Gay Conversion Therapy Novel Explores Controversial Practice

"I think it's something you can never truly leave behind," says Nick White, author of "How to Survive a Summer"

Nick White's 'How to Survive a Summer' is about a young man who spent a summer at an ex-gay ministry conversion camp. Credit: Zefrog/Alamy

In 2013, Nick White worried the novel he'd started working on about one young man's time in conversion therapy – a controversial theory and practice based on the idea you can change a person's sexual orientation – and how echoes of that experience follow him into adulthood, would seem exaggerated, too violent, too hyperbolically nightmare-ish. It felt like things were getting better; America seemed to be moving forward, surging up toward some greater equality. In the summer of 2015, gay marriage passed for all 50 states, and when proposals for discriminatory laws came up, they routinely got knocked back down to nothing. "I look back on when I wrote the book," White says, "and it's not that these problems didn't exist before the election, but rather it's like I was seeing the world through rose-colored glasses back then. I thought at the time that readers are might think, 'oh this is a problem we've moved beyond, this isn't really relevant anymore.' And then the election happened. And now you hear about conversion therapy every time the Vice President is in the news."

How To Survive a Summer, White's debut novel, follows a young gay man named Will who has left his Mississippi Delta roots behind and is working in academia. Will is out but not entirely comfortable with it, and still treats his evangelical upbringing as a secret in his new, supposedly liberated life. When a trailer for a slasher movie calls up memories of the summer he spent at an ex-gay ministry conversion camp, he is jolted back to the things he has been trying repress, unable to escape through avoidance. This struggle sends him on a journey back toward his own origin, in which he ultimately attempts to make peace with these formative experiences, returning home to confront the community in which he was raised.

Camps like the one Will attends in the book, as well as ongoing religious practices that treat homosexuality as a sin to be cleansed from the sinner, are more common than most people realized until recently. These practices are intended to turn young men and women who demonstrate or are seen to demonstrate homosexual tendencies straight, bringing them back to the Lord. While many Christian communities have been made great strides in becoming more accepting and welcoming to people of all kinds, the practice still thrives in certain sectors of the Christian community.

Due to the current administration and Vice President Mike Pence's alleged support of the practice in particular, many more people know about conversion therapy now. It's come in some ways to represent the repressive, backward views that seem lately to be gaining hold. White's book looks squarely at these movements and these communities ruled by ignorance and fear, and approaches them with a level of nuance often missing from work by writers or pundits who either have never lived in such communities, or who escaped them at the first chance they were given. Yet what makes White's novel feel so urgent and so fresh, is the startling compassion he evinces for the place on which it centers, the effort that is made to give breadth and humanity to a part of the world both he and his book’s narrator are from, and by which both of them were unavoidably shaped.

Like his protagonist, White grew up in an evangelical community in the Mississippi Delta, and struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. He didn't admit to himself that he was gay until well into adulthood, after he had left Mississippi and his community to pursue an academic career, first in Ohio and then in Nebraska. He talks about his effort to make his identity cohere with his connection to where he is from, and how he has tried to negotiate a bridge between self-acceptance and compassionate understanding of his family and childhood.

But the book is not a work of autobiography. Rather, he describes his novel as "an alternative history for myself. It was a way of thinking about what my life would have been like had I been outed or come out at an an early age. Something it took me a long time to grapple with was that if I had been outed at that age, or if I had confessed some of my feelings to my parents, the reaction would have been 'ok this is a problem, let's see about fixing it,' and my reaction would have been, 'yes! I'm down, let's do this!' That's so scary to me, and also heartbreaking. In the book, [protagonist] Will, wants to go to conversion therapy, he is just as much in support of that choice. I wanted to show how often that's the case because I think people don’t realize that."

But he also stresses the difference between himself and his narrator, and that the book is a work of fiction in the tradition of coming of age novels, LGBTQ literature and literature of the South. "It started from a place of autobiography," he explains, "but then when I started writing the characters had a life and history totally different from mine and Will became this very different person." White's parents are still alive, and he's still deeply connected to the part of the South in which he was raised, a community that he says has been surprisingly accepting of his identity and choices.

White left Mississippi for graduate school, first attending Ohio State, where he received his MFA, and where he first came out and found a supportive queer community. He then attended the University of Nebraska, where he received a PhD in English and Creative Writing, and in which program of study he began the project that would become this novel. "I've always really loved school," he explains, talking how his development as a writer and his journey to accept his sexuality were in many ways one and the same. "It's always been an escape for me. As a closeted person the notion of the life of the mind appealed to me because it allowed me to just be a mind and not think about my body. I’m always braver on the page than I am in real life, so I started exploring queer possibilities and then as I was able to find my voice as a writer, I was able to find my voice as a gay person."

White cites queer literary influences such as John Rechy, Garth Greenwell and Garrard Conley, as well as Southern literary influences including Eudora Welty. "There's such a rich tradition in gay literature and in Southern literature once you start reading that, you start to see what stories have been told and what stories you want to tell in response to those stories." Another tradition into which his book clearly fits, is that How to Survive a Summer is a novel about returning home, rather than leaving it behind, a novel that moves inward to reiteration rather than outward to escape. "Being a queer person from Mississippi not only informs my love of pickled eggs and Juice Newton, but it also affects the kinds of stories I want to write," White says, explaining that he wrote a "a return and a reconciliation novel. There’s this trope in literature, where if you’re from a small town or a rural area, you need to leave or if you don’t leave you run the risk of your life being a an object of pity or the butt of a joke. I want to resist both these things in my work - I find it really exciting to see how queerness manifests itself in spaces where you don’t traditionally think of it as existing."

 By making the choice to send his protagonist back to the community that raised him, White hopes to raise awareness of the LGBTQ lives, narratives and communities in places like the one where he grew up, in the parts of country outside of liberal coastal bubbles. "People say things like, 'Oh you're from Mississippi, I bet you're glad you got out of there.' And I think, 'you know, there are a lot of people who are hurting in Mississippi. There are people who are just trying to live their lives. The idea that, if you’re queer you're supposed to leave assumes so much privilege. I was lucky to be given opportunities through academia, but a lot of my queer friends in Mississippi just want to live day-to-day lives and go to their jobs and be respected."

In researching his novel, White dove deep into a disturbing world. Despite the greater nuance and acceptance he has found in the South, and which he hopes to portray in his work, he acknowledges that "Mississippi is still a very repressive place," and that his research uncovered a part of reality where the depths keep getting deeper as one examines it further. Mentioning an organization called Freed Hearts, which helps teach parents of LGBTQ youth how to talk to and support their children, White says he learned that "for every conversion camp or ex-gay ministry we uncover, there are maybe twenty we don’t know about." He heard stories of alleged abuse with cattle prods, isolation and beatings.

At the same time, he wanted to understand the kind of fear and ignorance that drives these beliefs, to confront it head-on. "I wanted to get into the head of what a minister who would head up one of these is thinking, so I did a lot of searching out and reading sermons on it." The sermons were what brought him to the historical threads that run through the book. In ex-gay ministries, there's a prevalent idea that your sin is not yours alone, but rather that these homosexual urges are the accumulation of your family's sin, manifested through you. "That’s why there's so much history in the book," explains White, "because [Will] is trying to look at his history and see how his desires have manifested as this abominable flowering of sin." This approach to religion is rigorous and unforgiving, and here White brings his own religious upbringing to bear on the story he tells. "In an evangelical household, what was always taught to us that when you're asking God for forgiveness - just like when you're writing an essay or a story - you need to be specific. It's not good enough to say "I had lust in my heart." You have to say 'I lusted after x y and z, in w x and y ways.'"

How to Survive a Summer is an exploration of how deeply this kind of upbringing influences a person even into adulthood, and how difficult it is to ever fully break free of these influences, even when living beyond them. Returning home to confront these influences is necessary in the novel because one never truly escapes them, no matter how much distance one covers. The effects still linger. The impulse White recognized in himself as adolescent that would have caused him to volunteer for conversion therapy and his fight against the internalized homophobia that that represents are in many ways the driving forces of the book's narrative. The struggle against these impulses is a daily one. "I still have flare-ups," White admits, "and I think it’s something you can never truly leave behind. That's why things like gay pride are so important. I think a lot of us in the community need a constant reminder, even if it's something as simple as a nice yearly parade, to tell us "no, here's nothing wrong with you, in fact being gay is a gift and worth celebrating."