Garrard Conley

The Boy Erased: A Story of 'Ex-Gay' Therapy

Filed By Garrard Conley | March 25, 2014 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: ex-gay, ex-gay ministries, ex-gay survivors, Love in Action, memoir, spiritual abuse, spiritual bullying

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I can remember the day I first met J, though I can't remember what we said or did in our first hours together. Like many ex-gay survivors, the memory of my time in therapy is suspect, the language it conjures too bound up with my ex-gay counselors' jargon. According to our counselors, we were "filling a void with sex," "broken inside," "empty." According to our counselors, we were not permitted to form close bonds -- "no hugging or physical touch between clients" -- with only the briefest of handshakes allowed.

When I think of the two weeks I spent in Memphis at Love in Action with J, when I try to peer through the skein of self-loathing to the boy I almost fell in love with, I see a jumbled mess. I see a blank face. I see a cute boy-next-door face. I see a nerdy but cute boy-next-door face with glasses. Finally, in my nightmares, I see a blank face whose pale skin is stretched taut over the bones of his skull.

I wake up thinking he must be dead, with no way to deny it, no phone number or email attached to his memory. And though I've tried for ten years now, I still can't remember his real name.

No need to protect the innocent; all identifying features have already been erased.

Each day as we sat on padded chairs in a semicircle beneath the facility's stark fluorescents, listening to the ticking of the lamps in their metal grids, J and I were told that we were inferior to other teens, that we were missing something vital in our lives, that our parents must have abused us. All of these facts were integral to our understanding of step one of Love in Action's twelve-step program, a set of principles equating the sins of infidelity, bestiality, pedophilia, and homosexuality to addictive behavior, such as alcoholism or gambling.

We were told that God was angry with us for our homosexuality. We were asked to scream at an empty chair and imagine our fathers sitting across from us. We were asked to read aloud our most shameful sexual fantasies and experiences to each other in what was called a Moral Inventory. I was nineteen and J was perhaps seventeen, so we had almost no sexual experiences under our belts: a few sleepovers turned to explorations, a few Calvin Klein underwear ads we'd cut out and held to our chests at night, a few roaming thoughts. "Sometimes I try to think of Jesus that way," J once said. "I thought if I imagined Jesus that way, at least it would be better than imagining someone else."

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We shared what I can only assume were some of the most painful hours of our lives together. Even so, all I have of him now are scraps, brief close-ups, snippets of dialogue. Professional therapy has helped unearth a few more details, though never enough to form a clear picture.

Sometimes I remember him as a cowboy in tight Wranglers, a Texan drawl stretching his syllables into warmth and lushness. Sometimes I picture him as a skinny twink, a squinting computer geek with ropey arms, a pale-faced wraith with one foot dangling in eternity.

What I do know is what he wasn't: a married man, a pedophile, a zoophile, nor any other kind of phile -- though all of these types were in attendance when I was there in 2004, a year before controversy exploded with Zach Stark's blog post about his unwilling participation in ex-gay therapy. Zach was young, sixteen, a little younger than J and I but just barely, and I suspect part of the reason media pounced on the subject so quickly was his age. Who wouldn't want to protect the innocent from such mental and spiritual abuse?

The answer to this simple question might be surprising.

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In January, a bill proposing to end ex-gay therapy for minors was overturned in Virginia by a House subcommittee -- no real explanation provided -- and this despite evidence from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association that ex-gay therapy can lead to "depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior." Only two states thus far have succeeded in passing such bills, New Jersey and California, though at least eight other states have introduced their own versions of the bill.

Behind the marriage equality battle looms another, more critical one. Before these kids have a chance to marry, they deserve a chance at life. According to a study conducted by San Francisco State University, when we compare LGBTQ teens accepted by their parents to LGBTQ teens rejected by their parents, rejected teens are eight times as likely to attempt suicide, six times as likely to report high levels of depression, and more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs.

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But J was tough, that much I remember clearly. Neither of us paid much attention to our counselors' talk of suicide prevention. J and I were already accustomed to dealing with self-hatred; by that point in our lives, the process was streamlined and stutter-free.

We both had fathers who'd been deacons in the Baptist church, and my father was set to become an ordained Missionary Baptist preacher in the middle of my therapy term. There was a lot of pressure to find a cure before the congregation found out about me and excommunicated our family from the church.

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J and I had both learned to stare straight-faced into our preacher's eyes as he lambasted the gay agenda. Once, when a sweaty, red-faced man burst into my Sunday school class to demand that everyone in the room sign a petition to ban the abomination that was the local gay pride parade -- "You can't call yourself a Christian if you don't" -- I slid the paper across the table and signed my name as quickly as I could before I changed my mind, the letters steady and sure, with no stray marks.

"I'd never kill myself," J once said. "It's the easy way out. Cowardly." Though one middle-aged man in our group had tried to kill himself numerous times, he made sure to keep his scarred wrists carefully concealed beneath heavy black cardigans. It would take several years before I would finally have the courage to imagine rolling up the sleeves of that ink-black cardigan and gazing at his snaking scars. It would take years before I would understand just how close J and I must have been to suicide, how much we were covering up, how dangerous our conversations really were.

One day during lunch break, as we were picking at greasy slabs of Hamburger Helper, J bragged that he'd memorized all six of the Bible's "clobber passages," so named for their power to doctrinally condemn homosexuality and champion traditional straight relationships. He was a self-proclaimed expert on the subject. "Abomination," he said, pushing back his hair with the slow arc of his fingers, the white half-moons of his cuticles glowing large and bright. "Crazy word. In Hebrew, sheqets. It can refer to shrimp as easily as it can to gay sex. All those little legs swimming through saltwater, it creeped the Israelites out, you know? They thought it was unnatural."

He bragged that he reread those passages again and again each night. He bragged that he was one of the smartest people he knew, that he'd scored an impossible score on his ACT. In other words, he was a teen equipped with reason, and a teen equipped with reason was the last thing you could afford to be if you wanted to make it through Love in Action's twelve-step program. J was frank; he had a painful awareness of the Houdini act he would have to perform in order to be cured, of how smart and dedicated he needed to be in order to begin loving women.

All of us in the ex-gay group were from different places, most of us from the South, most of us from some part of the Bible Belt. Most of our stories sounded remarkably similar. We had all met with ultimatums that didn't exist for many other people, conditions often absent from the bond between parents and children.

At some point, a "change this or else" had come to each of us -- else homeless, else penniless, else excommunicated -- and we had all been too afraid to fall through the cracks, all told cautionary tales of drug addicts, of sex addicts, of people who ended up dying in the throes of AIDS in some East Coast gutter. Else AIDS, the story always went. And we believed the story. For the most part, mainstream media corroborated it. You could hardly find a movie in small-town theaters that spoke openly of homosexuality, and when you did, it almost always ended with someone dying of AIDS.

Love in Action had a talent for exploiting this fear. In fact, several years before I arrived, the facility had been responsible for staging a funeral for a would-be ex-gay defector, a young man of nineteen or twenty who felt he might benefit from an openly-gay life outside the facility. The other members of his group were instructed to stand before his reposing body, read mock obituaries that described his rapid descent into HIV, then AIDS, and cry over him, until he was fully convinced that his sinful behavior would lead him to a death without any hope of resurrection, his only consolation that he might be buried in his Sunday Best with a Bible tucked beside him, no other traces of his former self preserved.

It was our fear of shame, followed by our fear of Hell, that truly prevented many of us from committing suicide.

"Imagine what people would think," I remember J saying. "They'd never forgive me."

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These days, I can hardly find anyone who believes that the ex-gay movement poses a serious threat. The first thing I usually hear when I tell someone I'm writing a memoir about the ex-gay experience is, "Yeah, but is that kind of thing even real?" Sometimes I still hear that other dreaded, obvious phrase: "But you don't even look gay." "Well yeah," I say. "That was sort of the point." Most of the time, people laugh.

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Just last year, Ben Affleck spoofed the ex-gay movement on SNL, complete with a big overcompensating stone fireplace at his back, a catchphrase -- "Hetero is better, yo!" -- and an exaggerated hotdog-eating contest. Ex-gay therapy is perhaps some of the ripest material for satire, and while I want to laugh, every time I rewatch the clip I can't bring myself to make a single sound, a single movement. I freeze.

I think of all of the ex-gay programs that still exist even in the wake of Exodus International's highly publicized shutdown. I think of the mass export of ex-gay therapy to countries that still support anti-gay laws, how easy it would be to set a program up in a place like Russia, whose anti-gay legislation practically demands it. I think of Uganda, of the Americans who have already exported ex-gay thinking to that country, helping to produce one of the most dangerous anti-gay laws in the world -- a law formerly known as the 'Kill the Gays' bill -- and I'm reminded of just how far we have to go.

Right now there are people who believe that this kind of therapy for minors is a First Amendment right. And in some of their only coverage on the ex-gay legislative battle, The New York Times ran an op-ed last month arguing for a non-legislative approach to ending the practice, placing ex-gay therapy in the same camp as general psychotherapy. The author's thesis was that since other religious groups' rights are protected in our country, ex-gay therapy should fall under the same banner -- despite the fact that the therapy is demonstrably harmful to minors, on the same plane as child abuse.

A clear divide should exist between free speech and demonstrably harmful speech uttered by an unqualified physician -- and these ex-gay counselors certainly are unqualified, given that there currently exists no legitimate medical degree in ex-gay therapy.

There is too much work to be done, too many cobwebs to brush away, before I can start laughing.

Each time I watch the SNL clip or hear another ex-gay joke, I think of J, of how little I remember of him, how little I know of what he's doing now. Did he make it out? I certainly did, after only two weeks of formal ex-gay therapy backed by nineteen previous years of church-sponsored self-hatred.

I was lucky. After two weeks, reason kicked in and hijacked my brain, and I never even made it past step one. After two weeks, my parents knew they would lose their only son if they didn't learn to accept him on his own terms. In the painful years that followed, books like The Scarlet Letter taught me that a whole town could be morally corrupt while still believing itself to be morally superior, that what mattered most were truths that resonated in the heart and the mind.

But what about J? Did he find similar relief? How would I even begin to find him, now that his face is buried beneath ten years of growing pains, behind ten years of constant struggle to reclaim my own identity?

The counselors took away my personal journal on the first day of my stay, claiming that journaling constituted what in their lingo was a "false image," a hindrance to my swift progression out of addiction. As a result, I wasn't allowed to take notes during my time there. I wasn't allowed to write about what I felt for J. I don't even think I was allowed to say goodbye.

Now there is only this blank page where his face should be.

Chair and silhouette images via Flickr.


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