A couple of months ago, ABC’s 20/20 ran an investigative report on so-called conversion therapy, the discredited practice that attempts to ‘cure’ folks of their unwanted homosexuality through prayer, aversion techniques, and physical abuse. The ABC report was an important reminder that this insidious practice is still with us, despite a few legislative victories against it (six U.S. states now ban the practice for minors), and that LGBTQ teens are particularly vulnerable. 20/20 told the harrowing story of a young boy who was sent to a camp where ‘counselors’ attempted to “beat the gay” out of him.
Just last week Senate Democrats revived a failed attempt to ban conversion therapy nationwide, though opposition to the bill remains intense. Prominent Christian evangelist Franklin Graham (who spoke at President Trump’s inauguration) has attacked the Democratic bill, reminding us that homosexuality is “an abomination,” and that prayer is the only sure path to conversion.
As a gay man, I spend a good deal of my time being outraged by one thing or another: religious hypocrisy, political opportunism, the fact that Ru Paul isn’t president. But conversion therapy remains at the top of my outrage list. Its mere existence is an attack on our most vulnerable population, those queer teens who are told, in too many families, and in too many ways, that their truest desire is a sickness—that there’s something fundamentally broken about them.
Thinking about conversion therapy makes my blood boil.
So why did I decide to write a novel about it? A comic novel, no less?
Conversion therapy is evil, but it’s also ridiculous. And ridiculous is a sure route to funny—and maybe even to change.
Think about it: middle-aged men, many of them gay men trapped in denial, round up a bunch of queer youths and attempt to turn them into heterosexuals. They teach them how to walk like real men (the boys, not the girls—the girls already know how). They practice ‘non-sexual touch,’ which is kind of like a lap dance, but without the music, and with brighter lighting. They hold ‘accountability sessions,’ in which the kids are forced to confess, in throbbing detail, every sinful thought, every nocturnal emission.
Note to counselors: This isn’t therapy. It’s foreplay.
Of course, it’s not all laughs. There’s real pain here, real struggle, and my novel captures those things. I’ve worked hard not to minimize the cruelty that lies at the heart of the ex-gay movement.
The real challenge I faced in writing about conversion therapy was that, to get it right, I had to crawl deep inside it. I had to get inside the heads of people who were desperate to be ‘cured,’ and of the people who insisted they could cure them. I had to imagine what it would feel like to hate yourself—and others—that much.
And the sad thing? It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. After all, I was once a gay teen, growing up in role-model-free South Carolina in the seventies and eighties. Hating myself was pretty much a full-time job.
I channeled that knowledge, that energy, into Paul Drucker, the self-hating preacher who causes so much pain in my novel. Into Julian, the ‘escort’ whose encounter with Paul makes him feel—maybe for the first time—loved rather than merely paid. Into Aaron, Julian’s nerdy and besotted roommate. And into Walter, who. . .well, I’ll let you discover Walter for yourself. Let’s just say Julian is very proud of him.
Saving Julian offers an irreverent take on the lies, hypocrisies, and downright cruelty of those who think love is a thing to be cured. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I also hope you’ll remain vigilant about the real-life tragedy that lies behind it.
Saving Julian Blurb
Paul believes that homosexuality is an illness. But when he tries to cure himself, and others, he learns just how stubborn desire can be.
Paul Drucker has made a name for himself telling young gay men that he can cure them of their ‘sinful desires’. Trouble is, he’s all too familiar with those desires himself, which leads him to Julian Evans, a male ‘escort’ he finds online. Paul tells himself, and Julian, that he simply needs an assistant, someone to help him on an upcoming lecture tour. The reality, of course, is quite different, and when the media discovers them together, Paul tries to straighten up his image by starting an ex-gay group at his church.
Which is where Julian’s roommate, Aaron, comes in. Eager to expose the ex-gay movement for the sham that it is, Aaron goes undercover in Paul’s conversion group, posing as a gay man hoping to be ‘cured’. However, things get complicated, and more than a little strange, when Aaron meets the other members of the group—a motley assortment of queers struggling to reconcile their desires with their faith, and with their families. Will Paul’s techniques, which include group showers, lessons in manly walking, and something called ‘holding therapy’, lead to newly created heterosexuals? To tragedy? Maybe even to love?
About the Author
At the age of twelve, Mason Stokes thought he was a New York Jewish intellectual. Turns out he was just a gay southerner with a fondness for early-period Woody Allen. But since both options would have gotten him beaten up, he made other choices, devoting himself to quiet study, courtly manners, and non-threatening outfits.
This led naturally to an English major (the last refuge of scoundrels), where he found himself obsessed with Russian literature, an obsession he abandoned after failing, on repeated tries, to make it more than halfway through The Brothers Karamazov.
In college, his homosexuality was solidified by his experience playing drums in cover bands at frat parties, where he watched drunk boys whisper the chorus of ‘Feel Like Making Love’ into their girlfriends’ ears during slow dances. From this he never fully recovered.
Despite his failure with Dostoevsky, novels were the only things that made any sense to him, so he enrolled in a graduate program, where this sense was slowly beaten out of him. He enjoyed this experience, and hoped to inflict it on others, which he was finally able to do when he became an English professor.
Along the way he dated scores of men, to whom he sincerely apologizes.
Mason teaches at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Saving Julian is his first novel.