Being Gay vs. Being Southern: A False Choice
Brandon Taylor on Garrard Conley, Nick White, and Finding One's Real Self
When I was younger, I wanted nothing more than to escape the South. At the time, I thought that there was nothing worse than being gay and Southern, that no two parts of a person could be more in conflict, and I felt that there was nothing to be done for it except to leave one or the other behind. I did not realize that there was a difference between being Southern and being in the South, that one did not depend upon the other. The dissonance I felt in the South over being both queer and Southern had nothing at all to do with geography. Why would changing geography abate anything in the soul? The dissonance, I now think, arose because I felt from a very young age that to be Southern, one first had to love God and being gay prevented me from doing so because God could not love me back.
On Sundays, my family went to church. God suffused everything in our lives the way heat suffuses every particle of air in the summer. There is a time of day in Alabama when the heat reaches its most critical point, when even shade is of little comfort; Sundays gathered all of God’s power to its most frightening pitch and beamed it down on us, testing us, daring us to wither. I sat in the pew next to my cousins, squirming. The church was hot, the air heavy even in winter, and there was so much light in the windows that it was hard to see. I didn’t know where to look in church. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. When everyone lowered their heads in prayer, I did too, but I wasn’t praying. I couldn’t hear the voice of God. It felt like I had missed some critical lesson in how to project my feelings to heaven, and so I remained earthbound and inert like a stone. I did not know how to pray, and I felt too embarrassed to ask, and after a while, I just stopped minding so much that I couldn’t talk to God the way everyone else seemed to. It’s like that, I think, eventually you learn to stop wanting what you can’t have.
I was afraid of God for a long time for reasons that are now obvious to me. The reason that I didn’t know what to do with my eyes in church was because I was afraid of meeting God’s gaze and being pierced by His knowing. I was afraid that God would comprehend within me all the things that were an affront to Him: my doubt, my inability to pray, my effeminacy, the way I talked, the way I sometimes disobeyed my parents, my fear of dogs and other animals made in His image. These were things for which I had been beaten, chastised, punished, and for which I had been told I would burn for eternity if I did not correct them. I know many people who were raised with a just and loving God, raised with the idea of God’s mercy and love. I was raised on God’s anger, God’s long-simmering contempt for mankind. The face of God’s joy emerged from my suffering in the same way my cousins’ faces rose from the baptismal pool, cleansed and new.
Garrard Conley’s memoir Boy Erased tells of his time in Love in Action (LIA), a so-called reparative therapy program for homosexuality. I picked up the book because like Conley, I come from the religious South, a part of the country now rooted in what has become Trump’s America, and like Conley, I am gay. I think I was expecting a retelling of my own experience with religion, the way it warped my relationship to the place of my birth, because we’re always in search of someone to tell us about who we are.
Religion rests uneasily at the heart of Boy Erased. It sits at the center of LIA’s approach in a way that is analogous to the vaguely religious 12-Step Program. There is a serenity in surrendering oneself to a higher power. It is not exactly the abdication of responsibility, but rather a delineation of one’s limitations, a way to acknowledge and accept one’s circumstances. Give it over to God was a common refrain in my house. This battle is not yours, it’s the Lord’s was another. God does not give us more than we can handle was yet another. Surrender yourself to the Lord and wait patiently for him.
Early in the book, Conley writes:
I had spent the last several months trying to erase my “false personality.” I’d walked out of my college dorm one winter day and jumped into the campus’s half-frozen lake. Shivering, I walked back to the dorm in water-suctioned shoes, feeling rebaptized. In the hot shower that followed, I watched, dazed by the shock of icy heat on my numb skin, as a drop of water traced the edge of the showerhead. I prayed, Lord make me as pure as that.
When I came across this passage, I had to put the book away. It summoned to mind all of the times I had attempted to erase the part of me that was not a part of God’s image, all of the ways I had turned away from myself when I felt stirred up inside after watching the neighborhood boys lift their shirts to wipe sweat from their faces, all of the quiet fervor that had whirled through me when I sat trying to project my thoughts to God in heaven and found again and again that I had failed in some way to reach Him because I still wanted other boys to look at me, to hold me, to touch me. There it all was again, fresh in mind as the day it happened.
The first time that I had an orgasm, I was ten or eleven, in my aunt’s bathroom. I was looking at a pornographic magazine from the 1990s, staring at the picture of a man whose body and face are lost to me now. The moment it happened, I was afraid. I dropped the magazine into the sink, and I fell to my knees on the rug. I clutched my heart. I thought that I was going to die, that God was reaching inside of me to stop my heart because I had sinned so horrifically against Him. In that moment, I squeezed my eyes shut and cried and prayed with an intensity that had previously evaded me. I prayed that He would make me perfect and whole in His image. I prayed that he would give me the strength to overcome my desire for men. I prayed, saying the words over and over that I didn’t want to be a faggot, that I wanted to be like my brother and my cousins. The strange force rocking through my body had not felt like pleasure at all but a kind of horrible terror. I felt as if I had brought myself close to a great catastrophe. When I washed my hands in the sink, I did not look in the mirror, could not face myself. I dropped the magazine back into the damp dark under the sink and swore never ever to look at them again. I went outside, and I sat on the swing under the big oak tree, and I cried quietly against my knees in the heat and the dust swirling all around. I looked up through my wet eyelids into the shimmering leaves, and I felt that I had received a sign that things were going to be okay, that I was going to be okay.
Some weeks later, when my aunt’s boyfriend climbed on top of me in her living room, I thought of those leaves, waxy and perfect, stiff as they fell from the sky like knives.
Nick White’s sharp debut How to Survive a Summer is another story in which the queer son of a pastor finds his way uneasily toward himself. When a disturbing incident in his past resurfaces, Will Dillard has to grapple with long-buried ghosts. The story is told both from the present and from the past, both narratives converging hard and fast on a plot of land in Mississippi where something went horrifically awry. As a young man, Will Dillard was sent to Camp Levi in order to be cleansed of his homosexuality. He has spent the rest of his life trying to forget not only what happened to him there but also the part of his life belonging to the South. But trauma always finds us when we least expect it:
Only later did particulars resurface. The first time was when I was moving from Vanderbilt to where I live now. I had driven for most of the day and stopped off at a Comfort Inn. I lay in bed, the AC unit turned up as high as it would go, the curtains closed. As I drifted, I heard the chant we boys used to holler before jumping into the lake: “Lord, rend my flesh! Lord, burn me anew!” I sprang up from the mattress. I checked the hallway. Nothing. And that was the terrible part: the silence that followed. The silence proved you were crazy all along.
It’s a common enough story, even if the details are different. Many of us expatriates from the South have a tumultuous relationship to that land, and yet we experience its inexorable pull, its curious gravity. But Nick White achieves something else in his novel. He is as interested in story forms as he is in stories themselves. Truth in this novel is the cumulative effect arising from the cross-hatching of various other stories—the myths Will’s mother told him about her family, the stories Will told himself about his life, the slasher flick in the novel which is based on a memoir that another character wrote about their time at the same camp—and what you find is that you can only ever hope to be approximate in your stories.
But perhaps the lesson that Boy Erased and How to Survive a Summer both convey is the horror of what happens when our stories are usurped from us and altered to be used in strange and cruel ways. Both of these books speak to the necessity of remaining steadfast in one’s own truth, however slippery that might be, and the disastrous consequences of running across that story in someone else’s hands, the curious and dysmorphic sensation of seeing yourself in strange mirrors.
I come from a family and from a church where the bible was taught to be a literal and objective truth. Hell was not a thought experiment nor a metaphorical way to wrangle what it means to be absent from God’s love, but an actual pit of fire into which all the world’s liars and thieves and murderers and homosexuals would be cast down. We lived as if always slouching toward the end of the world, our shadows cast ahead of us, already licked by the flames of the Rapture and subsequent burning of the Earth. There was no room for questions, no margin of error—everything had been accounted for and what was not in the bible did not matter, was mere triviality and frivolity. Sin began, not the moment you committed the act itself, but in the time leading up to the act. To think murder and to commit murder were equal sins. To lust after men and to have sex with men were equal sins. I lived in fear of stories, of the thought not yet made manifest. Often, what was said about you by others was as likely to get you punished as actually doing something.
My cousin had a birthday party at my house once. It was fun to play and to run and laugh and eat hot dogs in the mild March night air. But the next morning, my mother slapped me hard across the mouth, so hard I fell to the floor, dazed. And she spat on me. And said, “Don’t kiss your cousins.” I was amazed at this, amazed that I could have been thought to have kissed anyone, let alone my girl cousin. I said that I didn’t, and my mother kicked my legs and called me a liar. She said that one of my aunts had told her that I had, that she had seen us kissing by the gully, despite the fact that I had spent most of the party playing touch football in the backyard with my boy cousins. But the story was more powerful than me, and my mother had taken it literally and for the truth. For months after that, everyone in my family whispered about it, how I had kissed my cousin on the mouth, how I had done something that I had no memory of doing. So persistent were they in this that I began to doubt myself, and my personal history began to warp and deform, to change before my very eyes.
This too is a kind of baptism—not of water as in the case of Boy Erased nor is it the cleansing fire of How to Survive a Summer—the conversion of the private self, the personal self, into what the world tells us that we are. We spend the rest of our lives grappling with this dissonance, trying to reconcile it, trying again and again to return, but we never get there, and we’re doomed to circle it forever.