A Letter To My Mother About Gay Conversion Therapy


Dear Mother,

I got a message from Gary last evening on Facebook saying “Tom, I need to talk to you.” Do you remember Gary from Mount Eden Center? We used to hang out a lot in elementary school and then he and his family moved away to New Hampshire and we sort of lost contact. I messaged him back, asked how he and the Doll’s were doing and if everything was okay. “Not really,” he responded, “I came out to them a few days ago and they were so angry that they don’t want me to meet with any of my friends. Needless to say, they took away my cell phone and won’t let me do anything before I talk to a therapist. They’re like…this is just a phase Gary. Don’t be silly. Talk to the therapist and things will be fine. But I know myself, and this is not a phase, Tom. I just wanted to reach out to you because I learned from Facebook that you have a boy friend and was wondering if you have any words of advice.” I told him what I had to say, and he said it comforted him. It made me happy.

The conversation got me thinking about sixth grade when you came up to me one day and said, “I learned from Mrs Ringer today that Johnny is a fairy. Fairies can sometimes do bad things. You shouldn’t mix with him too much from now on, okay?” “Okay,” I said, not knowing what I was agreeing to or what bad things fairies can do. A year later, on a Tuesday evening, while you were drinking cognac with Aunt Marla, I overheard her say, “You’ve got to be careful about him, dear. I saw him on the roof from my window the other day. And he was wearing his sister’s velvet frock and clapping. You don’t want him to be one of those now, do you?”

I ran away from home that night, and cried under the stars, and stayed at A. Weissman’s place till sunrise. And when I turned 16, you asked me that afternoon, “Any good girls in school, baby? I told Marla yesterday that you’re all ready to date the prettiest of them all.”

That remark set off some kind of a compressed spring in my system. Even though I had never dated women in the past, I thought that I could ease into it. I imagined every other man doing it, so why couldn’t I? Perhaps, if I truly loved and valued someone, I could just as easily be in a happy, committed relationship with that person, irrespective of gender. And if I got more emotionally invested, and the relationship became more serious, one day I would realize that loving boys was, perhaps, a short-lived whim, a tiny speckle of my imagination like a go-to cushion of satisfaction because I didn’t know any better or otherwise.

And then I met someone unexpectedly on a Saturday evening at a diner in the suburbs of New Haven. She was with a boy, I remember; perhaps a cousin or a negligent lover, with dark drooping eyes and pompadour haircut. And I was with you and Irene Goodman, cater-cornered from her, drinking lemon tea and eating raspberry scones. While waiting in line to use the restroom, she and I randomly started chatting about fiction books. It was Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge for me and Claude Simon’s The Acacia for her. The conversation lasted about a minute and a half before we heard someone flush the toilet followed by a grating whoosh of the hand dryer. As I peered into her cornflower blue eyes, moistened by periodic blinking, she said, “Wanna hang out sometime?” “That’d be cool,” I said, warily. “Well, here’s my number,” she added, as she pulled out an olive-inked felt pen and a small piece of recycled paper from her magenta twill pant pockets and scribbled it down. “Text me whenever you want to,” she said and went inside the restroom. While walking out she smiled awkwardly, lifted her right hand as if to wave at the wall and said in a hushed, muffled voice, “Have a wonderful night.”

We reconnected, a few days later. I texted her saying, “Hi Liana, this is Tom. We met at Barry’s in Maltby Lakes. You asked me to text you, remember? How’s it going?” She replied within a few hours saying, “Hi Tom. Have been waiting for your text all this while. Things are going well. How’ve you been?” And that is how the slew of text communication began. The idea was simple, I told myself: Try your utmost to focus on her and don’t think about boys. If your mind does, however, start to wander away, rewind your thoughts like bits of plastic tape spinning around spools of old audio cassettes and reset your focus. Tell yourself that you can do this and keep moving forward.

For the next few weeks, bleeps and buzzes and short acoustic rings from my cellular phone suctioned me up to the rim of excitement. My phone would beep in the middle of art lectures, at the end of synthetic chemistry lab courses, and infrequently, in the beginning of ballet lessons and I would reply to each text carefully within a few minutes. By the end of third week, terms of endearment sprouted up. “Good morning babe” she would say; or “Have a wonderful day, honeybear.” And on our fourth week of cellular courting, she wrote, “Babe, I’ve been thinking about running away to Santa Monica with you. I’m miserable here without the ocean.”

The novelty of the possibility of dating a girl, and the possibility of reinstating, what society calls, a normal and natural attraction adequately seasoned the enthusiasm in my responses back to her. Under the circumstances, I got the attention I needed, started to somehow feel a strong emotional connection, sensed a mutual romantic interest, and felt a genuine element of happiness while interacting with her. Text messages began to interweave emotions and expectations and myriad responsibilities shortly, leaving me suffused with boluses of endorphins. I felt like I was living in a glass cage in a mystical state of quasi-euphoria –in that same over-the-top ecstasy that consumes a runner towards the last few miles of a marathon or while slicing through layers of crisp, tangerine air on the backseat of a roller coaster. The emotions that developed were real and raw, but I didn’t know what they were. Was it love? I asked myself. Was it just a playful obsession? Or perhaps, a childish crush? Whatever it was, it felt authentic and undiluted in its strength to a point where I second-guessed loving boys for the first time in my life. It felt liberating to think that I could be like the other guys in school who affectionately talked about girlfriend responsibilities, and more importantly that I could bring her home to a family event without you and Daddy feeling uncomfortable, embarrassed or being shamed by other people.

I sometimes wish that you had met her. You would’ve loved her like your own daughter, given how similar your tastes and interests are. At other times, however, I am glad that the meeting never happened, because when she would eventually find out about my being gay, you would, understandably, chide me for toying with her emotions, and tell me that I should’ve known myself better and made up my mind about identity preferences. In your world, everything is black or white, but it isn’t so in mine. I still think about her, though. Her welfare, her happiness, her career goals of rural obstetrics. Her russet curls and refined smiles, as delicate and light as large soap bubbles. Her adventurous eyes, like rings of topaz, infused with gelatin and an origami of tender muscles, and the tattoo on her breast in ancient calligraphy that read Liberate The Rebel. She loved volleyball, white wine and garlands of seashells, but most of all she loved Nature as a priest and a father. Her mother, she said, was Marilyn Monroe. And the guest list on her fridge magnet read Georgia O’Keeffe, Sally Bowles, and Indira Gandhi.

The night we became a couple was a humid, September Wednesday when pellets of mist were foaming in the air. We were at the Turtle Pond in Central Park, staring at the Grunwald monument, talking intermittently about Nixon and Bill Clinton, and the injustices of racial profiling when she said, “Can I ask you a question, T?” “Sure, go ahead. What’s up?” I replied, seventy eight percent certain what the question was going to be. “We’ve been chatting for about six weeks now, and I like you a lot, and I think you like me too. So, I was wondering…do you want to be in an exclusive relationship with me?” I said yes. Flatly –without feeling any emotion. I don’t know why I didn’t feel any emotion that very instant, because via text, the connection seemed strong. It came out involuntarily, like a knee jerk response at the crux of the situation, which of course made her giggle and chuckle and cry with happiness. As for me, I became breathless with apprehension, nervousness, and a battery of misgivings; it felt like I was drowning at the intersection of lies and deceit. But I folded myself back together, drew a deep breath, and engaged in a full-bodied hug, feeling her breasts squash against my chest. And then she rested her head on the bony groove of my right shoulder and caressed my neck in gentle swirls, as tips of my body hair bristled underneath the weight of her fuchsia painted nails. A minute later, as my lips lay quivering like a lightning-struck tuning fork, she kissed me –warm, and deep, and tangibly heavy as I pulled my tongue back in the shape of a c, touching the flesh of my burnt upper palate. I felt strips of her tongue push through gaps of my teeth, beads of spittle leaping onto the floor of my mouth. And we sat still for a few long seconds -transfixed with emotions and odors of nervousness, before we resumed staring at the monument, discussing politics, and the injustices of racial profiling. Her nipples were hard and visibly aroused, popping like buttons through her peach-colored blouse, but for me, there was only a feeling of fearful empty hollowness -not a single trace of an erection.

You probably wonder why, then, did I say Yes when I knew it wasn’t going to work, perhaps raising your expectations of my having a normal life? Why did I say Yes when I knew I had feelings for boys and ultimately wouldn’t be interested? I wish I had a simple answer to that, but I don’t. Emotions are complicated, and I couldn’t parse out a crush from love; an obsession from real, grounded sentimentality. More importantly, I just couldn’t bring myself to say No on her face, which was so perfectly lit up with a soft romance when she asked me the question. I’ve always had trouble saying No to things I knew would make someone infinitely happy. And the proposition of a relationship was no exception for me. Did I do the right thing, in retrospect? Absolutely not, and there are no legitimate excuses to prove otherwise. But I tell myself, people often say “You never know unless you try.” So I tried, half-expecting the outcome. But I tried nonetheless.

Few days into our relationship, the reality of a serious commitment severely jolted me into a state of fear. There were expectations, and obligations, and timetables were created. And e-cards, wake-up messages, and voicemails of missing me and loving me gripped me full-throttle. I became hesitant and second-guessed myself every minute of every day. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to say Liana, this isn’t working. I couldn’t bring myself to rupture her heart with splinters of my identity confusions when trust and affection were beginning to build. I couldn’t look into her eyes and tell her that I had to leave; that she should find another man, that she should be freed. However, my self-loathing and bitterness never went away. I wore costumes and masks of the affable phantom; rehearsing my lines and readying my acts as reluctance gave way to miscommunications which eventually tipped the relationship along a downward spiral. Life became a gimmick –a constant game of hide-and-seek with charades, facades and situational alibis. The hardest of all was during the holidays, when we drove back to her parent’s home in the belly of the woods, and sat on the patio overlooking the lake, and talked about how happy and fortunate their daughter was to have found me. “It’s nothing short of a miracle!” her mother said, “I knew God would answer my prayers.” Despite my refusal of sex, my discomfort with public display of affection and despite the rockiness of my emotions, she loved me  and thinking about all the sacrifices she made over the year makes me choke up. In my defense, however, I tried as hard as I could to be in love with a woman and to have a heterosexual relationship. What didn’t occur naturally, I doctored it up –paying attention to Hollywood, texts from favorite novels and even conversations with chums. But there was no love in the empty vessel that was me, only friendliness and wan obsession. And on a Friday night, one year from the Turtle Pond, while going through pictures of Sister’s engagement party on my phone together, a text notification popped up on top of the screen. The 917 number was saved to my address book as Jackson S. It said, “Last night was hot, man. I want you to fuck me again. As hard as you can. Free tomorrow by any chance? I’ll be home by 7.” She looked up, let go of my phone, and said, “I knew it, Tom. I knew it.”

I tried three more times, thinking that the first relationship probably didn’t work out because she wasn’t the right person for me, but all of them ended badly. One found me stumbling out of a gay sex club in Fort Lauderdale at 1 am on a Tuesday, drunk out of my mind in a leather jockstrap, when I was supposed to have been sleeping at Aunt Lori’s condominium after helping her move. In the morning when she said, “I love you” and I said “I love you too” she became the color of a ripe strawberry and yelled “Get the fuck out of my life, you fucking faggot liar.” The second, while attempting to check her email on my computer, found innumerable bookmarked links to gay pornographic sites. She sought refuge in an asylum nearby shortly after, suffering from chronic depression from being with a fourth guy who happened to be gay. And the third one, after soulful thinking and a few weeks of mindful meditation, came out to me as a femme lesbian. In that circumstance, we were both relieved. It was a win-win situation. Love for boys is not a choice or an addiction, it is the normal for people like me. It is the instinctive natural. Boys are what raise eyebrows, make the heart flutter, and cause erections. It is not an alternative, or a cop-out mechanism that Benny and his wife drilled into your brain, to make you believe that mine was the easier way of life. Being gay is hard; exhausting, tiring and emotionally taxing. But what I want you to realize is that sexuality, for me and for many people like me, is not an open tab. It is not a flexible on-off switch as they make you believe in your neighborhood of cultists. It is not “doing whatever makes me happy”; rather, it is the platform of emerging happiness.

Many people out there continue to believe that the minority status that paints my identity can be fixed by the callings of Jesus, and the Krishna and a handful of either deities. Success stories of “gay conversions” spread like wildfire in the religious circles that lend credibility to the family spheres, providing hope that perhaps the right camp, the right proselyte can make the miracle transformation. As for me, I have tried your normal, I have tried heterosexuality, I have tried from the bottom of my soul to love women and have a wife, but the mechanics of us gay men don’t necessarily work that way. And I write to you, to say, that because of the false hopefulness that organizations promise, that religious leaders vow to create, hundreds and thousands of little boys and mature adults are wriggling and squirming under the burden of handicap; with fractured identities and unhappiness.

In the past few years, several advances have been made, at least on paper, for gay men and women in my neck of the world. Social liberation, they call it. Or perhaps, emancipation of another minority class.  To truly liberate a class, there needs to be an attitudinal shift; revocation of prejudice, termination of targeted biases and re-morphing of the existing image. We are only at a point where ripples are being generated on the skin of the social curtain. It takes time, they all say. Give it a generation. But the burden of identity discrimination even through the span of a generation can take its toll on innumerable queers as we are guarded within a cage of apparent cowardice, defectives and other personality follies. Why not think of an attitudinal shift as a sort of community service? A service that can help battle scars of self-loathing, thoughts of suicide and covert misery. That can prevent closeted husbands from renting hotel rooms and fucking boys and juggling sexual diseases between the barometer of the “straight-acting life” and true identity undertakings. Coming out, as I have realized, is contagious in the sense that it provides support to people on the edge. It provides validation to countless men and women living in a nebulous cloud, not knowing what life is like when the ball is dropped.

I overheard a professor’s husband say the other day, “Those queens just want too much attention. They’re obnoxious in general, and now they’ve started completely stream-rolling over everyone’s civil and religious liberties.” This is what breaks humanity into little pieces -that present attitudinal stronghold of bitterness and resentment against a supposed “lifestyle choice.” People often say, forget about the petty differences and look at the bigger picture and be united for more important causes. But it is hard, when you are made to feel like an outsider, pushed aside and isolated and made to live like an island beside the mainland, and asked to make the extra effort to meld into the mainstream. Acceptance, I realize, is easier said than done. In my rally to advocate for people of my kind, I sincerely wish that the lubrication of social upheaval begins at home, sooner rather than later, and eventually spreads from node to node of community and state lines to remolding of nations and continents alike. And yes, Johnny may be a fairy, and his kids may never have anyone to call Mother, but they will be loved, in their own little ways, with their own little dolls and fairies. 

Hope you are well.



featured image – Guillaume Paumier