UPDATED: This post has been updated after being contacted by Mrs. Conley directly saying that that the Bible-beating scene actually did happen. Thank you, Mrs. Conley!
Recently I posted an article about Boy Erased based on the reactions I had seen from people directly represented in the movie and the defensive reaction of ex-gay ministries. A couple of weeks ago, Dan and I went and saw the movie now that it is released in the Orlando area. I expected to be deeply moved, but I walked out with much more powerful emotions and memories than I expected. The following is a result of sorting through it all.
What follows contains movie spoilers so keep that in mind if you decide to read further.
GenoGram – The Infusion of Reparative/Conversion Therapy.
Being an LGBT+ person is not a dysfunction or abuse, nor is it the result of dysfunction or damage. However, in regards to ex-gay ministry, there MUST be a boogeyman somewhere in the family tree, and the therapeutic conversion approach provided one in the name of family dynamics. I can’t tell you how many times I heard or said, “just keep pressing in” to “the Spirit to reveal the deep-seated wounds.” The genogram (family tree) exercise featured in the movie repeats in almost every ex-gay group (Exodus and non) that I worked with in the past. Assigning blame in the name of family dynamics is a programmatic element that took on many different forms. They may not have called it a genogram and used large sheets of paper and markers, but the same goals exist through writing exercises and various curriculum homework. In person, the blame game was further instilled by focused “healing prayer.” Healing over the “mother and father wounds” was seen as a significant goal and victory even if the group participant walked away feeling exposed, vulnerable, retraumatized, and in need of genuine therapy by non-religiously biased therapists.
As someone legitimately diagnosed with PTSD in 2005, I know what it’s like to feel numb because of being triggered and thinking that was feeling better because the sharpness of the familial pain had been numbed. But in truth, it was not the “peace that surpasses understanding” as imparted by Jesus. I was emotionally shut down, detached from my surroundings, and numb, not healed. As a person of faith, God has been good to direct me toward help that genuinely did bring healing and forgiveness. I was lucky; many don’t find their way to the kind of resources they need. Ex-gay ministries short-circuit and redirect legitimate growth and healing in the name of solving a problem that doesn’t need to be fixed.
Fearless Moral Inventory – list of past experiences to renounce
In the movie, they spent a lot, I mean a LOT of time on the group participants doing a “fearless moral inventory.” This exercise is a couple of 12 Step exercises (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous,… etc.) The fourth step in 12 step programs reads:
We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
The idea behind it is to come up with a list of all the illicit behaviors we have done and people we have hurt. After the fourth step, the fifth step reads:
Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
In the Ex-gay world, this makes someone, again, incredibly vulnerable and gives the group leaders, who have not subordinated themselves to the group participants or professional scrutiny a lot of power they don’t deserve. All in the context of spiritual cleansing and confession.
I hadn’t thought of this exercise in years, but during the movie I vividly remember making a long list of every guy, and girl, I had ever kissed “lustfully.” Of every male tv character and celebrity, I had ever fantasized about.
In front of others, I confessed every sexual act physically and in my heart. It hurt having to divulge all of this to someone else who then “agreed with” me in prayer to renounce all of these “spiritual ‘soul’ ties.” At a Living Waters training (by Ex-gay RHN leader Andy Comiskey), I remember being triggered by remembering my first real “love” as a 17-year-old with a man named Ron who died during the early days of AIDS. I remember saying to the small group I was in the center of being prayed for, “But I loved him, he died so quickly, so painfully!” and their response was “renounce homosexuality, your bond with him wasn’t godly, and be free of this spiritual hindrance.” After the assistant group leader’s heartless response, they went to hug me, and I pushed them away and went to punch him but held back. They apologized, and I just remember crying all day and sitting on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay in such deep despair I didn’t understand it.
I wasn’t beaten with bibles or submerged in water, but I was beaten emotionally and deprived of the life-giving memory of my relationship with Ron. I didn’t commit suicide even though one of my best friends eventually did. However, during 23 years in the ex-gay world, I died to who I truly was as an honest man, who happens to be gay, during the unnecessary “renunciation” and ongoing shame for just being who I honestly am.
It should also be said that the fearless moral inventory wasn’t a one-time event. We were expected to live a fearless moral inventory every day. When I was a leader I took what I learned and expected others to be completely transparent about the lust in our hearts or “falls” to sexual activity. We weren’t as strident and legalistic as some, but we did suffer and imposed negative consequences of our own.
Physical Violence, Housing quarters – Faggot name-calling
All of that said, I never, ever heard of physical violence on the level of what happened in the movie (when the kid was thrown into the filing system while he was trying to escape with his phone and writing journal.) I never heard an ex-gay leader call someone a faggot like Flea’s character did in the movie. However, the scene of them walking through the housing areas of the movie version of Love In Action and the false machismo “real man” language throughout the movie was *exactly* like what I saw at a non-Exodus ministry in Kentucky called Pure Life Ministries. I went to visit one time to see an old Ex-gay poster boy, Michael Johnston, and the entire experience creeped me out (even then.) I left that compound feeling fear for all the men who were living there.
That said, Exodus notoriously promoted gender stereotypes with conference workshops teaching women how to put on makeup and men how to not be afraid of pursuing straight sex, in marriage, and be a “man among men” in the church. One of the staples in every ex-gay library was “Crisis In Masculinity” and “The Broken Image” both by Leanne Payne.
In a nutshell, what ex-gay ministries need to be held accountable for is every single minute of that movie. The movie portrayed a perfect summation and symbol of ex-gay ministry. Every real movie worth watching ALWAYS makes use of symbol. You can’t tell a visual story without visual symbols. Ex-gay ministries will take the coffin scene literally and say they would NEVER use such manipulative means as to have a coffin in the room during a meeting or beat teens with bibles. However, if you look at the movie, the coffin was out of place and in stark light while the crowd beating the kid was in shadow and the submerging in water was somewhere else in a common bathtub. I have been informed by Mrs. Conley herself that this event did really happen so not only is this a real world example of abuse, it’s a powerful symbol of what we in the ex-gay world have gone through.
This is powerful because of what happened to the young man in real life (his name is Aaron) and the reality it symbolizes. The reality that bigotry and stigma try to pound the LGBT+ person into submission with repeated verbal beatings of scripture, sometimes physical violence, and everpresent accusations of shame.
In a broader sense, the theatrical bible bashing was the symbol of the verbal death-dealing bible bashing that happens to LGBT+ people every day. That scene symbolized how bigotry is passed on from Generation to generation, throughout the community, from pastor to grandfather, to father, to daughter to abuse the gay and vulnerable son. Christian ex-gay teachings demand that we “crucify our flesh” and “die to self” for the ongoing “cleansing of sin.” It teaches that to see ourselves or live out our core relational being as an LGBT+ person is to live life under the veil of deception and death. The young man being abused in the movie during that scene didn’t climb into the coffin there at that “deliverance” meeting, but he ended up in one because he killed himself literally after so much abuse telling him to kill off who he truly is. Thank God the person actually abused in this manner, Aaron, is alive today.
No, I personally never saw ex-gay ministries use a coffin as a prop. However, the toxic theology they and the church at large adhere to has put many LGBT+ people in them way to early; as it did to my beautiful Michael.
“Boy Erased” is just the beginning of exposing a dark and deceptive world that traps good people into doing terrible things to others and themselves. That must and will end. We will stop this abuse.