The Gay Conversion Therapy Memoir

“To continually go before God and ask for forgiveness and make promises you know you can’t keep is more than I can take. I feel it is making a mockery of God and ...

“To continually go before God and ask for forgiveness and make promises you know you can’t keep is more than I can take. I feel it is making a mockery of God and all He stands for in my life.” Jack McIntyre wrote these words in 1977, after spending four years in the ex-gay ministry Love in Action, just before he took his own life. Documented in a 1993 article by Michael Ybarra in the Wall Street Journal, McIntyre’s story was one of the first to bring widespread attention to the consequences of gay conversion therapy.1 In the years since, every major medical and mental health organization has denounced conversion therapy as dangerous, fraudulent, and unethical.2 As a 2009 report by the American Psychological Association observes, the vast majority of people who undergo these treatments do not experience a change in orientation.3 Instead, sexual orientation change efforts lead more reliably to depression, substance abuse, self-destructive behavior, and suicide.4 Before these statistics had been compiled, McIntyre’s story helped inaugurate a tradition of testimony that has in the last few years matured into a full-fledged movement: the rise of the conversion therapy memoir. These memoirs give names, faces, and narratives to a set of practices that have remained largely opaque to people on the outside.

A 2018 report from the UCLA School of Law estimates that 698,000 adults have received conversion therapy in the US, with 350,000 having undergone these treatments when they were minors. Twenty thousand more LGBT youth, aged 13–17, are projected to receive conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before they turn 18, while 57,000 youth in this age bracket will receive conversion therapy from a religious or spiritual leader.

Informed by the work of advocacy groups such as the Born Perfect campaign at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Human Rights Campaign, and the 50 Bills 50 States campaign at the Trevor Project, 14 states and 47 counties and cities in the US have banned conversion therapy in the last six years.5 Faith-based ministries have reconsidered their stance as well. In 2013 Alan Chambers, former president of the largest ex-gay umbrella group, Exodus International, announced the disbanding of the organization. In his written statement, Chambers combined acknowledgment of the harmful psychological effects of conversion therapy with a spiritual reckoning. “I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection,” he wrote. “I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives.”6

In the last five years, the publication of several first-person accounts has opened a crucial front in the movement to end these practices. For those of us who came out and came of age in cultures of conversion therapy, these narratives have mobilized a process of collective liberation from the stigma and trauma survivors experience. They also make our stories legible to readers who may not encounter them otherwise.

“Boy Erased” models a dignified path forward for survivors and their families, traversing distances that often seem insurmountable to those experiencing them.

Until recently, the ex-gay movement was treated primarily through journalistic exposés and sober social scientific studies. Now survivors and allies are putting a spotlight on these experiences across diverse platforms, including video testimony, as featured on Born Perfect’s Survivor Network page; advocacy update feeds on Instagram and Twitter; the new podcast series UnErased, coproduced by Radiolab; cultural criticism; and erotic fiction, such as Fighting My Instincts: A Gay Conversion Therapy Dropout Story.7

Autobiographical accounts make the harm palpable. Lobotomies and electroshock treatment for homosexuality may no longer be approved methods in the United States; nevertheless, violent practices persist, often in well-guarded secrecy. As survivor Samuel Brinton reported before the UN’s Committee Against Torture, the treatment he underwent as a minor was severe: a psychotherapist “tied down my hands, and placed ice on them while showing me erotic pictures of men. He wrapped my hands in hot coils, stuck needles in my fingers, and shocked me with electricity.”

Peter Gajdics’s memoir, The Inheritance of Shame (2017), describes the abuse he suffered for six years, from 1989 to 1995, in a religiously unaffiliated, cult-like therapeutic home nicknamed “the Styx,” run by a psychiatrist based in British Columbia named Dr. Alfonzo. In addition to incapacitating patients through excessive medication, Alfonzo instructed them to call him “Papa.” Gajdics recalls that the therapist even distilled his own scent in a bottle of cologne, so that Gajdics could have “Papa” on him at all times.8

Desiree Akhavan’s masterful 2018 film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, based on the 2012 novel by emily m. danforth, reminds viewers that abuse is not limited to blatant acts of torture. One of the film’s most perceptive scenes features a conversation emphasizing this point between Cameron, a high schooler sent to a reparative therapy camp after being caught in the back seat of a car with one of her friends, and an investigator seeking information on a case of self-injury by one of Cameron’s peers. The investigator asks Cameron if the counselors have been abusive. Cameron answers that the counselors have not assaulted them, but poses the question, “How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?” The harm is not always spectacular. Rather, it is built into the design of reparative therapy, in its attempt to forcibly change people’s bodies and minds through a culture of sustained humiliation.

Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Lane, and Chloë Grace Moretz in The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Jeong Park / FilmRise

The conversion therapy memoir draws on one of the oldest traditions in American letters, the religious conversion narrative, which depicts a journey toward restoration through faith. The new narratives compound this plot, revealing the first attempt at transformation to be a counterfeit conversion detour, hence the popular survivor appellation: the ex-ex-gay. States of deliverance follow a reckoning with the deception of conversion therapy. This deliverance frequently coincides with renewal of faith, as shown in the story of the popular blogger Julie Rodgers and the self-published Mom Knows, by the Jewish activist Catherine Tuerk. In the 2016 memoir Saving Alex, which documents Alex Cooper’s eight-month confinement at a Mormon ex-gay boot camp, deliverance takes the form of a groundbreaking legal victory in Utah, which protected Cooper’s right to live as an openly gay teenager.

Whether reconciliation with an earlier faith community is achieved or not, the false start, on a path to a later epiphany, is a common thread running through these memoirs. Indeed, this plot complication finds echoes in the earliest examples of the genre, too. As Patricia Caldwell argues in The Puritan Conversion Narrative, the signature of the form was always its unpredictability, a “pattern of asymmetry,” which made it impossible to fit individual experiences of faith within established conventions of redemption as a predetermined process.9 Far from being exclusive and formulaic, the conversion narrative reliably served as a testament to the always unfolding and unfixable horizon of its protagonist’s destination.

The conversion narrative provides a useful paradigm for exploring one of the most complicated aspects of the ex-gay movement, its capacity to generate forms of belonging for people who feel torn between different worlds.10 In many cases, ex-gay practitioners begin as the only figures within a congregation to take a stance against exiling their LGBT members outright. Ex-gay spaces offer a precarious bridge between a nascent recognition of one’s LGBT identity and preexisting affiliations (familial, political, or faith-based) that have been jeopardized.

Occupying these liminal spaces comes with immense psychological costs. Nonetheless, many survivors and faith leaders who abandon the movement come away with profound insight: in experiencing the breakdown of ex-gay logic firsthand, they discover what is required to embrace and sustain a more diverse community of believers. Religious studies scholar Tanya Erzen has suggested that ex-gay spaces are perhaps best understood as queer, insofar as they quickly give way to a protracted, fluid ambivalence about the efficacy of the mission, shared by everyone involved, which opens up the possibility for unexpected coalitions to emerge in their place.11

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Queers Growing Old and Young

By Robert Reid-Pharr

The conversion therapy memoir activates alternative forms of belonging through its creation of ex-ex-gay and allied readerships. No story has attracted more attention than the memoir by Garrard Conley that inspires Joel Edgerton’s latest film, Boy Erased, now in theaters. Conley’s intimate, unpretentious, first-person narrative recollects his experience as an Arkansas college student admitted to a short-lived, but life-altering, program at Love in Action in Memphis, Tennessee.

The story opens with the abrupt disorientation of arriving at Love in Action circa 2004. A blue-eyed receptionist confiscates Conley’s RAZR cell, explains to his mother that she cannot enter the facility past the desk (since parents can be triggers), rummages through Conley’s possessions in search of “FIs,” or “false images” (meaning gender nonconforming accessories that will have to be thrown away), and, after discovering a Moleskine journal rife with FIs, rips out the offending pages. Chapters proceed to move back and forth between the experience of the camp and earlier moments in Conley’s youth and early years at college, as he navigates a growing awareness of his sexuality.

The bond between Conley and his mother, Martha, is at the center of Boy Erased. As the two make the trek to Love in Action, Conley attends to the nonverbal signs they display of a shared, instinctual apprehension. In the charged scenes between them, the book tackles one of the emotional cruxes of conversion therapy: the theory, reiterated in both secular and religious manuals, that homosexuality is a consequence of bad parenting.

Conley juxtaposes fond memories of growing up in his close-knit evangelical home with Love in Action’s insistence that participants trace “genograms” of sin, to determine what sins in their family tree have been passed down in the mutated form of same-sex attraction. Eventually, one counselor shifts blame onto Conley’s mother. In his exhaustion, Conley acquiesces, granting that perhaps he has “craved that close bond” too avidly in all of his “friendships.” In one of the book’s most insightful passages, Conley recalls with piercing clarity how the false admission left him feeling robbed. “And with that first ex-gay utterance, with that strange tongue still vibrating in the air around me, my mother became something less to me. The bond between us grew less magical, less mysterious, bound to the assigned descriptors, to the role she must have been playing.”

The conversion therapy memoir activates alternative forms of belonging through its creation of ex-ex-gay and allied readerships.

In the cosmology of ex-gay therapy, the shame of homosexuality infects everything. No personality trait, relationship, or memory is safe from scrutiny. All are translated into cause and symptom. Through this logic, gay conversion therapy often seeks to replace natal families with alternative forms of kinship. For men who are told they did not get enough paternal affection, a method known as “touch therapy” has commonly been practiced, in which counselors or seasoned ex-gays caress and cradle newcomers in their laps. Both Conley and Gajdics describe their growing disgust with the imperative to blame their families, and the sense of peace that began to emerge in those relationships once they moved on.

Joel Edgerton captures this facet of Conley’s plot with vital precision in his well-researched, true-to-life film adaptation. Nicole Kidman’s magnetic portrait of Martha Conley (called Nancy Eamons in the film) combines the subtlety of a quiet skepticism with moments of decisive rebellion. In the lead, Lucas Hedges (called Jared Eamons in the film) strikes a chord impressively loyal to the tone of the original memoir. Conley has said that Hedges covered his personal copy in marginalia, accentuating the details he wanted to capture in his comportment and facial expressions. The bleak palette of Love in Action leaves an impression too. The white button-ups worn by attendees enact a self-effacing camouflage against the camp’s barren, monochrome interior.

Boy Erased also aims to have a practical impact for viewers who will see themselves mirrored in its content. Appearing on stage following the film’s screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, the real Martha Conley (whose charisma and contagious smile have cultivated a fan base of her own) told the audience that her favorite moment in the film arrives when Kidman at last confronts the director of Love in Action, as they exit the facility’s parking lot, telling him, “Shame on you. Shame on me too.” In this climax, Nancy achieves deliverance by transfiguring the culture of shame exploited at the facility into a collective accountability for those who have perpetuated its harm. In its sensitive depiction of such moments, Boy Erased models a dignified path forward for survivors and their families, traversing distances that often seem insurmountable to those experiencing them.

Martha Conley and her son and author Garrard Conley on the set of Boy Erased. Photograph by Kyle Kaplan / Focus Features

Boy Erased, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and The Inheritance of Shame demonstrate that tensions between faith, family, politics, and sexual identity do not legitimate a conversion therapy industry. Whether they are housed in a drab strip mall on the banks of the Mississippi River or a cultish home known as “the Styx,” these practices serve to quarantine queer youth from family, congregations, and friends, and to inhibit rather than to encourage communication, growth, and understanding.

One of the driving forces of the conversion therapy industry has been the presumption that queer people of faith risk being jettisoned from communities of faith the moment they accept their orientation or gender identity. But exclusion is by no means inevitable. Queer perspectives on faith are myriad and proliferating, from the influential work of Marcella Althaus-Reid (1952–2009) to the Queer Theology podcast, Patrick Cheng’s Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (2011), and Pamela Lightsey’s Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology (2015). Queer perspectives on faith also have a deep history, from early modern contexts, explored by Richard Godbeer, to mid-20th-century places of worship that accommodated early gay liberation efforts.12

In Boy Erased, Conley writes that he has been unable to recover a sense of God’s presence since his time in therapy, not “because I want to keep God out of my life,” but because his “ex-gay therapists took Him away,” leaving behind “the pang of a deep love now absent.” Even as legislative and judicial victories are won, the threat of being cut off from communities of faith means many LGBTQ people will continue to feel caught between worlds. The conversion therapy memoir, a testament not only to suffering but also to the courage young people and their families demonstrate in surviving and joining advocacy networks, provides a locus from which to cultivate new connections: a pattern of asymmetry, comprising diverse templates for turning the raw, indefinite substance of deliverance into narrative.

As Martha Conley explained with a wry smile to a packed house in Toronto: “I went to Memphis to take my son to conversion therapy. I came away the one converted.” Recognizing and valuing the solidarity forged through the conversion therapy memoir provides a way to honor the very forms of queer belonging ex-gay practices profess to expunge.

 

This article was commissioned by Heather Love. icon

  1. Michael Ybarra, “Going Straight: Christian Groups Press Gay People to Take a Heterosexual Path,” Wall Street Journal, April 21, 1993. For an extensive history of Love in Action, prepared on behalf of the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC, see McDermott Will & Emery LLP, “The Pernicious Myth of Conversion Therapy: How Love in Action Perpetrated a Fraud on America,” October 12, 2018.
  2. In 2002, a peer-reviewed consumer’s report by Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder found that among 202 respondents, 87 percent reported no change in sexual orientation, while only 3 percent reported a successful reorientation toward heterosexuality. Of these eight people, seven were working as ex-gay counselors and organizers at the time of their response. See Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder, “Changing Sexual Orientation: A Consumers’ Report,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, vol. 33, no. 3 (2002), p. 253.
  3. In 1997, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution reaffirming their 1973 decision that homosexuality should not be portrayed as something in need of treatment.
  4. In 2008, in response to an “upsurge” in sexual orientation change efforts, the major mental health coalition Just the Facts distributed a study designed to inform principals, educators, and other school personnel of these common psychological repercussions, focusing especially on minors.
  5. Adding to this momentum, in 2015, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to issue a public statement against conversion therapy, following the suicide of transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn.
  6. For excerpts from Chambers’s statement, see Christian Piatt, “Exodus International’s Alan Chambers: Bending History’s Arc,” Huffington Post, August 21, 2013.
  7. Examples of relevant cultural criticism include Tom Waidzunas, The Straight Line: How the Fringe Science of Ex-Gay Therapy Reoriented Sexuality (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and Bernadette Barton, Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays (NYU Press, 2014). For erotic fiction, see, e.g., Angus MacGregor, Fighting My Instincts: A Gay Conversion Therapy Dropout Story (4Fun, 2015).
  8. For more on The Inheritance of Shame, see Gajdics’s website, which advocates on behalf of the end of conversion therapy and features an ongoing blog.
  9. Patricia Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression (Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 31.
  10. For an influential work on this experience of feeling split, see Justin Lee’s autobiographical book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christian Debate (Jericho, 2013).
  11. Tanya Erzen, Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement (University of California Press, 2006), pp. 14–15.
  12. See Heather R. White, Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). See also an interview with the author, by David K. Johnson, on notchesblog.com.
Featured image: Nicole Kidman and Lucas Hedges in Boy Erased (2018). Focus Features