Sam is one of the world’s leading advocates for LGBTQ youth. They currently serve as the Head of Advocacy and Government Affairs for The Trevor Project, the leading national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth. They are the founder of the 50 Bills 50 States campaign at The Trevor Project to end the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy, first in the United States and then around the globe.
Sam traveled to the United Nations in Geneva as part of the US Human Rights Network delegation to the Convention Against Torture in 2014. Their experience at the UN catapulted Sam’s advocacy in the United States and internationally. Sam spoke with USHRN about their experience testifying at the UN and talks about how you have the power and capacity to advocate internationally and elevate your issue, too. Read our interview below.
What were you working on when you first got involved with the US Human Rights Network?
I am a survivor of conversion therapy -- a practice to try to change someone into a straight or cisgender individual when they identify as LGBTQ. I was working with a campaign at the time called the Born Perfect Campaign, working to end conversion therapy.
I got involved with USHRN via civil rights lawyer Sam Ames, (we were known as #TheSams). I was connected with USHRN and was helped through the process of engagement at the United Nations. We were even invited to speak at a USHRN conference afterwards. There was an outpouring of support as people understood that each of our issues were different, but were connected by a core tenet: the defense of human rights for all.
With support from the Born Perfect Campaign and the US Human Rights Network, you traveled to the United Nations in 2014 to participate in the Convention Against Torture (CAT). Can you tell us about that experience?
USHRN had a few activists from across different human rights issue areas share our experiences in small meetings before we went to testify before the UN Committee. There weren’t any other LGBTQ experiences shared; I was excited to share. I will never forget that to my left was a Guantanamo Bay survivor, and to my right was Michael Brown’s mother. There was a powerful juxtaposition of our three stories being so different but yet so similar in the lack of protection afforded by our country. USHRN was the glue that made the stories fit. We didn’t know each other’s experiences and stories before that day, but USHRN put us all in the same room, at the same time, in the right order, to make sure our stories were heard and framed well, so that the overlapping theme of responding to the trauma of human rights violations was easily understood.
There are few survivors of conversion therapy who are open with their experiences. Reliving that trauma is often extremely painful and can be extremely dangerous. My testimony before the Committee was emotionally extremely taxing; I was sobbing. I was nervous because I had never spoken on an international stage, but I was also very excited to know that I could have a voice there.
It was kind of a dream. I spoke. I saw multiple members of the CAT crying, through my own tears -- I was emotionally broken. The next day was so empowering -- the words “conversion therapy” had never been mentioned in any UN context until that point -- but the next day, three members of the CAT held the US accountable in questioning on the issue of conversion therapy. We had come in with this new issue that no one was talking about, no one had much context on. Our testimony before the Committee had so affected the Committe, they began asking questions about conversion therapy to the US and other countries.
As a survivor, to hear my experiences being portrayed by the UN as abhorrent and in need of immediate address, was the definition of empowerment. The definition.
How did your experience at CAT impact your advocacy work back home in the US?
In 2014, before CAT, there were maybe two or three US states who had passed legislation against conversion therapy. We are now at a point where 18 states across the country have protected LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy. Thanks to the efforts of a strong and growing national movement, we’ve seen 13 states pass these laws in the past 30 months alone.
Presidential campaigns now talk about conversion therapy as a litmus test for how they are going to address LGBTQ issues. There was a major motion picture about conversion therapy that came out last year, where I got to walk the red carpet at the Oscars.
Advocates have been working on this issue for decades, but the modern wave of victories and movement really took off after CAT in 2014. This is now happening on a local, national, and international stage; it has become a prime issue. I just got back from Hong Kong a few weeks ago at the invitation of the consulate there, to advise on ending conversion therapy in China.
What is your advice to people who are engaging with international mechanisms for the first time?
Never believe that your story is not worthy of an international stage. You are valuable because of the experiences you are bringing. The experiences of people engaging will be disparate, but will be connected on a basic level to the fact that you deserve to be on that international stage to make the change that you are hoping to make.
I doubted myself so much and I worried that I would not be able to measure up to the experiences that were taking the time and attention of the UN. I felt that I was unworthy of taking that time and attention. I was not sure I was ready, I was not sure that I was qualified. I was an MIT student who was trying to graduate with a degree in nuclear physics. I knew that well. I did not know advocacy and activism as well.
I didn’t know the stories and the people that I was engaging with in the cohort. I will never forget Michael Brown’s mother holding me and reassuring me that we shared the pain, and that this was an opportunity to share our pain on this type of stage with as many people as possible, and uplift the trauma in a way that international actors could move and do something about it.
My self-doubt was immediately shattered when I heard the members of the CAT Committee pave the path for the UN to advocate for an end to conversion therapy -- the room gasped -- it was a call to arms against an issue that had never been raised at the UN before. It made me feel not just qualified, but nothing short of powerful.
What are you working on today, and how can our members support you?
I work now for The Trevor Project, the nation’s leading LGBTQ suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization. We serve over 150,000 LGBTQ youth who are in crisis every single year. We have so many international folks who want to interact with us and support the work we are doing, and we are still trying to find the best ways to make sure that everyone has the ability to live a happy and productive life, not despite your sexual orientation or gender identity, but because you are able to be yourself. I have a role to play in the UN because of being LGTBQ, not despite it. If you want to learn more about our work to end conversion therapy, check out our 50 Bills 50 States campaign.