2004 was a rough time for a gay kid in rural America. In the wake of President George W. Bush’s push for the Federal Marriage Amendment, which passed in all 11 states where it was on the ballot and received support from a majority of Americans, more people suddenly felt empowered to speak out against LGBTQ individuals. Bumper stickers featured “One Man + One Woman” messages, and “Take back our country” was something you could regularly hear in both businesses and churches. I heard the words “fag” and “queer” more often than ever before, and trust me when I say the slur count was already very high in my small Arkansas town.
2004 was also the year my parents sent me to a conversion therapy facility called Love in Action in Memphis, TN. When they discovered I was gay, our church and immediate family members suggested that the only way forward was a change of sexual orientation. I’d like to say that attending Love in Action was shocking, but really it was just a confirmation of what I’d already been told my whole life: that gay people were sexual predators, that they were bound for Hell, and that their “lifestyles” were unnatural. Conversion therapy, odd as it may have seemed on the surface, was merely a microcosm of a larger cultural statement against LGBTQ individuals, and asking a kid to sit next to people dealing with pedophilia, bestiality, and sexual addiction is a lot less surprising once you realize that all of us were considered cultural detritus at the time.
A few of us didn’t survive 2004. Many of us were left with scars. There are still days, for example, when I can’t get out of bed because I feel worthless; there are still times when I can’t touch my partner because I feel shame. In contrast to our hometowns, one thing all of us who escaped to liberal oases came to expect with certainty was that such places did not take conversion therapy or its ideological underpinnings seriously. That incredulity in the face of suffering has become one of my least favorite sympathetic responses. A phrase I often hear from well-meaning liberals: “How could this happen in 2004?” If you grew up in a small town in America, or if you pay any attention to LGBTQ youth homelessness rates, you should no trouble answering that question. The question should be: “How is this still happening now?”
Since moving out of rural America, I have returned home every summer to visit family, and every time it is like visiting another country. I see, once again, various iterations of the “One Man + One Woman” bumper stickers. I hear “fag” uttered without fear. I see people standing tall for bigotry. I see that no matter how hard I try to ignore the words and the signs, the hatred is not going away any time soon.
Now, with Mike Pence and his anti-LGBTQ friends poised for powerful positions, we are beginning to see this bigotry spread once again across the country. Pence has worked hard to deny LGBTQ individual their rights, opposing “any effort to recognize homosexual’s [sic] as a 'discreet [sic] and insular minority' entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.” His language supports conversion therapy practices, and he signed a religious freedom bill that would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ customers. Care to guess how many times the GOP platform mentions traditional marriage? 20 times in only 66 pages. And how are at-risk populations responding? The Trevor Project and Trans Lifeline have reported a post-election spike in suicide hotline calls.
When I was in conversion therapy, I remember my counselors, many of whom have since renounced their ‘ex-gay’ stances, speaking with such clarity and authority against my sexuality. “When you enter into a sinful sexual act, you are an abomination before God,” one of my counselors told me. “You are hateful in His eyes.” I often wondered how these counselors had such confidence, how they knew with absolute certainty that they were right. I remember wanting to share in that confidence, to hold on to at least one truth about myself in the world. I imagine that with time, had I stayed and continued to exist in an environment of intolerance, I might have eventually possessed the confidence my ‘ex-gay’ counselors had and many of our more bigoted politicians currently possess: that to be gay is to be a disgrace. That sexuality, as Donald Trump’s pick to head domestic policy for his transition team, Kenneth Blackwell believes, is a “choice,” akin to being an arsonist or kleptomaniac.
In liberal oases, people are asking with shock and surprise: How did we get here? For those of us who have been living with these mindsets for our entire lives, the question is: How have we always been here? And when will we ever change?