“Every week in church, I’m going, ‘Can I come out?’”
David Matheson was a leading gay-conversion therapist. He is also gay.
No one notices Evil walking among them, wearing a neatly ironed navy blue oxford shirt, white denim shorts, and black Wayfarers. He pays the entry fee in cash, extends a wrist for a handstamp. He walks inside the gates of the Utah Pride Festival, just like everyone else, and disappears into the crowd.
Except, of course, David Matheson wouldn’t say he’s like everyone else here. He’s lived a different kind of life. So he maneuvers through a crowd of rainbow socks and rainbow capes and rainbow tutus and T-shirts that say SATAN IS MY DADDY but never allows himself to be sucked up by all the glittery energy. And, to be perfectly honest, he doesn’t particularly want to be at Pride, but people said he should give it a shot. It’s Pride, after all, and doesn’t he have a lot to be proud of?
“Evil” is really just one of many names the world has branded David Matheson: He’s also been called a con man, a torturer, a criminal, a perpetrator of “crimes against humanity,” and a “piece of shit.” But he is, perhaps, best-known as the “intellectual godfather” of conversion therapy: a pseudoscientific, often religiously inspired attempt to convert people away from same-sex attractions. Researchers say some 700,000 Americans have undergone conversion therapy and that people who endure it are five times as likely to attempt suicide. It’s a relic of the early 1900s, when homosexuality was classified by medical professionals as a psychiatric disorder. Long after that classification was removed, religious leaders have encouraged believers to seek conversion therapy, as if to say that homosexuality is some kind of choice.
Conversion therapy has been weighing heavily this year on this place, this community: the Utah LGBTQ community. In March, a bill that would have made conversion therapy for minors illegal looked to have a clear path to passage in the state Legislature. But, at the last minute, the bill was gutted, the bones of it extracted one by one until it was so shapeless, it was tabled. The LGBTQ community saw it as one more way Utah was turning its back on queer youth, and yet one more way the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — which considers same-sex relationships a “serious transgression” — was keeping a white-knuckled grip on the place. Now billboards condemning the practice dot the city: “Conversion therapy told me I had to change who I am to feel accepted in my community,” one reads. “That being gay made me unworthy of love and compassion.”
For decades, Matheson operated as one of the country’s leading conversion therapists, collecting a salary by counseling men with “unwanted same-sex attraction.” Those men were often referred by religious leaders — from Orthodox Jews to Mormons — and, in many cases, were struggling between their same-sex attraction and religious teachings that said those attractions were wrong. For much of his career, Matheson believed that homosexuality was a psychological disorder — something to be cured with one-on-one therapy sessions, special retreats, and exploring ways to make one’s male gender more “whole.”
Today, Matheson’s still a practicing therapist, but he says he stopped the “gender wholeness” thing six years ago, around the time he realized conversion therapy didn’t actually work and homosexuality was never a disorder. But something else also shifted in Matheson along the way — something that proved to him that no matter how hard you try to change someone, he will forever be the person he was meant to be. It happened on January 21, 2019, the day he posted God’s honest truth to Facebook: “A year ago I realized I had to make substantial changes in my life,” he wrote. “I realized that it was time for me to affirm myself as gay…. I know my work helped many, many people because they’ve told me so, but I’m sure I’ve hurt some people too.”
From the moment he came out to the world to the moment he walked into the Utah Pride Festival as a gay man, just four and a half months had passed. “I’m way comfortable in church,” he says. “I’m just … I’m milquetoast. You know, I’m a vanilla kind of person. And the fact that I’m gay didn’t change that.”
He weaves down a grassy aisle of booths. “It’s kind of like any other festival, but with a gay theme,” he says, spotting his daughter, Katie Matheson, handing out information for Alliance for a Better Utah — a progressive political-action group where she works as communications director.
She smiles at her dad as she walks out from behind her table to greet him. “I’m not going to say this is hilarious, but…,” she says.
“No! It’s totally hilarious,” Matheson says.
“I’ve known that my dad was gay for years,” she says. “I’ve seen a change in my dad since this has happened.”
“Oh, I want to hear what that is,” he says.
“You’re so much happier. He’s cut himself loose from something,” she says.
“Yeah. I think that’s how it feels from the inside,” he says.
Katie asks her dad how he’ll spend the afternoon at Pride. He shrugs. What do you do at Pride? “You could get a button!” she offers. “Oh, but you wouldn’t want to put a button on that nice shirt.”
“I need a Pride sticker,” Matheson says, “because that would make me feel … immersed.”
“That’s not … what it takes. It’s not just a sticker,” she says.
“Well, I’m also gay,” he says. “Does that help?”
In July 1847, long before Utah was a state, the LDS people roamed westward at the direction of their leader, Brigham Young, to set up a home for the church. They wanted to be free of religious discrimination, of being told the way they were was wrong. As the story goes: trains of wagons emerged from the mountains, and when Young got a look at the wide Salt Lake Valley, he declared that “this is the place.”
And this is the place that David Matheson came to be who he is. Born in the spring of 1961 in Murray, Utah, Matheson was a Mormon from the start — the youngest of four children born to devout LDS parents, an ancestor of some of those early LDS pioneers. As a child, Matheson spent summers catching lizards in a desert ravine behind the family home. He filled his bedroom with pets (he says he had 34) and plants (“I had one plant for 45 years”).
In high school, he was a lanky, unathletic teenager who threw himself into his high school productions of Fiddler on the Roof and The Music Man. He dated girls but was haunted by “this masculine inferiority” that always seemed to nip at his heels. He was raised to be a Mormon man — which, by his telling, meant conforming to rigid, unmovable confines of what a man should be and should never be. “Gender is eternal,” he says of what he was taught to believe. “You were male or female before birth. You are male or female now, and you will always be male or female.”
Matheson stepped into the role carved out for him by church authorities — people who are seen as prophets and apostles, whose teachings “have a stamp of approval from God.”
“I completely bought it,” he says.
In fact, Matheson couldn’t even really conceive of a world that made room for another definition than what his church taught him. “I didn’t even admit to myself that I was gay until I was 23,” he says, “right before I got married.”
He didn’t tell Peggy, his soon-to-be wife. “About a year after we got married, I’m like, ‘OK, it’s actually getting worse.’ ” He confessed his secret. He was attracted to men. Peggy was stunned, but Matheson says neither of them knew what to do. Their faith didn’t make room for situations like this. They agreed to just keep going. (Peggy Matheson declined to comment.)
They had three children. They had sex “thousands of times.” For most of it, Matheson was really happy. He believed he was bisexual. He studied counseling psychology at Brigham Young University. His clients were often religious men who felt conflicted between being gay or remaining a member of a church that was against being gay. Or, the way Matheson would say it — as he did in his 2013 book, Becoming a Whole Man — these men were trying to “successfully resolve unwanted same-sex attraction.”
Matheson’s therapy took him around the country and to the United Kingdom and Israel. He studied under Joseph Nicolosi in California, who was a prominent secular conversion therapist from the now-defunct National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. Matheson then set up a practice in New Jersey, where most of his clients were Orthodox Jews. He rented an apartment near his office to cut down on his commute. During the days, he would counsel clients that their same-sex attractions were simply a result of a lack of close relationships with other men. He started Journey Into Manhood, a weekend men’s retreat to “address incongruous same-sex attractions.” During the retreat, leaders would guide participants in activities like “father-son holding” — operating from the belief that their attractions were the result of childhood trauma or a lack of physical contact with their fathers.
At night, he’d return to the apartment he split with a male roommate, and the two would snuggle in bed naked. The hypocrisy was easy for him to explain away. He was basically prescribing himself his own medicine. He felt fine with it: this man living at the center of a Mormon worldview, where men’s wishes, men’s lives, and the teachings of male leaders were tantamount. At every turn, Matheson could feel justified.
David Matheson is gay. Gay-gay. Not bisexual. He can say it now: He likes guys. That’s the part he has figured out. He likes talking about guys, talking about being with guys, talking about young guys, old guys, black guys, white guys. He met a guy at the gym and thought for certain he was in love. “It was awesome for a couple of weeks,” he says, but it fell apart pretty quickly. He got on Tinder, put Grindr on his phone. Had a few hookups. “That was kind of weird. Kind of gross, actually,” he says. He deleted those apps. Met a guy on Facebook. Flew to see him. Big mistake. He tried watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. He didn’t really get it. He went to a gay bar. “I felt like a prostitute in church. I just was like, ‘I don’t belong here,’ ” he says.
He met a sweet man named Douglas Freeman, who sells eyeglasses for a living and loves talking about astrology and tarot and his four daughters: the product of the three Mormon marriages he tried to make work before coming out as gay. Matheson is on a quest to find love with a man because he knows that for most — if not all — of his 32-year marriage to his ex-wife, Peggy, he wasn’t really in love. And he feels terrible about that.
When Matheson came out, his biggest concern was how his church would react to his admission. By then, he and Peggy had split up. His three adult children already knew he was gay, and all of them had left the church for their own reasons. “Every week in church, I’m going, ‘Can I come out?’ ” he recalls. “I was just like, ‘I can’t.’ Because I had taught all their kids in different classes…. I got up often and spoke about my faith in God. People just knew me as that guy.”
But even more, he knew his church membership could be put in jeopardy. The church, in recent years, has struggled to stake a clear position on same-sex relationships. In 2015, it unveiled new policies in its member handbook detailing that gays were “apostates” and children of same-sex unions could not be baptized until they were 18 years old. But this April, President Russell Nelson reversed that decision “after an extended period of counseling with our brethren in the Quorum of the Twelve.” But even still, those church leaders stood firm that LGBTQ members could only be members if they abstained from sex.
After Matheson’s Facebook post went viral, on a Sunday at church, he summoned the courage to speak. “I got up and said, ‘I’m sure a few missed the fact that I came out this last week. So you’re probably all wondering what I’m gonna say,’ ” he says. He told them he was the same Mormon man he’d always been, who believed in God and the Holy Spirit. And, yeah. He’s gay, too.
“They were, like, slapping me on the back. ‘We’re there for you, Dave. I’m so glad we’re here,’ ” he says. He wasn’t expecting that kind of reaction. He didn’t expect that his church leaders would give him a choice of what to do: They said he could be excommunicated from the church or he could forfeit his membership, which didn’t prohibit him from attending church but prevented him from having a more significant role. In a church that rejects same-sex marriages, that often excommunicates men who are gay, Matheson’s experience was the opposite. “When I got the letter from the church telling me I was no longer a member, I knew what was in it, but I didn’t open it,” he says. He called Doug. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna come over, and you’re going to cuddle me, and I’ll open the letter.’ ”
The religion that Matheson believed kept him from being his true self hadn’t rejected him — something he chalks up to the progressive nature of his specific Salt Lake City ward. He’s one of the lucky ones. He knows that. But the effect of allowing him to stay while excluding so many others has Matheson calling bullshit on how the LDS leadership makes its policies. The church issues decrees and sweeping policies it says will never change — though history has shown they often do.
“The Mormon church was a monogamous church, and it was a polygamist church, and then it was a monogamous church,” he says. “During polygamy, they not only taught that polygamy was OK, they taught that it was the way to heaven.” Mormon leaders once decried interracial marriage and declared that blacks couldn’t be priests — policies that were sealed with the statement, “And always will be.” But those rules have been revoked, too.
“The ‘And always will be’ makes you go, OK, whenever they say, ‘And always will be,’ we have to put a question mark by it,” Matheson says.
When Matheson came out on Facebook, people congratulated him, but many also criticized him for not denouncing his past work. Truth Wins Out, an organization that fights conversion therapy, called Matheson’s post “unrepentant.”
“I know that I need to apologize because I’m not going to be taken seriously if I don’t. And yet, I don’t quite know what I’m apologizing for,” he explains the night before Pride. “I am sorry that I believed that homosexuality was a disorder…. Honestly, I’m more sorry for how I treated my wife and for her pain.
“I’m sorry that I wasn’t a good enough husband,” he says. “I’m sorry that I was part of a system that oppressed gay people. I mean, I was. I admit that fully. I see myself as being an agent of that system.”
So Matheson struggles with how much he’s to blame. “I think there’s a lot of people that are assuming people were harmed that weren’t,” he says. “So people say, ‘You harmed hundreds or thousands of people,’ and, like, I never worked with thousands of people.”
But with Journey Into Manhood continuing to hold retreats around the world — from Texas to Mexico to Poland — it’s easy to see that the things Matheson once taught continue to affect thousands of people.
In Salt Lake City, some gay-affirming therapists, who are themselves gay, have taken him under their wing, sympathetic to how risky of a leap Matheson took by coming out. “When we say, ‘David has come out,’ it isn’t like he crossed some threshold and all his beliefs shifted,” says Jerry Buie, who founded Pride Counseling in Salt Lake City in 1994. “Look at his age, look at where he is developmentally…. He’s lost his prominence. Imagine what that must be like? Then to not have a sympathetic ear? Everyone thinks you’re the devil’s uncle now.”
Buie and Matheson met as he was starting to back away from believing homosexuality was a disorder. They ate lunch. They talked about ethics. Years before Matheson came out, the pair worked together on the Reconciliation and Growth Project, a working group of mental-health professionals in Salt Lake City trying to bring together people with opposing views on faith-based values and sexuality. Buie says it quickly became apparent to him that Matheson didn’t understand a world where being gay didn’t mean feeling shame. Buie pushed him, challenged him in conversations when he perpetuated stereotypes about homosexuality and gender.
“He’ll often say, ‘Oh, I get it now.’ I say, ‘No, not really. But I can see you’re on the path,’ ” Buie says. “It’s like nailing Jell-O to the wall sometimes. It sticks for a minute. But he is trying.”
Matheson was taken aback when he learned his coming out had been fodder for coverage by the Southern Poverty Law Center (an organization that, in part, tracks and brings lawsuits against hate groups and that brought a suit against conversion therapists associated with Matheson in the past). “It puts me in the likes of Ku Klux Klan people. And, and that’s…,” he pauses, “a pretty humbling thing.”
But Matheson also stands firm that he helped some people. Some of those former clients are gay, and some are straight. He helped people when they needed him. “I haven’t had one client come back to me and say, You’ve harmed me,’ ” he says. Twenty-four hours later, that would change.
In the corner of a downtown Salt Lake City coffee shop where rainbow pride flags hang in the windows, Dave Mangum sits in a booth, grasping the hand of his boyfriend, Cameron. He wears a bright orange plaid shirt; his hair is thin. He has the kind of rough, lined hands that tell the story of a man who worked as a general contractor in another life. An old life, when he had a wife and seven children, when he was a devout Mormon and bishop, when he was depressed, suicidal, living in fear. The old him who needed Matheson to save his life.
When Matheson walks into the coffee shop, Mangum springs from his seat and throws his arms around his former therapist. Mangum is crying by the time he sits back down. Matheson grasps his free hand across the table.
“I was in trouble, and I needed to see someone,” Mangum says. He had gone through several therapists recommended by LDS Family Services to deal with years of sexual abuse at the hands of his father. “It was a horrible experience,” he says. “Their answer was, ‘Are you going to the temple? Are you reading your Scriptures? Are you praying?’ ”
The more counselors he cycled through, the further he spiraled. He heard about Matheson and called, begging for an appointment. Thirty minutes later, he was sitting across from him. They talked for three hours. “I sat there and cried because no one ever helped,” Mangum recalls, new tears running down his cheeks. He says Matheson simply listened. He didn’t shame him for what had happened in his life, for the way he thought about himself. Their sessions would continue for four and a half years, twice every week. “He was the only person that I had been able to trust up to that point,” Mangum says, looking at Matheson as he says it. “Ever. In my life.”
But he says he’ll never forget the day he stopped trusting Matheson: It happened when Mangum told him he was ready to sleep with a man. “You made comments like, ‘This is a mistake. You’re going to regret it. This would be the worst decision of your life. It’ll destroy you,’ ” Mangum says.
“The last session we ever had was one where I was very strong with you about your relationship with Christ,” Matheson recalls. “I asked very pointed questions. ‘What would Jesus say about this desire?’ ”
Mangum quit. He felt betrayed and confused. Even Matheson had a sinking feeling he’d crossed a line. He tried calling and sending messages but was met with silence. If Mangum was broken when he came to Matheson, Matheson showed him how to recognize when someone was doing him harm — even if that person was his therapist.
Without Matheson, Mangum moved on. He left his wife. He dated men. The LDS church excommunicated him. “I don’t live in fear anymore,” he says. Now he’s a clinical mental-health counselor at the Utah State Prison, helping other people. He realized the stringent masculinity he was spoon-fed was “shaming.” Being a man meant being fine with being himself. “I cry. Is that masculine? I’m afraid sometimes — is that masculine? No. I tell people I love them. Is that masculine? It isn’t. I curl my girls’ hair. I buy them dresses. I buy them flowers. I decorate for Valentine’s Day for my kids. Is that masculine?” he says. He marches in the Pride Parade, too, surrounded by his kids.
When Mangum saw the news that his former therapist had come out, “I was pissed,” he says.
“You’re talking about being pissed back then,” Matheson clarifies, thinking he’s referring to his behavior in their final sessions.
“I was pissed back then, and I was re-pissed,” Mangum corrects him. “I wasn’t supported.”
And here was Matheson, being supported by his church. Even though Mangum had felt so much pain in his own coming out — in part because of Matheson — he felt compelled to do something. After years of silence, he sent his former therapist a message. He offered to do what Matheson hadn’t done for him. He wrote and said he was there for him, no matter what.
On a Sunday, when he’d usually be in church, Matheson is instead clasping Douglas Freeman’s hand in the crowd at the Utah Pride Parade as it barrels through the city. It’s hot. Matheson asks Freeman to hold a shopping bag, and he slowly peels off his shirt. For a second, he’s standing there bare-chested. He extracts a white tank top from the bag and pulls it over his head.
He’s walking hand in hand with another man just blocks away from the monolith in Temple Square, where the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve make policies about LGBTQ people in its midst. Where it could be, right now, watching this entire rainbow-streaked affair raging through the wide, clean streets it built.
As Matheson walks along the parade route, he pauses to take in three large signs everyone else in this crowd seems to have no problem ignoring:
HOMO SEX IS SIN.
PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD.
JESUS SAVES FROM HELL.
At the bottom of each is a Bible reference. As the crowd works its way around him, Matheson stands there, reading.
A float comes booming along, filled with men in underwear dancing to Katy Perry. He and Freeman watch with wide smiles. Matheson doubles over in laughter at a bearded man dressed like Jesus, the back of his robe adorned with glitter-letters: OMG I SAID I HATED FIGS!
Maybe this Pride thing isn’t so bad after all, he says later, sitting on a shady park bench back near the main stage of the festival. Maybe it was meant for people like him. “I’m a morally and culturally conservative, politically progressive liberal, active churchgoing ex-Mormon, openly gay ex-conversion therapist. Who the fuck am I?!”
Months later, a new LDS ward was built in his neighborhood. Matheson, along with several friends, began attending services there — and he found himself, again, back at square one. He had to come out to a new congregation. He calls it “Coming Out 2.0.” He says he and Doug broke up — decided to just be friends. But it’s OK, Matheson assures. This is part of living his new life. No more lying. No more games.
He knows you can’t fake love. That’s just how it is, and always will be.