Survival Tales From the Ex-Gay Movement

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Two memoirs underline the emotional and moral dangers of ex-gay conversion therapy.

By Ross Ufberg

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Garrard Conley. (Photo: Henry Hung)

Garrard Conley wasn’t planning on coming out to his parents; he wasn’t even planning on coming out to himself, really. But everything changed, Conley says, when he was raped by a male college friend — a friend who went on to spread gossip about Conley being gay in an apparent effort to ensure he would be shamed into silence. When they found out, Conley’s parents sent him to Love in Action (LIA), an ex-gay Christian ministry — since 2012, it’s been known as Restoration Path — in Memphis, Tennessee, that blended what critics have called dubious psychological techniques with fire-and-brimstone rhetoric to bring “sinful” gays back into the fold. That’s how Conley found himself in June 2004 sitting across a desk from John Smid, LIA’s longtime director, who promised him: “Once you enter the group, you’ll be well on your way to recovery. The important thing to remember is to keep an open mind.”

This opening scene in Boy Erased, Conley’s tenderly written memoir of growing up a gay teenager in the Ozark Mountains with devout Missionary Baptist parents, encapsulates Conley’s fraught relationships with the many around him who said they loved him while insisting on the evils of his “lifestyle.” Conley’s memoir ends with a hard-earned self-acceptance, the brutal clarity of which sets him starkly apart from his former LIA mentor. Some readers will mistrust the suspiciously overeager Smid they meet in Boy Erased, even (or perhaps especially) if they read Smid’s own book, Ex’d Out: How I Fired the Shame Committee, his 2012 account of how he left the movement that he’d helped shape. Together, these stories underline a corrosive hypocrisy at the heart of conversion therapy — the strange idea that it is virtuous to dissimulate one’s sexuality, despite all the evidence that such an approach is doomed to fail.

“Once you enter the group, you’ll be well on your way to recovery. The important thing to remember is to keep an open mind.”

Much of Conley’s memoir recounts and addresses conversion therapy, a form of counseling (vigorously opposed by the American Psychiatric Association) that aims to change the sexual orientation of patients by treating homosexuality as a mental disorder that can be cured. But as Conley moves in and out of his time at LIA, the memoir also draws a close portrait of a Southern boy’s life that renders the book a complicated act of catharsis. Where Conley comes from, family and God are the pillars upon which the town is stabilized. There is no seat in the parlor for a homosexual, and the author’s acute awareness of being the odd man out dominates his struggle to understand himself.

Conley attended LIA as an outpatient. People spent anywhere from weeks to years going through LIA’s treatment; Conley was there for a two-week assessment to determine how long he’d have to stay. He went to sessions all day, and at night returned to his suite at the Hampton Inn, where he was staying with his mother for the duration of the program. LIA was very explicit about where the participants could go in their free time: “There was a map on one of the facility’s walls that listed the few areas in the city without any malls, restaurants, movie theaters, secular bookstores, or porn shops. Every part of the city was forbidden except for places with the word ‘Christ’ in it, really.”

He spent most of his evenings doing LIA homework — assignments such as “trying to come up with another sinful transgression for my Moral Inventory.” Composing a Moral Inventory, a term LIA borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous, was an exercise that aimed to suss out deep-rooted moral failures in a patient’s past that had brought him into sin; to LIA’s way of thinking, only when all of these past transgressions came to light could one begin to get fixed. One of the counselors at the program, a man named Danny Cosby, was a recovering alcoholic — Conley writes, “LIA had hired him as a counselor because they believed his extensive AA experience was the only prerequisite for curing any and all forms of addiction.” If alcohol and drug addictions could be overcome, the reasoning went, so could addictions to “deviant” sexual behaviors. One of Cosby’s main talking points throughout the therapy sessions was the importance of sports, stressing that “a lack of sports in childhood could lead to effeminate behavior.” The therapy sessions were grounded not in research-based psychology or sexuality studies, but in a particular flavor of Christianity that does not accept homosexual behavior or affect among its followers — that meant no sexual activity, of course, but also that boys should avoid resting their hands on their hips (gay men prefer that stance), and girls had to wear bras at all times (lesbians don’t wear bras, they burn them).

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Boy Erased. (Photo: Riverhead Books)

In 2012, Smid was featured on an episode of the radio show This American Life; by then, he had left LIA and repudiated the methodology and philosophy he’d spent 22 years practicing and preaching. Having married at 19, Smid divorced his first wife six years later and lived for a period as a gay man; then he converted from Catholicism to Evangelicalism in 1982 and devoted his days to averting homosexual temptation in himself and teaching others to do the same. Six years after his conversion, he married a second time, to a woman named Vileen, who, as he writes in his book, was “aware that my attractions haven’t changed in general towards men but that I love her deeply and make choices daily to remain faithful to our marriage and have not regretted that decision.” After Smid wrote Ex’d Out, he divorced Vileen, began dating, and eventually married a man, Larry McQueen, whom he met at a gay Christian conference.

I found Smid on the website of Grace Rivers Ministry, a loose organization that he founded a few years ago to spread the message that it’s OK to be gay and Christian. The Ministry is not an active church; it is mainly a platform for Smid’s blog (he compiled early posts to form his book), which he continues to write from his home near Paris, Texas. He is actively ex-ex-gay, and he spends a lot of time contacting people he counseled in the past. He says he remembers Conley, as he does most of the people who passed through LIA. For most of them, the therapy failed. “I actually have a list of the people that went to the program,” Smid told me. “I really cared about these people. The way I cared about them was amiss. Of the ones that I’ve contacted — about 200 — I can only think of a handful who continue to live what I would consider an ex-gay life or an ex-gay conviction. The vast majority of the 200 people I’ve talked to are on a spectrum of angry and bitter and resentful about the treatment, or completely settled and living successful lives as gay people.”

Smid, in Conley’s portrayal of him, was a zealot, but not an unkind one. He was frank about his own personal struggle with the “Satanic” force of homosexuality; this frankness was, in fact, front and center in his treatment philosophy. Smid advocated complete openness: Patients had to confess dreams, thoughts, and fantasies in front of the group.

Smid speaks with confidence and authority about his past: Just as 20 years ago he knew that Christianity was incompatible with homosexuality, today he knows there’s no reason the two can’t go together. And while Smid’s regret over LIA seems genuine, there’s something discomfiting about the publicity, and the self-congratulatory undertone, of his mea culpa. Conley emerges as the keener theologian: In his writing and in conversation, he is constantly doubting, reflecting, and thinking about how his actions might affect others. “I really believe in doubt,” he told me.

The therapy sessions were grounded not in research-based psychology or sexuality studies, but in a particular flavor of Christianity that does not accept homosexual behavior.

The denouement of Conley’s memoir involves two moments that are tautly connected. Conley’s father had always been devout, and at one point felt the calling to become a minister. His long-anticipated ordination ceremony took place exactly at the midpoint of his son’s treatment at LIA. Conley relates how, moments before the ceremony was to begin, he tinkered with a slide on the projector to change the text from large caps to small caps — BROTHER CONLEY’S ORDINATION—“a small tweak that always makes slides look better.” This, knowing that the faith his father so sincerely and fervently embraced condemned homosexuality. Moments later, as part of the ordination, the soon-to-be-preacher was asked in front of 200 congregants, “Will you do everything you can to fight against the sin of homosexuality in the church?” With his wife and gay son beside him on the stage, Brother Conley answered in the affirmative.

When Conley returned to LIA after his father’s ordination, something had fundamentally changed. He realized: “LIA was telling me on a daily basis that a loss of self meant a gain in virtue, and a gain in virtue meant I was drawing closer to God and therefore closer to my true heavenly self…. I came to therapy thinking that my sexuality didn’t matter, but it turned out that every part of my personality was intimately connected. Cutting one piece damaged the rest.” Smid taught that homosexuality was the result of trauma, “often linked to generational sin.” In order to cure homosexuality, one needed to understand “where the sin came from in the first place. How it trickled down from father to son, mother to daughter.”

The breaking point came when it was Conley’s turn in the Lie Chair, where he sat in the middle of a circle of LIA staff and patients and was instructed to dig up long-hidden feelings of anger toward his father that, he was told, he surely must be harboring and which contributed to his gayness. But despite their differences, Conley didn’t — and doesn’t — hate his father. And so he refused to participate, walking out of the session, out of the building, and out of a situation that threatened who he was to the very core.

Smid would eventually do precisely the same thing, though not quite in the same fashion as Conley. Smid left LIA in 2008, and the departure would eventually lead him to what he describes as satisfaction and fulfillment. “I’ve never believed that I could have the kind of relationship that [my husband and I] have,” he told me. “I’m just thrilled with my life today.”

Conley has found a fulfilling path too. He has a boyfriend and a job he enjoys; they live together in Bulgaria, where Conley teaches English and advocates for LGBTQ rights. The first time we met I found myself sitting next to him in a restaurant in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital; we were at a writing conference, and several of the participants were attempting to one-up the others with stories of painful childhoods. Conley, thin and slight of build, was mostly quiet. It took a bit of plying before he told us the story of his childhood — a tale of love, but also of good and evil. As Conley later told me when we spoke over the phone: “The one great thing about writing this book is that there were very clear villains.”

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A version of this story first appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.

For years, Smid was the face of that villain Conley speaks of. I asked Smid how he feels about having so forcefully preached a doctrine he now believes is false gospel. “I was so entrenched in religious doctrine that I just couldn’t hear anything else,” Smid said.

Smid and Conley are OK now, and it could be tempting to see these two stories as having happy endings. The truth is more complicated. These days, Smid is reaching out to apologize to many of the people whose lives he had sought to shape during his LIA years.

When I ask Conley about Smid’s religious and personal epiphany — God doesn’t hate gays, and I’m gay — Conley says he’s glad for Smid, but sees some hypocrisy: “To me, this is a man who has decided to control the dialogue once again.” Smid, Conley says, “is a good Christian in the sense that he believes that forgiveness should be offered and granted. And I think that his life is not going to make sense unless he can also bend the narrative to fir this weird development of his.”

For his part, Smid says he considered how to go about issuing his apologies seven years ago, when he first left the ex-gay movement.

“There will be those whose pain is such that my public presence is a trigger,” Smid wrote me in an email. “I understand that completely. However, I don’t believe it would have been best for me to have just shrunk into the background. In my experience there have been far too many people that have been helped from me being more public about it all.”

Smid can’t guarantee he’ll read Conley’s book, though he says he’ll take a look at it.

Whether or not Smid’s contrition is sincere, there’s still nothing he can do to erase the 22 years he spent on a very different, much more pernicious sort of mission. Conley’s Boy Erased emerges as a graceful rebuttal to that mission and an unlikely triumph of hope: Conley reflects on execrable circumstances without self pity — rather, with the humility of a man who survived but still doesn’t know all the answers. He shows us how what was learned can be unlearned — and how what was nearly erased can be slowly, carefully, patiently re-drawn.

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