By Arielle Rebekah
The first version of this article was originally published in TransLash Zine Vol. 6: Anti-Trans Hate Machine (April 2023).
A cool October breeze blew over the hill as I trudged meekly down toward the white pillars that stood at the entrance to Carlbrook School’s commons building. “You can do this,” I reassured myself. “You just have to get up there and start talking.”
It was National Coming Out Day 2013, and I’d finally decided — pseudo-impulsively, but not without months of repeatedly talking myself out of it — that it was time to share my truth with the world (or at least with my isolated microcosm of the world). My parents had recently enrolled me at Carlbrook, a therapeutic boarding school in South Boston, Virginia. Though nestled in an ultraconservative enclave of the state, the seemingly progressive staff and student body had felt generally supportive of queer and trans folks in my various conversations up until then.
I’d had a concept of my girlhood since I was four years old and my parents bathed me alongside a family friend, a cis girl around my age. From that moment on, I longed to one day wake up in a body that looked like hers, but I felt totally isolated in my deep and unyielding pain. At the time, I lacked the slightest inclination anyone else might relate. The word “transgender” would not even enter my vernacular, my girlhood, or the realm of possibility for nearly a decade.
At Carlbrook, we closed out each evening with an activity called “Last Light” where the student body would sit sprawled across the carpeted floor of the commons building as one or more students sat in front and shared a vulnerable piece of their life. That evening, on National Coming Out Day, I took the stage in front of 130 of my fellow students and staff. I told them that I was transgender and that I intended to transition while at the school. I also mentioned that I hoped to undergo gender-affirming surgery as soon as I graduated. Many of my peers offered words of support, but looking back on that evening, I realized the staff completely avoided addressing it.
After a suspiciously calm week, my school therapist approached me in the dining hall after dinner. As he walked me across the pond for my weekly parent phone call, his face sank into that condescendingly sympathetic therapist frown (you know the one). “There’s something I have to tell you,” he began. My heart pounded against my chest. Never a good way to start a sentence. “I had to tell your parents what you shared during Last Light.” My heart sank.
We walked the rest of the way in silence. As I picked up the phone, my parents were stern and accusatory. Though at first unclear why, I soon understood my therapist had assured them my coming out was merely a desperate ploy for attention rather than an important milestone to be taken seriously.
His outing me to my family was the first of many egregious violations of my autonomy and trust during my time at Carlbrook.
Over the next few weeks, I came out to numerous teachers and other staff, and several of them agreed to use my name and pronouns. This went smoothly for about a month until I noticed that one day, all at once, everyone who had previously been naming and gendering me correctly suddenly stopped. I could not understand why a group of folks I thought were my allies seemed to do a 180 overnight, but the change was far too synchronized to be coincidental.
Before long, I discovered what had happened. During a staff meeting, a school administrator who had caught wind of my requests forbade the staff from using my correct name and pronouns, or else they risked being fired. Around the same time, another administrator held a meeting where he emphasized an expectation he held for the school’s therapists—“do not indulge anything regarding gender.” At one point towards the end of my stay, the headmaster admitted that the administrators were afraid of how other students’ parents would react if they found out Carlbrook had a transgender student.
Any attempt to transgress the gender-based rule system in order to manage my worsening gender dysphoria earned me the label of “troublemaker” and I was made to feel guilty for it. When I tried to grow my hair past the allowed length for “boys” in order to look slightly more feminine, I was coerced into a barber’s stool with the threat of detention. When I tried to sit with other girls at school assemblies, staff enforced the school’s sex-segregated seating policy by telling me I should “know better” and publicly humiliating me until I complied. When I tried to sit next to two of my female friends on one particular school trip, an ultra-conservative male staff member asked me to move. When I rebutted, “But I’m transgender,” he looked at me and sternly warned, “Do not fuck with me.” A few months before graduation, I practically begged my new therapist to let me so much as speak with her about being trans. In response, she asked me to complete a writing assignment detailing why I would “never be a complete man nor a complete woman.”
Carlbrook’s abusive reprogramming tactics were rarely as evident as during our workshops. During each of these multi-day marathon group therapy sessions, an unlicensed and often untrained “therapist” would lead us through scripted activities designed to wear us down to the point that our self-concept was malleable. Many of these activities involved being forced into the middle of the room with loud music blaring as staff and peers verbally attacked or humiliated us. Others were designed to physically and emotionally exhaust us. When combined with sleep deprivation and severely delayed meal times, it meant that we were extremely emotionally vulnerable. Once it was clear our spirits were sufficiently broken, staff would seize the opportunity to reprogram us into believing what they wanted us to believe. For me, this meant forcing me to “reconnect with that little boy” inside me and making me feel guilty for “pushing him away” with all this “gender stuff.” At one point, I was publicly belittled and angrily kicked out of a workshop for asserting my truth to the conservative Mormon woman who was acting as the lead therapist, even though she herself was not licensed to practice therapy in the state of Virginia (nor anywhere else, to the best of my knowledge).
After 16 agonizing months of pleading with the school administration to allow me to live my truth, I finally graduated. Only then, I was more doubtful than before Carlbrook about how or even whether I wanted to transition. They had strategically sown seeds of doubt in my mind, forcing me to put my trust in them as the authority on what I needed. When it came time to trust myself, I couldn’t.
After finally beginning to socially transition in the summer of 2015, I spent almost a year afraid I’d made a terrible mistake. Carlbrook’s invalidations echoed inside me on an endless loop and perpetuated the noisy self-doubt that had taken up permanent residence in my brain since I was a child. I even briefly considered detransitioning, but feared that if I did, I would never be believed about my identity again.
It wasn’t until I began meeting with a transfeminine therapist in the summer of 2016 that I felt at peace with my decision. Even then, it took years of unpacking Carlbrook trauma before I finally believed again that my instincts, decision-making, and self-knowledge could be trusted.
In the half-decade following my graduation, fellow survivors and I unearthed a treasure trove of seedy stories about Carlbrook, and specifically its origins. We discovered our school was descended from Synanon, a notorious cult founded in 1958 that masqueraded as a “drug rehabilitation” program while practicing attack therapy and violently abusing children. Though Synanon was ultimately disbanded in the 1990s, the concept was replicated in the form of CEDU schools, whose treatment philosophy became the foundation for Carlbrook and a number of other teen residential treatment programs. Carlbrook shut down in 2015, but CEDU-esque schools still exist to this day, engaging in the same baseless and manipulative treatment tactics I and so many others have had to endure.
I need folks to understand that tactics stemming from conversion therapy are shockingly prevalent, even today. While some programs will explicitly and shamelessly refer to themselves as “reparative therapy” programs, others are more insidious, using the playbook of conversion without ever really showing their hand or revealing their motives. My parents genuinely believed they had enrolled me in a school that would help me find happiness. School staff were experts in controlling the narrative: we were gaslighted into believing our daily experiences were normal, and our families were gradually taught to trust the administration above their own children.
I was thankfully able to find my peace and come to a place of healing, but that is sadly not true of every survivor. While I came home to a family who soon learned to accept me and a community that had my back, many survivors return to the same chronically invalidating environments they left. I long for the day reprogramming is a thing of the past so that no one again has to suffer through what so many of us have endured.
Arielle Rebekah (they/them), founder of Trans & Caffeinated Consulting, is a transgender writer, coffee enthusiast, and mother to the three most different cats in the world. While their work centers mainly around transgender visibility and education, Arielle is passionate about creating a world where all people have access to the tools and resources they need to thrive. An admirer of the media’s ability to shape culture, Arielle’s all-time favorite show is The Good Place. While this sounds like a silly thing to write in a bio, this understatedly poignant comedy dares to dream of a world in which rather than being punished for their mistakes, people are given the love and support they need to do good. As a teenager, Arielle survived 2 years in a supposed therapeutic inpatient program that drew its tactics from the methodologies of cults and conversion “therapy” and has since dedicated their life to making the world a safer place for all transgender people. Follow them on Instagram and Twitter @Ariellergordon.