On “Gay Conversion” Therapy
Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family
(Riverhead Books, 2016)
In the time between the 2016 publication of Boy Erased and its release in paperback, the memoir’s topic, gay conversion therapy, went from being largely on its way out to being elected back into the Oval Office.
Practices claiming to convert sexual orientation or gender identity and to cure the mental illnesses or developmental disorders that purportedly cause same-sex attraction had been banned in five states and the District of Columbia. Medical, psychological, and therapeutic institutions, across the board, condemned these practices, declaring their offerings fraudulent and abusive. As the author of Boy Erased, Garrard Conley, was receiving accolades from The New Yorker magazine to Oprah for his story of surviving conversion therapy, the Supreme Court of the United States was refusing to hear cases that challenge state bans.
Advocates for religious liberties countered that conversion therapy was a form of speech and thereby protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. In addition to conversion practices being deeply rooted in Christian religious expression, involving group fellowship and personal testimony, “ex-gay” therapy was also modeled after a twelve-step program and similarly included interventions, talk therapy, and mutual support. Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs were legal.
Why was conversion therapy different?
Conley offered his first-person account of this closeted world. In Boy Erased, Conley revealed the practices of Love in Action, the fundamentalist Christian organization, led by John Smid, where “the sins of homosexuality” were equated with addictions, such as alcoholism and gambling, and evangelist leaders preached the God-ordained steps to curing “sexual addictions.” For further insight, Conley provided his handbook outlining The Twelve Steps—Tools for Personal Change to the Brooklyn Rail for review.
1. We admitted we were powerless over homosexuality and compulsive sexual behavior—that our lives had become unmanageable.
In 2004, at age nineteen, Conley agreed to attend Love in Action’s two-week trial program, The Source, after his parents learned he was gay. Horrified and ashamed, his parents, a Southern Baptist minister and “his wife,” threatened to quit supporting Conley’s college education and to stop welcoming him home to the only life he knew in small-town Arkansas, should he ever act upon his feelings.
The Source was a 1,500-dollar assessment program and promised to determine the duration of therapy he would require in order to be cured. Initially, Conley was relieved. His worst fears of being gay (and consequently being alienated from his family, friends, and faith) were coming true.
“Anything,” he thought. “I’ll do anything to erase this part of me.”
Soon after checking into the facility in a nondescript strip mall in Tennessee, Conley learned he shared this convert-or-else ultimatum with many of the other eighteen participants. One by one they confessed, they had agreed to therapy: “Otherwise we would be homeless, penniless, excommunicated, exiled” from their homes located throughout the Bible Belt.
In the face of such ultimatums, Conley began to question the actual source of his feelings of powerlessness and why the lives of the people in his group had really become unmanageable. As the practical application of Love in Action’s conversion principles were impressed upon him, Conley realized: “You had to want to change, and until you wanted to change so badly that you’d rather die than not change, you would never make it past Step One—admitting you were wrong.”
2. Came to believe that Jesus Christ could restore us to sanity.
Love in Action, a fundamentalist Christian organization, started in 1973 as a response to the American Psychological Association declassifying homosexuality as a mental illness. The Religious Right leadership of Love in Action rejected this decision and began to offer believers a cure to so-called sex-based addictions. For over four decades, evangelism for “ex-gay” ministries spread through the United States and globally through Exodus International, while the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics affirmed the American Psychological Association’s assessment that same-sex attraction was not, as this second step infers, insane.
Logically, to accept that one’s sanity must be restored, one must believe he or she was in a state of insanity. However, according to Smid, “It is actually the world that is out of order and upside down, not God.” The world was Satan’s domain and their “sexual addictions” (including without distinction: same-sex attraction, bestiality, pedophilia, and promiscuity) were proof that they were falling for the world’s evil, lying attempts to control their minds. The only sane way forward was to believe in Jesus Christ.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of Jesus Christ.
Conley grew up in a strict Southern Baptist community. He was a believer, and cherished his relationships with God and his community. When he began to wonder if he might be gay, he had scant experience to confirm these inklings piqued by ogling the underwear section in catalogs or swooning over male protagonists in novels. Throughout adolescence, he had male crushes accompanied by “a constant guilty ache that ran through my body for so long that I came to believe the feeling was just a part of what it meant to be alive.”
In Christian circles, such as the humiliated one around Smid, formed by teenagers, covered in dress code apparel deemed appropriate for men: “Undershirts worn at all times, even while sleeping,” and for women, “skirts must fall at the knee and below,” no one was praised for his or her true self. Humanity was considered an abomination.
At its core, Christianity was a belief system based upon conversion and self-annihilation. The act of becoming a born-again Christian required an act of faith to castoff one’s self, which according to Ephesians 4:22 – 24 “is being corrupted by its deceitful desires,” and to “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
“You’re using sexual sin to fill a God-shaped void in your life,” Smid told them.
“In order to be filled with the Holy Spirit,” Conley wrote, taking the lesson to heart, “I had to be emptied of the human one.”
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Every night, Conley completed the program’s required Moral Inventory. This was another technique inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous, a process that required Conley to commit hours to focusing on his sinfulness, and writing extensively about his shameful behavior or thoughts so that he could share them publicly with the group.
“Confession must come before healing can take place,” Smid counseled.
Another male participant, around the age of seventeen, wearing Wranglers and a cowboy smile, confided in Conley. “If I repent for sins I haven’t even committed…,” he said with hope, “I figure God might even bump me up to Step Five.”
Tragically, what Conley was not able to share with anyone was the truth about his first same-sex experience. His freshman year of college, Conley developed a crush on a fellow male classmate at his Christian college. They became friends. They ran and studied and attended church together. Conley fantasized about the euphoria, the horror—if he were to act on his feelings. His friend seemed to return his affection, but instead of exploring a relationship, he raped Conley.
Conley interpreted the assault as a sign that God was punishing him physically for his mental sins. He worried about how much worse—if this was what he was suffering in the here-and-now—might his punishment be in the afterlife. He concluded that this must have been what the Bible was warning him about in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, when conquering warriors raped male and female citizens.
“Added to all of this shame” Conley wrote, “was the knowledge that I had secretly pined for the opportunity to be this close to another man, and it was extremely difficult after my experience to consider gay sex as anything other than rape.”
His rapist, overcome with his own “desperate guilt,” called Conley’s mother and informed her that her son was “a homosexual, a gay. He’s disgusting.” The rapist told her, “He’s a monster.”
5. Admitted to our Heavenly Father, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have our Heavenly Father remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
At Love in Action, Conley’s nascent sexuality took on new associations, as same-sex attraction was described as: “dependence,” “self-loathing,” and “selfishness.”
A testimony by a successful “ex-gay” read: “Since coming here, God had shown me a great deal about my selfishness and fear, which I had used to keep myself trapped in a cycle of homosexuality.”
During Moral Inventory, he listed his wrongs, his defects, his shortcomings, while also reflecting: “the shame and rage settling in my chest, filling up spaces I had previously reserved for love, spreading beneath my skin like invisible bruises.”
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Bear witness: Who ought to have been included on Conley’s list of amends?
His father? Who—when asked before a congregation if he would do everything he could to fight against the sin of homosexuality in the church—responded, “Yes.”
His mother? Who stayed with him during the program, while growing evermore skeptical about the typo-ridden manual and the duration of therapy required to be cured. Estimates ranged from three months to a lifetime.
His college roommate, who moved out once the rumors started?
His neighbors, who had known him his whole life, but now averted their eyes?
His fellow participant, mumbling through his testimony about surviving his seventh suicide attempt, as Conley doubted his commitment?
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
Before coming to the program, Conley, shocked and grieving after his assault, stood in the shower, watching water drip from his skin and prayed, “Lord, make me pure as that.”
The nightly journaling about his sinfulness, the act of taking a personal inventory of how wrong he was in the eyes of God and the God-fearing, was supposed to be helping him deconstruct his “false self” on the page. Ironically, the exercise instead helped Conley come face-to-face with himself—with his true character—his humanity. In a roundabout way, the daily worksheets and public testimonies affirmed the value of one’s personal experience, the first-person account.
In the pursuit of trying to erase himself, Conley’s self comes to life on the page. Similar to evaluating a character in a book, Conley saw himself as worth getting to know. He was curious and charming, snarky and sensual, judgmental and princely, loyal and caring, in other words: complex.
Beginning to resist, Conley wrote: “In the process of purification, you risked erasing every minor detail you’d ever cared about.”
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our relationship with Jesus Christ, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry it out.
While so many entered the program feeling powerless and following an ultimatum to convert or else, the actual take-it-or-leave-it challenge, at the heart of this memoir, was not as much about being gay or “ex-gay” but instead about being a believer in one god or in oneself.
Smid spoke against the “evils and delusions of self-sufficiency,” but Conley felt abandoned by God—who, after a lifetime of devotion, Conley wrote—“refused to answer my prayers since I’d come to the facility.” He was newly skeptical that perhaps the deity that he’d once believed had dwelled within his very heart, may have never existed in the first place. Instead of improving Conley’s faith and his relationships with the faithful, his conversion therapy experience led him to opening up his heart to new kinds of love.
12. Having had the spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we carry this message to others, and practice these principles in all our affairs.
Conversion therapy was an extension of an evangelical religion, after all. The “cure” promised by Love in Action was a so-called spiritual awakening. These steps served only to lead to an affirmation of the primary belief in a singular god—as the cure-all.
The Tools for Personal Change were not only an exercise in self-annihilation, calling participants to erase and convert themselves in order to fit the image of one deity, but also charged them with the ongoing responsibility to recruit others into the practice.
Instead, Conley took a note from the model program and accepted the things he could not change. And on the pages of Boy Erased, Conley offers readers more than a survival memoir; he illuminates the way toward a personal emergence.
In 2017, while Conley kicked off his paperback promotional tour, there were rumors of a far-reaching executive order to come from the White House. The new vice president had a history of advocating for conversion therapy morally and with state tax dollars. Meanwhile, the five states, including California, Oregon, Illinois, New Jersey, and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia, have upheld their bans on conversion therapy. New York imposed a partial ban on covering insurance for practices involving minors. Hawaii, Idaho, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island planned to pursue legislative action this year. In the past, religious liberty cases challenging these state bans have failed to be heard by the Supreme Court, because a minimum of four justices must agree to grant a Petition for Certiorari.
Depending on this administration’s confirmation, might there be four justices willing to hear a case for “gay conversion” “therapy”?
AMY DENESON is a writer in New York via the Heartland. Her reviews of activist art and other essays have contributed to the New York Times, The Guardian, Salon, Bust, Curve magazine, and more. All of her raves can be read at amydeneson.com.