Surviving conversion therapy: Elena Thurston thrives in its wake

Elena Thurston’s Ted Talk in Colorado Springs

By Tom Reardon, January 2020 issue.

Imagine paying someone a significant amount of money each week to tell you that your feelings are all wrong. That the core of who you are is — you guessed it — wrong.

You. Are. Wrong.

They tell you that they can fix you if you just believe it enough. If you just pray enough you have a chance to be right, but in your core, you now believe you are wrong and the feelings you often feel are also wrong. The only correct thing you have done is go to them for their guidance and as long as the checks keep cashing, you will find your heteronormative redemption.

In October, Mesa resident Elena Joy Thurston did a Ted Talk in Colorado Springs, Colorado where she discussed coming face-to-face with her own homosexuality and her subsequent experience with conversion therapy while she was (and to some extent still is) a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (aka Mormons).

Mormons can’t be gay.

For years, Thurston, an Arizona native and mother of four, thought the same thing. Denial is powerful and, at times, an all-consuming act of self-preservation. Survival, at least for the forty-year-old newly reborn (in the best possible way) photographer is more than a pastime. It is a way of life.

While attending Mingus Union High School in Cottonwood, Thurston met the Mandaville sisters, Jessie and Joey, who gave her a glimpse of something she felt she had been missing in her own family which had been impacted by the divorce of Thurston’s parents among other things.

“My family was crazy. My mom has borderline personality disorder and my dad was a recovering alcoholic and he’s very functional now but was not very functional then. It was a very chaotic childhood and so when there was this church that was like, ‘There’s a mom, there’s a dad, this is how you play your roles and this is how you can be functional members of a family,’ I was like, ‘sign me up,’” says Thurston.

While attending Arizona State University after high school, Thurston’s roommate had a friend named Chad who was just returning from a mission to Japan.

“He was good friends with my roommate. They knew each other from high school. Her boyfriend was on a mission and she was bound and determined that I would marry someone from the group, the high school group. So, she started introducing me as they came home from their missions,” says Thurston.

Elena Thurston

While it wasn’t love at first sight for Thurston, Chad was a good match and they married when she was 20 and began building a family. For 18 years they were the picture of Mormon marital bliss on the outside, but on the inside, at least for Thurston, it was definitely not some kind of wonderful.

Thurston does an amazing job of telling this part of the story during the previously mentioned Ted Talk (which can be found at her website, elenajoyexperience.com), and long story short, at 38, she realizes that she’s into women. For some, this might be hard to believe, but it is definitely Thurston’s reality.

“In high school you can really frame it around like, ‘yeah, when I make out with a girl, the guys are really interested.’ So, you can really convince yourself that like you’re doing it to turn on the guys. Right? And I was always down for that,” says Thurston before continuing:

“In the Mormon church, it’s broken down for you. Don’t make out for a long period of time. Don’t touch anything. You need to be chaste. You need to be pure. And that was something I really struggled with.”

Thurston became great at repressing her more human desires to be more Christ-like, which is something that the Mormon Church expects of its flock. As a member of the high school theater community, she had many gay friends, but because of the family atmosphere and feeling she was getting from spending time with the Mandavilles and the church, she was able to suppress her true identity so well that she didn’t even realize it existed.

“So, I’m on that path. I’m going to church every Sunday. I ended up going through the temple, which is kind of a big deal. You usually don’t do that until right before you get married or right before you go on a mission. But my roommate and I were spiritually prepared. We went through the temple and there’s just no question. I was fulfilling a role. I was being the Mormon girl,” says Thurston.

As she talks about this time in her life, it paints a clear picture of how her story unfolded. The church gave Thurston boxes she could check off to know she was being a good person, which was all she ever really wanted. She even says at one point, “I just wanted to be a better parent than my parents were for me.” The church gave her the means to prove she was on the right path by scripting out what was needed to get into heaven.

It’s really no wonder that Thurston ended up in the office of a “coach” who was going to help her get rid of her homosexual feelings after her relationship with Kile progressed to a physical place near the end of her marriage to Chad.

For Thurston, having an affair with Kile was probably the scariest, yet most freeing thing she has ever done. Though she has deep feelings for the Mormon religion, she can’t help but disagree with many of its teachings. The church had given her structure but was also taking away her soul. In a last-ditch effort to save her marriage and the seemingly very full life she had created for herself, she opted to go to conversion therapy, although it was not called that, and while the Mormon church does not offer the therapy, they were the ones who told Thurston where to go when she came forward to her Bishop and asked for help.

“The thought is that you suffer from same sex attraction because something traumatizing happened to you in your childhood. So, me as a therapist, I’m going to help you heal that trauma. And when that’s healed, you won’t be attracted to women anymore. He said, ‘Come to me four days a week, two hours a day. We should have it healed in a month or two and you won’t have this attraction anymore.’ Two months went by, four months went by and I paid $270 a day. I was able to process a lot of things from my childhood,” shares Thurston, but that wasn’t point for her.

The point was to get back to what she felt was the right path. The path to check boxes, get to heaven, and not rock the boat.

During our discussion, Thurston repeatedly uses the word “fixed” as in she was going to be “fixed” or “I am going to be fixed,” which is heartbreaking. The smart, wonderful, brave woman sitting across from me at Kream Coffee on Central Avenue is about the farthest thing from a person that needs to be “fixed,” at least from the naked eye, but there were revelations for Thurston during her treatment.

[If you are curious why it can’t be called therapy, it’s because it legally wasn’t. Her “coach” was no longer a licensed therapist due to some fairly shoddy excuses, one of which was because, as Thurston says, “He said it was too much paperwork and too expensive.”]

During her sessions with the “coach,” Thurston remembered being “gang-raped” as a teenager which was another thing she had kept repressed in the deepest corners of her mind for a long, long time.

“At two months, the therapist found that in high school I was gang-raped. He was like, ‘That’s it. We just have to heal this. I hadn’t talked about this experience since I was 15 years old. I had never let it bother me, but he was convinced that was it. Two months later, he told me, ‘You’re more broken than I thought,’” says Thurston.

At the time this was taking place, the #MeToo movement was picking up some steam in the media and Thurston read a statistic that illuminated for her that there was no correlation between sexual assault and being a gay woman. This was incredibly freeing for her, yet she still had to decide what to do with her future: stay in a “hellish” relationship and pretend to be someone she was not or change everything.

During the conversion therapy, the “coach” told Thurston that the absolute worst thing she could do was come out to her children. He told Thurston it would destroy them and to her, that was the last thing she wanted to ever do. She was between a rock and hard place and the stress took its toll.

Thurston considered killing herself for an entire weekend and ended up being medicated. During this time, she also decided that she and Chad had to get divorced, but being on anxiety medication gave Chad the upper hand when it came to any pending custody battles, so Thurston did everything she could to take care of her mental and emotional health. Mindfulness became a way of life for her, which is another thing she discusses quite eloquently in her Ted Talk.

Today, Thurston is happily living with Kile and sharing custody of her kids. She receives her fair share of hate mail and will eventually be excommunicated from the Mormon Church. She gets multiple messages each day from women in the LDS community who are also struggling with coming out, so she is slowly and thoughtfully finding the best ways to serve a new spiritual community. After all, as someone who has gone through conversion therapy, she is a survivor of one of the worst things, statistically, that someone can go through.

Thurston’s kids love Kile, which probably irks the “coach” to no end, and Thurston is like a kid in the proverbial candy shop with all of the new things she can now experience as she walks her new path.

“I got to have a conversation with my kids. Like, yes, there’s a bottle of wine on the counter for the first time ever in your life. I’m going to decide if I like it or not. If I do, I’m going to drink it and if I don’t, I’m not,” says Thurston.

The choice is now yours, Elena Joy. Have fun finding out.

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