This article first appeared in Equality magazine. Read the most recent issue at hrc.org/magazine.
Coming out as a lesbian to a devout, traditional Mormon family was never going to be easy for Alex Cooper.
Cooper had been taught from a young age that marriage sealed in a Mormon temple was the only way to make it into the highest levels of heaven after death. By the age of 15, she knew that being LGBTQ was seen by the Mormon church as a grievous sin against God.
“I came out to my parents, and my mom was hysterical, but my dad didn’t say anything,” Cooper, a former HRC Youth Ambassador, said in an interview with HRC. “They told me to get out of the house, so I stayed with a friend for a couple weeks. From there I was sent to conversion therapy.”
Cooper’s journey of survival is the focus of a powerful upcoming Lifetime film called “Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story.” Based on her auto-biography, the film shines a light on the dangerous practice of so-called “conversion therapy,” which encompasses a range of discredited practices that attempt to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.
These practices are based on the false premise that being LGBTQ is a mental illness that needs to be “cured” -- a theory that has been rejected by every major medical and mental health organization, including the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association and American Medical Association.
Cooper was held captive by a Mormon couple for eight months, and was subjected to a range of attempts to change her sexual orientation, including verbal and physical abuse.
“At first ‘therapy’ was me learning how to be the perfect wife,” Cooper said. “I learned how to cook for a family of eight. I got the kids ready for school in the morning and helped them with their homework when they were done with school.”
During the day, Cooper would clean the house and perform other chores she was told would foster “motherly instincts” -- but nothing changed how she felt inside.
“When that wasn't working I had to wear a backpack full of rocks to feel the physical burden of being gay,” Cooper said. “It started out as a couple hours a day — and it still didn't work. I felt the entire time that I was going to outsmart these people and somehow get out.”
The backpack weighed about 40 pounds and Cooper would have to wear it from sunrise until 4 a.m. the next day, facing a wall.
As time went on, the sense of isolation and hopelessness became overwhelming for Cooper. She attempted to escape, but failed -- resulting in her captors ratcheting up their abuse.
“I wasn't allowed to go to school. I couldn't talk to my family,” Cooper said. “I went to the same church as my grandparents every Sunday, and they wouldn't even look at me because that was a part of the program.”
“I eventually decided I just had to fake it because I wasn't going to get out any other way,” Cooper said. “They eventually let me go to school, and I got out the same month.”
There is no credible evidence that conversion therapy can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Rather, research has clearly shown that these practices pose devastating health risks for LGBTQ young people such as depression, decreased self-esteem, substance abuse, homelessness and even suicidal behavior.
Be sure to tune in to Lifetime Saturday, September 28, at 8/7 c to watch “Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story” and learn more about the urgent need to protect LGBTQ youth from this dangerous and discredited practice.