Published author and gay rights activist, Garrard Conley, spoke about religion, sexuality, and the “complicated south” in front of a full crowd at the Athenaeum on Tuesday, Feb. 27. With a slight southern drawl and a calm, measured demeanor, Conley recalled his experience undergoing conversion therapy and his internal struggle with sexuality as a young adult.
He used three big questions to guide his talk: ‘How could I have allowed myself to be sent to conversion therapy, why did my parents send me, and why did the counselors do what they did?’ Each of these questions probs at the different people who played a massive role in Conley’s story.
Growing up in a Christian fundamentalist household, Conley described feeling like he had “two brains.” His “God brain” or his “fundamentalist brain” was tied intrinsically to his family and the local community. His “literature brain” or “critical thinking brain,” on the other hand, is what propelled him to question the shaming tactics and false image claims used in daily therapy sessions by his conversion group.
Conley’s relaxed speaking style coupled with his joking asides made what was a tough, traumatizing, and incredibly complex revelation of personhood, an accepting and open conversation. Sitting in the back row, I found myself utterly swept into Conley’s narrative. What was perhaps the most memorable aspect of the talk was the Q&A section. There, I was struck by the sincerity and authenticity of student questions. One student asked Conley about his current relationship with religion, to which he responded that he still finds it hard at times to enter church and fully embrace his ‘God Brain’ because of his past trauma.
It can be so easy to get caught up in the professionalism of the Ath and the economic/political sphere we are so immersed in at CMC. Conley’s “Boy Erased” reminded me, however, to consider values such as acceptance, compassion, and empathy beyond the 5C bubble. To this point, the talk pushed me to consider social justice and activism more broadly. Here at CMC, we have so many people striving to be leaders. Our school motto implores us to “learn for the sake of doing” and embrace our surrounding world. I wonder, then, what this kind of energy and enthusiasm might look like if it were channeled further into social activism. We have so much leadership potential at the five schools, might we dedicate more of this to the realm of social justice? Just some food for thought.
Stay tuned for the upcoming Ath chronicles!