Columns » Ernest Dumas

Conley's plea

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Even with his facial stubble, Garrard Conley looks and acts like a diffident teenager, not a 33-year-old man who is a leading exponent of the "gay agenda," as right-wingers refer to the movement to gain equal treatment for sexual minorities.

Conley probably objects to being called a champion of the gay agenda. All he wants is for young people, no matter which of the infinite variety of sexual personalities their bodies and brains handed them, to feel good about who they are.

Conley grew up in Cherokee Village, the son of a salesman-cum-Missionary Baptist preacher and a doting mother, and he was outed by another gay student when he was a freshman at Lyon College at Batesville. His father prayed about it and told him that he either had to enter gay-conversion therapy and exorcise whatever evil attracted him to men or else leave their house and companionship forever. He was more than agreeable and spent some time in the crazy gay-conversion program called Love in Action at Memphis until, realizing that he was on the verge of suicide, his mother said, "We're stopping all of this now."

That is the story he tells in "Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family," an account of the mental ordeals of his youth upon the realization that he was a homosexual. It also is a loving hymn to his parents, both of them — the mother who became a sturdy and public champion of his being proud of who and what he was and the missionary father who could not relinquish his love for his son no matter the harsh doctrines of his church and his own ministry.

Conley's book — he is a professional writer and teacher in New York City — has gotten high literary praise and he has become something of an icon in the — what should we call it, the gay-rights or the gay-liberation movement? This September, the movie based on the book will be released. It is directed by Joel Edgerton and stars Lucas Hedges as Garrard, Nicole Kidman as his mother and Russell Crowe as his dad. Hedges was an Academy Award nominee for his role as the troubled lad in "Manchester by the Sea," Kidman won the best actress award for playing Virginia Woolf in "The Hours," and Crowe won best actor for "Gladiator."

Conley and his mother sat for two days to tell their life stories at the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas and the other day told their stories jointly at the Pryor Center's first colloquium.

The premise of the Love in Action program was that gay men were the product of abuse or neglect by their parents, probably the father, and that you had to be forced to come to terms with it to end your gayness. Conley's tenure ended with a group session where the leader and the students shouted at him to proclaim his hatred for his father. He said he did not hate his father but loved him, which angered them. He finally fled the room and called his mother. That was in 2004.

One hopes that Garrard Conley's coming out years later in such a boldly public way, from the deepest fundamentalist precincts of Dixie, marks the last phase of the most successful social and political movement of the past century. It was "Justice Jim" Johnson, in my last conversation with him, who made that assessment. Johnson, once the state's most virulent segregationist but an astute observer, marveled that the strategy of outing conservative political leaders who were gay and then of encouraging young people to come out to their parents and friends rather than living in the shadows had transformed public opinion in only a few years.

The American Psychological Association in 1973 declassified homosexuality as a mental illness or even as an aberration. It was a natural human condition, the product of genetics and the natural variation of organisms. Once their own sons and daughters, their relatives and friends revealed their peculiar sexual distinctions, people tended to no longer view it as abhorrent, although many parents still cast their children out. Johnson said he had even been convinced that gay and lesbian people had a right under the Constitution to be married, though he wasn't particularly happy about it. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with him soon afterward.

Since Gallup first polled on the subject in 1977, public acceptance of sexual minorities has steadily risen. Last September, Gallup showed that 60 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriages and the numbers outside the South are much higher.

Garrard Conley's book is not so much a screed against bigotry or a polemic for gay rights as it is a plea for people to feel good about themselves. It does add a timely dimension to the debate, which has narrowed, as with all prejudices, to the religious aspect. Deviation from straight heterosexuality may be natural and it may be protected by law but the Bible and the Koran say it's wrong. Some Christians reject scores of other biblical injunctions, like stoning rebellious children or not eating shellfish, but take homosexual sin and marriage as an article of faith. "Boy Erased" could shake that faith.

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