Choosing to be oneself...
He grew up in a Baptist house in a small town in Arkansas, America. He was gay, but couldn’t tell his parents because his father was due to be ordained by the church. Raped by another boy in his freshman year of college, Garrard Conley shares not only his story, but also the story of the many unvoiced closeted boys and for that matter all those members of the LGBTQ+ community, who face the burden of having to hide their identities and cater to the needs of those around them.
Published in 2016, Boy Erased is the harrowing experience of young Garrard - coming to terms with his sexuality, having to fight with those he loves most - his family, while also trying to understand his parents’ perspective. He tries hard to identify with the traditional notion of masculinity of being “strong and straight” only to realize that that every piece of his personality was connected to his sexuality. His journey takes him from being a devout young boy trying to meet the societal expectations of a “straight good Christian man”, to a complete transformation of the self - a self whose acceptance and resilience prevented his complete destruction.
In order to avoid being outed, Garrard's rapist “outs” him to his parents. As a result, Garrard risks losing the emotional and financial support of his parents at only 19. His Christian upbringing leads him to believe that his orientation was a sin and that he needed a cure for himself. Consequently, he gives in to his parents’ ultimatum and enrolls into the ironically named ex-gay therapy institution “Love in Action (LIA)”. Through the book, Conley describes the constant oppression, humiliation and shame that he and other trainees at the program faced. The reader cannot help but feel splinters being pushed in his or her or their heart and at the same time develop an extraordinary longing to comfort the 19-year old Conley.
Perhaps there are many of us who can identify with this feeling of watching ourselves lose ourselves because of some circumstance that we have been forced into courtesy loved ones who have failed to understand us or courtesy our pedagogy or our own misbelief that our uniqueness is a sin. (And I am not writing here of only those who identify with the LGBTQ+ community, but rather of people who identify as humans at large). How do we leave something or walk away from something that constantly tries to change us by stripping us down of our very selves? If we don't, we have everything to lose - our own selves, and that by far is the most important and precious sacrifice that can be made. And sacrifice for what? For people who claim to harbor all the love for us, but are somehow constrained in understanding us - in communicating compassionately? But I digress here and I would like to return to writing about Boy Erased.
Heart-wrenching, and perhaps in so many ways reflective of so much of the self-loathing, shame, guilt and trauma associated with the forced denial of one’s identity, Boy Erased is a powerful memoir. It’s beauty lies not in its alternating narrative structure that switches between memories of Garrard's childhood and his time at LIA, but in the raw complexity of his struggle. On the one hand, he deals with his identity as a Christian, who (having been raised on the ideals that homosexuality is sinful or carnal, truly believes he is wrong and thus prays daily to be cured) eventually struggles with believing in God. On the other, however - it's more complicated. He is attached to his family - who also has its own constraints and ideas about what it expects of Conley and it is his family that gives him the choice of enrolling himself into ex-gay therapy or losing its support. The "choice" he is faced with is really no fair choice at all. How can you choose between yourself and those that raised you with nothing but what they understood love to be? To most of us, it would seem that both can exist harmoniously, without any trouble. To those of you, I say - feel grateful - you are lucky. Garrard wasn't as lucky, though. And there are still others who aren't! This internal struggle is so vividly captured in every page of his book and his experience at LIA only intensifies it. The most beautiful aspect, though, is his ability to accept himself despite all the trauma and yet not blame his parents. His reason to leave LIA was not a blazing revelation and acceptance of his sexuality as “Fuck you all, proud to be gay”, (even though if anyone earned the right to say that, it was him); his resilience was a soft, shrill protest - to be allowed to feel his own emotions, to use his own voice and above all - to be himself. Particularly touching is that his explicit defiance of the LIA instructors occurred when they were coercing him into expressing a hatred for his father - something he refused to do because he didn’t hate his father - the same man, who was the reason for his conscription at LIA in the first place. He simply disagreed with his father and that did not make him hate the man. In doing so, he has shared an important lesson here - we can agree to disagree respectfully and without any resentment or ill-will. How easy these few words seem, but practically the hardest to implement!
The way his character blooms and overcomes the constant projection of humiliation and denial of the self is remarkable and I think only a few would be able to handle such immense and intense damage to the self without resorting to some form of self-harm or losing themselves completely. Conley shows us that hate doesn’t need to be fought with hate, there is a softer language of acceptance and tolerance, and that we can be the better ones. Life experiences are tough and I cannot imagine Conley's pain in having to recall all of this in order to write the book. One thing I do know though: we need more books like this. We need to be made to face reality - to confront the consequences of our own intolerance. It is the only way we will feel shame and through this shame learn to be more humane. It is tragic that we need to resort to being forced to feel shame in order to tap into our compassion - but God knows, we do need more compassion!
Perhaps his intention with this book was healing himself, but in doing so he has done the LGBTQ+ community, and humanity at large a favor - he has reminded us about the need for courage to continue to speak about our experiences and to be gentle in our dealings, even when we are mistreated - because therein lies our growth and a deepening of our capacity for compassion.
If this isn’t motivation enough to read the book, perhaps the fact that Russell Crowe and Troye Sivan are part of the movie adaptation (due to be released in September ‘18) may tempt you to catch it on-screen!