Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Michael Coren's Epiphany and Garrard Conley's Boy Erased: "America Remains a Place Where Queer People Have to Fight for Their Lives" — Implications for 2016 Elections

I'm now reading Michael Coren's book Epiphany: A Christian’s Change of Heart and Mind Over Same-Sex Marriage (Toronto: Signal, 2016). I blogged about Coren's book last month (when I had only read excerpts from it), and pointed you to a very good review of it by Michael Boyle at Michael's Sound of Sheer Silence blog.

The first part of Coren's book, a chapter entitled "So This Is How It Feels," recounts his experiences with fellow Christians, a large majority of them fellow Catholics, as he came to change his mind about the issue of how the churches should deal with gay* people after having spent some years as a leading Catholic activist in Canada combatting gay rights and same-sex marriage. During this period, Coren found all kinds of doors open to him. He was a regular on Mother Angelica's EWTN network, for instance.

And then, in the first decade of the 21st century, he began thinking about the terrible cruelty being visited on gay people in places like Uganda — cruelty egged on and defended by followers of Christ — and he began having serious reservations about the anti-gay crusade of many Christians at this point in history. When he vocalized those reservations in print or in interviews, he found all hell breaking loose.

He found himself and his family targeted by the very same anti-gay Christian activists with whom he had previously collaborated. He found doors slamming in his face, invitations to speak or appear on television programs revoked, income taken away. He found himself, his wife, his children, being slandered by Christians who now called them every name in the book, who invented scurrilous lies about them, who informed them that they were headed straight to hell and deserved to be there.

He found out, in short, what it feels like to be gay and to encounter a certain kind of Christian today — hence the title of his opening chapter. He says that he had never realized the depth of outright hatred carried by many followers of Christ towards those who are gay until he himself and his family began to be the object of the hatred. These experiences led him, after he had moved to a position of supporting same-sex civil marriage, to leave the Catholic church and join the Anglican church.

Here's a passage that leaps out at me as I read this story of Michael Coren's transition to becoming a defender of gay rights after he spent years opposing gay rights from a conservative Catholic vantage point:

I sometimes think that if someone who had absolutely no familiarity with the Bible was suddenly exposed to the Christian world and its denizens, they would assume that large parts or even the bulk of the Old and New Testaments dealt with sex, homosexuality, abortion, and in the case of some Christians, the merits of gun ownership and capitalism, the evils of vaccination, environmental activism, and liberalism. Try as I might I find very little in scripture about owning guns and nothing at all about medical inoculations. Flippancy aside, there's actually not much more in the Bible about homosexuality than there is about giving children and injection so that they don't die of routine diseases. It is hardly ever mentioned at all. In fact there are probably five or six mentions of what can loosely be described as same-sex relationships and attractions in the entire Bible and the most famous or infamous one, of course, is always mentioned whenever this issue is discussed in Christian circles. Homosexuality is in Biblical terms largely a non-issue and has been awarded a significance far beyond its status (p. 50).

As I read Coren's book, I'm also working on an article I've been commissioned to write about Garrard Conley's Boy Erased, his memoir about growing up in Arkansas in the household of a Missionary Baptist preacher and being sent by his parents in 2004 to the "ex-gay" therapeutic outfit Love in Action in Memphis — the same time, roughly, in which Michael Coren was making his turn to understanding how gay people are frequently treated by Christians at this point in history, and was learning about the outright hatred some Christians choose to display against those who are gay. I blogged about Conley's book in June.

As I read interviews with Garrard Conley in which he speaks about why he wrote Boy Erased, I'm struck by his repeated insistence that people need to know about groups like Love in Action, because this kind of "ex-gay" sham continues to go on and on and to harm people, especially vulnerable young people. He himself was suicidal due to his time in LIA and for some time after he left this "therapy" program. As Conley points out in a recent essay in Time magazine, "ex-gay" therapy is built right into the GOP platform this election cycle.

And as he notes in a statement for VICE, the current presidential campaign in the U.S. has serious implications for the LGBTQ community and those who care about LGBTQ people, because "Trump's America includes gay conversion therapy." As Conley notes, 

Despite criticism of the practice from the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the Obama administration, throughout the majority of our country, conversion therapy is still legal. This means that 76 percent of our LGBTQ population currently resides in a state where they can legally be asked to detail all of their sexual fantasies in an attempt to lead them into feelings of deep shame and regret. This means that a child can be told that memories of their parents are false, and that some form of early abuse must have "turned them gay." And though more than 20 states have attempted to pass legislation banning conversion therapy, legislators in states like Florida and Virginia have struck down similar bills.

When he states that "Trump's America includes gay conversion therapy," what Garrard Conley means is that, through its avowed agenda (see: 2016 GOP platform) and Trump's choice of anti-gay crusader Mike Pence as his running mate, the Republican party is announcing its intent to keep the "ex-gay" movement up and running, despite the strong consensus of medical professional groups that such "therapy" is bogus and despite the implosion of the leading "ex-gay" organization Exodus International, which folded after it admitted that "ex-gay" "therapy" is a complete sham. Its affiliate organization Love in Action, to which Conley was sent, has also shut down after its director Jon Smid admitted that he himself had never been "cured" of homosexuality, left his wife, and married his male partner.

In a revelatory interview in May with Amy Gail of Barnes and Noble, Conley explains that he wrote Boy Erased to educate people about the serious dangers posed by "ex-gay" "therapy" — and about the fact that such "therapy" continues in much of the country even today, though its harmful effects are well-documented.  Gail states, 

In the past few years — after the suicides of hundreds of patients — many conversion therapy programs have been dismantled, but until now, the survivors have rarely seen their stories in print. For this and many other reasons Conley's memoir is an essential text and a reminder, as author Garth Greenwell puts it, that "America remains a place where queer people have to fight for their lives."

Conley responds: 

In my MFA program, I took a nonfiction class, and my professor said to me, "You need to find your big subject,'"and I said, "Well, I went to this ex-gay therapy thing," and the whole class leaned forward and were like "WHAT?!'"The big question in that room, in that moment, was "How could any parent do that to a child?'"And that made me upset, because my immediate answer was "Of course they could have done this. Have you never been to Arkansas? Do you not know what it’s like growing up in a fundamentalist family?" 
But of course they didn't know. So, the book started out as an essay that was just addressing the idea that yes, it's actually very easy for parents in this culture [to send their kid to ex-gay therapy] and it’s part of the a continuum that is still alive today, as we see now with HB 2 [North Carolina's new law regulating gender and restroom use] and similar acts in the South and Midwest. It is not a new thing and it's not going away. My big drive for writing the book was wanting to bridge this cultural divide for liberals who seem to be incredulous when they are facing the extreme Right, and I felt that I was in a position to do that, because I’m liberal, but I know exactly how conservatives think.

Conley focuses (and this is entirely understandable) on the culture of right-wing evangelicalism in which he himself was raised in Arkansas. He rightly notes that the political influence of Southern right-wing evangelical culture remains enormous in the United States as a whole — through the political party that is now dominated by right-wing white evangelicals.

Coren focuses on right-wing white Catholics, the kind of people who, in the U.S., are stating that they intend to vote, a full half of them, for Donald Trump. And so the problem is hardly confined to the fundamentalist religious culture of white evangelicals in the American South, is it? The people viciously attacking Michael Coren when he came out in support of gay people being tormented in Uganda were, he makes clear, fellow Catholics for the most part — his former cronies in the anti-gay movement in Canada and the U.S.

Once again: both Conley and Corey are writing about experiences they had in the first decade of the 21st century. These issues are not behind us. The battle lines remain drawn, and Garrard Conley is absolutely correct to see them being drawn all over again in an exceptionally clear way with the campaign of Donald Trump for the White House.

This presents — or it should present — us with a clear moral challenge as we make our political choices in the 2016 elections. Shouldn't it?

* Coren explains at the outset of his book (p. 4) that he uses the term "gay" as a felicitious shorthand to comprise all of those included in the acronym LGBTQI. 

The photos of the covers of Coren's and Conley's books are from their websites (here and here).

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