Author Garrard Conley: Amid controversy over NC bathroom law, LGBT youth must have civil rights
Currently, only five states prohibit subjecting minors to harmful "ex-gay" reparative therapy
Editor’s Note: Garrard Conley is the author of a new memoir, “Boy Erased” (Penguin Random House). A native of Arkansas, he has a master’s degree in creative writing and queer theory and teaches literature at The American College of Sofia in Bulgaria. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
The way my parents explain it, they sent me to “ex-gay” reparative therapy to “cure” me of homosexuality because they had felt an overwhelming desire for our lives to be simpler. My mother had been the cheerleader, my father the quarterback: Their coupling was a meet cute that carried with it not the brutality of bigotry but the approbation of a Bible Belt town steeped in traditional family values. Why didn’t I, their son, deserve the same straightforward life story? Or so they asked themselves before they sent me to Love in Action, at the time the largest residential “ex-gay” facility in the country.
Reparative therapy’s most alluring fiction is right there in its name: the idea of an Edenic reparation, a return to a Golden Age when life was much less complicated. It is a lie I’ve seen repeated in the latest string of anti-LGBT legislation passed in Tennessee, Mississippi, and most notably North Carolina. In order to protect us from complicated identities and shifting realities, politicians hide under the guise of safety, cleansing public spaces of all ambiguity. Bathrooms become either/or, and businesses operate under the personal beliefs of their owners. “Safe spaces” are reserved for those least in need of them. Instead of making room for all people, these states offer the same two options my parents once offered me: conform or move on.
But many residents in these states don’t have the option of moving on. When I left “ex-gay” therapy in 2004, I was a 19-year-old gay college student trapped in Arkansas by financial and personal circumstances. I stared at my cinder-block dorm wall and imagined sinking deep into the cracks. After checking my dismal credit score and speaking to a financial aid adviser, I was too afraid to set out on my own in search of a life I wasn’t sure even existed in other states.
Besides, I had already ingested the paralyzing shame and fear instilled in me since early childhood, as so often happens to minorities who live in states that do not protect their rights. The statistics are clear: Rates of homelessness, depression and suicide are larger in parts of the country that do not have protections for gay residents or other minorities. When society is left to determine civil rights on a personal case-by-case basis, an implicit cultural message emerges: People are free to decide who is worthy of being treated as a human being and who is not.
When I hear about bills like HB2 being passed in North Carolina, I am often reminded of how slow, and how variable, progress can be. Slow-moving progress is a hard sell. Upon learning for the first time about my “ex-gay” experience, friends are often shocked that such a brutal practice could still exist. That I was subjected to brainwashing tactics that forced me to stare at an empty chair and yell at a father I was supposed to hate; that I was told my “urges” were sinful, hateful to God, an abomination; that I was forced to play sports in order to become more masculine: these seem impossible realities. Yet the fact remains that only five states have passed laws prohibiting reparative therapy for minors.
The successful push for marriage equality has, in recent history, eclipsed many other pressing LGBT issues, and it is only with the recent passing of these clearly bigoted anti-LGBT laws like HB2 that the general public has taken notice of how many doors remain closed to us. The happy disassociation many people outside this stark reality feel when celebrating marriage equality is understandable and sometimes even welcome, but it can also inhibit real progress. My straight and gender-conforming friends want the world to be a safe place for people like me, but it is not, and it will not be, until progressives and conservatives alike cease holding on to their illusions of progress.
The fact is that the legislative gray area in which I lived most of my childhood — with my rights contingent upon the whims of my parents or local and state government — still exists in most parts of the country today. But I was lucky, a window opened for me. My liberal arts education eventually granted me a clear path toward personal freedom, a good job and a healthy relationship. Despite years of self-doubt and suicidal ideation, I managed to move on. My parents were able to imagine a new life story for me, not what they expected so much as what was true.
Most days, I pass for a fully functioning individual. Some days, however, when I can’t get out of bed or can’t even go near my boyfriend for fear of being corrupted by his touch, the past doesn’t seem so distant. Each time one of these bills passes, a sad sense of recognition overwhelms me, and I’m sent right back to my first day of reparative therapy, sitting in a padded chair and listening to the sounds of my counselors’ hateful voices, the echoes of which I hear in the pages of and stories about these bills.
Perhaps one day all LGBT people will experience some version of my parents’ simple life: you grow up, you meet someone, you build a life together. This dream of mine may one day be a reality. At the present moment, however, in many places across the country, a window never opens. No truly safe spaces exist.
Garrard Conley is the author of a new memoir, “Boy Erased” (Penguin Random House). A native of Arkansas, he has a Master’s degree in creative writing and queer theory and teaches literature at The American College of Sofia in Bulgaria. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.