In 2009, 15-year-old Alex Cooper told her devout Mormon parents she liked girls. She knew they would be upset—the Latter-day Saints Church taught that homosexuality was an aberration and a sin. But she didn’t expect them to kick her out of the house, or what happened next, a story she recounts in Saving Alex: When I Was Fifteen I Told My Parents I Was Gay, and That’s When My Nightmare Began.
Cooper’s parents told her she was going to live with her grandparents, but instead, they dropped her off with Tiana and Johnny Siale, a couple in Utah practicing “reparative therapy”—designed to “cure” her homosexuality. She writes, “These people, they were total strangers. I had never seen them before in my life. Why would my parents leave me with total strangers?”
The Siales—who had no training or credentials as therapists—subjected Cooper to eight months of captivity, servitude, beatings, and torture, including punishment for several attempts to escape: she had to wear a backpack full of rocks and stand facing a wall for up to 18 hours a day. Visitors to the Siales' house saw it, but no one in the Mormon-dominated town helped her, and Cooper decided to survive and bide her time.
“All I cared about was that I did not have to stand with my toes five inches from the wall,” she writes, “that I no longer had to count numbers higher and higher, or watch my own mind struggle to maintain a grip on reality, or feel my pulse spike without reason.”
Finally, the Siales allowed her to attend a local high school, and Cooper found allies in a sympathetic teacher and a fellow student who led her to the school’s chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance. They introduced her to Paul Burke, a Salt Lake City lawyer who would spend many pro bono hours fighting to both hold the guardians who abused Cooper accountable and for her right to resist her parents' efforts to try to change her sexual orientation. After a months-long battle, Cooper was granted court orders to protect her right to be an openly gay teenager, including a court order affirming her right to date girls, making her the first openly gay teenager to live under legal protection in Utah.
Ultimately, she decided not to prosecute the Siales. “As long as I was sitting in a courtroom looking at them I couldn’t move on with my life, and that’s what I needed to do,” Cooper told PW. She also reconciled with her parents. Soft-spoken and reticent, Cooper hesitates to talk about them, saying, “This has been hard on them too.”
Saving Alex is intended for both secular and Mormon readers. Cooper’s cowriter Joanna Brooks, whose work on Mormon Feminism (2015, Oxford) pointed out women’s struggles in the Mormon Church, signed on to the project as a continued effort to improve the lives of disenfranchised Mormons. “Our shared goal has been to tell this story in a way that doesn't flinch from talking about how difficult life can be for LGBT Mormons, but that doesn't demonize or draw caricatures about the Mormon community,” Brooks told PW.
Gay conversion therapy for minors—which also was practiced by some evangelicals but is now widely repudiated—has been banned in California, Illinois, New Jersey, and Oregon, as well as the District of Columbia. President Obama has called on more states to ban the practice. In 2015, California Senator Ted Lieu introduced the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act to make it illegal nationwide; the bill has yet to pass the House or Senate. On February 16, Lieu and several other members of Congress wrote an open letter to the FTC, urging the ban.
Cooper, who now lives in Portland, Ore., with her girlfriend and works for a nonprofit, hopes Saving Alex will make a contribution to the movement. She will speak and sign books at a book launch event on March 8 that will be covered by the New York Review of Books, Huffington Post, Associated Press, Religion News Service, Reader’s Digest, and other media outlets.