A Look Inside Conversion Therapy


With the recent release of the film Boy Erased, based on the memoir written by Garrard Conley, a spike of interest has risen to learn more about conversion therapy.

Released in 2016, Garrard Conley’s novel, Boy Erased: A Memoir, tells his story of being outed as gay to his parents at the age of 19. Garrard’s southern Baptist preacher father only gave him two choices, attend conversion therapy or be disowned. With the desire to seek help Garrard enrolled in Love in Action (LIA), a program for convention therapy. During this two week program Garrard faced trials with his sexuality, his faith, and the torment this specialized therapy put him through.

Before the program ended, Garrard made an escape with LIA’s convention therapy handbook in his hands. This handbook became one of the first pieces of information that allowed those outside of conversion therapy, to get a glimpse of what really takes place within. Thus, allowing others, besides Garrard, to speak up and share their stories as well.

The first question many people ask is what is conversion therapy? Conversion therapy is a pseudoscientific method of spiritual and physiological mediation to alter one’s sexuality from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual. The whole purpose of it is to “cure” an individual of homosexuality or bisexuality. This leads to it seen as an illness, or in spiritual terms it is viewed as a sinful lifestyle.

The beginning of conversion therapy started in 1974 by Frank Worthen who lived in San Francisco. For years he had relations with men as an openly gay man, until he reached his 40’s all of that came to an end. While speaking to an audience in Singapore, Frank shared that at the time he felt empty and depressed. He even contemplated suicide, until he said that God spoke to him one day. Frank was told by God to start a church to help people like him to “leave the homosexual lifestyle.”

In 1973 Frank Worthen began the program, Love In Action (LIA), in California with methods that consist of pseudoscience, talk therapy, and the word of God. About two decades later, Frank expanded over to Memphis, due to the growth of the program. The difference from the therapy from then and today, is that back then people participated by choice.

During Frank Worthen’s program growth, the AIDs epidemic surfaced in the 80’s. Due to the illness occurring mainly among homosexual men, many believers saw AIDs as a judgement of God. Meaning God made AIDs as punishment for those participating in a homosexual lifestyle. This idea eventually became an influence for the process of conversion therapy.

For years, not much light was shed on what took place within the barriers of the conversion therapy programs. When a 19 year old Garrard Conley attended LIA in 2004, things changed.

During Garrard’s time with LIA, he frequently references the large handbook given to every attendee on their very first day. Staff members ordered them to memorize the handbook word by word. In the handbook the guidelines listed the rules on the strict dress code and the no touch policy, amongst other things along with out of context Bible verses. One of the main rules from this program included the order for them to not share any of what goes on within to anyone else outside. This command included their parents who were in most cases paying for their child’s enrollment.

Garrard openly shares the distressing experiences each of the members were made to do during the program. Upon arrival each member was stripped of his or her possessions, which were searched by staff. In one of the first few sessions they were assigned to making a genogram, and they were to mark each family member with a sign or symbol. The sign or symbol was in reference to if the family member were involved in any of the following: homosexuality, mental illness, drugs, gang involvement, pornography, and more. If any family was involved with any, they are automatically seen in a false light, and were a reason why the program attendee was there in the first place.

A second therapy session required each member of LIA to 3 of their own sexual experiences and for each one they had to dissect and analyze it in graphic detail. This assignment of their’s was to be read aloud in front of all of the other members of the program. Another session involved the empty chair exercise which requires them to imagine a loved one there and they have a conversation with them. In Garrard’s case, the instructor ordered him so say things to his father who he imagined in the chair and to get angry with them for making him the way he was.

While sessions such as these took place, others included them to meet with a trainer to get each of them to act their sexuality. The boys were made to act manly, and were told to “fake it till you make it.” In a church setting, each of the members were also told that God did not love them because of their sexuality. These few therapy sessions, amongst many others are just from one person’s experience, Garrard Conley’s, from one two week session in one conversion therapy program, LIA.

Love In Action’s reasoning for all of this? The Bible. Liz Dyer, owner and founder of Serendipitydohdah, has shared her thoughts on this topic which include the following, “What does the Bible say? Not what do I want it to say…it’s a profound issue.”

The point made by Liz Dyer is featured on the UnErased podcast, created and produced by Garrard Conley. The UnErased podcast goes in depth at the root of conversion therapy, and takes a closer look into other’s experiences aside from Garrard Conley.

Although Garrard’s story is one of the first made public, it doesn’t come close to what others have faced as well. More than 700,000 people have been undergone conversion therapy in America alone. When making this point on UnErased, Jad Abumrad also states, “that’s equivalent to the city of Boston.” Ten years have passed since Garrard Conley shared his whole experience of conversion therapy, and yet today it is still legal in 36 states.

To learn more about conversion therapy read Garrard Conley’s memoir “Boy Erased,” also follow the podcast “UnErased: The History of Conversion Therapy in America.” Lastly visit Garrard’s website garrardconley.com for further information.

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