Unconditional Love Or Cures? Exploring The Dark World Of Gay Conversion Therapy
Garrard Conley found himself living in a fundamentalist Christian home, where his sexuality was not accepted.
Growing up as a gay teenager was difficult; he was subjected to fear, rejection and confusion by those around him.
But what would shock readers the most is that on agreeing to spend two weeks at an ex-gay facility, Garrard has set out on a journey through an unfamiliar world: one that seeks to ‘cure’ young gay men and women of their so-called ‘addictions’.
This introduces us to the ideas and methods of the ex-gay movement; one rooted in the belief that homosexuality can be cured with treatment.
It also raises questions about why many young LGBT people still feel they have no choice but to try and change themselves.
Join us as we explore what it’s like growing up gay in a fundamentalist home, learn about the damaging attitudes of the ex-gay movement, discover surprising practices and consequences, and examine how Conley’s journey ultimately ended.
Garrard Conley’S Experiences With A Troubling Fundamentalist Christian Ex-Gay Movement
The ex-gay movement saw homosexuality as an “unnatural perversion created by the devil”.
This organization, Exodus International, believed that with treatments and intensive programs, such as the one Garrard Conley attended at the age of 19, participants could be “cured” of their sexual orientation and made straight.
The Love in Action program Conley underwent consisted of a 12 step program which aimed to address the idea that homosexuality was evil and filled an emotional void within individuals.
Participants were encouraged to renounce homosexuality and instead fill this void with God.
It was offered to those who wanted a way out of their sexuality, equating it to counterproductive behaviours such as abusing drugs and alcohol.
Ultimately, the ex-gay movement viewed homosexuality as a sinful yet curable addiction, just like alcoholism.
At The Love In Action Center, Conley Was Forced To Confront The Importance Of Identity And What Forms It
At Love in Action, participants were required to adhere to extremely traditional gender norms while in the program.
This included not only required clothes and personal attire but also any items that could potentially lead them away from their assigned gender role such as sexy clothing, excessive jewelry, or books that focus on feminine narratives.
Men were not allowed to wear tanks tops or excessive amounts of jewellery while women had to shave their legs and armpits twice a week and were restricted from wearing short skirts.
Furthermore, the facilitators at Love in Action were quick to determine what books could be seen as a “False Image” for Conley’s identity that might prevent him from conforming to the mandated heterosexual identity prescribed by the program.
This was even true for those items he brought with him; any story written about nature or describing female characters was immediately confiscated as sinful.
Additionally, participants were not allowed access to classical music, yoga, astrology, or fantasy games due to their connection with non-fundamentalist Christianity.
Conley was instructed before attending Love in Action to cast aside anything aside besides his Bible and the handbook given by the center itself.
The Crippling Effects Of Homophobia And Strict Evangelism On Young Lgbt People In The Bible Belt
The participants of the Love in Action program had very little choice in the matter.
They came from highly religious backgrounds, mostly within the Bible Belt area of the American South, where church attendance and religion are a large part of life and prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community is still very much alive and well.
Many of the participants had been given ultimatums by their parents to either renounce their homosexuality or be cut off from their families forever.
For some, this meant being threatened with homelessness, excommunication from their church, poverty or exile from their religious communities if they failed to comply.
Moreover, these individuals had also internalized much of the harmful homophobia that existed around them.
They were heavily influenced by both religious institutions and media outlets that painted an image of gay people as addicts destined for death by AIDS.
Consequently, these circumstances led many of them to believe they needed “treatment” in order to be accepted and survive in society.
It was not unusual for some program participants to stay at the center for months or even years at a time in order to seek the assistance they required – many younger participants even ended up leaving university because of this.
In addition, any former participant who wanted to work at Love in Action would have to agree not only to speak only with those approved by program facilitators but also not to visit secular environments during their freetime such as parks or shopping malls.
Sadly, some teenage participants were also kept against their will due to parental involvement as minors.
Love In Action Was A “Treatment” Program That Caused Trauma For Vulnerable, Minority Participants
Many of the participants of Love in Action had already experienced trauma prior to joining the program, making them vulnerable minorities living in a hostile and prejudiced environment.
Unfortunately, their already-exististing trauma developed even further as a result of this program.
For some of these individuals, the suffering was beyond what they were emotionally capable of handling and this drove them to suicide.
One example is that of Garrard Conley, who joined Love in Action at 19 years old after being raped and outed to his family by his rapist.
The well-known program leader, John Smid, even advised one participant that it would be better for him to commit suicide than live life as a gay man.
Additionally, around 30 former participants have been reported to have committed suicide following their involvement with Love in Action.
It has also been said that Smid once held a mock funeral at the center for another participant.
In this horrible scene, he made the young man lie down while other participants read out mock obituaries over him – an experience which deeply traumatized the person for many years afterward.
Love In Action’S Questionable Theory: Homosexuality Caused By Lack Of Childhood Sports And Satanic Influence
At Love in Action, a homophobic counseling program, the counselors believed that homosexuality was caused by a lack of childhood sports as well as Satan’s influence.
That’s why the program participants were required to attend group counseling sessions with Danny Cosby, a former alcoholic with no real qualifications in counseling.
Cosby told them that as children, they hadn’t participated in enough sports and this had led to “unhealthy” male bonding later on, which manifested as homosexuality.
The counselors also believed that homosexuality was caused by Satan’s influence over their lives and could only be cured if they admitted the devil’s power and recognized their own sinful behavior.
To help the participants do this they were instructed to undertake a daily “Moral Inventory,” wherein they had to detail any instances of sexual impropriety and share it with everyone in group therapy the next day.
The Devastating Effects Of The Ex-Gay Movement On An Individual And It’S Lasting Impact
The ex-gay movement has officially been disbanded and discredited, but its effects still linger for those who were formerly a part of it.
Conley, the main character in Boy Erased, faced severe repercussions when he walked out of the Love in Action program after two weeks of trying to erase his true self—consequences that still trouble him to this day.
People like John Smid, the leader of Love in Action, have actually repudiated the ex-gay movement themselves, realizing that its supposed “treatments” are ineffective and can never change someone’s sexual orientation.
But despite this acknowledgment and the collapse of Exodus International and other similar organizations, there are some areas — such as Uganda — that are starting to adopt this kind of fundamentalist ideology.
Conley no longer believes in God or has any faith at all anymore since Love in Action taught him to be ashamed of himself.
On top of that, his relationship with his family has been greatly strained ever since it was his parents who had pushed him into this “treatment” program.
Unfortunately he’s unsure if it will ever truly recover from what happened.
The final takeaway from Boy Erased is a powerful one.
It lays bare the incredible damage that the so-called “ex-gay” movement caused for LGBT individuals in the United States.
Not only did this movement strip participants of their identity, it made them guilty and confused for many years afterwards.
This book serves as a warning to anyone considering engaging in any sort of “ex-gay” therapy: the psychological harm can last long after the therapy has ended.
As Conley and countless others have revealed, it is crucial to support, be kind to, and accept all people regardless of where they are on their journey towards understanding themselves.