November 13, 2018
LGBT activists are pushing for an end to sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE)—the various forms of voluntary religious or secular counseling or therapy (referred to by critics and the media as “conversion therapy”) intended to help people with unwanted same-sex attractions to overcome those feelings or not act upon them. That campaign suffered a setback in August 2018 when an extreme version of a SOCE therapy ban, AB 2943, was withdrawn by its sponsor after strong resistance, especially from the religious community.
However, critics of SOCE are now hoping for a boost from the release of a new movie, Boy Erased, intended to dramatize the problems they associate with “conversion therapy.” The movie, starring Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as the parents of the college student sent to counseling, premiered in limited release on November 1, and is gradually being rolled out around the country.
The movie is based on a 2016 memoir with the same title by Garrard Conley. Conley was a 19-year-old Arkansas college student in 2004, when he attended one-on-one counseling and then an intensive two-week group program offered by Love in Action (LIA), a Memphis ex-gay ministry run by John Smid, a man who had testified to his own transformation from gay to ex-gay.
In anticipation of the movie’s release, I recently read the book on which it is based. On November 8, the first day the film was screened in the D.C. area, I went to see it. The first screening in downtown Washington was sold out, but I was able to catch a later screening in a nearly empty theatre in Bethesda, Maryland. What follows will address both the book and the movie, but I will focus primarily on the book.
Conley and Love in Action
I will say one thing in the book’s favor—it does not appear to be a complete fabrication. That is more than I can say for some testimony given in favor of state therapy bans—accounts which have either been proven false or are highly suspect. Love in Action was a real organization, and the approach Conley describes in the book is roughly consistent with group therapy used by some (not all) such ministries. According to Conley, his personal memories were augmented by LIA’s 274-page handbook—which he still has.
This means that in Conley’s account, there is no electric shock therapy; no application of heat or ice to create an aversion to homosexual stimuli; no deliberate exposure to heterosexual or homosexual pornography; in short, none of the horror stories one usually hears about outdated treatments that were abandoned 40 or 50 years ago. Although often raised in critiques of SOCE, no one has been able to prove that any of these methods have been used in this century.
Another common charge is that minors are coerced into therapy by their parents. Therefore, it’s important to note that Conley was not a minor when he went to LIA, and he states explicitly, “I was here by my own choice.” Despite its short term of two weeks, Conley’s program was not even a residential one—he spent evenings in a motel room with his mother. This was no “conversion therapy camp” as they are sometimes depicted.
What the book, and at least the first part of the movie, feature instead is lots of talking and lots of writing. This makes the book and first half of the movie, frankly, rather boring.
Smid (depicted in the film as “Victor Sykes”) and LIA approached homosexuality using an addiction model, and many of their techniques were borrowed directly from the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Different programs and different therapists use different methodologies—what unites SOCE is only the goal, not any particular technique. While AA and other twelve-step programs have their critics, as far as I know no one has ever tried to outlaw them.
For example, one exercise drawn directly from AA was the “Moral Inventory”—an effort to account in writing for as many past sins as the participant could recall. Another exercise was drawing a “genogram”—essentially a family tree noting patterns of sinful behavior by various forebears and relatives. These techniques may be questioned by some—but hardly constitute “torture,” or even stirring drama.
The Real Trauma
That’s not to say there are no traumatic events in Boy Erased—it’s just that most of them predate or are unrelated to the LIA program. In the book, Conley admits that in early puberty, he was so addicted to video games he would urinate on his bedroom carpet, rather than walk to the bathroom. (Later, in college, he would urinate in empty water bottles in his dorm, putting them under his bed to be discovered later.) In high school, he would “crouch on the toilet seat to hide from overcrowded lunch tables.” Conley, a runner, admits that in the summer before he started college, “my weight loss took an angry, masochistic turn that verged on anorexic”—something even a gay-friendly family doctor would call him on. Conley also admits several times to having suicidal thoughts. Note that almost all of these things happened before he went to LIA—and all were omitted from the movie.
If Conley had chosen to re-frame his story, it could have put an important male twist on the #MeToo movement. The worst thing that happened to Conley, and to the lead character in the film (renamed “Jared”), was that he was raped by a fellow male college student in a dorm room. (The under-a-blanket rape scene, as well as some strong language, are the main reasons for the film’s R rating.) The rapist then confessed to having done the same thing to a younger teen in the youth group at his church.
Conley told a pastor at his Presbyterian college about the latter crime—and was told “to stay quiet” because “there was nothing to be done.” However, he told no one—not the pastor, his parents, nor Love in Action counselors—about the assault he had suffered. He remained silent on this point even after the rapist was the one who “outed” him as “gay” to his parents. One is left to wonder whether his counseling might have had a different outcome if he had been more honest with the people who wanted to help him.
Family dynamics play an important role in Boy Erased—but this is one of several areas in which Conley appears to have misunderstood the theory behind some SOCE. It is true that many counselors have identified a pattern which is common (but not universal) among men with same-sex attractions, in which these men had strained relations with their fathers and male peers and unusually close relationships with their mothers.
This is the exact pattern evident in Conley’s description of his own life. With his father, a Christian car dealer who experienced a mid-life call to pastoral ministry, Conley had “moments of misunderstanding” that were “often damaging.” Sports is a common way for a boy to bond with his father or peers, but Conley admits, “It’s true that I was never any good at sports… I never liked to toss the ball with my father in the front yard.” (The film, however, makes “Jared” a high school basketball player.) With his mother, a glamorous Southern belle who married “in her sixteenth year,” he would go “to Memphis for weekends of shopping and movie binging.” In fact, when client Conley tells a counselor, “Yes, my mother and I were too close,” author Conley calls it his “first ex-gay utterance.”
The climax of both the book and the movie—and the incident that led to Conley walking out of LIA before the program was over—was an exercise called “the Lie Chair” (the name is puzzling, since it involves telling the truth). Conley was instructed to sit across from an empty chair “and imagine your father sitting across from you and you saying everything you’ve always wanted to tell him but couldn’t.” Conley says, “I tried working myself up into an angry fit,” but finally declared, “I’m not angry”—and walked out, never to return.
Conley seems convinced that the family dynamics theory did not apply to him, because his parents were not actually abusive—just once, “my father had raised his fist to strike me,” but thought better of it—and because he loves them. He does not seem to understand that there can be a deficit in meeting the developmental need for warm, non-sexual affection from the same-sex parent, even in the absence of any overt abuse.
Conley also seems to have a distorted view of Christian theology. For one thing, he (like many LGBT activists) seems obsessed with “Hell”—far more than any Christians I know, or any pastors I’ve ever heard preach. Even after having his horizons broadened by going to college, Conley declares, “I still believed that I would feel its fire licking my skin for all eternity if I continued on this path.” As an evangelical Christian myself, I also believe in hell (capitalizing the word, as Conley does, is unnecessary). Yet I’ve never believed—and know no one who teaches—that merely being (or becoming) straight is the key to avoiding it.
Critics of SOCE, including Conley, are also obsessed with “shame,” and a belief that such counseling operates by instilling a sense of shame over the client’s homosexuality. Yet every sexual reorientation therapist I have met has said the exact opposite—that one of the primary goals of such therapy is to overcome the shame that clients already feel when they begin therapy.
In fact, despite Conley repeatedly associating LIA and its teachings with terms like “self-loathing” and even “self-annihilation,” the actual quotations from LIA’s handbook and other materials express the opposite:
- “I believed many lies that I was worthless, hopeless, and had no future.”
- “I’ve learned that I am loved and accepted even though I have been involved in sexual addiction.”
- “I have worth. I am intelligent, funny, caring and strong.”
Because “moral inventories” and “genograms” don’t exactly make for compelling cinema, the filmmakers spiced up the last half of the film—by adding scenes that didn’t actually happen. The most dramatic—and most outrageous for its absurdity—is one in which an uncooperative LIA client is literally, physically beaten with a Bible (by family members including, apparently, his own little sister). Perhaps this is meant to be a metaphor for spiritual abuse, but some gullible viewers are likely to take it literally.
The character Jared’s “escape” from LIA is exaggerated in the film. Apart from having to ask a second time before his cell phone was returned, the book recounts no effort to physically prevent him from leaving or his mother from reaching him, the way the movie does. And the film’s biggest emotional gut punch is when we learn that the fictional victim of the fictional “Bible-beating” has committed suicide. (In his book, Conley reports no such event, but writes, “Various bloggers” have estimated that “twenty to thirty” suicides resulted from LIA, “though figures like these are impossible to pin down.” That’s probably because they are made up.)
One thing the film does somewhat better than the book is address the character Jared’s nuanced relationship with his parents after he left Love in Action. However, we have no way of knowing if the portrayal is a truthful one reflecting Conley’s actual experience, or merely a dramatic one serving Hollywood’s purposes. In the book, Conley addresses the decade after his LIA experience only cryptically, and somewhat confusingly. His father never followed through, apparently, on a threat to withdraw funding for his college education. Yet describing visits to his parents’ home, he declares, “I will refuse to even look at my father.” He concludes the Acknowledgments, though, by saying, “Thank you, most of all, to my mother and father, whose love has made all the difference.”
Love in Action—The Rest of the Story
In 2005, a year after Conley left Love in Action, the ministry was subjected to a storm of controversy after a teenager named Zach Stark complained on social media that his parents had sent him to LIA’s residential program for adolescents, called “Refuge.” (The Boy Erased film conflates this program with the adult-focused one, “The Source,” that Conley attended—a staffer in the film says, “Welcome to Refuge,” but the notebooks say “Source” on the cover.) This sparked a round of protests by LGBT activists, and investigations by Tennessee state officials.
State officials said LIA required a license because they were providing mental health treatment; LIA insisted it offered discipleship programs, which are exempt from state regulation. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF, now known as the Alliance Defending Freedom) filed a federal lawsuit to protect LIA, and ultimately prevailed, with the state dropping its efforts to regulate the LIA ministry.
The controversy about the short-lived Refuge program seems to be the source of the mythology that there is a network of “conversion therapy camps” across the country holding teens against their will. The trailer on the film’s official website ends with the dramatic and absurd declaration, “77,000 people are currently being held in conversion therapy across America.” Yet the Refuge program—then already defunct—was the only such program identified in a 2009 American Psychological Association report on sexual orientation change efforts. Indeed, a 2015 Ph.D. dissertation agreed that “it is likely the media frenzy surrounding the story of 16-year-old Stark being forced into a conversion therapy residential program by his parents in 2005 led to these bans” on such therapy for minors.
The controversy took a toll on Smid, however, and on the ministry. In 2008, Smid resigned; he has since returned to living as a homosexual and married a man in 2014. Smid now has a gay-affirming ministry called Grace Rivers, and has apologized for the work he did with Love in Action. (LIA, under new leadership and with a completely new ministry model, changed its name to “Restoration Path” in 2012.)
The therapy bans enacted in fourteen states so far apply only to licensed mental health providers and only to clients who are minors. Since Garrard Conley was not a minor and Love in Action was not licensed by the state, his experience would not have been affected by such a law, even if one had been in place in Tennessee. Ironically, the passage of such laws, cutting off access to care consistent with their values from licensed providers, might only have the effect of driving desperate parents and clients into the hands of unlicensed religious programs such as Love in Action. For SOCE skeptics who see this as undesirable, therefore, such laws may actually be counter-productive.
California’s AB 2943, on the other hand, would have applied to any SOCE provider or program that charges a fee, even religious and unlicensed ones. This type of approach, however, raises constitutional questions even beyond those raised by the license restrictions.
Regardless of what one thinks of Conley’s story, its fictionalized film version, John Smid’s story, or the techniques of Love in Action, they all represent only anecdotes about a particular instance of sexual orientation change efforts. They cannot be taken as representative of all SOCE. The claim that SOCE in general has been shown to be ineffective and harmful is not supported by the scientific research.
Boy Erased is not particularly entertaining; and not at all informative for making policy regarding sexual orientation change efforts.