I mentioned a few days back that I was reading Garrard Conley's book, Boy Erased (NY: Riverhead, 2016), which recounts his experiences growing up as the son of a Missionary Baptist minister in small-town Arkansas in the final decades of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century. As my previous reference to the book notes, it's primarily a memoir of his experiences at the "ex-gay" reparative therapy outfit Love in Action in Memphis, to which his parents sent him after he was outed to them as gay. Mama vomited on hearing this news, Papa threatened, and Conley had no choice except to go to LIA, if he expected his father to continue to claim him as a son and to help pay for his college education (he was in college when this happened).
It has been rather painful to read this memoir as the mass murder of LGBTQ people occurred in Orlando, and as it has sparked a roiling conversation both in the U.S. and internationally about the interplay between toxic conservative religious ideas and anti-LGBTQ violence. Part of the pain is having to confront the fact that, essentially, not a great deal has changed in places like rural or small-town Arkansas for people growing up LGBTQ, from the time I came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, to the time in which Conley came of age in the 1990s and 2000s.
One hopes for increasing tolerance and enlightenment, especially when people are suffering needlessly. But that's obviously not what's happening vis-a-vis LGBTQ people and many religious groups in the U.S. In fact, the case might be made that the more visible queer people have become, the more rigid, repressive, and even violent (rhetorically, in terms of institutional norms and behaviors) right-wing religious groups have become.
Like Conley, I grew up in a Baptist church, though mine was Southern Baptist and not Missionary Baptist — and I grew up in a "first" Southern Baptist church in an affluent town in south Arkansas, where, for many "first" Baptists including my parents, going to church was more a formality and a social practice than a matter of profound religious commitment. This is in contrast to the environment in which Conley was raised, in the household of a Missionary Baptist pastor in a small town in which people tend really to believe — especially Missionary Baptists.
I can't recall any point in all my years of growing up Southern Baptist at which I ever heard a sermon or a Sunday School lesson that mentioned the topic of homosexuality. We did not exist, outside the effeminate but never-mocked unmarried "bachelor" who played the organ each Sunday in our tastefully decorated church with its stained-glass windows of muted pastel colors, its plush carpets, the thick cushions on its pews. That man was, in fact, the darling of the elderly ladies of "good" "old" families in our town, a fixture at their garden parties and tea parties. And they and everyone else in town knew fully what his being a "bachelor" really meant. This was simply not discussed.
For that matter, I never heard a single word about abortion or contraception growing up Southern Baptist. Those topics, too, did not exist. All I ever heard about sex in church was from other boys in my Sunday School class, and it was an earful, a lively education in matters sexual that mixed fact with fiction, all delivered with graphic detail and erotic élan that made Sunday School more than a little bit livelier that it had been when we were prepubescent boys together coloring pictures of Jesus loving all the little children of the world.
These lessons occurred when our teacher (another "bachelor" who lived with his mother and was much admired in our community, not to mention a childhood friend of my father's brother, who married the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister and raised two sons who are Southern Baptist ministers) was late to arrive for Sunday School. On these occasions, several boys in my class, all of them football players who ruled the roost in our high school, used the absence of the teacher as an opportunity to brag to the rest of us about their sexual exploits, in one case, exploits that included, so this classmate maintained, sexual encounters with a sister.
These same classmates were, I knew full well, hostile to boys like me whom they had long since tagged as queer, though I also heard rumors — and they seemed to me then and still today to have had a basis in fact — of sessions of mutual masturbation in which queer boys they might be inclined to knock down on the gym floor at school to demonstrate their masculine prowess were invited to service them sexually. These boys were sons of pillars of the church, of surgeons, doctors, lawyers, businessmen who ran the town. Unlike me, they have remained Southern Baptist and are now themselves pillars of that same church, avidly promoting the agenda of condemning homosexuals (They're all about sex! They're nothing if not promiscuous!) now that homosexuals have come onto the radar screen of the Southern Baptist church, of combating abortion and contraception since those causes have become politically expedient for the religious right.
Garrard Conley grew up in a different time and place. By the time he came of age in small-town Arkansas, homosexuality was, in fact, very much on the radar screen of small towns and their evangelical churches. Covenants were being written to assure that this church and that church would not dream of allowing a homosexual to join the church. Pressure was being applied for pastors to preach against the sin of homosexuality, to place cutesy poisonous statements on their church signs about how God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.
And in his parents' Missionary Baptist household, Conley was squarely in the crossfire of all of this when his college classmate who raped him then turned around and outed him to his parents, to wash the stain of homosexuality from himself and to keep his own small-town fundamentalist church in Arkansas from noticing that stain. Conley was sent off to Love in Action because his parents devoutly believed that people do choose their sexual orientation and that thoughts and prayers can change them, can pray away the gay.
Conley himself believed this. He had grown up in a world in which thinking or believing anything else was impossible. He'd have had to remake his entire world — his family itself — in order to believe something else. And so he went to LIA willingly.
Down the road, of course, he had to cope with learning that LIA's director Jon Smid, a twice-married (to women) man who played a key role in trying to de-gay and masculinize Conley, had never successfully prayed away his own gay. Smid has now divorced his second wife and married a man.
This was all happening as Conley struggled with the decision to write his tell-all memoir, and as his mother begged him not to publish it, since his father was receiving threats of punishment from his denominational leaders and shunning from other pastors in the state: If he can't even control his own gay son, then how can he credibly preach the word of God to anyone at all? What kind of a man raises a gay son and lets that son go around claiming to be gay? If we teach the bible's infallible word, which says that men are men and women are women and men are meant to rule their women and children, how can we keep fellowship with a preacher who permits this in his own household?
The praying-away-the-gay process did not work for Garrard Conley, as it did not work for Jon Smid, and Conley made the courageous decision to face his father's ire and stop the process before it tore him to pieces. He now lives a happy, productive life as an out gay man — far from Arkansas, it should be noted. His book concludes with the following plaintive, painful notes:
On some days, it's hard to believe that I ever lived in a world that operated on such extreme notions of self-annihilation. But then I turn on the news, read a few articles, and realize that what I have experienced may have been unique, but in no way was it disconnected from history. Minorities continue to be abused and manipulated by nefarious and well-intentioned groups of people, and harmful ideas continue to develop new political strains all over the world. What I can't quite understand – and what I may never be capable of understanding – is how we all came to be mixed up in the ex-gay movement, what drew each of us to Love in Action's double doors (pp. 327-8).
And God. I will not call on God at any point during this decade-long struggle. Not because I want to keep God out of my life, but because His voice is no longer there. What happened to me has made it impossible to speak with God, to believe in a version of Him that isn’t charged with self-loathing (p. 337).
And as I try to absorb the pain (and the wisdom) in these statements, how can I possibly avoid thinking about them in light of what has happened in Orlando recently — and of the clear, easy-to-discern role that repressive misogynistic, homophobic religion plays in setting the stage for such atrocities? How can I possibly read these statements and not think about the belligerent refusal of the pastoral leaders of the church I chose when I left the Southern Baptist church — the Roman Catholic one — even to utter the words "gay" or "LGBTQ" when queer bodies are lying on the ground massacred?
How can I possibly read these passages and not think about the choice of "liberal" Catholics in the U.S. — the heterosexist Commonweal club comes to mind — belligerently to support that refusal to utter the words "gay" or "LGBTQ" when queer bodies are lying on the ground massacred? While it belligerently refuses ever to engage the heterosexual power and privilege of those within its club who are chosen to parse LGBTQ lives, while LGBTQ people are not themselves invited into this club to discuss their own lives . . . .
When "God" is mediated by such belligerent, morally obtuse representatives to a community some of whom have just been slaughtered solely for the crime of being who God made them to be, what choice is left to the members of that community but to do precisely what Garrard Conely has chosen to do — to turn his back on that "God"?
The photo of the cover of Boy Erased is from Garrard Conley's website linked at the head of the posting.