“Boy Erased” — A Reflection

I have been thinking quite a bit about freedom the past few days, with Independence Day not far in the rear view mirror. I keep going back to the idea of identity as one of the truest forms of freedom. America, after all, declared freedom with a statement of identity. For those in the LGBTQ+ community in the Southern United States, finding one’s identity can be life changing. So was the case in a book I recently read.

Boy Erased is a stunning — and often heartbreaking — account of a search for identity, representation and negotiation in a place with no or little space for such a journey. It is a desperately needed narration that reveals the real negative impact of anti-gay rhetoric and conversion therapy.

When a friend suggested about a month ago that I pick up Boy Erased, I had no idea that I would soon be reading the highlight to my summer 2016 reading list — a narrative that has touched my personal story, academic inquiry and self-reflexivity so deeply.

This memoir has significance to me in part because of parallels to my own story. Like Garrard, I grew up in a small religious town in Arkansas. I am the grandson and nephew of two preachers. I distinctly remember the expectation to continue in their footsteps. The unveiled attempts to have me lead songs for Sunday night services or try my hand at a small group lesson, competing with my brother to see who could memorize the most Bible verses and overtures to my family’s exceptional service to the church. I also took to reading and writing when exploring my identity and sexuality, something that has followed me into adulthood. And while my coming out and its aftermath were nowhere near as traumatic as Garrard’s, I nonetheless felt a connection while reading his story.

In the past, I have explored LGBTQ+ identity in the South, both as a personal pursuit and an academic interest. The following reflection is a result of my research and personal experiences and observations.

When you grow up in the religious South, you are programmed to think of things in direct contrast. It’s no coincidence that this is clearly laid out from the Christian beginning, in the Bible’s opening words: in Genesis 1, God creates the heavens and the earth, light and darkness, sky and water, day and night, land and sea, man and woman. To many, especially those of influence, this mindset manifests in a strict right and wrong compass. In the church, a system dominated by the patriarchal paradigm, contrast creates an especially sensitive fault line for the LGBTQ+ community. In a system that purports stern gender roles (and for the purposes of this response I’ll limit my interpretation of the male gender), it is seen as an inherited privilege for men to lead and provide for the family. When a man is seen to have abdicated this privilege and the moral compass, a dynamic of superiority and inferiority emerges.

Given this, it is not surprising that a culture of fear results and being on the wrong side of the seesaw becomes an entrenched consideration of LGBTQ+ people living in this reality. For Garrard, this pressure was potent — the fear of losing an education, of bringing shame on his family, of letting down his perceived family inheritance in the church and community. I had similar thoughts run through my mind. What I didn’t know then that I do now is that at the core, I was working through whether living a lie was worth the comfort of my inherited privilege.

LIA, the ex-gay conversion organization Garrard attended, took advantage of these fault lines and insecurities by flipping the script to speak of gay individuals masking their true inferiority with a false sense of superiority and celebration of differences. They contend: “When their manipulation fails, they become deeply depressed and their self-worth plummets. Often their value is connected to their ability to control others” (p. 148–149). This logic stood out to me as especially troubling because of its gross misrepresentation of the dynamics at play. Not only does this overly simplistic line of thought reinforce the aforementioned superiority/inferiority complex, it also places the blame on the LGBTQ+ individual.

This led me to apply one of my research interests, the Communication Theory of Identity (CTI), and its notion of identity gaps as a beneficial framework in which to think about these dynamics. The major assumption of CTI is that identity is situated in four interconnected layers: personal, enacted, relational and communal. The personal frame involves an individual’s self-concepts and definitions. The enacted layer reflects identity as a performance through social behaviors and symbols. The relational layer is situated in identity in reference to an individual’s relationships with others. And finally, the communal frame encompasses a community’s collective memory, associations and networks.

In previous work, I have argued that the three most striking identity gaps found with the Southern LGBTQ+ community are sub-communal-broad communal, personal-enacted and personal-relational. For this response, I will focus on the personal-enacted gap. This manifests most commonly in LGBTQ+ individuals enacting and assimilating to heterosexual behaviors and perceptions in order to avoid conflict with the broader culture and society. You see this reasoning over and over in LIA’s methodology. According to Garrard, LIA’s goal was to remove one’s layers until “there was nothing left but an ache to fit squarely into my father’s lineage, into my family…the only option was to convert, smother one’s former self in the branches of the family tree, and emerge, blinking, into a Damascene sunrise” (p. 289). “It was easier to lie when you believed the lie,” he says (p. 277). In small religious towns, like the ones where Garrard and I grew up, it is often times easier to just not talk about it than to be the talk of the town. Eventually, you believe the lie yourself.

This identity gap can cause anxiety, and even depression, because of displacement and pressure to adapt to the Southern culture despite a conflicting LGBTQ+ identity. Deepa Oommen studied the effect of anxiety and depression in the context of cultural adaptation and conflict management in a 2012 Journal of Intercultural Communication Research article. According to Oommen, common conflict styles include dominating, integrating, compromising, obliging and avoiding. His research found that the level of anxiety and depression positively correlated with the avoiding conflict style — a conflict style that involves low degrees of assertiveness and cooperation.

Through all of the pressure, confusion and anxiety, Garrard did realize that every part of his personality was connected and that “cutting one piece damaged the rest” (p. 294). That is why this memoir, above all else, is a story of resilience to me — of one man’s courage to bridge his identity in the face of unfathomable circumstances.

Make no mistake: there is incredible value and freedom in one’s ability to control his or her own identity — an ability to close the identity gaps that are too often created for us by others. Garrard’s story is a testament to this.

My hope is that I can one day meet Garrard to thank him in person for his poignant reflection on being gay in the South and finding identity in the midst of great restriction and trauma. But until then, I hope he can read this reflection and grasp in part how impactful his story has been to my own.