The Real Horror Story Behind Boy Erased
A nationwide policy is needed against the quackery of conversion therapy.
America was born in an age of reason. But unlike Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, the forces of unreason never surrendered. Now, as before, know-nothingism and quackery have emerged from freedom’s dark corners to rear their heads against our enlightenment values.
Instead of leeches, we have a fear-mongering, division-stoking president whose fancied “instinct for science” supplants real science. For lesbians and gays, instead of snake oil, we have so-called conversion therapy.
Garrard Conley’s parents bought that false cure from their minister because they were taught that homosexuality was scary and sinful, and wanted to help their son. Instead, he was subjected to practices that watchdog organization Just the Facts Coalition says can cause “depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior.”
Conley’s book on his experiences, Boy Erased, is now a film by Joel Edgerton starring Lucas Hedges as the boy and Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his parents.
Inspired by Conley’s story, the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC (MSDC, of which I am secretary) has released a white paper, “The Pernicious Myth of Conversion Therapy: How Love in Action Perpetrated a Fraud on America.” Prepared by a team of attorneys at McDermott Will & Emery, it marshals a wealth of archival evidence to show how pseudoscience, fueled by animus, was used to bestow respectability on anti-gay abuse.
St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in southeast DC was established by an Act of Congress in 1855. As described in a May 2018 article in Washington City Paper about MSDC’s research, after World War II the hospital was the “headwater of pseudoscientific theories about LGBTQ people, which combined the psychoanalytic teachings of Sigmund Freud with American homophobia.”
This was during the “Lavender Scare” period in US history, when President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450. It declared homosexuals a threat to national security and unfit for federal employment, thus implementing FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s Sex Deviate program.
St. Elizabeth’s “coercive federal psychiatry,” as MSDC President Charles Francis calls it, included electroshock treatments, transorbital lobotomies, and aversion therapy. One uncovered story among many is that of Thomas H. Tattersall, committed to St. Elizabeth’s from 1955 to 1960. He was subjected to insulin shock therapy, “a barbaric series of massive injections of insulin to induce comas over weeks.”
The late Frank Kameny, founder of the original MSDC, played a key role in persuading the American Psychiatric Association to declassify homosexuality as a disorder in 1973. I believe he would be thrilled by the archival rescue work of Charles Francis and MSDC director, along with that of officer Pate Felts.
More recently, “ex-gay” charlatanry was recast as religious ministry, which is how a group called Love In Action (LIA) got hold of young Garrard Conley
LIA’s “cure” consisted of cherry-picked Bible passages, fire and brimstone prayer sessions, and twelve-step programs premised on sexual brokenness.
Assisted by Alliance Defense Fund (ADF, now called Alliance Defending Freedom), LIA fought regulatory efforts by Tennessee authorities concerned that it was conducting therapy without a license.
With LIA (renamed Restoration Path in 2012) baselessly treating same-sex love as an addiction, and with ADF defending conversion therapy as a matter of parental rights, several states banned its use on minors. DC’s ban became law in 2015. It is also banned in Delaware.
The increasing resort to “religious freedom” as a back door to mistreatment, including the anti-gay and anti-trans Nashville Statement signed in 2017 by evangelical leaders, shows the need for a nationwide policy against these cruel practices.
The use of bogus science to buttress bigotry continues with the Trump administration’s proposed Title IX change, which would ignore gender science and define transgender people out of existence by assigning gender according to external genitalia as recorded on original birth certificates. Trans people who have obtained a revised birth certificate and REAL identification documents reflecting their true gender identity could face invalidation of their IDs and passports.
If Lyndon Johnson brought the Great Society, Donald Trump has brought the Great Erasure, where science is dismissed and journalism is discredited in favor of propaganda serving the Glorious Leader.
Pathologizing gay and trans people does not make it so, any more than denying climate change will keep sea levels from rising. We fight erasure, as MSDC and McDermott are doing, by telling our stories and preserving our history—forcing those who would launch a post-factual age to confront the fact of us. ▼