Awareness arrived with watching the recently released film Boy Erased. Based on a 2016 memoir by Garrard Conley, who grew up in north Arkansas, it's the quietly chilling story of an 18-year-old college student who, in 2004 (!), when his conservative Christian parents find out he's gay, is sent to conversion therapy in Memphis to get him straightened out.
With first-rate performances by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as Baptist pastor Marshall and dutiful wife Nancy Eamons, Lucas Hedges as their son Jared, and Joel Edgerton (who wrote and directed the film) as Victor Sykes, director at the therapy program, the film is pitched in a murmuring minor key, somber and brutal in chronicling the dissonant missteps and consequences of decisions made and actions taken by people, most of them thinking they're doing the right thing.
Conley, now living in New York, was born in Memphis and grew up in Cherokee Village and Mountain Home. According to the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, he is the son of Hershel Conley, a Missionary Baptist pastor, and Martha Conley.
He was a Lyon College freshman when another student outed him as gay. That's when his parents sent him to a kind of gay cure day camp called Love in Action in Memphis.
While humiliation, self-degradation, and painful confessions were par for the group discussions held there, Conley writes in Boy Erased that his experience there might have been unique: He lived in a world that operated on extreme notions of self-annihilation. He initially bought into the idea that he might have to obliterate an authentic part of himself to live as a good and decent person.
In reality, what he went through is all too common. Lots of other people who find themselves in the minority have been abused, manipulated and sometimes destroyed by well-intentioned groups of people. And, he adds, "harmful ideas continue to develop new political strains all over the world. "
Pushback is powerful. The Trevor Project's 50 Bills 50 States is a campaign to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy in the U.S. and countries around the world. Using legislation, litigation and public education, the organization's goal is to end what it defines as dangerous and discredited practices.
Founded in 1998 by the creators of the Academy Award-winning short film Trevor (concerning what happens to a 13-year-old in 1981 after his same-sex crush on a schoolmate is discovered), The Trevor Project seeks to provide crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people under 25.
What is conversion therapy? Boy Erased answers that question in unsettling detail. A more nuanced description is offered on The Trevor Project's website: Sometimes referred to as "reparative therapy," it's any of several dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity. Conversion therapists use a variety of shaming, emotionally traumatic or physically painful stimuli to make their victims associate those stimuli with their LGBTQ identities.
Studies by the UCLA Williams Institute claim that more than 700,000 LGBTQ people have been subjected to conversion therapy, and an estimated 80,000 LGBTQ youth will experience this unprofessional conduct in coming years, often at the insistence of well-intentioned but misinformed parents or caretakers.
Does conversion therapy work? No. The Trevor Project explains that it's based on the false notion that being LGBTQ is a mental illness that should be cured, despite all major medical associations' agreement that LGBTQ identities are a normal variant of human nature.
Potential risks of the therapy, says the American Psychiatric Association, include depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, "since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient."
It's been reported that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth from rejecting families are at least eight times more likely to attempt suicide than youth from accepting families. LGBTQ youth, Trevor Project advocates say, "should never be forced to try to change something as beautiful as who they love or who they are. After all, they cannot change what they never chose."
Conversion therapy is banned in 14 states, among them Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California, New Mexico, Illinois, and a cluster on the East Coast.
The legislatures in all other states have remained silent on the question. Gay conversion therapy is still legal in Arkansas. It ought not be.
Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.
Editorial on 12/09/2018
Print Headline: KAREN MARTIN: How is this still a thing?