Mar 20

Three Memoirs About Surviving Gay Conversion Therapy

As if the practice of conversion therapy isn’t bad enough for any age client, just imagine being one of its most likely victims: a teenager who’s trying to come to terms for the first time with all sorts of identity issues, not just sexual orientation. Imagine being torn from your family, probably a religious one, and sent far away to places where strangers try to make you something you’re absolutely not.

Three adults who’ve survived such teenage experiences have penned recent and highly praised gay conversion therapy memoirs.

I. Steven Gaines, One of These Things First: A Memoir (2016)

Meghan Daum, New York Times, summarizes:

For Steven Gaines, growing up as a ‘homo’ in Brooklyn in the 1950s and ’60s meant being ‘a freak, nature’s mistake,’ so at 15 he tries to kill himself by punching through the windowpane of his grandparents’ bra and girdle store. Threatened with hospitalization in a dumpy state mental facility in Queens, he talks his way into a six-month stay at the famed Payne Whitney clinic, in the ‘Ivy League of psychiatric hospitals,’ where former patients have included Marilyn Monroe, Carson McCullers, Jean Stafford and William Burroughs.

Kirkus Reviews adds further details:

Gaines was put under the care of a psychiatrist to whom he finally confided the cause of his distress: ‘I THINK I AM A HOMOSEXUAL,’ he wrote in a sealed note. ‘Homosexuality can be cured, like many other disorders,’ his doctor told him, news that buoyed Gaines’ spirits. ‘I would jump through hoops of fire,’ he thought, ‘if I could be normal.’

Primitive techniques designed to make him straight did not work, of course. Unfortunately for him, Gaines proceeded into “another decade spent trying to ‘cure’ his homosexuality with the same analyst,” Daum reports, “a process that involved sleeping ‘with women regularly, as prescribed’ and becoming ‘a connoisseur of the female body the way a Jew appreciates the Vatican’.”

Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe: “A longtime journalist and artful chronicler of New York lives, Gaines’s look back at his own is shocking, funny, and sometimes shockingly funny. A real treasure.”

II. Alex Cooper, Saving Alex: When I Was Fifteen I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That’s When My Nightmare Began (2016)

Another 15-year-old, this time female, another misguided “therapy” attempt. When Cooper came out to her Mormon parents, she was taken to church authorities who placed her, says the author, in “an unlicensed ‘conversion therapy’ center in the Utah desert” that was mentally and physically abusive.

For eight whole months Cooper was stuck there. School Library Journal: “With the assistance of caring teachers and friends, Cooper legally escaped the respected Mormon family who were trying to ‘cure’ her, and a Salt Lake City pro bono lawyer helped her win the right to live with her parents as an openly gay teenager.”

Kate Kendell, National Center for Lesbian Rights: “Alex’s engrossing and shocking story is the triumph of courage, authenticity and hope over shame, bigotry and ignorance. The nightmare of Alex’s story is a key reason we will soon succeed in ending the cruel and dangerous practice of conversion therapy.”

III. Garrard Conley, Boy Erased: A Memoir (2016)

Conley was a 19-year-old Arkansan in college when forced to undergo conversion therapy away from home. The program in Memphis was “an institutionalized Twelve-Step Program heavy on Bible study” (publisher’s blurb), in which he endured “a hellish tutelage under John Smid,” the leader of this so-called Love in Action group (Meghan Daum, New York Times).

Eventually Conley did manage to escape this cult-like environment, and since then has accepted his gayness. Who else got away from Love in Action? Smid himself. He’s actually no longer affiliated with the ex-gay movement at all, having become an “ex-ex-gay counselor”—who’s now in fact openly gay, according to Daum.