The following is a review of Boy Erased. While the story portrayed is not the story of every LGBT+ person who receives therapy, elements of his story are common. These patterns are corroborated by scientific research raised in this post, but nothing is more powerful than a real person’s story. Before you cast doubt on the pain described in this review, please see Boy Erased in theaters.
"Shame on you! Shame on me too.”
Those were Nancy’s words as she rescued her son from an ex-gay program. She yelled at the program director, and she yelled at herself for failing to protect her son.
Boy Erased highlights a theologically and psychologically destructive school of thought. “Pray the gay away” practices inside churches and counseling centers have led millions of LGBT+ Christians to lose their faith or commit suicide. And these ideas and practices continue today, albeit in more subtle ways. The Church must repent of what we have done, and we must make sure it never happens again.
Jared lost his faith. Others lost their lives.
The main character of Boy Erased, Jared, is raped by another boy, tells his parents about this experience and his attractions, and is sent to Love in Action—a gay conversion program. There, he is told that he chooses who he is attracted to, that he sins merely by being attracted to other guys, and that he can become straight if he prays hard enough. In the words of the program director, "God will not love you the way you are.” He “learns” that he has these attractions because of his parents and his low masculinity. More than anything in the world, Jared wants to make his parents happy, so he “leans in” to the process. But all the program seems to do is push him away from his parents and away from God. As he contemplates leaving, another program member, Cameron, is confronted about his lack of progress. Cameron is laid over a casket, beaten with a Bible by his father and younger sister, and baptized in a bathtub to remove the “demon” of same-sex attraction. While Jared is rescued by his mom, we learn later that Cameron goes on to commit suicide.
Near the end of the memoir Boy Erased, the author shares about the impact his experiences at Love in Action had on his faith:
“And God. I will not call on God at any point during this decade-long struggle. Not because I want to keep God out of my life, but because His voice is no longer there. What happened to me has made it impossible to speak with God, to believe in a version of Him that isn’t charged with self-loathing. My ex-gay therapists took Him away from me, and no matter how many different churches I attend, I will feel the same dead weight in my chest. I will feel the pang of a deep love now absent from my life. I will continue to experiment with different denominations, different religions. I will continue to search. And even if I no longer believe in Hell, I will continue to struggle with the fear of it. Perhaps one day I will hear His voice again. Perhaps not. It’s a sadness I deal with on a daily basis.”
Jared was sent to a program to fix something he didn’t choose and that rarely changes. God, the Bible, and prayer were used as weapons. Jared lost his faith. Others lost their lives.
Deep damage and bad practices continue.
In the most extensive study of LGBT+ people and the Church, Andrew Marin’s Us Versus Us reveals that of the 22.4 million LGBT+ people in the US, 19.3 million (86%) grew up in church. Of those, 10.4 million LGBT+ people have left the faith—that’s 54% of LGBT+ people who grew up in the Church—and their top reasons for leaving included negative personal experiences such as ex-gay programs. At the same time, gay teens are 5 times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. LGBT+ youth who say religion is important to them are 38% more likely to be suicidal than their non-religious LGBT+ peers, suggesting that homophobic religious beliefs increase teens’ vulnerability to depression. And gay teens who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than other gay teens. How are these related to “pray the gay away” practices inside churches and counseling centers? The primary solution churches and therapists offered gay people over the past half century was a false hope that anyone’s sexual orientation can change if they try hard enough. They were promised that God is good, He loves them, and He will heal them if they do their part. When that change didn’t occur, their hope for the future and their faith in God collapsed.
Jared’s parents only had one question for him after he shared about his attractions: “Do you want to change?” Despite the bad fruit of “pray the gay away” practices over the decades, the Church can’t seem to accept that there is no formula for changing a person’s attraction. I don’t know anyone who has eliminated their same-sex attractions and developed typical opposite-sex attractions. Studies have consistently shown that despite intense effort, a person's attractions are unlikely to change. Limited high-quality research demonstrates that only 3-4% of people who participated in sexual orientation change efforts experienced any change in their same-sex attractions, and even these results were from self-reports that cannot be verified. Do miracles happen? Yes. But praying for change with any level of expectation is dangerous. The likelihood of your attractions changing even a little are the same as you getting into Harvard, becoming a millionaire, or playing high school baseball and eventually going pro. Would it be wise to pray for those things expectantly? What happens when your faith in God, your belief that God is good, or your belief that God loves you hinges on whether you get into Harvard, become a millionaire, or your same-sex attractions change? There is insufficient research about the effectiveness and harmfulness of sexual orientation change efforts in churches and counseling centers. From my estimation of limited research and consistent anecdotal information, the frequent harm of ex-gay programs outweighs the benefits few experience. Moreover, the search for change is unnecessarily risky: LGBT+ Christians don’t need to change their attractions to belong and thrive in our churches according to a traditional sexual ethic. Based on this, I would caution an individual from seeking to change their attractions.
What’s worse, “pray the gay away” ideas and practices still linger. Evangelical churches still preach that we choose who we are attracted to and that people like me sin by merely being attracted to other guys. We still hear that people are gay because they were raped or because they had bad parents. Same-sex sexual sin is treated as worse than opposite-sex sexual sin. We are told to keep working toward change if we want God to love us. And pastors and parents still send gay teens to therapists, weekend retreats, and parachurch ministries hoping they’ll return “fixed”.
Jared’s story is my story.
After viewing Boy Erased, I spent two hours cycling between flashbacks, sadness, and anger because Jared’s story is not too different from my own. He and I heard the same things growing up. After coming out to my parents in high school, I met with a therapist hoping he could fix me. I was taught to pathologize my attractions, attributing them to my relationships with my parents and my underdeveloped masculinity. The therapist nurtured my homophobia and a hope that I would change and marry a woman. After college I interned with a ministry that named my attractions as spiritual warfare, covered me in anointing oils and charismatic prayer, and led me deeper into blaming my parents for my homosexuality. When I failed to hear from the Holy Spirit, I was shamed for not trying hard enough, suggesting that’s why I was still gay. I’ve sat in a pastor's office and heard the gay teen suicide rate dismissed as the gay agenda. And I still feel like a second-class Christian because I’m not going to marry a woman.
Like Jared, my faith suffered. For years, all I felt before God was shame and fear. I was gay, and I was not good enough for His love. Then when pastors and mentors attempted to help me reduce my attractions, they used the Bible and prayer as weapons. Still struggling with my attractions? Read the Bible and pray more. Feel disconnected from God? Read the Bible and pray more. Like Jared, I do not hate God—quite the opposite. Since college I have cried out by myself and in front therapists and pastors and mentors and friends, “God, I will do anything to feel connected to You and feel loved by You again. Anything.” But my spiritual abuse damaged my capacity for intimacy with God. I still choose daily to believe God exists and that He loves me. And I’ve given my whole life to following His teachings and making the Church a better place for people like me. But I walk with that painful emptiness, that cold presence of God’s absence. I long for that to change.
In light of this pandemic of destructive practices, loss of faith, and gay teen suicide, what should Christians do?
Perhaps Jared’s parents did the best with what they had, but when it became clear to Nancy that their best efforts were hurting Jared, she repented: “Shame on you! Shame on me too.” Some of us have actively participated in the mistreatment of gay people in our churches. Many more of us haven’t done our part to help make the Church a place where LGBT+ people can belong and thrive according to a traditional sexual ethic. The sins of the Church—not the sins of LGBT+ people—have likely sent millions of LGBT+ people to their grave and possibly to Hell because we, the Church, offered LGBT+ people an idol made of destructive psychology and theology instead of the real God and His invitation.
But even if you’re a straight Christian who has loved gay people well or a gay Christian like me, you can still repent. Nehemiah 9 and Ezra 9 make clear that it is good for the people of God to recognize and confess the collective sins of the Church. So, I encourage you to kneel with me as we confess our sins against God and LGBT+ people:
Most merciful God, we, Christians, confess that we have sinned against you and LGBT+ people in our homophobia, with our destructive theology, and by treating LGBT+ people as problems—by the ways we have actively mistreated LGBT+ people, and by doing nothing to make the Church better for LGBT+ people. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved LGBT+ people as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent that our sin has led many LGBT+ people to lose their faith or commit suicide. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that LGBT+ people may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name. Amen.
True repentance leads to action.
I’ve heard for years that I need to be patient, bide my time, wait until the right moment. I’ve been instructed to quiet my anger. Somehow, I’ve become desensitized to the sins of the Church and the destruction in the lives of gay people. No more. Too many people are losing their faith and too many people are taking their own lives. If we knew every other child in our pews would stop believing in God because of our treatment of them, would we ask concerned parents to lower their voice? Yet 54% of LGBT+ Christians have left the Church. The Church must do better, now. The time for waiting is over.
Be a part of making the Church a place where LGBT+ people could actually belong and thrive according to a traditional sexual ethic. We at EQUIP are committed to doing just that, and we’d love to have your help. We hope the Church we offer the next generation will be a radically different place—a place where children hear their parents and pastors talk about same-sex attraction in theologically accurate and compassionate ways. Then when, in late elementary school or early middle school, some children realize they are attracted to other boys and girls of the same sex, they no longer respond with shame, fear, or hiding. Instead, they invite their parents and pastors to journey with them because they have heard that God still loves them and has good things for them.
You can get involved by helping us put together care packages for LGBT+ college students who can’t go home for the holidays because home isn’t safe. Or you can connect us with your church to educate pastors and parents in your community. Or you can support our work financially so that money is never a barrier to a church doing this important work. Whatever you do, please, do something.