JUNE 23, 2016
WHEN I WAS a freshman in high school, I asked the straight boy I was in love with to teach me how to be a man. In my eyes, Quinn was the picture of confidence and masculinity — I wanted to be the kind of friend he could admire and respect. Mostly, I wanted him to want me. Asian overachiever that I was, I approached my “manification” like any other assignment. If I learned the rules, I could excel in masculinity as I excelled in my studies. Here were a few of them according to Quinn:
- Don’t stand so straight. When you pass someone, give them a nod, with an “I’m better than you” attitude, no smile.
- Don’t be so polite. If you do say “thank you,” say it in a deeper voice. Keep the girly stuff to a minimum, especially if you care what chicks think.
- Finish your sentences with a wall — boom! — you run into it, and you’re done.
Even at the time, it seemed like terrible advice. What was wrong with being polite? Why not smile? (My smile was one of my best features.) If I did think I was better than somebody — which admittedly, I sometimes did — what good could come from showing it? Were my girlish tendencies really that obvious? I began to hate the sound of my own voice; every sentence, littered with likes and ums, curled into a question. Was Quinn judging me every time we hung out, every time I opened my mouth? If he’d noticed these tics, had my other classmates noticed them, too?
Quinn’s message became my mantra: Be less like you and more like me. I started listening to Radiohead and Tom Petty, practiced wrestling moves like the People’s Elbow, and changed my AIM screen name from Baluga9 to Jakked981. Friends criticized me for imitating Quinn and gossiped about his influence on me. But even Quinn didn’t realize how eager I was to overwrite my old self, how badly I wanted to be white and straight. Simply being Asian implied femininity, small dick and all. It didn’t help that the only openly gay student in my class was also Asian. Quinn and I ragged on him mercilessly, and the fear of being associated with him gave me constant anxiety.
How queer people survive erasure, self-inflicted or otherwise, is at the heart of Garrard Conley’s stunning debut memoir, Boy Erased. His father, a Baptist preacher who sought to lead at least a thousand souls to the Lord, held daily Bible study at his Ford dealership and interpreted events like earthquakes and war in the Middle East as signs of the End Times. Conley grew up among Baptist Brothers and Sisters in Mountain Home, Arkansas: a reformed, tattooed man named Wild Thing taught him to detail cars; Brother Nielson, a respected deacon, pressed him for his opinion on Afghanistan; and his girlfriend Chloe, who had a predilection for French kissing and fantasies of martyrdom, blitzed him with phone calls and text messages. In spite of Conley’s growing sense of isolation, the Bible reassured him, bringing him closer to his father, he thought, as well as to “God’s all-encompassing love.”
Yet he struggled with his sexuality: “I’d had a string of male crushes that wouldn’t go away,” he writes, “a constant guilty ache that ran through my body for so long that I came to believe the feeling was just a part of what it meant to be alive.” He lingered by the underwear ads in the clothing section of Walmart and felt a “cold blade” run through his stomach when Chloe reached for his leg. He believed he was a disappointment to his father, who required him to work as a detailer at the shop to “offset [his] more bookish, feminine qualities.” Like so many LGBTQ youth, Conley internalized the language the church used to refer to his desire (he was a “hell-bound diseased sinner” full of “self-loathing” and “selfishness”) and distanced himself from others to protect himself from judgment. “What did it feel like to not have to think about your every move,” he wondered, “to not be scrutinized for everything you did, to not have to lie every day?”
As a freshman in college in 2004, he was raped by a fellow student who, to prevent him from speaking up and because of “his own desperate guilt,” outed Conley to his mother. She drove to the school to bring him home, and that night, his parents delivered an ultimatum: Conley could either attend a church-supported conversion therapy program or lose their financial and emotional support. The $1,500 two-week course, run by Love in Action, “equat[ed] the sins of infidelity, bestiality, pedophilia, and homosexuality to addictive behavior such as alcoholism or gambling” and promised to cure Conley of his “sexual deviance.”
Once there, he met other gay Christians: “J,” who could recite “clobber passages” and had an ironclad handshake; middle-aged “T,” who had tried to commit suicide seven times since starting the program, despairing over his inability to change. Conley describes group sessions where he was stripped of belongings that linked him to his “inappropriate past,” drew a genogram to track the trickle of sin through his family tree, and completed Moral Inventories, confessions of sexual impropriety, moments when he “sinned against God”:
[B]eing secretly gay your whole life, averting your eyes every time you saw a handsome man, praying on your knees every time a sexual thought entered your mind or every time you’d acted even remotely feminine — this gave you an embarrassment of sins for which you constantly felt the need to apologize, repent, beg forgiveness. […] If I wanted, I could fill out a new [Moral Inventory] every night for the rest of my life.
Boy Erased is, in effect, a compendium of such inventories, but without Love in Action’s reductive insistence on shame. Conley honors the terrified, closeted boy he was and the crippling, constrictive feelings of worthlessness and humiliation he suffered. In lyrical, alternating chapters, he compares scenes from his childhood and adolescence to the days he endured in therapy at Love in Action. This associative structure emphasizes similarities between the implicit repression he experienced as a child and the formal shaming practiced by the program.
Boy Erased is a gut-punch of a memoir, but the miracle of this book is the generosity with which Conley writes in an effort to understand the circumstances and motivations that led his family to seek the “cure.” He portrays his father as a survivor in his own right (the son of an abusive alcoholic), a family man and protector who “survey[ed] every carnival ride at the county fair” to be sure it was safe, and who “seemed always to be right behind [him], watching over [him].” Even after two weeks at Love in Action, he writes, “there were things I’d never understand about my father. […] But I loved him.” Like many men before him, Conley struggles to construct an identity that is distinct from his father’s. But his memoir is not simply a story of survival — in this book, a true writer comes of age. Conley writes vividly, with intelligence, wit, and genuine empathy. By embracing complexity and compassion, he reclaims his life and reminds us that a story rarely belongs to one person alone.
Garth Greenwell, author of the acclaimed novel What Belongs to You, has praised Boy Erased as “an urgent reminder that America remains a place where queer people have to fight for their lives.” Indeed, the struggle for equality is far from over, and in most of the country, not much has changed since the days when Conley and I grew up. As of this writing, only five states and the District of Columbia have banned the use of conversion therapy; 40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBTQ; and recent bills that strip LGBTQ people of their rights have passed in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
And yet: In the past year, writers like Greenwell, Hanya Yanagihara, Paul Lisicky, Ryan Berg, Bei Tong, Darryl Pinckney — and now Garrard Conley — have published books that widen the scope of queer literature. These diverse voices are deepening our understanding of the rich variations within gay male experience. “This affliction is what makes me smarter,” Conley thinks after a Love in Action greeter rips a story out of his Moleskine notebook. “This disadvantage is what gives me my ambition. This is what first inspired me to write.”
I know what he means. Beginning in high school, I too wrote to explore my difference, to dive into the turbulence beneath my surface self. Literature allowed me to slip off the handcuffs of convention and probe urges I normally repressed. I was drawn to the fraught transformations of adolescence, to issues of gender and sexuality, and writing helped me face what I was terrified to face. My notebooks were the one place where I could be myself, and the books I read taught me that my life, my story, had value.
Two years into my manification, I came out to Quinn after writing a story about a romantic relationship that develops between two high school friends. Soon after, he ended our relationship. Did Quinn “break up” with me because I gave a gay character his mannerisms? Because, in the story, I made him chase me? I used to tell myself that the story won me my freedom. But, of course, the truth is more complicated. Quinn told me that being my friend was stressful. Unwilling as I was to compromise myself in my writing, I was nonetheless desperate for his attention and approval; every night, we had long, tortured AIM conversations where I sought his reassurance, a kind word. For two years, his words sustained me. “I’m hamburger meat, you’re steak,” he told me once. And right before we stopped speaking: “You’ve got too much going for you to want to be someone else.”