One boyfriend wakes in the middle of the night, clawing the air. He’s seeing the bathtub where his father used to hold him underwater until he stopped crying. I hold him to my chest, try to see it with him: the thin trailer walls; the globe light lousy with insects; the woozy outline of a father whose raging face bubbles out to become, for a moment, a smiling one. I tell him to breathe. I tell him his head’s above water now, he’s breathing. But none of this is enough.
For years I thought this was what being in a gay relationship was, he says. I thought it was nothing but violence. I thought I would end up like him if I ever kissed a man.
Another boyfriend tells me a stepfather held him down, forced him to perform oral sex every night for two years. He says the worst part was that he kind of liked it. He says this only after he’s had five tequila shots, after he’s asked me if I’d like to try a threesome with his ex. I think all of my kinkiness must come from that horrible man, he says. I freeze. I grow quiet. I stay quiet for days, and I don’t touch him. He doesn’t mention the ex again, and I lock the idea, and our relationship, in an airtight room.
Each boyfriend tells me some version of the same story, though the details of abuse are always shockingly original. The shame I see in their faces is always the same. I look away and say, "It’s OK, it’s OK, you’re safe." But they’re not safe. None of us are.
Each time a boyfriend tells me his story, it takes all of my courage to touch him again, to free myself of my own shame. In a world where queer individuals have been systematically brutalized by social and political forces, queer sex is a radical, brave act. Before I can have sex, I have to tell myself that I will not be punished, I will not die of a disease, I am not doing this because someone once brutalized me. I am doing this because I am more myself when I am free to express my sexuality.
There are reasons I never tell any of these boyfriends how we’re connected, how we belong to the same club. Growing up in rural Arkansas, I had been taught that in fact it was I who would become a rapist if I ever acted on my homosexual “urges.” Church members in my local Missionary Baptist church believed that all gay people were predators, that the very nature of our desire rendered us incapable of loving others without harming them. Gay sex, to these people, was itself a form of rape, since to invert God’s natural order was to attack the traditional American family, always rumored to be under assault. I would go home after Sunday services and lock myself in the bathroom and stare into the mirror, imagine the skin melting from my face, my bones crumbling to dust. I didn’t want to harm anyone. I didn’t want others to harm me.
My rapist was a friend, someone I trusted. We were freshmen in college together, growing into the world of literature and art and beauty, sitting together by the campus lake at night to watch the moon play on its glassy surface and sharing Great Ideas. He wasn’t much bigger than I, a little chubbier, perhaps, but a person I considered harmless. I was a runner and thought myself strong. I had stamina and determination, and after years of feeling trapped by the church and my father’s ministry, after my father became a preacher when I was 16 and our lives grew much more fanatical, I suddenly felt freer than I’d ever felt in my life. I didn’t have to go to church if I didn’t feel like it. I didn’t have to pray at night. And though I wasn’t yet out to any of my friends or family, I was beginning to understand that my desires were not going to go away anytime soon, and that I might one day find a life for myself as an openly gay man living in some city far away from Arkansas.
My friend became a rapist only days before he raped me. The night he confessed his first rape to me, we were sitting on bunk beds in his dorm room. I was reading Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground, an irony that hardly seems possible as I look back on the memory, but then again all of the literature I was reading at the time featured the same cripplingly depressing narrative, and for me those books still felt joyous because they approached the world from a nonbiblical perspective, or at least a perspective that hadn’t been ingrained in me since birth. My friend began to cry from the bottom bunk, and I took five steps down the wooden ladder to see what was wrong. Five steps too many. He told me he had raped a 14-year-old boy in his church’s youth group and that he was worried about what would happen to him. He put his head on my shoulder and I felt my T-shirt sleeve wet from his tears, and I tried not to tremble as he told me the details of his encounter with the boy. By the end of his confession, I wanted nothing more than to run outside and scream, but I stayed there, waiting for him to stop crying. He grabbed hold of the back of my head and pulled me down to his lap, and for a moment I thought all of this was a joke, the kind of thing junior high boys do to one another, grabbing each other’s crotches or giving each other air blow jobs, but it wasn’t a joke at all, and soon the thing I had wanted since I’d discovered I was gay was being forced upon me, and I was gagging, and I regretted that I had eaten anything at all that day, and I regretted that I had ever stopped going to church, that I had ever stopped praying, because now God was punishing me.
So when, the next day, my rapist called my parents to tell them I was gay in order to keep me from disclosing his secrets, and my mother drove to the college to pick me up, and my father took me into his bedroom and told me that if I ever acted on my gay impulses I would never again see my family, that my parents would not continue paying for my education, I took all of this as just punishment, and I decided that I would agree to whatever my parents had in mind for me. I stayed home that night, and the shame I had felt as a teenager filled my old bedroom once again and kept me pinned to the mattress, unable to move, and on top of that old shame a new layer of shame, more complex because it was just beginning to coalesce into something solid: that by proxy I was a rapist. What my rapist had done to me happened because in my sinfulness and without God’s divine direction I had made the decision to take all five of those steps down the ladder. As a Southern boy taught always to be tough, it seemed impossible that a man not much bigger than myself could have overtaken me, so I must have wanted it in some way, right? By that logic I must have participated in the rape of that 14-year-old boy as well, and it would only be a matter of time before I became the predator my old church congregation had always thought people like me would become.
I would do anything to hold on to the life I had always known, to prevent myself from becoming a pervert. Shame would give me the power to submit to almost anything.
Before homosexuality was decriminalized in 1973, the queer population was treated as mentally ill, and as late as 2004 you could attend, as I did once my parents decided this was my best path to normalcy, the largest “ex-gay,” or reparative therapy, facility in the country. It was named, in what I can only describe as an unironic misnomer, Love in Action. While there, I was expected to name what abuse had brought me there, what abuse had turned me gay, the assumption being that there could be nothing natural about “nontraditional” sexuality, that only an abusive, dominant man possessed the power to turn me into a freak with “addictive homosexual behavior.” From the Love in Action handbook:
If the only affirmation a child receives is through sex, beatings or yelling, extreme confusion is the result. We know as children when we’ve been violated; that the kind of attention we’re receiving is wrong. Yet the abuse provides a perverted form of affirmation.
Sitting in the middle of a small group of patients in this white-walled facility, I tried to dig up some kind of abuse in my childhood, but I came up empty every time. Before my freshman year, I had never received the wrong “kind of attention” from another person. As the therapy group recounted their moments of childhood trauma, I listened to the same story being told over and over again: the family member or family friend entering the house; the moment of trust gained; the inevitable moment of violation. But none of these stories applied to me.
Abuse manifests itself in our adult lives in many different ways, our counselor said. For some of us it brings about homosexuality. But for others it can bring about bestiality, pedophilia, sadomasochism.
There were days of my “ex-gay” therapy when I locked myself in a bathroom once again, turned off the lights, shut my eyes tightly, and tried to picture the thing that must have turned me gay. I ran through the list of men I’d known — my father’s friends, church deacons, my father himself — but I couldn’t recall any moments of unwanted attention. I would open my mouth and scream silently in frustration, dig my nails into my arms in the hope of feeling something painful enough to bring the memory to the surface. But nothing would come. My moment of trauma had come only after I’d already known that I was gay. The “ex-gay” narrative Love in Action was selling didn’t fit my life. Some part of me must have known that I was already failing, that I would never be able to change who I was for my parents’ sake, that I would always be a pervert.
Add to this another layer of shame: the shame of failing.
Shame is insatiable. It is infinite. Once I began to feel shame, it colored every decision I made. Want to be playful? Want to try something new? Want to have a threesome? Want to try on a new identity? Shame tells us we only want these things because the shittiness of this life has permanently stamped us, scarred us, poisoned us, contaminated us, and the only way to be clean is to be cured of ourselves. Shame’s singular power is in giving us the strength and motivation to submit to the shittiness of this life. We don’t deserve better than what we have, because we brought this life on ourselves.
When people discover I once attended “ex-gay” therapy, they often ask how long I was there. When I tell them two weeks, they ask if this was enough to really mess me up. I have learned to start giving them another answer. I tell them I’ve been in “ex-gay” therapy my whole life, that I’m still there today. It doesn’t take a place like Love in Action to teach you to hate yourself. It doesn’t take growing up gay in the South. It doesn’t take having a Missionary Baptist preacher for a father to ingest the kind of shame I ingested on a daily basis. It doesn’t take being abused or being shamed by that abuse or having boyfriends that have been abused or shamed by that abuse. It doesn’t take being an overt victim in any way. All it takes is living in our culture. I tell these people that parents do much worse than send their kids into conversion therapy, that parents kick their kids out of their homes at an alarming rate. Forty percent of all youth homeless identify as LGBTQ.
A 14-year-old student comes to my classroom to ask for advice about a shameful moment he and his father recently shared. I’m a teacher now, an expat living in a country and town very different from the one I grew up in. I teach the literature that saved my life, led me out of the harmful “ex-gay” thinking I dealt with for nearly a decade. This student and I are at ease with each other. Though I’m careful not to touch him, to make either of us uncomfortable, I no longer believe I could be a pedophile. I’m openly gay, and I’ve never had feelings for young boys and probably never will, and I’m infinitely grateful for this.
The boy tells me his father snooped through his Facebook messages, discovered short conversations the boy had addressed to other gay teens and written in the kind of chatty curiosity and sexual innuendo likely to be found in any 14-year-old boy’s private messages. There’d been an altercation, and the father has grounded the boy, told him that he’s no longer allowed to talk to any of these friends again.
I don’t know what to do anymore, the boy says. These are the only people who know about me.
This boy lives in an Eastern European country with a terrible history of violence against queer people, though every country in the world has a terrible history of violence against queer people. He tells me he’s worried about how he will live in this world, what his life will look like, if he will ever be able to hold another boy’s hand. He worries he will not be able to speak with his father in the future. He says he wishes he were someone else, someone straight.
I watch his face become a mask. His cheeks go red and his eyes glass over. It’s a look I’ve seen many times, and one I’ve resorted to in times of stress.
It’s different in America, he says. It’s easier, right?
Kind of, I say. It’s a little easier.
I want to tell him that there are places in the world that are completely cured of this shame he’s feeling. I want to tell him that the things that happened to me and other queer people are things of the past.
Instead, I tell him that it’s going to be hard, but he’s on the right path. I tell him he’s taken the first step out of this shame he’s feeling. I tell him to breathe. I tell him his head’s above water now, he’s breathing.
Garrard Conley is the author of Boy Erased: A Memoir (Riverhead Books). His fiction and nonfiction has been published by Time, CNN, Vice, The Common, Lit Hub, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. He has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and Elizabeth Kostova Foundation writers’ conferences.
To learn more about Boy Erased, click here.