By Garrard Conley
There was a time when psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists considered homosexuality a disorder and experimented with a variety of techniques for curing the condition, the most notorious being transorbital lobotomies, torturous aversion therapies, mentally damaging blame the victim abuse, to name a few. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a disorder from the DSM-I. This, however, did not stop groups from pursuing ways to pressure individuals into changing their sexuality, or at least suppress it. In fact, currently, only a handful of jurisdictions in the United States prohibit what Garrard Conley writes about in novelistic memoir, Boy Erased. Love in Action (LIA), of which Conley writes, still operates, now under the name Restoration Path. John Smid, a real person appearing in Conley’s book, now admits that he was wrong, and acknowledges his homosexuality; in 2014, he married his spouse, Larry McQueen. You can detect bitterness at the end of Conley’s life story regarding the ex-gay leaders who now admit to the harm they did.
Conley recounts when a fellow student at his college who had raped him outed him to his parents. Both were very religious people, fundamentalists. Conley’s father owned a car dealership wherein he not only sold cars but proselytized to buyers and held prayer meetings with his employees. At the time, his father was on the verge of beginning a new life as an ordained pastor in the local Ministry Baptist Church. As for Conley, he appeared on the outside to be an ideal prospective minister’s son, replete with beautiful and popular girlfriend.
Conley’s parents were not the harsh types. They thought perhaps they had done something wrong, that maybe he was medically defective in some curable way, that professional help would put him back on the Christian path. LIA, which came highly recommended to them, seemed like a good option.
Conley recounts his time at LIA and with leader John Smid. LIA subjected Conley and the others to conversion therapy. This version, as explained by Conley, employed a 12-step approach. It forced participants to look deep into their family histories for issues, among them alcoholism, spousal abuse, and the like, that might account for the subjects’ aberrant behavior. As you might imagine, constantly dredging for problems, continually trying to prise from yourself some reason for your sexual abnormality, this unrelenting type of self-flagellation could lead to dangerous mental instability.
Coupled with this was Conley’s fundamentalist religious upbringing. His was, and probably remains, engaged in an inner battle to reconcile his sexuality with religious dogma that condemned him, that viewed his sexuality as a choice and thus a turning away from God. Conversion therapy only served to intensify this struggle.
Conley tries to convey his pain, but, unfortunately, in trying to treat his experience more like a novel than an introspective memoir, readers might not fully appreciate the agony such pseudo therapy caused him and others.
Boy Erased will appear as a film in late September, starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe. with screenplay adaptation and direction by Joel Edgerton, and may do a better job of portraying the emotional and mental turmoil non-acceptance can produce.
Those interested in LIA and religious conversion therapy in general might like to watch the documentary This Is What Love In Action Looks Like, as well as view a few interviews with survivors online. w/c