Boy Erased: A Story of Conversion Therapy–Church-Sanctioned Violence

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8 mins read
Author Dave Brown

In May 2016, the church I served hosted Garrard Conley for a reading from his book Boy Erased. A week before the reading, I got the call from my colleague at the book store. She wanted to review details for the event in light of a conversation she had with Garrard’s publisher. She had explained to the publisher our history of hosting author events and the congregation’s deep commitment to LGBTQ inclusion. Garrard was still concerned. He had not been to a church since his experience in conversion therapy. He did not want to read in the worship space. I assured her we were a safe place and  holding the event in Fellowship Hall which would be set up like a salon. There would even be a bar. He felt comfortable with that arrangement.

I understood his concern. I had finished reading Boy Erased a week earlier. It is an amazing book, and is now a critically acclaimed film. I was deeply impacted and troubled by what I read. The story of Garrard’s coming to awareness of his sexual identity, the tension it created with his family that lead to judgement and ‘conversion therapy’ was painful and raw. I grieved over what, in the name of Jesus, he experienced. When I finished the book I was filled with regret as a Christian pastor for what the Christian church put him through. Yes, it was a different “branch” of Christianity, but it was still part of my tradition. On the day of the reading, Garrard and I had easy conversation. On the way to Fellowship Hall, someone stopped me and asked for the name of the poem I read in worship. ” You read poetry in church?” he asked with surprise in his voice.

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The overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm.
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As I introduced him, I apologized as a Christian pastor for the role the Christian church has had in causing pain and wounding gay and lesbian persons. I told him I was committed to change. Tears came to the corners of my eyes as he came to forward. He read, shared, and took questions. It was a powerful evening. Garrard is a gifted writer and engages people easily. When the night was over he wrote an inscription in my book thanking me for the evening saying it was ” healing”.

Boy Erased, the book and film, tells the story of the religiously based violence of conversion therapy. The overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm. Fourteen states and Washington D.C. have banned this practice. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) denounced conversion therapy in 2016. Yet the practice continues. The apology I offered when introducing Garrard will be hollow unless it is joined to concrete actions to end conversion therapy and the damage it does.

Boy Erased is a strong film getting great reviews. If, like me, you are moved by Garrard Conley’s story, I suggest three responses:

  • Support agencies and communities that provide safe places for LGBTQ youth, places where they can celebrate their identity and where they can find healing after a church or family member tries to erase their identity.
  • Work to end conversion therapy. If your state isn’t one of the states that has banned this practice, get politically involved. If you are a person of faith, engage your denomination and local ecumenical or Interfaith organization asking them to condemn conversion therapy.
  • Unmask the churches and non-profit religious social service agencies who implicitly deny LGBTQ dignity and rights, even as they market themselves as spaces of welcome.

Homophobic Churches and non-profits do not lead with their stance on LGBTQ issues. The non-profits focus on the way they help people. Churches focus on being welcoming, loving, a place where you find community.  This message of love and inclusion is attractive, especially to young queer or questioning people. Yet many of these congregations that claim to emphasize love and welcome have very restrictive stances on human sexuality. This is particularly true in new churches that meet outside of church buildings not on Sunday morning—a show of modernity does not imply a reality of inclusive love.

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An important thing straight LGBTQ allies can do is identify communities and agencies that are affirming and unmask and name those who, despite their talk of love and noble mission, are far from affirming.
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It is important to get beyond style to core values. All too often, behind the praise band, good coffee and “hip” pastor is a theology that is anything but affirming of LGBTQ sexuality and  same sex marriage. It is one thing to “welcome all.” It is another to be a proactively affirming community when it comes to LGBTQ sexuality. LGBTQ folks seeking Christian community can be drawn to edgy style only to find religious leaders who do not affirm their sexuality and try in one way or another to “fix” the gay person naming their sexual identity as sin. This is also true with Christian non-profits addressing issues like homelessness and hunger that are undergirded by a theology that does not affirm LGBTQ folks. One question to ask these agencies is: would they hire someone in a same sex marriage as primary staff? An important thing straight LGBTQ allies can do is identify communities and agencies that are affirming and unmask and name those who, despite their talk of love and noble mission, are far from affirming.

Conversion therapy is religiously sanctioned violence. It seeks to erase one’s identity, the gift of one’s sexuality. Remember: the name of the agency that sought to change Garrard was “Love in Action”.

I will not forget the time I spent with Garrard. His book Boy Erased and the film adapted from it tell a story that needs to be told. It invites our response.

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Author Bio: Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, creator and host of Blues Vespers, and one of the PNW Interfaith Amigos. He was pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, WA and served as staff to the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education.

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