Wednesday, December 26, 2018
Boy Erased and the Age of Authenticity
In recently reading Garrard Conley’s 2014 memoir, Boy Erased, and then watching the film adaptation by the same title currently in the theaters, what struck me as disturbing was the length to which the gay conversion therapy depicted in both book and film had promised to fundamentally cure a person’s same-sex sexual orientation by resorting to nothing but a pseudoscientific process—one akin to some sort of medieval torture for the mind and self. For those who haven’t read the memoir or seen the film, both book and film portray the experiences of a college-aged son of a Baptist preacher after, against his wishes, his secret gay identity is revealed.He is then coerced into conversion therapy.
In Boy Erased, the depiction of gay conversion therapy and its underlying tenets sticks to the traditional philosophy of such therapies—that same-gender preference is a pathology, a curable disease that was a result of some personal and/or familial moral failing. In essence, the assumption underscores that queerness is a manifestation of a moral failing and if those who are “afflicted” really put in the hard effort to work on eradicating their preferences, then they can be cured and rejoin society with good, meaningful straight lives.
Despite the huge process in LGBTQ rights in recent years, both the book and movie adaptation of Boy Erased are timely for two specific reasons that came to mind as I read the memoir and watched the film. First, the narrative of Boy Erased reminds us of a past age when gay conversion represented one of the negative and dangerous consequences when sexual minorities tried to live authentically in society. Set in 2004, the events of Boy Erased took place the same year same-sex marriage was first recognized in Massachusetts and right before the short period when some other states—particularly in state supreme courts, such as Iowa, Connecticut, and California—started recognizing marriage equality. As such, Boy Erased is a reminder of that era, where attitudes about homosexuality were shifting, but the subscription to the idea of being cured through gay conversion therapy was still strong. After all, the historical rejection of sexual minorities included consequences for sexual minorities of facing persecution and violence, converting themselves to heterosexuality, or pretending to be heterosexual. And attitudes about sexual minorities hadn’t shifted enough to reach the kind of recognition that brought about Windsor and Obergefell. Though contemporaneous with the Goodridge v. Department of Health , Boy Erased was set four-years before California’s Proposition 8's about-face and was during the time of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Currently in 2018, there are 14 states that have banned gay conversion therapy for minors (California, Connecticut, D.C., Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington). An overwhelming consensus exists in the medical community that gay conversion therapy——is harmful and should not be practiced. In this way, Boy Erased was timely because the narrative serves as a marker of where we have been in recent gay rights incrementalism. The year 2004 was in the age of conversion, but not yet in the age where we are now.
An overwhelming consensus exists in the medical community that gay conversion therapy is harmful and should not be practiced. In this way, Boy Erased was timely because the narrative serves as a marker of where we have been in recent gay rights incrementalism. The year 2004 was in the age of conversion, but not yet in the age where we are now.
In Part II, Prof. Ho will address the struggle for authenticity and the risks of assimilation.