Queer Silence: Neuroqueer bodyminds, conversion therapy and survival
By: J. Logan Smilges
This is an edited extract from Queer Silence: On Disability and Rhetorical Absence by J. Logan Smilges, published by the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2022 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Used by permission.
Content warning: This extract discusses conversion therapy.
I’m sitting on an old couch.
It’s soft from wear, and the cushions give out beneath me. I feel smaller and skinnier than I already am.
The room is warm and intentionally so. A heater buzzes in the corner. A fern wilts sadly beneath a lamp. There’s a bookcase with one shelf full of books and three shelves filled with baseballs, each encased in glass. Across from me is a portable whiteboard, the kind with wheels that football coaches use to diagram plays in movies.
My therapist sits beside it. He has one knee draped over the other, a clipboard in his lap, and a pen tapping against his thigh.
Book cover artwork by: Hayden Stern (with cover design by Amanda Weiss), courtesy of University of Minnesota Press
This is my third session with Joe, but he’s not really my therapist. Or, rather, he’s not a therapist, really.
Joe is a conversion therapist hired by my parents to make their child less gay. Preferably straight, otherwise committed to celibacy.
The first session had been a diagnostic meeting. I remember spending the last thirty minutes alone in the waiting room while Joe discussed my prognosis with my parents. We all left in good spirits.
The second session was just between Joe and me, but it was largely a continuation of the first, albeit with more graphic questions. “How often do you lust over men, John? And how often do these lustful fantasies lead to masturbation? Approximately how many of your homoerotic masturbatory sessions lead to orgasm?”
I answered each question in earnest. I was in fact quite committed to getting better, straighter.
This third session is supposed to be when the therapy starts. I sit in the sunken couch, and Joe stares at me.
I’m crying, which is predictable. I’m a sad, anxious, feminine boy with undiagnosed complex post– traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and autism; we are a species who cry.
At sixteen, I am scared and ashamed. Kids at school call me “fag”; Joe says it’s same-sex attraction. The former bites worse than the latter.
“Same-sex attraction is reversible,” Joe tells me, and I believe him. “If you want to be good, if you want to follow God’s law, if you really want it, you can change.”
But I continue to cry because even though I want to be good, even though I want to change, I’m not good enough, and I’m not changing at all.
Earlier just that day, I lusted over the boy next to me in Algebra II. At least, I think I lusted. I’m not really sure. I didn’t have a masturbatory session, so does it still count as lust? Probably. Still crying. Joe pats my knee and then stands to use the whiteboard. He writes DAD and JOHN in bold letters.
“Do you love your dad?” he asks me.
“Well, yeah, of course,” I respond, sniffling.
“Do you want to be like him when you get older?”
I don’t answer right away. My dad is mean, violent. A bully.
“Maybe, like, some parts of him.”
“Why only some parts?”
“I don’t know.”
“Your dad is a man, isn’t he?” Joe frowns.
“Yeah.” I nod.
“And you want to be a man, don’t you?” I nod again, even though now that I’m thinking about it, I’m unsure.
Something about Joe’s insinuation that I am not yet a man makes me excited, and I feel guilty immediately.
“So if you want to be a man, why wouldn’t you want to be like your dad?”
“I dunno. We’re just different, that’s all.”
“And isn’t that difference why you’re here?”
I say nothing.
“Look, John.” Joe sits back down. “You’re struggling right now because you’re confused about who you are. You’re a man in the making. You hear me? You’re going to be a man someday. Once you believe that, the rest of this stuff”—he opens his arms widely, gesturing to the extent of my homoerotic affliction—“will figure itself out.
“If you spend all your time worrying about how you feel and who you want, you will never be happy. You will be alone, just wandering through life. The gay lifestyle is like that, John. It is lonely and sick. It’s full of men who don’t know who they are, men who never had anyone tell them, ‘You’re a man! Start acting like one!’”
Joe leans forward and puts his hand on my knee. My pulse quickens, and my groin aches.
“Who are you, John?” I don’t know what to say.
I didn’t feel any of the things I was supposed to feel. I didn’t like girls. The thought of being a man unnerved me. I couldn’t even imagine having sex with a girl as a man.
I place my hand lightly on top of Joe’s, thinking it’s what he wanted. I tremble. Joe stands and pushes me back against the couch, leaving a finger in the center of my chest.
“Who are you?” His finger presses harder into me.
“I don’t know.” And I don’t. I cross my knees to cover the tent growing through my shorts.
Joe grabs both my shoulders. “You’re a man, John. Say it.”
“I’m a man.”
“You’re a man.”
“I’m a man.”
“You’re a man.”
The day on which this scene occurred, some afternoon in June 2010, was the day I like to believe that I started writing this book.
Following that session with Joe, I continued in conversion therapy for another eighteen months and wouldn’t come out as gay or trans for another four and five years, respectively.
I wouldn’t receive any of my diagnoses for another six years (not that diagnoses are necessary for a disability identity). And I wouldn’t physically write the first sentence of this project for another ten years.
But I like to believe I started writing that day when I was sixteen because it was then, in a humid room on a shabby couch, that I realized the power of silence.
It was then that I learned that absence could be generative, that what remains undone, unseen, unheard, and untouched could be not only transformative but world-building.
And more than that, I learned that my trans, (neuro)queer bodymind held the capacity to wield these world-building absences strategically, in ways that helped me to survive in spite of the conditions of my childhood, which were bent on moralizing and subsequently pathologizing how I moved, spoke, longed, lusted, and loved.
As I argue here and throughout the following pages, what occurred that afternoon was not merely Joe’s attempt to police me into a docile state of ashamed submission but also my resistance to his attempt, a resistance born and bred by a queer silence.
While silence is often linked to voicelessness, complicity, and even death in queer culture, Queer Silence insists that silence can be a generative and empowering mode of survival. Triangulating insights from queer studies, disability studies, and rhetorical studies, J. Logan Smilges explores what silence can mean for people whose bodyminds signify more powerfully than their words.
J. Logan Smilges is assistant professor in the Department of Language, Culture, and Gender Studies at Texas Woman’s University.
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