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Greater NW Pride: "Boy Erased" and the Church


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At the center of the book and movie, “Boy Erased”, written by Garrard Conley, is the so-called conversion or reparative therapy. Conversion or reparative therapy is the dangerous psychological practice of “attempting” to turn a person who self-identifies as LGBTQ to being “straight,” with the underlying misnomer that “straight” is normal and good, and same sex attraction is evil or bad. The 19-year-old college student, Jared (who is really Garrard) is sent to an ex-gay Christian ministry, Love in Action, in the American South, after being outed to his parents by administrators at the college Jared attended. Jared’s dad is a part-time evangelical pastor, who, upon hearing the news, calls two of the elders from his church, both straight men, to talk and pray about the course of action to help poor, misguided, sinful Jared. At Love in Action, Jared becomes our guide through the brainwashing horrors of conversion or reparative therapy. As Patrick Ryan noted in an article in USA Today(7/31/18), in conversion therapy there are four pillars of unfounded psychological and theological beliefs that guide the process of conversion therapy: 1) same-sex attraction is likened to cannibalism; 2) participants are taught that everyone is born straight; 3) participants are forced to re-enact traumatic experiences of their past, e.g., being severely punished by a parent; 4) all deviant behavior is admonished.  

Having read the book and seen the movie “Boy Erased,” what troubled me most in reading and seeing this story is re-living the horrific narrative that many of us who are LGBTQ and of a certain faith—myself included—spent time in our self-constructed LGBTQ closet, and actually  went through a similar brutal version of conversion or reparative therapy on ourselves, without knowing there was a name for what we were doing to ourselves. In talking with others who spent some time in their LGBTQ closet and were members of a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple, it was the very culture of our respective faith community and its religious leaders who ushered us into a life of self-hate and self-abuse, in which we, in turn, hated and abused others from our own wounds. The reason many of us who are LGBTQ are homophobic inside is because of the wider narrative of hate, spewed from church and society, towards LGBTQ people. In many if not all mainline churches, we all learned that same-sex attraction is not only bad but sinful, and that being straight is closest to godliness. As a result, many of us experienced self-imposed traumatic experiences as we emotionally if no physically self-flagellated ourselves as we denied that we were created in God’s image. We prayed endless prayers that our sinful behavior would be corrected by a miracle, and we would be made straight. And many of us denied ourselves an opportunity to love another human being of the same sex because we believed it was not of God.
And here’s the real kicker: there are religious leaders, pastors, priests, and ministers across all denominations, among lay leaders and members alike, who still perpetuate hate towards LGBTQ people. And there are still LGBTQ people in their self-loathing closet as I write this. After all, 36 states still sanction conversion or reparative therapy and their respective therapists and centers, and thousands of churches still reinforce their own version of conversion or reparative therapy, out of the mistaken belief that “everyone is born straight.” In my role as the LGBTQ Advocacy Coordinator, along with other enlightened UMC leaders and lay members, let us work towards a day when conversion or reparative therapy is outlawed in the land, and all will be welcome, as people created in the image of God, LGBTQ and straight alike, in every church, mosque, synagogue, and temple around the world. The only way forward is by those of us who are LGBTQ telling ourselves, our communities of faith, and the world: I am created in the image of God. I am created in the image of Love. I am created in the image of Hope. 

Brett Webb-Mitchell
Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is an openly gay Presbyterian pastor in the Portland area serving as the part-time LGBTQ+ advocacy coordinator for The Oregon-Idaho Conference of the UMC. He can be reached at brett@umoi.org. Become a subscriber to the Greater NW Pride blog to get Greater NW Pride in your email box!