The only child of a car salesman and soon-to-be Baptist pastor, Conley was “terrified and conflicted about his sexuality”. At nineteen, while in college, he was outed as gay to his parents and given the choice of being disowned or being subjected to gay conversion therapy that promised to cure his homosexuality. The timing came as his father was about to be ordained as a Baptist minister. Conley was enrolled in a Love in Action ex-gay program, and recounts the harm he was subjected to there in the name of curing his sexuality. The Bay Area Reporter noted, “Conley’s memoir oscillates between his revelations, good and bad, during time spent in the fold of the ex-gay ministry during his two-week stint in the ‘Source’ trial program, and his personal and familial history [that led up to] induction in the program.” He recounts the months of counselling he underwent followed by a two-week intensive intervention.
The book opens in June of 2004. Garrard Conley was 19 years old, homosexual, and living in the American South. His parent assigned him up for a sexual reorientation program at a fundamentalist Christian institution called Love in Action (LIA). The director of LIA, John Smid, preached the rejection of all secular pleasures in favor of religious devotion. Thus, when Conley arrived at LIA, the staff confiscated all of Conley’s belongings. Just like in the community of Conley’s hometown, the LIA program preached that homosexuality was sinful and unnatural.
The book then shifts back about one year. As a teenager, Conley developed a deep love of reading and writing, but his father and community viewed these interests as undesirable and effeminate. Conley’s father was a car salesman who was training to be a fundamentalist Christian pastor. In high school, Conley dated a girl named Chloe. Their relationship was chaste and they enjoyed spending time together. However, when they were 18 years old, Chloe wanted to have sex. Conley was unable to go through with the act, and so they ended their relationship.
In his teenage years, Conley worried that he would not be able to follow in his father’s path, both in terms of professional and religious pursuits. Conley felt this especially keenly after failing to perform satisfactorily during a morning Bible study. Conley enjoyed playing video games, as they were a type of escape from his daily life. As a teenager, he began fantasizing about men, and he felt fear and self-hatred due to these fantasies. Conley and Chloe began dating in high school, although their relationship was quite chaste. At work, the other dealership employees sometimes pressed Conley on questions of politics and romance, and Conley did his best to avoid these questions. Conley’s father advised Conley and all of the employees to preach religion to customers when possible, but Conley never had the will to do so.
The book then returns to Conley’s time at LIA. He became friends with a male patient called “J,” whom Conley found charismatic and intelligent. Conley also began to develop romantic feelings for J. As part of therapy at LIA, the patients were required to share all of their homosexual experiences and declare that these experiences were sinful and morally wrong. Conley’s sense of self-hatred grew as this process progressed.
The book then shifts backward to Conley’s arrival at college. He had lost a substantial amount of weight following his breakup with Chloe, because as a form of penance, he began to eat as little as possible and exercise as much as possible. At college, Conley befriended David, a fellow freshman. David was a highly devout Pentecostal Christian. They spent much time together. One day, David raped Conley by forcing Conley to fellate him. In a panic, David then called Conley’s parents and told them that Conley was homosexual. Conley’s parents threatened to stop funding Conley’s education if Conley did not agree to try to change his sexuality. At his parents’ behest, Conley began to attend sexual reorientation therapy every weekend. Conley’s emotional turmoil and self-hatred grew, and he contemplated suicide. He also contemplated leaving to live somewhere on his own, but he did not want to leave his parents.
Conley’s mother took Conley to a doctor to have his hormone levels tested, as Conley’s parents believed that a medical issue might have been causing Conley’s homosexuality. The doctor advised Conley that he should not feel ashamed about being homosexual, but Conley did not heed this advice. The book then shifts focus back to Conley’s time at LIA. A little over a week after he arrived at LIA, he could no longer bear the emotional destructiveness of the program, so he left. His parents continued to fund his education, and they gradually accepted his sexuality.
Conley’s father decided to take Conley on a ministerial trip to a local county jail as a means of strengthening Conley’s religious devotion. Conley’s father said that, for the moment, they could not speak about Conley’s homosexuality. Conley lived in constant fear of coincidentally encountering David on the street, as David was originally from a nearby town. Conley also worried about his relationship with his father. He worried that from then on, his relationship with his father would be forever strained and never fully genuine. Conley avoided talking about his college friends and professors with his father, as he worried that his father would disapprove of the particulars of college life. Conley and his father arrived at the county jail. Conley’s father gave Conley candy and religious tracts and instructed him to give candy to any prisoner that could recite a verse from the Bible.
At a small liberal arts college in Arkansas, freed from small-town bigotries, Conley found himself caught between the tug of his upbringing, on the one hand, and his new freedoms on the other. He withdrew from church, wore a Radiohead T-shirt, read Dostoevsky and Gertrude Stein and defended evolution in conversations with a fellow student, whom he calls David, while fantasising about how their bodies might feel curled into one another. Instead, David raped Conley in his dorm room later that day. “I’d been unable to move from the bed where he had placed me afterwards – I believed that God was punishing me physically for my mental transgressions,” writes Conley. A few weeks later, David called Conley’s mother and outed her son. “David had trumped me. The knowledge of my homosexuality would seem more shocking than the knowledge of my rape; or, worse, it would seem as though one act had inevitably followed the other, as though I’d had it coming to me.”
He also includes other participants’ accounts and a “Timeline of the Ex-Gay Movement”. Conley’s hope is that his story will expose ex-gay groups and gay conversion therapy programs as lacking in compassion and more likely to cause harm than cure anything, especially when participants are told, as he was, that they are “unfixable and disgusting over and over again”.
Through an institutionalized Twelve-Step Program heavy on Bible study, he was supposed to emerge heterosexual, ex-gay, cleansed of impure urges and stronger in his faith in God for his brush with sin. Instead, even when faced with a harrowing and brutal journey, Garrard found the strength and understanding to break out in search of his true self and forgiveness.
By confronting his buried past and the burden of a life lived in shadow, Garrard traces the complex relationships among family, faith, and community.
During winter break, Conley went to a church service at his parents’ church to watch his father become an ordained minister. While there, Conley contemplated the general repressive atmosphere of the church and its doctrines, and he pondered the things that many of its congregants were likely repressing in themselves. In conversation with Conley, several congregants seemed to comment upon the idea of college education as strange, foreign, and useless. One part of the ordination ceremony was that Conley’s father had to state that he unequivocally viewed homosexuality as a sin. The narrative then shifts forward a few months. Conley returned to college, but his parents planned to place him in LIA as soon as possible. On weekends, Conley had to attend gay conversion therapy sessions. Two of Conley’s friends were Dominique and Charles, who were liberal, African-American students.
One night, Conley asked his mother about his father’s father, who was a violent, abusive alcoholic. The question was for his family genogram project at LIA. He explained that, according to LIA, his homosexuality was caused by childhood trauma. Conley wondered about the ways in which the revelation of his sexuality had thrown his parents’ lives into turmoil and worry. Conley states that, according to John Smid’s testimony of Smid’s own life, he used to be homosexual but had overcome his homosexuality. Conley began to frequently consider the ways in which LIA was functioning to strip him of all forms of fulfillment and self-expression, which he began to realize would only increase the risk of suicide. One night, Conley and his mother went out to eat, and they were able to relax and forget about religion and LIA.
Garrard Conley discusses both his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality and his parents’ attempt to return him to heterosexuality through Love in Action (LIA), which was renamed Restoration Path in 2012. According to the program’s website, “Restoration Path is a Christian discipleship ministry that exists to restore those trapped in sexual and relational sin through the power of Jesus Christ.” It further states that “Restoration Path is passionately committed to helping people discover the truth about God and about who they really are in his son Jesus. In the safety and strength of God’s love men and women of all ages have found the courage to step out of destructive and life-dominating patterns of sexual and relational sin.”
Conley talks about his LIA therapy with John Smid, the program director. During his time there, Conley never fully embraced the “ex-gay” or “reparative” approach LIA promoted. In addition to the program not being effective for Conley, he indicates in his epilogue that his experience was counterproductive in that it negatively affected his relationship with his parents and God. He writes, “My ex-gay therapists took Him [God] away from me, and no matter how many different churches I attend, I will feel the same dead weight in my chest. I will feel the pang of a deep love now absent from my life.”
Much of Conley’s later anger is directed at John Smid, for whom LIA’s purpose also apparently failed. In 1990 when Smid became director of LIA, he was living his life as an ex-gay who eventually married a woman. According to a Huffington Post article from November 19, 2014, Smid resigned from LIA in 2008 and divorced his wife that same year. In 2014, he married his partner, Larry McQueen.
Smid would later acknowledge that homosexuality was a part of his life. He now runs Grace Rivers, “a ministry with the gay community that reveals the message of an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ and genuine community with His followers – because every person deserves to know that Jesus loves them.”
Smid has done an about-face in regards to the principles of LIA’s teachings. It is also important to note that founding member, John Evans, changed his mind as well after his friend committed suicide because he could not change his sexual orientation. Evans spent the rest of his life as an ex ex-gay and dedicated himself to speaking out against these kinds of reparative programs.
These two men made it out of LIA apparently safe and sound. But for some of its former participants, like Garrard Conley, the damage has already been done. Their lives have been forever impacted by their experiences there.
Like getting into a prison, he had to surrender the morning he arrived at the Love in Action facility in Memphis, Tennessee in 2004: his phone, his wallet, his driving licence and a Moleskine journal in which he wrote his short stories. A blond boy confiscated the journal and yanked a bunch of pages free from the binding. “And he said, in a voice free of emotion: ‘False Image’,”
“False Image”, a key tenet of Love in Action (LIA), referred to anything and everything suggestive of Conley’s homosexuality. Detecting and destroying FIs was how you got the gay out. “The concept is stolen from Alcoholics Anonymous, except AA doesn’t just have you stay in a place all day, monitored.”
When Conley handed over his notebook that day, it was part of a series of rules and prohibitions designed to maximise LIA’s mind control over patients during their treatment and beyond. Other rules included restrictions on where residents could travel within Memphis, on their dressing and grooming (no “muscle shirts”; no sideburns “below the top of the ear”) and on how they engaged with the secular world (no listening to Beethoven or Bach, or entering “non-Christian bookshops”, for example). Women were forbidden to wear “mannish/boyish” clothes, whatever that might mean, and men had to avoid “campy” behaviour.
Conley recounts a story in which a 19-year-old “defector” was forced to submit to a mock funeral, as other members read out his obituary, describing his slow decline into HIV and then Aids.
A Baptist deacon, Brother Nielson, wants to nuke Middle East.
The father is an interesting character but is never drawn out. The mother could turn out top be a fag hag.
It’s repetitive and dull in places. Where is the anger? The epilogue tells you all you need to know.
Peanut butter will never taste the same again.
Andrea Arnold: Anyone would find it difficult to be forthright in a book about his or her early sexual experiences and yours were heartbreaking and traumatic. As someone who also writes fiction, why did you choose to write Boy Erased as a memoir instead of a novel, where an author can hide behind fictional characters?
Garrard Conley: I started writing the first essay for the book in a nonfiction class at UNC-Wilmington. The professor asked all of us what part of our lives we would be writing about in his class. Before that moment I had never considered writing about ‘ex-gay’ therapy or my childhood, but I blurted out some details of my life and everyone in the room leaned forward to listen. The interest was palpable. One girl said, “How is it even possible that this still happens in 2004?” Her words were my first indication that the story might be more important as a memoir than as a novel.
I worried that as a piece of fiction the story might seem exaggerated. In fiction you can get away with covering up the nasty parts of an autobiographical story or making the prose subtle. In nonfiction, however, you have the chance be explicit and say, ‘This stuff actually happened to me.’
The other indication that this might turn out as nonfiction came from a conversation I had at a café with friends at Columbia University in New York. I was visiting a friend, and someone asked about Arkansas, so I told the group a bit about my childhood. People at the table leaned forward just as they had at UNCW, and one person asked, “How can a parent do that to a child?” That question has followed me throughout the entire process of writing the book. My mom has also been asked this question many times, and she almost always cries and says something along the lines of, “I don’t know how we did this to you.” But the truth is, almost everyone in the church thought sending me to ‘ex-gay’ therapy was the right thing to do. Love in Action came highly recommended. And the more I started focusing on the question, this totally reasonable question of how it could happen and how any parent could do this to his or her child, I began to see that only memoir could begin to address the question.
AA: You were nineteen-years-old in 2004 when your parents encouraged you to go to ‘ex-gay’ therapy. Has the church changed or become more sympathetic about members coming out since then?
GC: The church changed right after I left. But you have to keep in mind that when we talk about ‘the church’ we are really talking about a lot of different dominations in the area I grew up in. There was the Assembly of God and the Church of Christ, which I honestly don’t know that much about, but my Missionary Baptist church was very plugged into the ‘ex-gay’ movement at the time. Church leaders considered it the best option if your kid turned out to be gay. But right after my experience in 2004, this sixteen-year-old kid Zack Stark posted all the rules of ‘ex-gay’ therapy at Love In Action on his blog, and this act caused a huge protest. There’s also a This American Life piece about it featuring John Smid, the former director of Love In Action, that explains why Smid decided to put an end to the facility. The documentarian Morgan John Fox even made a documentary about Love In Action called “This Is What Love In Action Looks Like,” which talks about how those protests raised awareness and caused even the ‘ex-gay’ counselors to reconsider their stance.
AA: Do you have a relationship with God today?
GC: My relationship with God is highly in flux. Like I said in the memoir, prayer for me was really a place of comfort. Like I could just speak into my head and order the world in some way. Even when I thought I was speaking to God, I was really speaking into my head and making a litany of the important things of the day or the things I wished would happen in my life. I sometimes still pray, but I wouldn’t say that I have a direct relationship with a knowable god.
AA: What about your parents? Do they?
GC: Yes. My father is still a preacher. His congregation is growing. He has a soup kitchen now and it’s pretty successful. And my mom is still a preacher’s wife, but she is very much in support of me. She’s stuck in the middle.
AA: It seemed like those recorded conversations highlighted in Part Two of Boy Erased were very difficult to have with your mother and that she was overwhelmed with guilt.
GC: It’s getting a little easier now, but we almost can’t go a full conversation without apologies and crying.
AA: The end made me cry openly like a baby. I think a lot of people can relate to having a parent who wants him or her to be something else. What is your relationship with your father like today? Has he read the manuscript?
GC: My dad was really worried about his congregation finding out about the book. As you know from reading it, there’s an idea in the church that says that the sins of the father are passed down to the son, or that whatever is reflected in the son’s behavior must be some fault of the parents. Because of this idea, my dad was worried that the church would turn against him and vote him out. His church has to be a self-sufficient by next year. Up until this year the Baptist Missionary Association has funded his church, but this funding will be cut off next year when his church becomes a fully-functioning, self-sufficient organization.
My father and I had this fruitful phone call about his fear. I said, “I know you don’t want to talk about the book, and ‘ex-gay’ therapy is not something we have talked about much in the past, but I want you to know that I didn’t write any of this to make you feel bad or to paint you as a villain.” I said, “I tried to make you into a three-dimensional human being.” He didn’t really respond this, but my mom said he went into his office, closed the door, and cried for about an hour. That night, he got behind the pulpit and said, “My son has this book coming out that’s about gay stuff. If you need to leave the church I’ll understand, but I’m staying here.” That was a really big deal in our family because he had not yet acknowledged the book, though there were certainly plenty of rumors.
Recently, some weirdo at my dad’s church saw my Twitter account and told my dad that he really needed to read what was going on. My dad got on there. I think he might’ve read the Virginia Quarterly Review excerpt. I think he read more of what the book was about, and my mom said he was really upset and wondering if I was going to Hell again. Even so, we just talked right before this interview and he seems to be okay. We’re no longer at a stalemate. I would say we’re just at a really awkward phase.
AA: What happened to the girl that you call “Chloe,” your high school girlfriend? Does she know about the book?
GC: I contacted her on Facebook right before I was about to write about her, because I didn’t want her to be mad at me. She was nice for a couple of days and then she blocked me! I guess my posts were too gay! [Laughs] But her brother, “Brandon” in the book, is openly gay and lives in California somewhere. He’s always posting these cute drinking pictures with his gay friends. She’s also cut him off a little bit. She’s married to a guy who in every photo on Facebook has camo on and her two children are carrying guns. So that’s a lost cause. [Laughs]
AA: You also wrote about how literature saved your life. What were your favorite books and authors growing up?
GC: The electric ‘ah-ha’ moment for me was when I read The Scarlet Letter for the first time. It was both the literal and metaphorical value of that scarlet letter that made me think: Okay, people hate her based on what she looks like and who she is, and everyone in this town is wrong! It was amazing: Someone took the time to craft this narrative that lets me know that everyone in a town can be wrong about an issue. Also, Hawthorne is obsessed with his family history, as I am. In the beginning of The Scarlet Letter he talks about how he discovered an embroidered scarlet letter in the file room where he was working this government job. He learned that his family was part of the Salem Witch Trials. Their family name was actually Hathorne but he changed his name to Hawthorne so he wouldn’t be associated with the Hathornes, who were some of the people that killed all those women. He felt like he had a moral duty to write about what his family had done and what people like that can do. I only found this info out later when I became obsessed with the book, but there’s also a more literal connection to the genogram. Hester Prynne had an A on her chest for adultery, and they (Love In Action) made me write an A on my family tree as part of a “Moral Inventory.” It’s really obvious why I would love that book, though at the time it just came as a shock of recognition.
AA: You got your masters from Auburn and then went to University of North Carolina — Wilmington for an MFA. You could have attended grad school in a liberal city like New York or Los Angeles. Why did you choose to stay in the South?
GC: One reason is that Auburn paid for everything [Laughs]. The other is that the South is what I have always known. I guess in some ways it’s easier to exist in a liminal space. I’ve since lived in Ukraine and Bulgaria, both of which are not progressive in terms of civil rights. The South is familiar to me, and I feel like I know my purpose there. Part of my upcoming book tour is with Garth Greenwell, and we’re booked for three different dates in North Carolina back to back. Bruce Springsteen recently canceled a concert in protest of the North Carolina Anti-LGBT Bill, but Garth and I are both Southern boys and we both feel like our best work will be to go to the places that hate us and shove it in their faces. [Laughs] We actually agreed to book two more dates together in North Carolina after the law passed. Publisher’s Weekly recently published an article about how the laws are harming bookstores. There are people living in North Carolina who aren’t privileged and mobile, who can’t leave the state, so we decided, Fuck it! Let’s go!
AA: Why did you move to Sofia, Bulgaria?
GC: I moved to Bulgaria because I fell in love with a Bulgarian man. We met at a writer’s conference called the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. She wrote The Historian, which was a big book about seven years ago. She uses her money to fund five English-speaking writers and five Bulgarian writers to go to the Black Sea and do a workshop. While I was there I met my boyfriend, but then we lived apart for a year while I was at UNCW. After I sold my book and it was under contract that first year, I moved to Sofia to be with him while writing the book and teaching English.
AA: I read your Acknowledgments page. You said that you sold your memoir before you had even written it. What was the publishing process like for you?
GC: That was so crazy. The publishing process for this book is something that infuriates people if I just tell it to them while they’re in the process of trying to publish something. I try not to talk about it often. It was one of those fairy tale stories. I was at AWP in Boston and had been invited to this dinner by a great short story writer named Kathy Flann. This was during the mini-blizzard, and we were getting snowed in. Some guy was holding court at the head of the table, mansplaining something, and I turned to the woman next to me and said, “What is with this guy?” She said, “Thanks for saying that!” She turned out to be Maud Newton, who writes these great book reviews and has a book on ancestry coming out soon and has a blog that’s been very popular. She has so many connections. She asked me what I was writing, and I told her about my essay. Then she asked me if I would like to go to an agent party with her to meet Julie Barer. I was like sure! I drank too much because it was open bar. Julie spoke to me, and very soon afterwards I sent one of the agents at Barer Literary a query letter, not knowing at all what I was doing. They asked to see more. I had like eighteen pages. I said I had everything basically written but I just needed to revise. [Laughs] I spent the next two weeks at UNCW not sleeping and writing what became the second chapter, The Plain Dealers, on their computers, sort of stealing my way into the computer building at night. I sent the chapter in, and right after that I signed with Julie. I wrote a proposal that summer on one hundred pages, which was then rejected by every house except Riverhead. It was sent to like thirty people!
AA: Do you think they were just afraid of it? I mean, I see this as a big deal book.
GC: I don’t know. Several big name editors like Lee Boudreaux were interested, but I guess they couldn’t sell it to the whole house. I have a different editor at Riverhead now, the fantastic Laura Perciasepe, but the editor who called was Megan Lynch. She’s great! She bought it on the proposal and two chapters, along with an experimental part, which is now Part Two, with my mom in it. I feel like I’m still very lucky!
AA: I was raised without a formal religion. My mother grew up Catholic, my father Jewish. We didn’t go to services regularly and holidays were for fun. Before I read Boy Erased, the concept of ‘ex-gay’ therapy was almost unfathomable. Why do readers like me need to buy your book and read it?
GC: There are two points I would like to make about that. I was thinking about why people should read my book when Riverhead was picking up the proposal, because I was worried that an editor might want to sand off the edges and make my story more palatable to readers. I wanted this memoir to be an odd document of that particular period of time in that particular version of America, an America that I believed was out to get me and the rest of the world. I thought that if this ‘ex-gay’ experience happened to me then the event wasn’t necessarily an isolated one. You can see this in current politics. Look at the North Carolina bill that just passed. Look at Tennessee. Look at Mississippi. This stuff is coming back. One of the things I say to my students when I’m teaching about civil rights issues is that it’s never a straight line of progression. In fact, these bizarre happenings are an essential part of our culture. It wasn’t so long ago that we had George W. Bush. It feels like it but it wasn’t. Even today crazy thinking controls a lot of legislature that gets passed in our country. I don’t want to sound inflated, but firstly I wanted my memoir to be a true document and secondly that if anyone found it ten or twenty years from now hopefully they would say, “What the fuck were they thinking?” [Laughs]
I started teaching The Crucible while I was writing the second half of Boy Erased, and I believe we’re still interested in that story and obsessed with witch trials because this is a strand of American history that’s still alive. What I didn’t want was for my book to become a trauma narrative or a healing narrative that would be touted as merely a testament to love. It’s not meant to be only an uplifting and inspirational piece of literature. I’m tired of the type of memoir that just shows you its scars and wants you to feel sympathy for it. This is not that kind of memoir. I wanted it to be a little scary
John Smid: One cannot repent of something that is unchangeable. I have gone through a tremendous amount of grief over the many years that I spoke of change, repentance, reorientation and such, when, barring some kind of miracle, none of this can occur with homosexuality. The article today is a great example of how we as Christians pervert the gospel as it relates to homosexuality as though homosexuals aren’t welcome in the kingdom unless they repent (which many interpret to change). But since homosexuality is not “repentable” then we put homosexuals into an impossible bind.
Surely, indiscriminate sexual behavior, stealing, gossip, and other “behaviors” are things that need to be considered when we speak of walking in the kingdom of God. God desires to transform us into His image more and more each day.
After Jack McIntyre, a friend of co-founder John Evans, committed suicide out of despair about his inability to change, Evans left Love in Action and denounced it as dangerous. He was quoted by the Wall Street Journal (April 21, 1993) as saying: “They’re destroying people’s lives. If you don’t do their thing, you’re not of God, you’ll go to hell. They’re living in a fantasy world.”
John Smid recounts becoming a Christian in 1982. He found that his religious conviction was incompatible with his homosexual lifestyle. He entered into a relationship with a woman and married. In 1986 he joined the leadership of Love In Action, eventually becoming executive director. Smid left LIA in 2008. In 2011, on his website, he stated that homosexuality is an intrinsic part of one’s being, and that “change, repentance, reorientation and such” cannot occur, and noted that he had “never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual”. On November 16 2014, John Smid married his same-sex partner, Larry McQuee
Department of Children’s Services dispatched its special investigations unit to the facility, and after conducting a full investigation, determined that the child abuse allegations were unfounded,” Rob Johnson, an agency spokesman, told the Associated Press. On September 12, 2005, the Tennessee-based Love in Action facility was determined by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health to have been operating two “unlicensed mental health supportive living facilities”. LIA stopped accepting the mentally ill and dispensing medications and, in February 2006, the state of Tennessee ceased legal action.
Tommy Corman, in 2005 the spokesman for Love In Action, said the facility did not need to be licensed because it was “not doing anything therapeutic”.
In June 2007, LIA discontinued the Refuge program.
John Smid stood tall, square shouldered, beaming behind thin wire-rimmed glasses and wearing the khaki slacks and striped button-down that have become standard fatigues for evangelical men across the country. The rest of us sat in a semicircle facing him, all dressed according to the dress code outlined in our 274-page handbooks. Men: Shirts worn at all times, including periods of sleep. T-shirts without sleeves not permitted, whether worn as outer- or undergarments, including‘muscle shirts’ or other tank tops. Facial hair removed seven days weekly. Sideburns never below top of ear. Women: Bras worn at all times, exceptions during sleep. Skirts must fall at the knee or below. Tank tops allowed only if worn with a blouse. Legs and underarms shaved at least twice weekly. ‘The first thing you have to do is recognise how you’ve become dependent on sex, on things that are not from God,’ Smid said. We were learning Step One of Love in Action’s 12-Step programme, a set of principles equating the sins of infidelity, bestiality, paedophilia and homosexuality to addictive behavior such as alcoholism or gambling: a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for what counsellors referred to as our ‘sexual deviance’.
An orange sun was climbing its way up the back of the hazy white-washed buildings in the distance. I waited for the sunlight to spill over, but the longer I watched, the longer it seemed to take. I wondered if this was how time was going to work in this place: minutes as hours, hours as days, days as weeks. ‘Once you enter the group, you’ll be well on your way to recovery,’ Smid said. ‘The important thing to remember is to keep an open mind.’ I was here by my own choice, despite my growing scepticism, despite my secret wish to run away from the shame I’d felt since my parents found out I was gay. I had too much invested in my current life to leave it behind: in my family and in the increasingly blurry God I’d known since I was a toddler. God, I prayed, making my way down the narrow hallway to the main room, the fluorescents ticking in their metal grids, I don’t know who You are any more, but please give me the wisdom to survive this.
You’re using sexual sin to fill a God-shaped void in your life.
“What my mother didn’t yet know about being gay in the South was that you never ran out of material, that being secretly gay your whole life, averting your eyes every time you saw a handsome man, praying on your knees every time a sexual thought entered your mind or every time you’d acted even remotely feminine—this gave you an embarrassment of sins for which you constantly felt the need to apologize, repent, beg forgiveness.”
“With each passing day at the facility, it seemed as though becoming straight was simply a matter of good lighting, of ignoring what you didn’t want to see.”
“There is a mystery in this, a minor apocalypse somewhere between what these two men once knew of themselves- a holding on to something that, in turn, refused to let them go- and I long to know it, like the old prophets.”
“Cutting away my roots and the people I loved would transform me into a shell of the person I once was, an automaton stripped of all its gears.”
As I grew older and discovered my love of literature, I externalized the markings, wrote them down in my Moleskine, kept my notebook close – so much so that when the LIA counselors took away my notebook years later, they took away much of this protection. But they didn’t take all of it. The empty pages still carried ghosts.”
“What did it feel like to not have to think about your every move, to not be scrutinized for everything you did, to not have to lie every day?”
“Masculine meant strong. Masculine meant straight. If we could only learn the essence of what it meant to be masculine, then we could learn the rest.”
“It seemed one talisman had activated the other: Mark’s number taught me that there were secret loves crouched and waiting in the last place you would likely go searching for them. What was Jesus’s compassion anyway but some well-crafted graffiti on the corridors of history, an invitation to follow Him into the most unlikely places? Love could come to you even in a room that seemed drained of it.”
“Sometimes it was what you left unsaid or undone that drew you into a state of wonder.”
“Love, over time, could either blossom or wither, become a source of wonder or a remembered ache.”
“You cut out what was once dear to you, ignore the ache in the back of your throat, erase the details you want to forget.”
“But love was always moving, always pushing us forward—always in action—and we often had no choice but to submit to where it lead us.”
“The chorus of voices will grow each year, revealing decades of pain, decades lost, families torn apart, relationships ruined because people outside the ex-gay world can never understand what we patients went through”
“LIA was telling me on a daily basis that a loss of self meant a gain in virtue, and a gain in virtue meant I was drawing closer to God and therefore closer to my true heavenly self. But the means to that end—self-loathing, suicidal ideation, years of false starts—could make you feel lonelier, and less like yourself, than you’d ever felt in your life.”
I had heard my father preach against Pentecostal church against this “relaxed” attitude. “We don’t do any of that flailing around here,” he would say. “God doesn’t want to us crawling up and down the aisles, acting like fools.”
.One moment I was terrified that my ancestors were all sitting up in Heaven and judging my same-sex attractions, and the next I would judge them for what I assumed they’d done to black bodies. Less than a year later at LIA, I would wonder why sour genogram keys didn’t feature the sins of slavery or racism, /why it seemed so much of history had been left out.
“Even then I knew that logo was strange,” she will later tell me. “The heart was cut away, like that was all it took.”
photos of our family standing next to the foyer’s fake plastic plants, all of us beaming for the camera.
WHEN I WAS BORN, after my mother and fatd me and just before the nurse took me away to the nursery, my father had used the sharp point of his hunting knife to gently etch a small zigzag in the bottom of my left foot, a tiny scar that would prove I was his, a symbol to ensure that the nurses hadn’t mixed me up with some other baby. He was paranoid. He had just witnessed a miracle. He didn’t want to lose his son the way he’d lost the other one.
After my parents told me this, when I was eight or nine, I’d scanned my foot for this zigzag, tried to read the faint wrinkles for a sign of his penmanship, though, of course, it had faded within a few days of my father’s etching. It had filled me with pleasure, thinking about this special mark, and though I couldn’t read it in the bottom of my foot, I felt it there, the way one feels love in a certain room without necessarily identifying its source. When I first read the Harry Potter books and learned about the lightning bolt scar on Harry’s forehead, I thought, Of course. Of course love worked that way. Of course it left its mark on the beloved. This secret mark protected you, kept you safe from harm, reminded you of who you were. All it took was the smallest symbol and you were safe.