“He Got Away With It”: Conversion Therapy Survivor on Dr. Joseph Nicolosi’s Legacy

As news spread about the death of  “ex-gay therapy” pioneer Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, one of Nicolosi’s victims argued that it’s time to uncover the harrowing details of the debunked “sexual orientation change efforts” that Nicolosi championed.

Ryan Kendall, a 33-year-old gay man, spent nearly two years as a patient of Dr. Nicolosi, beginning when he was just 14 years old. Kendall’s devoutly religious parents were referred to Nicolosi, founder of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), by Focus on the Family, the anti-LGBTQ Christian organization headquartered in Kendall’s hometown of Colorado Springs, Colo.

Although Nicolosi claimed that NARTH was a secular organization dedicated to “scientific inquiry” about the nature of same-sex attraction, Nicolosi himself was a devout Catholic, and NARTH frequently aligned itself with right-wing religious groups that adamantly opposed LGBTQ equality. Nicolosi’s website, which serves as the central hub for NARTH’s now-limited activities, proclaims “You Don’t Have to Be Gay” on its homepage.

After two years of “treatment” from Nicolosi, Kendall sued to revoke his mother and father’s parental rights, becoming a ward of the state at age 16. Now a second-year law student at the University of California Los Angeles, Kendall has spent the better part of the past decade vocally opposing conversion therapy, and joining with state and congressional leaders who have sought to outlaw the harmful practice on minors.

“Someone’s death is always a tragedy for those who loved them, and I do not intend for his friends and family to read my words,” Kendall told RD. He continued:

I am struggling with Nicolosi’s death for the simple reason that he got away with it. All the pain I suffered at his hands, and the harm he caused countless LGBT people because of his work—he gets away with all of it. Nicolosi leaves a legacy built in human suffering. His work leaves behind nothing of merit—only the wreckage of LGBT lives. Nicolosi was an unaccountable, motivated liar, whose life work was dedicated to destroying LGBT people by undermining our core identities. I wish for him in death the peace he denied so many in life. Let his heinous theories die with him.

Kendall marked the occasion of the 70-year-old’s death with a call to release video of his testimony in the federal trial against Proposition 8, where Kendall emotionally detailed the wide-ranging damage stemming from the unscientific practices Nicolosi and other “reparative therapy” practitioners used. As a fact witness for the San Francisco City Attorney’s office, Kendall’s 2010 testimony in the case known as Hollingsworth v. Perry was so pivotal that (now-retired) U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker cited Kendall’s story as proof that sexual orientation is immutable in his landmark decision. That ruling, which overturned the California proposition that revoked marriage equality in that state, was ultimately affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

When reached for comment, S.F. City Attorney’s Office communications director John Cote said, “This testimony is Ryan’s personal story, and we support him in however he would like it handled.”

Although the entire trial was recorded on courthouse cameras, those videos were sealed for 10 years at the request of the defendant-intervenors, a coalition of anti-LGBTQ groups who claimed their members (and witnesses) would be subject to harassment if their opposition to marriage equality was publicized. Kendall argued that those concerns are now moot, given the time lapsed since trial, the existence of nationwide marriage equality, and the increasing scope of cultural conversation surrounding conversion therapy.

“The importance and power of our lived experiences is why the stories of real-life LGBT people move hearts and have the ability to change law,” Kendall told RD. “With the power of our stories in mind, I have decided to seek the release of my sealed federal testimony in response to Joseph Nicolosi’s death, and ABC’s reporting that pro-conversion therapy advocates are ‘heartened’ at the election of Trump, Pence, and the GOP majority in Congress.”

“It’s a small act, but seeking my testimony’s release is what I can do to help stem the rising tide of hate in this country,” Kendall continued. “I hope my testimony can be used to educate the public and policymakers about the tragic damage conversion therapy causes real people, and the urgent need to eliminate this abuse once and for all.”