Tommy Atwood’s parents said they were going on a family trip. They pulled him out of school and boarded a flight from Alaska to Missouri, where he immediately knew something was wrong.
Instead of visiting the St. Louis Arch, Atwood’s parents took him to a boarding school for “troubled teens,” a maximum security, prison-like facility with magnetic locks on all the doors. The only way to open them was to have a key card or set off the fire alarm—which the “students” often did, leading to frequent escape attempts. But no one ever got away; there was no hope of freedom beyond those walls.
After Atwood said goodbye to his parents, his head was shaved, he was stripped of all his belongings, and he was handed what he can only describe as “prison scrubs.”
“There were no cell phones, no internet, no nothing,” he tells NewNowNext. “If you try to resist in any way, you’re put into solitary for 48 to 72 hours, depending on what the offense was. They also had the right to restrain you. They would take the students, body slam them on the tile floor, and hold them there until they stopped moving.”
While some of the other young people were housed in the facility because of drug abuse or criminal behavior, that’s not why he was separated from his parents and had his entire life uprooted at just 15 years old: It’s because he is gay.
Everything from his walk to the way he talks was policed by teachers and guards at the facility, and he wasn’t allowed to speak unless he used a “low tone of voice.” As a Baptist institution, the school required students to attend daily sermons where they were told all LGBTQ people “should be sent to an island” and that “homosexuals” were a “pestilence on society.”
Atwood suffered severe PTSD as a result, and after he was released following a 16-month stay, it took him two years to get his life back on track. “I had a lot of therapy to go through just to function normally,” he says. “It was very difficult for a long period of time and I isolated myself to try to get better.”
While Atwood, now 22, rarely used the term “conversion therapy” to describe his experiences, that phrase is used to refer to the horrific treatment to which he was subjected. Conversion therapy—sometimes called reparative therapy or “ex-gay” therapy—involved an association of discredited practices, ranging from talk therapy to shock treatment, ice baths, and other aversion techniques (the latter in more extreme and increasingly rare cases). These types of treatments have been banned in 19 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, as well as nearly 70 cities and counties.
Atwood hopes the city he calls home, Anchorage, Alaska, will soon become the first municipality in the state to ban the practice. For the first time in its history, Alaska’s largest city is set to introduce an ordinance to prohibit licensed medical professionals from offering a treatment proven to be harmful and even deadly for queer and transgender youth.
According to Anchorage Assembly Member Chris Constant, who is openly gay, the council is set to introduce the proposal “sometime in the spring,” though an exact date has not been set. He says the 11-member body is being strategic about the timing because “there are two members who are up for reelection who are a little bit vulnerable and so they don’t want to do anything that’s going to stir up a massive religious group to oppose them until after election.”
Although its members don’t run under any party affiliation, Constant predicted that the Assembly’s pro-LGBTQ contingent will “have the majority” after the municipal election on April 7. “Politics is playing a part in this conversation, but it will pass,” he tells NewNowNext.
Even with Anchorage poised to be the first municipality in Alaska to prohibit conversion therapy, the potential for backlash is tremendous. The passage of the state’s LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance in 2015—which extended protections on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity—led to a tireless campaign by anti-trans hate groups to overturn it. The right-wing Alaska Family Council, led by Jim Minnery, successfully fought to have the issue put on the ballot in 2018, branding transgender people as pedophiles, predators, and threats to public safety.
The ordinance was eventually upheld at the ballot box—the first time in the nation’s history that voters have defended trans rights—but the Alaska Family Council has vowed to do everything in its power to continue to oppose LGBTQ equality in the future. “We anticipate they will be back,” Constant says.
Sam Brinton, the head of advocacy at The Trevor Project and founder of the “50 States, 50 Bills” movement, sees the introduction of Anchorage’s bill as a major step forward. Brinton’s goal is to introduce a conversion therapy bill in every single U.S. state, and Alaska is one of just 10 states in the entire country that has yet to do so. The others are Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming.
“When I started ‘50 Bills, 50 States,’ we were working in 10 states across the country,” Brinton says. “That was only two and a half years ago. Within three years, we will have all 50 states submit [legislation].”
Though there are rumors that Alaska may introduce a bill later this year, the Last Frontier remains one of America’s most reliably conservative states. Republican voters outnumber Democrats by a 2-to-1 margin, and Alaska has only voted for a Democratic president once in the last 60 years—Lyndon B. Johnson all the way back in 1964. Donald Trump won the state by a nearly 15-point margin in 2016 and is projected to repeat that victory in 2020.
Brinton, however, isn’t ready to count Alaska out, noting that conservative states like Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, and Kentucky have all introduced bills to ban conversion therapy in 2020. “More than 400 Republicans have voted in state legislatures across the country to end conversion therapy,” they say. “Seven Republican governors have signed pieces of legislation or regulations into law protecting it.”
Tracey Weise, owner of Anchorage’s Full Spectrum Health, hopes the forces of inclusion prevail. Her clinic frequently treats conversion therapy survivors, many of whom report similar feelings to what Tommy Atwood experienced. She says many continue to deal with “shame, humiliation, and decreased sense of self-worth,” even years later.
Weise says the brutal truth remains that conversion therapy is “killing kids,” including LGBTQ youth across the state of Alaska. A 2019 survey from The Trevor Project found that 42% of those who had been subjected to attempts to “change” their sexual orientation or gender identity had tried to take their own lives in the past 12 months. The rate was even higher for trans and nonbinary folks—a massive 47%.
“If there was anything else out there that was killing kids, we would create legislation around it,” she tells NewNowNext. “Look at the vaping legislation and the Tide pod legislation. These things were killing kids and so there was legislation around that—and we know that not affirming their sexuality and gender is killing kids.”