While in Arkansas this past weekend for a belated Thanksgiving, I went with my parents to see Boy Erased, the film version of Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name about surviving a stint in a now-shuttered ex-gay treatment program in Memphis, Tennessee called Love in Action.
Conley’s story is in some ways discomfitingly similar to mine. He was the son of a Baptist preacher in Arkansas and realized he was gay sometime during his teenage years. I was the son of the most devout lay Baptists you could imagine, and, also from Arkansas, I knew I was gay from about the age of 13. My own brush with so-called “conversion therapy” was negligible compared to Conley’s, but I did imbibe a lot of its ideas over the radio waves during my adolescence. As I would later write when I was in my mid-twenties:
I remember listening to James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio broadcast occasionally with my mother as we rode somewhere in the car together. My ears would perk up when the subject of homosexuality came up, which it did often, since this was the mid-’90s, and the “gay rights” movement was gaining steam. Dobson talked a lot about the “causes” of homosexuality — childhood sexual abuse, an emotionally distant father, the absence of affectionate male role models. I remember scrutinizing my past and present experiences. Did I fit these categories? I had never been sexually abused by anyone, let alone my parents. Was I close enough to my dad? I could think of one time I tried to initiate a weekly time of reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline with him and praying together, but it flopped. Plus, I never learned to play golf with him, nor did I want to take up deer hunting, as he seemed to hope I would sometimes. Did that mean I was suffering from a lack of paternal intimacy?
Dobson was one of the biggest promoters of the kind of therapeutic approaches depicted harrowingly and powerfully in Boy Erased. He advocated a popularized, lightly Christianized version of the Freudian origin story for same-sex desire. If homosexuality in boys is traceable to the toxic cocktail of an overbearing mother and a distant father, then it stood to reason that it could be treated — or even prevented. (Dobson viewed this as a compassionate, pastoral approach compared to the one that said to gay people, “You’re choosing to be gay, so, just stop it.”)
“If parents provide a healthy, stable home life and do not interfere with the child’s appropriate sex role,” Dobson wrote in his book The New Hide or Seek, “homosexuality is highly unlikely to occur.” The key, as Dobson would later put it in his bestseller Bringing Up Boys, is to realize that boys should not be “feminized, emasculated, and wimpified [sic]” since “boys are a breed apart,” identifiable by their “testosterone, serotonin and the amygdales.” It’s a micro step from these ideas to the kind of aching conversation that occurs in one of the scenes in Boy Erased, where Jared the protagonist meets, at his father’s urging, with a GP to have his testosterone levels checked. One wonders in that moment whom to feel sorrier for: the confused boy who doubts whether his same-sex desire is curable with some kind of hormonal infusion but goes to see the doctor anyway, or the ashamed and frightened father who fears his own actions caused his son’s “abnormality” and is desperate to find some “fix.”
Dobson’s conclusions about male homosexuality were mediated to him largely through the writings of the late Joseph Nicolosi, founder and president of NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality). Nicolosi, as quoted by Dobson, insisted: “In 15 years, I have spoken with hundreds of homosexual men. I have never met one who said he had a loving, respectful relationship with his father.” But as Andrew Sullivan and other gay writers have long observed, the undeniably high percentage of gay men with strained or ruptured relationships with their fathers is equally explicable if you point the causal arrow in the opposite direction: The distant father may be partly responsible for the son’s gayness, but it’s just as possible that the son’s gayness may, when intuited by the father, have pushed him to recoil from his son in bewilderment or disgust. Correlation, as they say, doesn’t explain causation.
Boy Erased, in which Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, and Lucas Hedges deliver affecting and memorable performances, portrays the tragic consequences of seeking to force gay sons into one explanatory mold. Jared and the other gay boys seeking treatment for their homosexuality are encouraged by their ex-gay mentors to bellow, rage, and roughhouse. They do pushups, throw footballs, and avoid crossing their legs. They are told that they turned out to be gay because of their family histories, their lack of healthy relationships with their parents, their own sexual experimentation and abuse. And the fruit they reap is depression, dissembling, and — literally — death. Far from becoming straight or “marriage-ready,” they leave behind evangelical Christian faith and seek more benign versions of theism or none at all. And no one along the way stops to question whether the allegedly “masculine” behaviors that the gay boys are urged to adopt have much to do with Christianity at all.
When my conservative evangelical parents and I left the theater, they said to me, “That was so powerful.” My dad observed, “Some movies seem to drag and lose your attention. Not this one.” My mom said, “It’s all just so sad — and cultish.” Evangelical Christians still tempted to embrace the conversion therapy framework should ponder why it is that two people who (unwittingly) reared a gay son while looking to James Dobson for parenting advice had that reaction to this film.
Not only has conversion therapy heaped false guilt on the shoulders of parents, it has left many of its participants unable to distinguish between true Christian holiness and the straitjacket of mid-twentieth century gender norms. It’s high time we left it behind and joined its victims in lamenting its sad legacy.