In May 2016, the Tacoma church where I was serving hosted author Garrard Conley for a reading from his book “Boy Erased.”
A week before the reading, I got a call from my local book store colleague with whom I work on events like this. She said Garrard was feeling uneasy about doing a church reading. He had not been to a church since his experience in conversion therapy.
I offered assurance that we were a safe place. The event would be in the church fellowship hall, which would be set up informally. There would even be wine and beer. After hearing this, Garrard was still nervous but willing to proceed.
I understood his concern. “Boy Erased” is the story of Garrard’s coming to awareness of his sexual identity as well as his family and church’s judgmental reaction, which led to conversion therapy.
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As I read the book I grieved over what, in the name of Jesus, Garrard had experienced. He grew up in a different branch of Christianity, but it was still part of my tradition.
When I introduced him before his public reading, I apologized for the role the Christian church had in causing pain and wounding him and other gay and lesbian persons. I shared my commitment to change.
It was a powerful evening. Garrard is a gifted writer and engages people easily. When the night was over, he wrote an inscription in my book thanking me for the evening; he said it was “healing.” We stay in touch.
“Boy Erased” is now a film receiving strong positive reviews and Oscar buzz. It tells the story of the religiously based violence of conversion therapy.
Overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that such therapy is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm. Fourteen states have banned the practice, including Washington earlier this year.
Yet the practice continues with the blessing of some Christian communities. The apology I offered at the reading is hollow unless it is joined with concrete actions to end conversion therapy and the damage it does.
What can we do in response to Garrard’s story and those of others like him?
▪ Support agencies that provide safe places for LGBTQ youth, where they can celebrate their identity and find healing after a church or family member tries to erase their identity.
▪ Work to end conversion therapy. If you are a person of faith, engage your denomination and local ecumenical organization asking them to condemn this practice.
▪ Unmask churches and non-profit religious social service agencies who deny LGBTQ dignity and rights. They do not lead with their stance on LGBTQ issues.
Non-profits often like to emphasize how they help people. Churches focus on being welcoming and loving. This message is attractive, especially to young queer or questioning people.
Yet too many congregations have very unwelcoming stances on LGBT sexuality. It is important to get beyond words to core values.
It is one thing to welcome all. It is another thing to be an affirming community when it comes to LGBTQ sexuality.
This is also true with Christian non-profits. They may address issues like homelessness and hunger, but some of these agencies are undergirded by a conservative theology that does not affirm LGBTQ folks and is opposed to marriage equality.
One concrete thing LGBTQ allies can do is identify communities and agencies that are affirming and unmask the ones that are far from affirming, despite their talk of love and noble mission.
Remember the name of the agency that sought to change Garrard was “Love in Action.”
Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, creator and host of Blues Vespers and one of the PNW Interfaith Amigos. He is a former pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Tacoma. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org