. The hopelessness of it all resulted in years of turmoil.

I definitely do hope the book can make a positive influence on young people grappling with identity issues, or if they have a history of sexual abuse. Coming out as gay or trans can be difficult enough, but struggling through issues of sexual abuse as well can make the process that much more complicated. Also, I’d love nothing more than for this book to help push forward measures to ban conversion therapies throughout Canada and the United States, thus making a positive impact — indirectly — on the lives of countless LGBTQ youth for years to come.

The Inheritance of Shame is a cautionary tale, and I think young LGBTQ people in particular need to be extremely cautious.

How has your experience shaped your adult life?

I’m sure the after effects from the childhood sexual abuse walked me right into the hands of this psychiatrist. In the immediate aftermath of the therapy, I also suffered through a couple of years of severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — enduring flashbacks to the therapy and the doctor’s tirades, insomnia and nightmares, waking up thinking I was drowning, panic attacks, and depression, among other symptoms.

Speaking out publicly about a lot of these issues felt more like a survival tactic; it was what I needed to do in order to stay alive. I absolutely believe these small acts of resistance helped me counteract depression. But traumatic events from my past continue to inform my life even today; they teach me who I am as much as who and what I’m not. They mirror back to me my own internal strength. I remember the past differently as a result of the meaning I find in the present.

It’s also worth noting that my experiences have taught me how to forgive. This was probably one of the most difficult passages to navigate, since forgiveness initially seemed to imply condoning another person’s behavior. For me, at least, forgiveness was never about excusing anything, but an act of acceptance — when I forgave, I accepted that people I loved and that I thought had loved me, actually harmed me. I think that a lot of my own suffering was brought on by the act of resisting that truth — on a certain level, I couldn’t quite believe that I’d gone through catastrophic events and so I refused to accept that I’d been affected in a deep and powerful way. I ended up living in two worlds: denying the harm, even as my life spiraled out of control. I forgave to be at peace, to accept that I walked through those flames and was burnt. And I survived. Overcoming harm can almost be seen as an exercise for the soul — we build internal muscles each and every time we resist the crushing weight of trauma, and emerge a stronger person.

What kind of self-care routines do you practice now?

Many of life’s basics become crucial for a survivor of any trauma, and they definitely were for me after the therapy: living in a safe environment, restorative sleep, eating well, consciously breathing, getting back “inside” my body, instead of escaping through patterns of dissociation or addictive behaviour. Finding community — through safe friends and groups — and then sharing my story, both privately and publicly, was transformative. In her book Trauma and Recovery, author Judith Herman writes: “Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.” Writing, for me, was an enormous source of self-care.

Perhaps more important than anything was the purposeful act of counteracting patterns of negative self-talk — internalized belief systems, especially around my sexuality, that I’d repeated at an almost unconscious level through most of my life. I acted according to how I thought, and I never stopped my thinking long enough to question its veracity. Bodily signs of discomfort and even physical ailments were ongoing signs that my thinking was distorted, out of whack — for a long time I just ignored them, and so self-care involved listening to my own body. Yoga and meditation, calming my mind and observing my thoughts, helped shift perception. Clarifying, at least in my own mind, the difference between certain people’s belief systems, which I finally understood were based on ignorance or hatred, and who I knew myself to be, has been an ongoing act of self-care. It helps prevent internalizing prejudice.

Do you ever testify on behalf of bills banning ex-gay therapy? The bill to ban it in Colorado just failed. What advice do you have for those fighting against it? Do you think it can be brought to an end through either law or professional licensing bodies, especially given that a lot of it is claiming First Amendment protection under freedom of religion, and not actually being put forward as professional psychological practice?

Naturally, I fully support enacting laws to ban reparative therapy, and I believe that more laws should (and will) be passed. At the same time, one of the points that I mention near the end of my book is that changing laws is not necessarily the same as changing hearts, and as long as the belief system of those in relationships of authority have not altogether and wholeheartedly changed, I fear that there will always be someone “out there” who will think that gay/trans people would be much happier if they could only “change.” For this and other reasons, survivors of these therapies need to share their stories. It’s not enough to say “reparative therapy should be illegal.” Lawmakers need to clearly understand not only that these therapies “don’t work,” but also why they don’t work; they need to understand how they cause harm. They need specifics.

In terms of professional licensing bodies: virtually all psychological and psychiatric licensing bodies already denounce the practice of these therapies; but even in this case, if a mental health practitioner’s heart has not already changed, and a vulnerable youth walks into their office in need of help, the outcome could be disastrous. It also seems to me that the First Amendment was not written in the spirit of intending hardship toward anyone, certainly not an entire demographic of people. In cases like this, I really do think that it’s the belief system of those people quoting scripture and passing judgment that needs to change, not the person whose sexuality or gender they’re condemning. People change their belief systems all the time because they learn that the ways in which they’ve been trained to think cause more harm than good, or are based on antiquated beliefs held by men and women from hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

I really do believe that legislation, at least in a just and civil society, is designed to mirror morality, and morality, unlike law, is non-changing. Banning reparative therapy might seem to some people like a no-brainer, while to others it’s an infringement on their own right to do as they please, raise their children as they please, speak in the name of their God as they please. At times like this it’s important to remember that these types of therapies are not even a “therapy.” Therapy, in the best sense, seeks to help and heal a person, which these treatments do not. These treatments exist as a symptom of our culture’s intolerance and prejudice, its hatred. “Reparative therapies” are hate crimes. Legislation to ban their existence, particularly for youth, is a fight for the order of justice and morality, and I have no doubt they’ll eventually succeed.

Are there any support groups for those who have been through ex-gay therapy?

Plenty of them, yes, although I never sought out such a group myself. During my own initial healing, it was important for me not to jump from one “group” to another, since part of what I’d experienced in the therapy was a cult-like environment — “group think,” as it were, where the doctor was the supreme demagogue and all of his patients were mere pawns to his ideology. I needed and wanted to reclaim my own mind and body, my own sexuality, my own sense of self.

That said, if a person is going to search for a recovery group, I think that any group should be a safe venue to tell your story, to feel heard, well supported, definitely never judged. And if they seek out individual therapy, it’s most important that individuals be able to experience and claim their own sexuality and gender, apart from the homogeneousness of so-called sexual orientation and gender normativity. No voice should ever be silenced.