Embracing the mess — how compassion saved my life | Garrard Conley | TEDxBG


Translator: Leonardo Silva
Reviewer: Mile Živković Hello, everyone. So, I’m going to give you
a short disclaimer. It is OK for you to laugh
during any point of this presentation. You’ll understand why soon. So, I’m going to give you a story
about compassion, and also about the limits of compassion, and compassion in the face
of extreme confusion. And, because of that, it’s not as streamlined as many stories
that you might usually hear, but neither it is a story that takes so
much of its inspiration from: the Bible. But enough of a prelude.
I’ll let you hear for yourselves. When I was 16, my father became
a missionary Baptist preacher. On that day, my mother
and I were in church, and, you know, it was sort of expected because we had gone to church
three times a week, every week, since the moment
that I could actually go to church. And so, for my father,
this was a very natural step, but there was something that my mother
and I were not expecting, which was the sight of him
walking up the aisle, and crying, and shaking,
and asking, between his sobs, for God to forgive him of all of his sins, so that he could become
a full-time preacher. And as my mom and I had
to stand up on the stage beside him and receive all these hugs from all these
really nice people that were crying, we both knew something
that nobody else knew, which was that I was gay. Yeah, it’s OK. You can laugh. (Laughter) It get’s weirder. Just wait. (Laughter) So, I don’t know if you know much
about the Missionary Baptist Church, but it is a fundamentalist church that believes in the literal
truth of the Bible. In other words, Adam and Eve
were very real. They lived in a garden. Eve talked to a snake. Eve ate the apple. Eve gave the apple to Adam,
and Adam got the rotten deal. (Laughter) And that also means that Noah
built an ark with his own two hands, that he somewhat single-handedly
saved all of humanity and all of the animal kingdom
from extinction – however, a lot of people died,
but that’s beside the point – (Laughter) thus, saving humanity from, you know,
40 days and 40 nights of a tidal wave. So, that means that,
in Leviticus, when it says, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind,
as with womankind,” that means, “Thou shalt not
lie with mankind,” very literally. And so, you can imagine the kinds
of complications that this brought on. (Laughter) But, luckily, the process of becoming
a fully ordained preacher takes quite a long time. So, my mother and I,
in our scheming, decided, “OK, how are we going to tell him? Like, we’ve got to wait a long time
until it’s the exact right moment.” And it turns out there’s actually not
a right moment for this sort of thing. And so, one night, when we couldn’t
handle it anymore, we just told him. We were like, “OK,
Garrard thinks he might be gay.” That was what my mom said. (Laughter) Very direct. (Laughter) And so, in that moment,
my father stood up from his recliner, and he took me into the bedroom,
closed the door, said, “Sit down,” and I was like, “Oh God,
what is going to happen?” And that was literally, “Oh, God,”
because I was praying at that moment. (Laughter) And so, at this moment,
my father said these words that I don’t think I will ever be able
to erase from my brain, which were – You know, if I was
ever going to be straight, he just ruined the chances
because he said, “You just don’t know what it feels like
to be inside a woman.” (Laughter) (Applause) And I don’t. (Laughter) Truthfully. Truth telling. It’s memoir. So, in that moment, I was just like,
“I can’t do this,” and I said to my dad, “I really don’t think
there’s ever going to be a moment. I mean, I don’t know for sure,
but I really don’t think so.” And so, he said,
“OK, let’s go see the pastor,” because my father was not
a fully ordained pastor. We still had to rely on our own
and our own church family. And so, we went to see the pastor
and he sat us down in his office, and we explained the whole thing
and he said, “Hey, you’re lucky because this is not the first case
of homosexuality in the church, if you can believe that.” (Laughter) And he slid a brochure across the table, and the brochure said “Love In Action.” I’m not making this up.
I have the documents to prove it. (Laughter) It said “Love In Action,” and it had all of these really smiling,
happy people on the front of it, and when we started to flip through it,
it had words that said things like, “Since coming to Love In Action, I’ve learned that I can now
be with my family, sin-free, and since coming to Love In Action, I can now have the dream
of a real straight family.” And all of these people
looked 100% straight. I don’t know how to explain to you
what 100% straight looks like, (Laughter) but their smiles were a little less gay. (Laughter) (Applause) Yep. (Applause) And it turns out the process
was pretty streamlined. By this time, in the early 2000s,
in Arkansas, in the Bible Belt, there were many such camps available,
and there were actually 250 at the time. So, what I would do
is I would submit an application and, from that point on,
I would wait for a phone call and, if they accepted me,
I would go be “cured.” OK? (Laughter) And, on that application, I thought it was a little strange
that it asked me things like, “What forms of idolatry
have you practiced?” (Laughter) And, underneath that list, it said, “Dungeons and Dragons,” “Video games,” “Pornography,” “Masturbation,” “Impure thoughts” – (Laughter) And so, you know,
I checked off a few of those. (Laughter) (Applause) And so, OK, we were waiting
to hear the results, (Laughter) and it was a really
awkward time for all of us. However, lo and behold, I got accepted, but a really strange and messy thing
happened to me before my acceptance and before my first day at Love In Action, which was that I fell in love
with literature. So, I remember I was sitting in my room and I was reading a book
called “The Scarlet Letter,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and, in that book, there’s a woman
named Hester Prynne, who is forced to wear an “A” on her dress
because she has committed adultery. So, she has to walk around the town
with this “A” on her at all times. And, in the book, it turns out that her
interior world was extremely important. In fact, it was the most
important part of the book. And her interior world was complex,
and it was not black and white, and it was beautiful,
and I fell in love with it. You know, it felt like someone
had just taken the top of my head off and just rearranged all the furniture
that had been there for 18 years. And, you know, I felt like I had
two brains, suddenly. I felt like I had this really messy
literature-based non-black-and-white brain and then I had the God brain
that I didn’t want to give up. It was this clean,
nice version of myself. Let me tell a few things
that they did on the first day. So, after you sign
your name in the ledger, they go through your pockets, your phone, anything that you have,
that you brought with you to the camp. They look for what’s called
“false images.” So, a false image is anything
that’s going to stop you from becoming completely straight. (Laughter) So, I’d written a short story
in one of my notebooks, and I thought like, “Why wouldn’t I bring
this short story to the camp? It’ll give me something to do
when I’m bored,” right? It turns out that was a false image. So, they ripped the pages
out of my notebook, wadded it into a ball
and threw it in a trash can. And, in that moment, I began to have
the first of many doubts. So, my literature part
of my brain was thinking like, “That may be a sucky story,
but it’s my story, and you can’t just rip it all out.” And then, the God part
of my brain was like, “Well, I’m doing this
for all the right reasons and I want to stay with my family, I want, you know, to be a good
God-fearing Christian, with a nice wife and all that stuff.” And so, when I went into the group,
which was actually composed of people dealing with anything
from homosexuality, of course, bestiality, pedophilia, and any other sort of infidelity
that anyone had engaged in – And so, I’m sitting in this group,
it’s like a semicircle, and then, they ask me to get up
and tell my sexual fantasies, basically, like, anything that I’ve had, but they said, “Don’t use any language
that would make anybody uncomfortable.” (Laughter) And so, my brain was like racing, “OK, what can I possibly say that won’t
sound completely inappropriate?” And the purpose of this
is that you’re supposed to air out all of this bad stuff
that’s been bottled up inside of you, and then ask for forgiveness, and the group sort of helps you
come to terms with that. And, as I began to sort of try to string
together some sort of narrative – You know, most of my experiences
had just been looking at underwear ads. And so, when I’m trying to explain this, the literature part
of my brain is just like, “This doesn’t make any sense.” Right? And it wasn’t as if faith
had always come easy for me. I’d prayed on my knees for years,
trying to change myself, but in that moment,
I kept thinking of Hester Prynne and how everyone kept telling her that what was happening to her
would one day be rewarded in Heaven. So, everybody in that town,
in that book, was saying, like, “If you just go through all this stuff,
you’ll be better in the end.” And so, you know, days continued, and let me tell you a few
of the activities that they had me do. They had me do this thing
called a genogram, which, if any of you know psychology, is like where you put
a family tree on a chart. And next to people’s names,
they wanted me to put things like “H” for “homosexuality,”
“A” for “adultery,” “AB” for “abortion,”
a dollar sign for “gambling,” and this was supposed
to represent the Bible verse that says that the sins of the fathers
trickle down to the sons, right? So, the more sins you have
in your family tree, the more likely it is
you’ll turn out totally gay. (Laughter) That’s the logic of the camp. So, watch out! (Laughter) And they had me watch sports – This sounds totally fake,
but it’s very true: they had me watch sports because, apparently, I hadn’t had
enough male-to-male contact in my life. (Laughter) And so, because I’d missed out on that, I’d somehow started
idolizing men’s bodies. They had me continually do
what’s called the moral inventory, which was explain all
of the bad thoughts that I ever had, in front of the group, attach a Bible verse to it,
and feel better about it. So, as these weeks passed, you know, I was sort of buying it,
sort of not buying it, going back and forth,
and it just felt, at some point, like what they were doing to me
was the very opposite of love. Remember, their name was “Love in Action,”
and it just didn’t feel like that. And I was actually sitting
across from an empty chair because I was supposed to imagine
my father sitting there, and the counselors were saying, you know, “Your father has obviously damaged you. This has ruined your life,
it’s made you who you are, this sinful person.” They said, “The more that you can get out
about your anger towards your father, the better off you’ll be.” And I remember sitting there,
across from an empty chair, and that group watching me, and I remember thinking, like,
“I don’t hate my father! Like, he’s a really nice person!” And, yes, he made some mistakes, right?
But he was always there for me. Any time I had any problems,
he was always available to talk. And what they were telling me
just didn’t make sense. It was the very definition
of absurd to me at that moment. And so, as the counselors
were yelling at me, trying to provoke me to get angry, I just stood up, walked out
and walked out the door, and I called my mother
after they gave me my phone back. And I told her, “Just come here
right now, OK?” And then, she showed up, and the camp counselors came up
to the side of the window and said, “Your son is very rebellious. He’s going to have to stay
for at least another month, and probably another
three months after that, and probably a year after that. This is really bad.” And, you know, it turns out, later, I figured out that that’s sort
of how they worked things. They kept telling you, you know,
“You need more work. You need to stay for a month.
You need to stay for three months.” And it’s pretty expensive, actually. The two weeks that I was there,
it was $ 1,500. Yeah. So, when the counselor
was telling my mom that, she said, “What is your degree in?” I know this is the question she should
have asked a long time ago, right? But you have to understand
this was not in our mentality. At the time, we were in crisis mode. And she said, “What is your degree?” And he said, “Marriage counseling.” And my mom was like, “Why are you, a marriage counselor,
trying to tell my son how to be straight? This doesn’t make sense to me.” And something clicked in her as well. Suddenly, she realized that what
they were doing was totally insane. And so, when we got in the car, she drove us off, we were going
to think about what was going on, and she said one thing, which was,
“Are you going to kill yourself?” (Laughter) Direct, again. And I said yes, because – (Laughter) (Applause) because I thought, like, “That’s the answer that’s
going to get me out of here,” and also, I sort
of felt like it at the time. And so, she decided at that moment it was much better
to have a gay son than a dead one. (Laughter) And so, we went back,
and, you know, all of that happened and I can’t tell you every detail
of what occurred since then, because it’s very convoluted. However, I can tell you
that it was a total mess, right? You know, my mother and I talked it out. We eventually got on good terms
with one another. My father and I talked
a little bit about it, but it’s pretty buried
in the past for us. However, we exchange
poetry volumes regularly. Like, I give him poetry
and he gives me poetry, which I never thought would happen. And the “ex-gay” counselors
that tried to turn me straight, for ten years, I didn’t want
to think about them, I didn’t want to talk to them,
you know, I just hated them, and then, suddenly, I read all these
articles about this man, John Smith, who had run the whole thing, who was apologizing for what he’d done
and begging for forgiveness. And in that moment,
it tested the very foundation of what I consider to be compassion
because I was just like, “There’s no way I can forgive
this kind of person,” you know. And I don’t think I fully have,
but we are Facebook friends – (Laughter) And it only gets messier, but I feel like it’s within the mess that we understand the limitations
of our compassion. You know, without the mess, my mother would have never understood
how much she loved me; my father would have never
understood how he had to grow and how much I had to grow. And it’s within that mess
that we really saw sort of biblical compassion come about. And, you know, I want to kind of extend
that to a more general idea, which is that the world
seems really absurd frequently. Like, all you have to do is look
at the biggest headlines every day. It seems really absurd and sometimes
it’s difficult to even get out of bed, but, you know, if there is a God,
God made this mess, and we’ve got to figure out
how to make it better, you know. We’ve got to figure out how to keep
testing the limits of our compassion and keep developing that, because, you know, if there is a Heaven,
nobody cleans their rooms up there. And I just feel like that’s
where it is, that’s where the mess is. So, that’s all I’ve got for you today. But – oh, sorry. Inside this bag,
I have actually the handbook, the handbook for the camp. And because all of the slides were really
as convoluted as the ideas were, I just will show it to you if you want
to come by and look at it, and have a little laugh. So, does that sound good? OK, that’s it. (Applause) (Cheers) Thanks. Bye.

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