‘It hurts when I touch myself now’ — Sam’s story of ‘conversion therapy’ in Singapore

Heckin Unicorn
·9-min read

Editor’s note: The following is a guest piece authored by LGBT+ advocacy group Heckin Unicorn on so-called conversion therapy in Singapore. It was not produced by Coconuts Singapore.

Sam embarked on a journey of self-discovery in his 20s. He had been through many abusive relationships, and for reasons he couldn’t quite grasp, he’d always felt that something was missing in his life. Sam wanted to get in tune with his emotions. He wanted to heal.

At 26, Sam flew to Japan to attend a spiritual workshop. The workshop’s exercise was simple, but intense: attendees were paired up, and for 3 hours, each pair had to stare meditatively into each other’s eyes. The poetic beauty in this exercise wasn’t lost to him: staring into the windows of another’s soul would help him get in touch with his own.

Yet for hours, nothing happened.

Then his sensei came over and gently touched his chest, or what spiritual practitioners called the “heart space”. And in a single stroke, Sam’s inner soul broke loose with an explosive force. He started shrieking — so uncontrollably, in fact, that he had to be restrained by several workshop attendees. Anguish, anger, and confusion raced through his mind. It was an excruciating 30 minutes of raw physical reaction, as if years of emotions ripped through his body. Yet it was nothing compared to what was about to hit him in the months to come.

Because in that moment, something clicked into place. Sam suddenly recalled that he was a victim of “conversion therapy” over a decade ago. He finally understood why he’d always felt that something was missing, and why he felt so strongly that he had to heal himself. Deeply repressed and harrowing memories came rushing back like an avalanche.

Sam fought to stay alive over the next 3 months. He suffered from hallucinations, and would cry inconsolably for days on end. He would vomit uncontrollably. His body burned in pain. He wanted to end the suffering. He wanted to end his life. But in between the painful outbreaks, Sam found the strength to fight for his survival. He knew that to live, he had to find out more about what had happened to him. He began researching extensively about “conversion therapy”, and the more he researched, the more he recalled the lost years of his adolescence.

Slowly, his memories fell into place.

“Those few months were critical to me. I knew that if I didn’t make it, then that’s the end for me. I wasn’t sure if I was able to live with myself.”

Sam went through a lot at a young age. He learnt that he was gay while going through puberty. And through interactions with his closest family members, he learned that it was something he needed to get rid of.

When he came out to his mum at 13, she told him that she expects a grand funeral when she dies. It was her cold, indirect way of telling him that she expects him to bear children and grandchildren for her. When Sam turned to his aunt, she called him derogatory names and told him that people will not accept him if he continues to be gay. The message from his family was clear: turn straight, or else.

So at 15, Sam scoured the internet for answers about his sexuality. In the age of dial-up internet, genuine LGBTQ+ content was hard to come by. The information that he found about STDs scared him — HIV was still called the “gay virus” back then. Sam started getting desperate. He needed to find a way to turn straight.

And then he found a solution — or so he thought.

Sam began attending a “conversion therapy” programme offered by a local church when he was 15. It marketed itself as a counselling service that could help people who were “struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction”, and sounded exactly like what Sam was looking for. Even though he only signed up for their counselling services, he felt compelled to attend their church services as the years went by. His family never knew that he was participating in “conversion therapy” sessions; they were more concerned that he was converting from Taoism to Christianity.

Perhaps the scariest part about the “conversion therapy” programme was how, to 15-year-old Sam, it just felt right. Sam’s 1-on-1 sessions with his counsellor felt like normal counselling sessions. Sure, scripture was quoted a lot in their hour-long sessions, but to Sam — and anyone who desperately wanted to turn straight, for that matter — everything seemed to make sense. Because in a world full of rejection, the programme claimed to provide all the answers.

“I was pumped and really motivated to turn straight, and I thought I was on the right track. But I only realised much later that I wasn’t just suppressing my attraction to guys — I was no longer participating in life.”

Sam’s memories about his counselling sessions are hazy, but their core message remains clear in his mind: you’ll go to hell if you’re gay. It was a powerful and terrifying message, and it fueled Sam’s desire to continue with the programme. He didn’t know back then that his sexual desires were innate and perfectly normal, so he confided his feelings with his counsellor and followed everything he was instructed to do. For a long time, everything he heard in his counselling sessions made him feel like turning straight was a real possibility.

Celibacy was a strong mandate of the “conversion therapy” programme. Sam’s counsellor told him many times that he would go to hell unless he stopped masturbating. He told Sam that it was wrong and sinful to have sexual desires. And as an impressionable teenager going through the peak of puberty, Sam absorbed and believed everything his counsellor told him.

Throughout his 4 years in the programme, Sam suppressed his desires and took things to the extreme. He would hold tightly onto his bed frame every night before going to bed to prevent himself from touching his body. It was a physically and mentally exhausting exercise, but Sam managed to push through every night for 6 consecutive months before he succumbed to his desires. He wouldn’t know this until years later, but this extreme psychological conditioning left him with a debilitating inability to touch himself.

“That’s how fearful I am on the inside, even now. It just hurts so much when I touch myself.”

In one church session, the pastor discouraged churchgoers from listening to secular music. Only Christian music should be allowed in their lives, the pastor declared. The next week, Sam brought his entire music CD collection to church, and watched it being burnt and destroyed. Sam was so enthralled by the programme’s promises that no physical coercion was required to get him to engage in such extreme activities. To him, listening to everything they say was the only way to not end up in hell.

There were a few reasons that ultimately made Sam leave the programme after 4 years. First of all, nothing worked. Sam knew that he was still gay, and that all he managed to do was to suppress his innate desires and convince himself that he isn’t worthy of love. He was also harassed by a cell group leader, but nothing seemed to be done about it after he raised this up to the church leadership. And in an attempt to negotiate some joy back into his life, Sam asked a church friend if God would accept him if he were to be in a loving gay relationship, but abstained from sex for life. The answer: an unequivocal no.

When Sam left the programme at 19, he wasn’t a changed man — he was broken. He left not because he realised that their teachings harmed his mental health, but because after 4 years of trying, he has resigned to his fate of going to hell.

“‘Conversion therapy’ has destroyed my life. I’ve never been happy since. I didn’t allow myself to feel joy. I was convinced that I will go to hell.”

Sam turns 38 this year. And in the last decade or so, he’s been to hell and back.

After spending thousands of dollars in medical scans, Sam was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. In simple terms, he experiences chronic physical pain induced by his extreme psychological trauma (side note: psychological trauma isn’t the only factor that could induce symptoms of fibromyalgia). These painful outbreaks aren’t just unpredictable, but also incurable. His chest would tighten and he would gasp for air; his face would twitch suddenly and uncontrollably; he would suffer from the inability to speak; he is often fatigued and would suffer from migraines.

Sam also faced considerable financial challenges over the last couple of decades. There were months when Sam was unable to get out of bed. His inner demons would take control, and he would find himself once again fighting for his life. Because of this, Sam had been in and out of jobs. This, coupled with his expensive medical treatment and therapies, set his finances back considerably.

It would be nice if we could end Sam’s story on a positive note. But the truth is that even though Sam is a fierce survivor, his experience with “conversion therapy” still affects him decades after the sessions have ended. Sam isn’t ready to date yet, because he thinks that he carries too much emotional baggage for any relationship to work. He continues to face difficulties fully accepting his sexuality, even though he understands that there’s nothing wrong with being gay. And he continues to sleep with his arms wide apart, because physical contact still makes his body burn in pain.

Let this be clear: “conversion therapy” practices exist in Singapore. Many of these programmes continue to showcase “success” cases without acknowledging, or perhaps understanding, how “conversion therapy” can irreparably damage a person’s psychological and physical wellbeing.

According to the United Nations, any attempt to change or suppress someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is a form of “conversion therapy”. Many international psychiatric organisations have condemned “conversion therapy” practices because the medical consensus agrees that they not only don’t work, but could cause mental harm to participants (page 115). Taiwan has fully banned “conversion therapy” practices, while Germany has done so for minors. Other countries such as Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and the UK are considering legislation that would make them illegal.

Yet “conversion therapy” remains legal in Singapore. Many teenagers like Sam will continue to enrol in programmes that psychologically condition them to suppress their innate sexuality. Most of them would emerge from the programmes with their sexuality unchanged, but mental health deeply affected. Some of them will kill themselves.

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This article, ‘It hurts when I touch myself now’ — Sam’s story of ‘conversion therapy’ in Singapore, originally appeared on Coconuts, Asia's leading alternative media company.