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'Fabulist or survivor'? Gender-fluid ex-fed's conversion therapy 'torture' story scrutinized

Alleged luggage thief helped ban conversion therapy in several states with story involving ice, hot coils and fingerpricks, but has long refused to share crucial details about counselor, location.

Published: December 14, 2022 6:06pm

Updated: December 14, 2022 11:37pm

Before Sam Brinton became a nuclear waste lobbyist and the first known simultaneous "nonbinary drag queen" and high-ranking Department of Energy official, the activist's story of enduring conversion therapy "torture" made him an international celebrity in the crusade against the practice.

The farfetched, selective and inconsistent details of that narrative, apparently questioned by only one LGBTQ group, are now facing high-profile scrutiny in the wake of the disgraced ex-deputy assistant secretary's arrests for allegedly stealing expensive luggage in two airports. 

If that torture tale crumbles, the much-publicized Biden administration gender identity trailblazer may turn out to have been a fabulist in the vein of actor Jussie Smollett, who is fighting a prison sentence for a hate-crime hoax, and former University of Virginia student "Jackie," whose unvetted gang-rape story ended with Rolling Stone paying millions to settle defamation lawsuits.

A longtime activist against conversion therapy and a pioneer of "reintegrative therapy," which treats childhood sexual abuse that may have led to same-sex attraction, both said they raised red flags for years about Brinton's claims as the activist's star rose.

Sometime since June, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) scrubbed Brinton's name from a page on its #BornPerfect leaders' testimony at the United Nations in 2014, while he still identified as male. The page with his video testimony and the video itself were taken down on or after Dec. 8.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) demanded the Department of Energy open a probe into its security clearance process after Brinton's unexplained departure, saying that Secretary Jennifer Granholm had ignored his calls to review the "failed" system for months. 

The department didn't answer Just the News queries about what scrutiny, if any, it applied to Brinton's conversion-therapy claims prior to making a job offer. 

Brinton did not respond to Just the News queries via Twitter and Facebook or accept a follow request to Brinton's private Instagram account. Brinton's bail was set at $15,000 at a Clark County, Nev. court hearing Wednesday.

While Brinton self-describes as "(to my knowledge) the first gender fluid person in federal government leadership" and has used plural pronouns in recent years, the activist identified with his sex and used he/him pronouns at least through 2017.

Brinton first widely shared the torture claims as a 23-year-old in a 2010 video series. In the first part, Brinton said his family lived in a Florida "missionary camp" and sent the middle schooler to the emergency room several times, starting when Brinton admitted attraction to a male friend. 

Subsequent conversion therapy involved holding "blocks of ice" or heated coils while looking at pictures of men holding hands or hugging, and then a "month of hell" when he was "electrocuted" and had "tiny needles" stuck in his fingers while viewing "explicit acts between men." Brinton said he nearly killed himself at that point.

In the second part, Brinton said the conversion therapy stopped after he falsely told his mother it worked. When he came out as gay to his parents again in college, Brinton said they functionally disowned him and his father threatened to "shoot me if I ever tried to walk in the door again."

He testified against conversion therapy at the United Nations in 2014 and in states including Iowa in 2016

The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth organization, hired Brinton as its chief lobbyist the following year on the basis of his "50 Bill 50 States" campaign to end the practice, and Brinton's name is on dozens of the group's web pages. Brinton made the same allegations in a 2018 New York Times op-ed

Brinton's tale was "the most shocking conversion story activists had heard since the 1960s," citing practices that were "exceedingly rare" by the late 1990s, Wayne Besen, founding executive director of anti-conversion therapy organization Truth Wins Out, wrote in a scathing essay published by the Los Angeles Blade and LGBTQ Nation last week.

But when Besen reached out to Brinton at the time to collaborate "to expose the harm of coversion theory," Brinton refused to talk to Besen directly or share the name of the therapist and where the "torture" happened, Besen recounted. Brinton was "the ONLY survivor" not to cooperate in Besen's two decades of activism against ex-gay therapy, Besen wrote. 

In explaining in 2011 why he couldn't provide Besen the requested information to verify his story, Brinton claimed he would "revert to near suicidal tendencies" if he dwelt too much on those memories and could only remember the therapist's appearance, but he vividly recalled other details such as "seven King James Bibles" stacked on the therapist's coffee table.

Brinton's ubiquity in LGBTQ activism made the trigger explanation implausible, suggesting Brinton was "more concerned about keeping their story unverifiable," Besen said.

The details of Brinton's story have changed several times over the years, such as treatment in Florida versus a different state, according to Besen. The "religious therapist" Brinton mentioned in 2011 became a "licensed psychotherapist" three years later, during Brinton's campaign to "specifically ban licensed conversion therapists from practicing," Besen said.

The veteran activist said he warned NCLR not to promote Brinton without verifying his story, but the group allegedly told him it "must believe all survivors." He also scolded reporters "from the world's top publications," not one of whom "pressed Brinton to name their counselor," a revelation which would presumably have stopped an especially dangerous conversion therapist from "torturing" any more kids. 

Besen admits he's not sure after a dozen years if Brinton is "a fabulist or a legitimate survivor," but, he says, "the totality of the evidence is troubling."

NCLR and The Trevor Project didn't respond to queries.

Licensed psychotherapist Joseph Nicolosi Jr., who founded the Reintegrative Therapy Association, said the group warned California and Massachusetts lawmakers and LGBTQ groups "sponsoring" Brinton about the activist's "ever-changing story about abuse."

For example, Brinton has variously claimed to undergo conversion therapy at ages 10 and 12, but in his twenties he also told donors at an NCLR event that he received the treatment "a couple years ago," Nicolosi told The Daily Signal. (NCLR also removed its page tracking internal mentions of Brinton, and Just the News couldn't find the alleged quote.)

The two states nevertheless passed conversion therapy bans broad enough to threaten "my patients' right to legitimate, patient-led care" that may increase "their heterosexual attractions and identity as a byproduct" of dealing with childhood trauma, Nicolosi said.

"But politicians and activists," he added, "cared more about how [Brinton] advanced their narrative than about ensuring that people understand that sexual fluidity goes more than just one way."

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