This afternoon I went to a reading at Prairie Lights, one of my favorite bookstores here in Iowa City. I’ve been keeping an eye out for LGBTQ+-themed readings because I thought that would be a fun way to celebrate Pride, so when I saw a notice about this event in the bookstore’s window a few days ago I decided to go.
I wanted to write about it because it’s a change of pace from the usual type of bookish LGBTQ+ posts I publish here, and also YAY LIFE-Y POSTS. I was very excited to attend this reading because A) I hadn’t been to one in about a month, and B) I wouldn’t have been able to go to something like this at the same time last year because nothing like this ever happens in my home state. Indiana sucks if you’re an LGBTQ+ person
or just a person in general.
The reading was given by Garrard Conley and was from his new book Boy Erased, which is a memoir about his childhood and the time he spent in conversion therapy. Here is the blurb:
The son of a Baptist pastor and deeply embedded in church life in small town Arkansas, as a young man Garrard Conley was terrified and conflicted about his sexuality.
When Garrard was a nineteen-year-old college student, he was outed to his parents, and was forced to make a life-changing decision: Either agree to attend a church-supported conversion therapy program that promised to “cure” him of homosexuality; or risk losing family, friends, and the God he had prayed to every day of his life. Through an institutionalized twelve-step program heavy on Bible study, he was supposed to emerge heterosexual, ex-gay, cleansed of impure urges and stronger in his faith in God for his brush with sin. Instead, even when faced with a harrowing and brutal journey, Garrard found the strength and understanding to break out in search of his true self and forgiveness.
By confronting his buried past and the burden of a life lived in shadow, Garrard traces the complex relationships among family, faith, and community. At times heart-breaking, at times triumphant, this memoir is a testament to love that survives despite all odds.
I was pleasantly surprised by how packed this reading was; I wouldn’t have expected that on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Then again, air conditioning is a wonderful thing and I will always jump at the opportunity to bask in it and read or have someone read to me.
Conley read aloud from a section primarily concerned with describing his father and the relationship they had, and I thought this was interesting because his ideas about forgiving and understanding people are so different from my own. His attitude is very much that you can’t reduce these people to villains, that you need to understand the complexity and quirks and humanity of homophobes.
Not only have I never been good at that, but it’s a point on which I would say I firmly disagree with. But that’s OK: Everyone handles this differently, and people heal and come to terms with things in different ways. At any rate, I did quite enjoy the selection from the reading and thought his point of view was very well-written.
Speaking of healing, I loved his sense of humor. It’s very familiar to me: He talked about how growing up queer is a kind of trauma for everyone who grows up that way. And so I recognize that sense of humor in my friends and in myself, because sometimes all you can do, all you know how to do, is to crack jokes about the people who hate you and the things about yourself that you were taught to hate.
Garth Greenwell – another LGBTQ+ author whose books I need to read because my super cool creative writing prof loves them and I trust her judgement – served as a sort of commentator throughout the reading and during the Q & A session afterwards, and the two of them kept up a great banter during the whole thing. Their conversation made me so happy because… I don’t know how else to phrase this, but super gay writerly friendships are MY GOAL!
There are two more things I want to talk about before I wrap up, and they are as follows: Conley teaches writing at a university in Bulgaria, so he has a good perspective on what LGBTQ+ rights are like in Eastern Europe right now. (Pretty awful, apparently, due to Putin’s influence.) LGBTQ+ life and struggles in other countries fascinates me, so hearing about it made this one of my favorite parts of the reading.
Another thing that struck me was when he said that joining the conversion therapy program didn’t seem that odd to him because, in a way, he had been in an ex-gay environment all his life. When you grow up like that, in a society that hates who you are, conversion therapy is nothing new.
I look forward to reading this book. My TBR list is ginormous, and I never seem to make any noticeable progress towards whittling it down, but I can’t not add yet another book to the stack. I HAVE TO BECAUSE REASONS. I haven’t read as many LGBTQ+ memoirs as I would like, and this is a really important subject.
As I briefly mentioned in my last post, conversion therapy isn’t a relic of the past. It still happens today, is legal across most of the United States, and touches more lives than you might expect – one of the other attendees at the reading talked about how both her mother and brother have been in conversion therapy. It makes me so incredibly sad and mad that this psychological torture is still so common. It does make me feel a little bit better to know that people are beginning to expose it for what it really is through their writing, though.