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Beyond Boy Erased: The Resilience of Conversion Therapy

Smid

This month Boy Erased — a film starring Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Lucas Hedges, Joel Edgerton, Troye Sivan, and Cherry Jones, and based on the memoir by Garrard Conley — premiered in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Boy Erased is based on Conley’s experience as a 19 year old forced by his parents to attend a conversion therapy program run by “ex-gays.” The program, known as “Love in Action” was a nonprofit faith-based ministry, that claimed it could “fix” LGBT people by changing their sexual orientation or gender identity through “12-step programs, fire and brimstone depictions of God, junk science, and misconceptions of what it mean[t] to be gay.” In 2009, Love in Action closed its doors on the heels of protests from LGBT groups, a contentious lawsuit against Tennessee government officials and various internal controversies.

In its place however, are other burgeoning conversion therapy programs to which tens of thousands of LGBTQ youth remain at risk. In fact, an estimated 57,000 youth will be subjected to conversion therapy by a religious or spiritual advisor before they reach the age of 18.  

For many movie viewers, Boy Erased is likely to raise a number of questions. How did Love in Action and similar programs begin? And how was the “Ex-Gay Movement” able to grow and achieve such prominence, despite contradicting medical and scientific evidence and research?

Love in Action was founded in 1973 as part of the religious backlash following the American Psychiatric Association’s declassification of “homosexuality” as a mental disorder that same year. Although originally founded in California by Frank Worthen, who claimed he had overcome being “trapped in homosexuality,” Love in Action soon joined forces with a number of other ex-gay ministries to create “Exodus International,” an umbrella group of 150 “ex-gay ministries” spanning 17 countries. Exodus International closed its doors in 2013 when its president denounced the organization’s mission to cure homosexuality.

The most influential Love in Action leader was John Smid. After years of living as an out gay man in Nebraska during the 1970s and early 1980s, Smid connected with an evangelical minister who promised to help him find greater intimacy and connection in his relationships by encouraging him to renounce his sexual orientation and turn to the Church. After listening to a program by Focus on the Family, an organization still closely aligned with a number of anti-LGBT hate groups today, Smid contacted Frank Worthen and his wife, Anita, to learn more about the ministry.

Smid — who has no training in psychology, social work, medicine, or similar disciplines — authored and created most of the materials used by Love in Action, and later admitted in an interview that he essentially made-up the curriculum used to try to convert Conley and other LGBT people over the course of more than two decades.

Conley’s Boy Erased sharply details some of Love in Action’s physically and emotionally abusive conversion therapy tactics, including forcing people to participate in a mock funeral for one of their fellow group members that included reading aloud a fake obituary to stoke fears of an AIDS-related death. Today, every major medical and mental health organization has denounced conversion therapy as ineffective, harmful, and leading to increased risk of depression, substance abuse, and even suicide. Smid now admits that conversion therapy is a “horrible failure.”

In 2005, a gay teenager from Tennessee posted a cry for help on social media, leading to national and international press coverage and a public outcry calling for the state’s investigation into these practices. This prompted protests against Love in Action and several investigations by state agencies concerned that the ministry was operating substance abuse and mental health programs without the requisite licensure.

Love in Action retaliated against Tennessee state officials by filing a lawsuit that spanned more than a year. Shortly after the case settled, Smid left Love in Action. He has since publicly denounced conversion therapy and maintains that, “No amount of religious indoctrination can change a person’s sexual orientation.”

Today, Smid is happily married to his husband and is taking steps to make amends for his past actions.  He recently donated his archives, consisting of thousands of pages of materials from Love in Action, to the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., which in turn, donated the Smid Archives to the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Born Perfect Campaign to end conversion therapy reports that 14 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to protect LGBT youth from conversion therapy. But even though Love in Action and many other similar ministries have closed their doors, fraudulent faith-based and secular conversion therapy programs persist in major cities and rural areas across the country. For example, last year the NCLR filed a consumer fraud lawsuit on behalf of Kate McCobb, a lesbian living in Berkeley, Calif., to help her recoup tens of thousands of dollars spent on conversion therapy. McCobb sought trauma therapy from a California-licensed therapist, who then began using conversion therapy techniques to manipulate  and shame her on account of  her sexual orientation — even going so far as to convince her to begin dating and move in with one of his male clients.

Efforts to implement conversion therapy and refusals to ban the practices are alive and well in America and pose a public health risk to the country’s youth. To learn more about the history of conversion therapy and current sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts click here or sign up here to learn what you can do to help.

LISA A. LINSKY is a NYC LGBT Community Center Board Member and partner at McDermott Will & Emery LLP.

Linsky and McDermott partner Paul Thompson serve as pro bono counsel to the Mattachine Society of Washington DC, a non-profit, non-partisan research and educational society that conducts original archival research to uncover the often-deleted political histories of LGBT Americans who faced persecution and discrimination at the hands of federal and state governments for nearly seventy years. Last month, the McDermott/ Mattachine team released a white paper report on conversion therapy titled, “The Pernicious Myth of Conversion Therapy: How Love in Action Perpetrated a Fraud on America.” The report may be accessed at stopconversiontherapy.org.

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