Jose Vega was born in Puerto Rico to a conservative Pentecostal family.
He said his childhood was happy as he was always surrounded by family members. His extended family lived on a dairy farm in a rural area, and Vega moved back and forth between Florida and Puerto Rico throughout his childhood for schooling, until he moved permanently to Gainesville in 1999.
It was in Gainesville, during his senior year when Vega started to develop significant feelings toward men. He went to his pastor for advice, and he recommended Vega undergo conversion therapy at the age of 17.
Conversion therapy refers to a number of psychological and therapeutic methods aimed at reverting one’s sexuality or gender identity to straight or cisgender.
After five years of the therapy, 10 years of marriage and two kids, Vega was finally able to come to terms with his identity as a gay man, though it resulted in divorce and estrangement from his parents. Now Vega advocates in Gainesville for a ban on conversion therapy, a practice deemed harmful and ineffective by the American Psychological Association and other organizations.
When did you start realizing that you were gay?
I don’t know that I fully accepted it, but there were things throughout my childhood when I was attracted to guys. Though at seven, eight or nine years old you don’t really know what that means and you don’t really think about it. My senior year in high school I started to question my sexuality, I started having a strong attraction toward men — though it was definitely something I kept to myself. I got involved in church and started dating a girl so all of the feelings were conflicting, so I spoke with my pastor.
That was when it was suggested that I go to conversion therapy, and through the power of God, I could be converted into a straight man.
And did you believe them?
I decided to go through it because I generally did not want to be gay.
Oh, absolutely. At 17 years old I was still a minor, and when someone in authority who you respect and admire tells you something like that, you take it as fact. These people know what they’re talking about; I decided to go through it because I generally did not want to be gay. And they told me, and I had faith, that this was something that could be fixed.
What was the conversion therapy like?
I met with a non-licensed elder from the church on a weekly basis and we basically did a lot of talk therapy: going over what the scripture says about homosexuality and trying to find out what was causing me to be gay and addressing it so that I could be restored as a straight man.
They likened homosexuality to being an alcoholic. An alcoholic remains away from alcohol and doesn’t drink it, they may still be tempted and may desire it, but as long as they’re away from alcohol they’re good. That’s what they said to me. Stay away from men, don’t touch, don’t engage, and as time goes on your desires will be less and less and less. And for the most part, for a long time, it worked.
In some ways I kind of felt that because I wanted to be that perfect man, that straight man, that I hid stuff so well. But it was only a matter of time until something came exploding out.
(The pastor and I) were locked in a room for six or seven hours just praying and fasting and trying to cast these demons out.
I also participated in a couple of weekend retreats with a lot of praying and fasting and worship, but there were also instances of attempted exorcisms. That to me had become common growing up in a Pentecostal church, they tried over and over again to cast out the demons of homosexuality from my body.
On one occasion I met with the pastor who mainly did the conversion therapy, and we were locked in a room for six or seven hours just praying and fasting and trying to cast these demons out.
What was your relationship with these clergy like?
It was definitely more friendly, in the sense that I respected these people, these men that I see as godly. I never had a great relationship with my father, so for me, these men that I respected took on a kind of father figure. It was never anything aggressive or like they were forcing me per se, though there was always the understanding that being gay was a sin and needed to be fixed. It was never aggressive or abrasive — I saw it as them trying to help me, and I genuinely wanted to be cured.
Was there any point during this that you thought being gay maybe wasn’t wrong?
The day that I thought being gay wasn’t wrong was the day that I decided to come out, and I was already married and separated from my ex-wife. So the whole time, until I was 31 years old, I fully believed that being gay was wrong and was a sin. That was what kept me — if you thought that something is wrong and a sin, why would you keep doing it? That day when I came out, I was starting to question my faith and believe and convictions, the day that I said ‘this is not wrong, this Jose is perfect, this Jose isn’t wrong, this Jose doesn’t need to change,’ then I finally decided to live my life the way I wanted to.
How was your marriage impacted by conversion therapy?
When I was 31, I finally came to the conclusion that being gay was not a sin.
When I was 31, I finally came to the conclusion that being gay was not a sin. I started questioning a few years beforehand, but one day on my jog I decided to come out and sat my wife down to tell her. It was the hardest decision. Seeing the pain, the hurt that I caused her by telling her I didn’t want to be with her was horrible. I wanted to be with a man. We had two kids, what would divorce look like? It was very emotional, very draining. It all added to the backlash of conversion therapy. And it just added to everything that I hadn’t noticed before. All these feelings of guilt, of shame and self-hatred, I absolutely despised the person I was. I hated myself for what I put her through, what I put my children through. They were just as much victims of conversion therapy as I was.
What is being done to fight the practice of conversion therapy?
I started getting involved with different organizations, working with Equality Florida and the Human Rights Council of North Central Florida. The only way it is going to change is us using our voice to bring that change. We are working on a bill that would ban conversion therapy on minors through licensed practitioners. It is a huge start, we’ve already met with city council commissioners and we have their full support, and it is being put to a vote in a few weeks.
I just think there is so much more we can do, a lot of conversion therapy happens within the church, with religious groups. And there is so much religious protection. This bill is not going to stop churches, this is their religion’s belief, it is their conviction. A lot more has to be done, because this bill alone wouldn’t have helped me, or someone in my shoes. This ordinance is the beginning, but we are also asking what more can be done, how can we include more people in these protections.