‘Conversion’ survivor, LGBTQ champion Sean Young fights back

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Sean Young rode a long path to accepting his sexual orientation, but once he did, he made up for lost time by advocating for LGBTQ rights across the country.

Among his accomplishments, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has spoken out against anti-LGBTQ adoption bills at the state Capitol, advocated for LGBTQ-inclusive civil rights legislation and written articles on “conversion therapy.” 

The Houston transplant to Atlanta knows more than most about that last subject — he put himself through “conversion therapy” as a young adult, believing that being gay was a sin. But he found his way through it and tells Q he considers himself “lucky.” 

Young opens up about his “conversion therapy” experience, fighting for voting rights and more in our latest Q&A.

What was “conversion therapy” like?

I joined an online “conversion therapy” group when I was 21 and attended several “ex-gay” conferences because I believed it was sinful to love whom I loved. I even started some informal conversion therapy groups of my own, which I now deeply regret. 

The experience was emotionally exhausting and forced me to wrestle deeply with my relationship with God and the beliefs to which I had clung so tightly just to get through life. While I was under no illusions that I could “become straight,” I believed that I was consigned to a life without romance or intimacy, and I struggled mightily with depression during that time.

It has taken many long and painful years to come out of that process and to gain the self-confidence I now have.

I was “lucky” to have gone through that experience as an adult. I cannot imagine what it must be like for children to go through this process because their parents force them to.

What initially made you want to get into the legal profession?

This is a very embarrassing story. I knew I wanted to fight for justice in the world, but I didn’t know how.  Law was always an abstraction for me, and I was never very good at debate. However, my first brush with legal practice was in junior year of college, when I ran for student government president. 

I received the second most votes and lost, but due to ambiguous wording in the bylaws, it was unclear whether I was supposed to be in a runoff instead. I then challenged the ruling before the “student judiciary” (don’t laugh). I lost. 

But I was hooked. I knew then and there that law would be the tool for me to help bring social change.

What moment are you most proud of in your work to date?

I am most proud of my work in voting rights around the country. Through cases I have litigated, I have made it easier for people to obtain ID in Wisconsin for voting purposes, established a first-in-the-nation statewide weekend and evening early voting schedule in the state of Ohio, and here in Georgia, prevented the removal of 160,000 voters from the active voter rolls and blocked the shutdown of seven out of nine polling places in Randolph County.

What's something people would be surprised to find out about you?

Even though I enjoy being a lawyer and litigating in the courtroom, I actually dislike conflict and arguing with people.  Sometimes, you have no choice but to fight, but my inclination is usually to find ways to work with people with whom you disagree to achieve mutually-shared goals. 

I enjoy exploring creative ways to find common ground with those “on the other side.” All of us share a basic humanity.

Visit American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia at acluga.org. Photo by Russ Youngblood.

This article originally appeared in Q magazine. Read the full issue below.



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