To Be Young, Christian, and Queer in the Fundamentalist South (With Apologies to Nina Simone)

Douglas Ray

Boy Erased. By Garrard Conley. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2016. 338 pages. $27.00.

In 2014, Garrard Conley gave a TEDx talk about his experiences in the now infamous fundamentalist Christian gay conversion therapy program Love in Action, the crown jewel of a network of such programs run by Exodus International. His talk, while powerful, leaves us with questions because we want more. Fortunately, Conley’s Boy Erased is a beautifully complicated bildungsroman that sheds light on the queer experience in the Deep South and wrestles with the intersection of limits of faith, the limitlessness of queerness, and how paradigms of seeing and understanding the world are slippery for some and unyielding for others.

Though Conley gives permission to laugh at the beginning of his TEDx talk, he does not reach for humor in weaving Boy Erased. He offers the narrative truth of growing up fundamentalist Christian (Missionary Baptist) in Arkansas and seeking the “help” of Love in Action’s two-week program to heal the “abomination” of homosexuality. Reading Conley’s memoir provides a much richer, more nuanced, and complicated experience of growing up a devout fundamentalist and having reductive, absolute truths shattered by doubt that accompanies self-knowledge. Conley’s knowledge of his own queerness challenges the fundamentalist tenet of Biblical inerrancy and a literal hermeneutic. Queerness thrives on the possibility of instability, where as a literal hermeneutic depends on rock solid clarity. Trying to reconcile who he comes to know he is with what he has been taught becomes impossible.

Boy Erased moves between his June 2004 “treatment program” at Love in Action and growing up in Arkansas up to his completion of his freshman year in a religiously-affiliated college. Conley’s assured, earnest voice communicates a sense of authority and fosters kinship with the reader; this is Conley’s Testament, similar to the “inspired” words of his youth, but one that knows that his story, while it has affinities with others, is uniquely his.

One of the pathways to seeing the world as a messier, grayer world than what the Missionary Baptists would have him believe is literature. Conley mentions in his TEDx talk being of two minds—his “literature brain” (messy, complicated, true to his experiences) versus his “God brain” (clear, absolute, consistent with his church upbringing). Reading The Scarlet Letter, he saw complexities in Hester that resonated with him, that mark her as different in her rigidly Puritan and patriarchal context—a misfit due to his sexuality given his context, though he ably performed as he thought he should by dating a girl and being involved in a church that bred an unshakable guilt and anxiety in him. But as much as ideas from reading Notes from Underground and Hawthorne combined with conversations with progressive English professors begin to change the way he interprets the world, the Bible, the hymns of his upbringing, and fundamentalist doctrine are continuous frames of reference, even as he seeks refuge from them. Again, his relationship with the church and his upbringing cannot be reduced to “bad” vs. “good.” It’s much queerer instead.

So, too, is his relationship with his family. One of the first parts of his treatment in Love in Action is constructing a genogram, where Conley maps out multiple generations of his family and notes each person’s sins—abortions, alcohol abuse, gambling, homosexuality. Essentially, the program argues that one’s homosexuality is the accumulated sins of forefathers passed down. But in a poignant scene, Conley rejects publicly expressing anger toward his father, even though his relationship with his newly-ordained, on-fire-for-evangelism car salesman-turned-minister father is difficult. At one point, when he first has a conversation about his son’s sexuality, Conley’s father argues that there is nothing so wonderful as being with a woman, suggesting that Conley’s being gay is due to a lack of experiencing such pleasure.

While the tension with his father is clear, Conley is very close to his mother; she accompanies him to Memphis during his stint at Love in Action, where they share a bland hotel room near the suburban strip mall that houses the offices of the program. His mother is part steel magnolia, and Conley’s descriptions of her are every bit as immaculate as a Southern gay man’s description of his mother should be. During a trip to the family doctor to have Conley’s testosterone tested, Conley describes her:

She was no Dolly Parton, as many Northerners erroneously assumed, with the heavily produced, heavily mascaraed optimism of a South no one would recognize in daily living; instead, she was fierce and determined, like many Southerners, if only you looked beneath the smile and the lace, a woman whose situation had changed for the worse in the past decade—first after losing her parents, then after becoming a preacher’s wife, and now after finding this stain on the family that must have been there all along, right under the small nose she’d inherited from her mother’s side. Nevertheless, she’d been taught to persevere, to wait it out within all of the glory she could muster.

As difficult as coming to terms with his own sexuality is for Conley, his story is not so self-absorbed that it is blind to the impact his identity has on those closest to him. He knows that, perhaps in the search for clarity through telling his story, he could cause pain and discomfort to those he loves. But, as most Baptists believe, people—even gay people—exert free will.

The struggle to be “free” of being gay at Love in Action falls secondary to the struggle to be free of intense self-loathing and guilt for merely being who Conley is. I suspect that any reader who has experienced growing up gay in a fundamentalist environment, or perhaps gay in the South, can read this memoir and oscillate between moments of wanting to stand up and say “amen!” in affirmation and of wanting to shed tears when reminded of abiding wounds. In a passage where he talks about the endless “moral inventories”—basically personal reports of sins against God—Conley captures in an almost terrifying way a bit of what it feels like to come of age as a gay man in the South and fundamentalist Christian:

What my mother didn’t yet know about being gay in the South was that you never ran out of material [for a moral inventory], that being secretly gay your whole life, averting your eyes every time you saw a handsome man, praying on your knees every time a sexual thought entered your mind or every time you’d acted even remotely feminine—this gave you an embarrassment of sins for which you constantly felt the need to apologize, repent, beg forgiveness. I could never count the number of times I’d sinned against God. If I wanted, I could fill out a new MI every night for the rest of my life.

And yet, even in his exposing the harshness, the ridiculousness of Love in Action and the unforgiving, unflinching attitudes of fundamentalist Christians, Conley is gentle and, amazingly, generous. He knows that people are products of context, that their narratives are as complicated as his. Clearly he was paying attention during the sermon for “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

When we realize just how dire Conley’s situation gets, we have to really consider what love looks like and, similarly, what it doesn’t look like. In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, love is patient, kind, unfailing. But the “love” we see “in action” that tries to redeem a gay Conley and others is conditional, costly ($1,500 for the program), and deeply flawed.

One of the topics I remember fondly from growing up in First Baptist Church of Jackson is that of grace. Grace is a gift or blessing freely given, and it is divine in its essence. It is impossible, according to my understanding, to earn grace—this gift that transcends our understanding of merit. Boy Erased is also a gift of grace as well; Conley has lived to write this book, to share this story that has and will continue to touch and comfort, to provide us with questions of what it means to believe, doubt, forgive, and—yes—love.

According to Conley, he and his father exchange collections of poetry—a relationship built with verse. The title of this memoir—and the idea of erasure—suggest removal or wiping away. But poetry, on the other hand, at its Greek root means “to make, to do.” Poetry is a made thing, an entirely human creation just as this memoir is, a product of memories excavated, shared, and bearing witness.

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