One measure of a college town’s sense of itself, obviously, is what its graduates go on to accomplish.
When folks in Manhattan, Kansas, remember the exhilaration of their first Pride celebration in April 2010, around the same time as they were getting pummeled trying to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance at City Hall, they talk about a kid named Samuel Brinton like proud parents or professors.
Sam Brinton got degrees in nuclear engineering, Chinese and opera, they say, shaking their heads in astonishment. Sam went to grad school at M.I.T., they boast.
Brinton was among a group of students who took Kansas State University by storm in those days.
“There was just a lot of energy and need for LGBT support organizations,” Lukus Ebert tells me in Chapter 6 of No Place Like Home. Ebert, Brinton, Dusty Garner and others were coming out not just on campus but to testify at City Hall. All of them were, Ebert says, “very type-A personality, go-get-‘em, politically charged, and really caring about social issues and social justice.”
So no one in Manhattan would have been surprised to see Brinton’s recent byline in the opinion pages of the New York Times, where Brinton recounted the trauma they experienced as a middle schooler whose Southern Baptist missionary parents sent them to gay conversion therapy.
“Many think that conversion therapy — the snake oil idea that you can forcibly change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity — is an artifact of the past, a medieval torture practice,” Brinton wrote. “But in fact it is still legal in 41 states, including so-called progressive ones like New York and Massachusetts.”
After earning a master’s in nuclear engineering at M.I.T., Brinton ended up at think tanks in Washington, D.C., working on policy concerning nuclear reactors and nuclear waste management. They’d always stayed active in LGBTQ causes, and last year they took a job as head of advocacy and government affairs for the Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth.
“We constantly hear from survivors of conversion therapy who have been so hurt that they are contemplating suicide,” Brinton wrote in the Times. “I vividly remember calling the Trevor Project a decade ago as a young college student who was just realizing that the trauma of conversion therapy had devastated my ability to cope with the myriad challenges L.G.B.T.Q. youth must survive on a daily basis. I now hear similar stories of calls just like mine.”
Brinton left Kansas in 2011. I didn’t interview them for No Place Like Home, but I tracked them down after I saw the Times piece.
“The activism I did in Kansas was what made me what I am today,” Brinton told me by phone from the East Coast. (We spoke a couple of weeks before Brinton’s picture would show up in the Los Angeles Times: On Oscars weekend, Brinton made a splash walking the red carpet in stilettos fancier than their customary gender-fluid heels to grab some spotlight for the Trevor Project).
“You can’t get the same training in New York or D.C. as in the wheat fields of Kansas,” Brinton told me. “There, with every word you say, you have to be ready to respond to hate. You can’t think twice. You have to be ready to go – and be ready to celebrate.”
Briton ended up in Kansas as the result of a desperate ploy to avoid Pensacola Christian College, which was where their parents wanted them to go.
“My family had left the mission field and was living in Iowa,” Brinton explained. “As a conversion therapy survivor, I was telling everybody I was straight to make the pain go away and make sure I wouldn’t be put back in therapy.”
Brinton wanted to be an engineer, but wasn’t sure what kind of engineer. Scrolling through Pensacola Christian’s course catalog, they got to the letter N and saw the college didn’t offer nuclear engineering. So that’s what they decided to study.
“My mother was mortified,” Brinton said. “She had grown up near Three Mile Island. Why would her child want to be a nuclear engineer?”
But Brinton was also passionate about music and needed a school with programs in both nuclear engineering and music. K-State was one of the only such universities in the country, and Brinton got a full ride.
“I loved every moment,” they said. “K-State was some of the happiest memories of my life.”
Brinton lived in a scholarship house that was “like a nerd fraternity.” They got to sing, they got to study nuclear physics. “It was a dream come true.”
Still, they thought they were the only gay person on the planet. The university’s LGBT Resource Center wasn’t up and running, and, bizarrely, Brinton had no idea any of the other people in the School of Music were gay.
One night, Brinton and some friends were coming home from a regional music competition. Brinton was in the back seat when the woman who was driving mentioned her girlfriend.
“I didn’t know what to do. I thought the government killed us all off – I was terrified,” they remembered. “I immediately just hit the highest note I could possibly hit, trying to shock everybody out of this space.”
It was a shock, alright – the car ended up in a ditch. But after the driver calmed down (“An angry lesbian is the worst fear of my life now,” Brinton said with a laugh), she and her girlfriend introduced them around campus and started coming over to watch “Queer As Folk” and “Will and Grace.”
“It was so shocking to realize I wasn’t alone,” Brinton told me. “I came out in a ball of glitter doing all this stuff.”
Testifying at the Manhattan City Commission prepared them for testifying in front of Congress and the United Nations. And now, Brinton’s helping lead a campaign to ban conversion therapy in every state.
“We’ve made significant progress,” they wrote in the Times. “Nine states, the District of Columbia and 32 localities have laws protecting kids under the age of 18 from receiving conversion therapy from licensed health care professionals.” Such laws, they wrote, had already protected 6,000 teenagers from the torture they’d endured.
“In some states the legislation was sponsored entirely by Republicans,” Brinton told me. “In four of those nine states it was signed by a Republican governor, so I’m very tired of having people telling me we can’t work with Republicans. Don’t tell me we aren’t having successes now.”
Brinton knows it’s hard for LGBTQ activists coming off the high of marriage equality to the low of an extremely hostile administration. But the fight against conversion therapy is a shining example of success, they said. And Kansas taught them how to handle failure.
“We were under attack all the time. We were mocked for who we love, protested by a church every step of the way,” they said, “yet we kept fighting.”
Others took up that fight after Brinton left Kansas, and Manhattan City Commissioners unanimously passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people in 2016.
Brinton sometimes comes back for a visit. On April 3, they’ll be giving a lecture at Washburn University in Topeka.
They’ll be talking, Brinton said, about resilience.
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.