SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - While undergoing "reversal" therapy for his homosexuality, Ryan Kendall knew it wasn't going to work. "I knew that I was gay like I knew that I was short and half-Hispanic," the 26 year old testified on Wednesday in the trial challenging California's Proposition 8.
Growing up in the largely conservative city of Colorado Springs, Kendall said he knew he was different and that he "liked boys" from an early age, but it wasn't until he looked up the word "homosexual" in the dictionary at age 11 that he realized he was gay.
"The definition they gave was someone who was sexually attracted to a person of the same sex," Kendall said. "I knew that was what I was."
Kendall, who grew up in a deeply religious family, said he was terrified by this discovery. Throughout his childhood, Kendall said, "homosexual was a big scary word and I felt very frightened by it. I remember my parents saying that families were threatened by homosexuals."
As a result, Kendall said he felt a desperate urgency to stay closeted, even as he endured the taunts and humiliation from his schoolmates at the Evangelical Christian Academy.
"It was scary going into that building knowing kids were taunting me with what was close to the truth," Kendall said, adding that although his parents pulled him out of the school, they still were unaware that their son was gay.
But their discovery of his journal soon dispelled any doubt, he said.
"My parents flipped out," Kendall said. "They were yelling. It was pretty scary. I remember my mother looking at me and saying I was going to burn in Hell. It was shocking because I never thought my parents would ever say that. I mean, Hell was the worst."
Kendall said he was promptly sent to a Christian therapist for "reversal therapy." He was 13 at the time.
James Campbell, counsel for proponents of the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, strongly objected to Kendall's testimony, saying "one man's anecdotal account is irrelevant," and the issue of conversion therapy would be best left to an expert witness.
U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker disagreed, pointing out that the Prop. 8 proponents had already broached the subjects of sexuality as a conscious choice and people's ability to successfully change their sexual orientation in their opening testimony.
"It seems to me that you've raised the very issue to which the witness is going to testify," Walker said, adding that Kendall's first-hand account would be "very helpful."
Kendall said his therapist told him that the goal of their sessions was to make him heterosexual. "I remember the therapist told me that homosexuals were bad people and that homosexuality was not consistent with Christian teachings," he said.
But after attending the sessions, Kendall said he was "still gay." His parents then sent him to the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, an organization in Encino, Calif., run by Focus on the Family.
For more than a year and a half, he said, he talked to conversion-therapist Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. "I remember him saying that homosexuality is incompatible with what God wants for me," Kendall said. "He told me that I had to fundamentally reject what I was."
Meanwhile, Kendall's home life changed dramatically, particularly his relationship with his mother. "Before, I had the kind of parents who would drive me to school and pack my lunches," he said. "After this, they were always yelling at me and calling me names. It was a very emotionally abusive environment. I remember my mother saying she hated me, that I was repulsive. She said she wished she'd had an abortion or that I had been born with Down syndrome," Kendall sobbed, prompting gasps throughout the courtroom. One woman, seated at the front of the gallery, began to weep.
Kendall said he left therapy at 16 because he realized that if he didn't stop going, he "wasn't going to survive." He had himself emancipated from his parents. When San Francisco City Attorney Ron Flynn asked him if his life got better after leaving therapy, Kendall replied, "I was incredibly suicidal and depressed. I hated my entire life. So no, things did not get better."
After a five-year self-destructive binge, Kendall said he was finally able to start taking care of himself, eventually landing a job with the Denver Police Department's National Crime Information Center, which he has held for two years. Kendall said he no longer speaks to his mother.
During Flynn's redirect, he asked Kendall if he had met any "successful" conversion therapy patients during his time at NARTH.
"During one of our group therapy sessions, Nicolosi trotted out his perfect patient, a guy named Kelly," Kendall said. "But after Nicolosi left, Kelly told me that he was going out to a gay bar that night." The gallery erupted in laughter.