Shortly after we’d both turned 16, my best friend Dan called me crying one humid Indiana afternoon. After racing down gravel backroads in my mom’s Honda, I found Dan rambling in his yard about identity and shame. After 15 minutes of incoherence, I caught on.
“Honey, is that all?! I know that!” I may or may not have said, “We all know that!”
As of that moment, Dan was officially out. I promised to be his beard and/or a convenient excuse if he wanted to stay overnight in Indianapolis with boys he met online. What the hell else are misfit teenage friendships about?
In college, Dan flung open the glittery closet doors and very publicly co-organized the campus queer alliance. We lived together for several years, and after I split for grad school on the east coast, we had to come up with inventive reasons to get together. Scouting boys in a dingy Chicago bar wouldn’t excuse the effort of eight hours of travel.
So, because I’d grown up in an evangelical church and Dan was a recovering Catholic, it seemed natural that in the spring of 2006, I suggested playing a real-life game of religious Choose Your Own Adventure -- only, you know, we could just go back to our normal lives after some weekend shenanigans.
“Want to go to one of those ex-gay conversion conferences?” I asked one night on the phone. “Ooh, how fucked up! Yeah, sure!” Dan squealed. After a few minutes of Googling -- these things are easy to find if you’re looking -- I had a whole weekend lined up. “There’s one in the Midwest in April. We can meet halfway.” I flew. He drove his Champagne-colored Malibu while listening to Paul Oakenfold.
Dan and I weren’t exactly naïve. In high school, our long-haired, Marx-quoting, Rage Against the Machine-loving stoner friend was sent to some sort of deprogramming camp for druggies in Michigan. He came back nine months later with a short bowl cut, pressed chinos and a fondness for acoustic guitar he later documented with a MySpace account. Based on the evidence of our now painfully square friend’s terrifying transformation, we were vaguely concerned that conversion therapy might be (somewhat? temporarily?) effective.
It wasn’t our goal to turn Dan straight. But the concept struck us as funny. Like, he could tell his mom, “OK, I tried. Brittany even went with me.” Nearly a decade into Dan’s full-blown acceptance of his homo self, what better way to test it? At the very least, it would be a fun excuse to mess with people.
Despite the ease with which I found and signed up for the Love Won Out conference, we met in a St. Louis Holiday Inn on a Friday evening without any actual plans. So after jumping on the beds half the night in our underwear and making dance videos for the Internet (no, really), we headed over to the suburban evangelical church that housed the day’s worth of speakers and honored guests.
Big signs chastised: NO RECORDING ALLOWED. Thankfully, I had put my digital camera in the bottom of my purse in a tampon case. I waited patiently for men in blue Love Won Out polos to rifle through my bag, feminine hygiene products untouched. There were no patdowns, obvs.
“This is sort of scary,” Dan hissed, scanning the hallways for signs of allies. Everywhere we turned, there were dead-eyed men shuffling past, dispassionately holding hands with their girlfriends and wives. Wide-eyed and nervous, we looked anything but convertible. I furtively grabbed Dan’s hand, afraid we’d be spotted if we didn’t try to blend in, and dragged him into the first session.
As we walked into the sanctuary, we heard Melissa Fryrear, a self-proclaimed former “lumberjack lesbian” now in shiny pantyhose, chiding straight-seeking women that using a curling iron isn’t so hard. We thought her gender performative platitudes were amusing until she told the attentive audience that she’d never met a lesbian who hadn’t been sexually abused. How much of this was the digital recorder in my pocket picking up?
I stared at Dan, whose face was turning an angry shade of crimson, and he squeezed my hand so hard that I let out a tiny yelp. I scanned the room, terrified of the polo-wearing guys who roamed the aisles looking for muckrakers. I was suddenly petrified that the silk scarf around my neck might be a dead giveaway, too cosmopolitan for the suburban Missouri homo-reparative therapy crowd. But really, what would they even do if they figured us out? Tell us we’re going to hell? Duh.
There was nowhere to debrief after individual sessions, so we soldiered on, Dan closer to erupting every minute. In a small conference room, we listened to a middle-aged man extol the virtues of hetero life. “I get one hun’red percent of my sexual satisfaction from mah wiiife,” he drawled as the assembled crowd cheered.
In another meeting hall, Focus on the Family’s resident psychologist Bill Maier explained how living a sin-free life is a constant, painful struggling against your own nature. One man nodded violently as he got up and confessed that despite having two children with a woman, he had to fight his urges daily. Finally, Dan stood up, unable to take it. “That guy just admitted he’d rather be gay,” he practically shouted as he dragged me toward the nearest red EXIT sign. “I need some fucking fresh air!”
Breaking out through an unguarded side door, we found protesters with rainbow signs lining the asphalt parking lot entrance. “We come in peace, spies from the inside!” we shouted as we approached. We were mauled with consensual hugs and sincere inquiries about our mental health. “I have never experienced this kind of propaganda onslaught!” Dan cried, grabbing a sign that read “Reparative therapy = spiritual violence.”
Ours were not the psyches that needed protecting. “My parents dragged me here,” a pallid 16-year-old named Dylan told us, appearing visibly shaken. We’d seen others like him in various small group rooms, eyes to the floor as their parents took in every word, oblivious to the other effeminate teens in the room glancing sidelong at one another.
We told Dylan that Dan had come out around the same age, had some variation on an "It Gets Better" conversation, and he and Dan exchanged email addresses so they could share horror stories. He looked less pale after that. We all took turns holding an “Ex-Gay? No Way!” sign, holding hands with each other, and waving at supportive passersby who honked from their SUVs.
“The headliner is up next,” someone shouted across the crowd. I looked at Dan, who looked relieved to be out in the sunshine with newfound friends. But he caught my eye and nodded at me. “We need to hear the end,” he said. Then he grinned. “And don’t worry. Someday I’ll find a scary anti-feminist conference that I’ll make you attend as payback. Do misogynists have get-togethers?”
Back inside for one final round of deprogramming, Reverend Nancy Heche, seemingly best known for being the mother of Ellen Degeneres’ one-time partner Anne, sobbed through a story about how her closeted husband had cheated on her with men. She used the phrase “down-low” without cracking a smile, and I found myself almost feeling sorry for her. The whole day felt like an elaborate scam, but this woman was clearly in a lot of pain as she talked about how both her husband and daughter had become people to whom she couldn’t relate. But of course, I also wondered why her daughter’s sexual preferences are any of her damn business.
“She doesn’t have to lash out at the rest of us,” Dan muttered. We squeezed hands in an act of solidarity our pewmates might have mistaken for heteronormative love, but we were no longer pretending anything. We walked out one final time to find our protestor pals, satisfied that we had officially failed at converting Dan.
The only evidence of our undercover weekend were the Love Won Out mailers we both continued to receive for years. In fact, those obnoxious packets made us realize -- finally, in our late 20s -- what it must be like to fear what your neighbors think.