Surviving conversion therapy: Elena Thurston thrives in its wake
By Tom Reardon, January 2020 issue.
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
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,”
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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.