Two Mississippi writers are working to bring a story about conversion therapy to the main stage.
The play, “Sons of Levi,” is based on the book “How to Survive A Summer” by Nicholas White. Born and raised in Attala County, Mississippi, White is an English professor at Ohio State University. His book is fictional but influenced by his own experiences growing up as a gay kid in a Mississippi Southern Baptist church.
This year, Canada and France passed national bans on conversion therapy. Last year, England announced that that nation would ban the practice, although the nation excluded transgender people, which has led to protests. The United States has not considered such a ban at the federal level. Several states, most of them with Democratic governors or legislatures, prohibit conversion for minors. The practice continues largely unabated in the South, where conservative Republicans and evangelicals control the levers of government.
Conversion therapy is grounded in the idea that being LGBTQ is abnormal and a sign of a mental health disorder. It’s typically practiced by mental health professionals, clergy or spiritual advisers.
Mississippi-born Memphis resident Randy Redd decided to turn White’s book into a play after picking up a copy at a local bookstore. White’s contemporary storytelling style and the topic of the book, conversion therapy, was the perfect story to put on the stage, Redd said.
“I have a stack of books over here about the sweet and sticky Mississippi summers, but Nick’s work feels so contemporary and … fresh,” Redd said.
White’s novel tells the story of a fictional Mississippi man wrestling with his experiences at a conversion camp in Mississippi. The book weaves between the fictional character, Will Dillard’s, past experiences at a conversion camp and his current-day processing of how the experience affected him.
White’s novel is about a gay man wrestling with his experience growing up as a Baptist preacher’s son and his experiences at a conversion therapy camp in Mississippi. While the story is fictional, it echos many of White’s (and many other Southerners raised in evangelical households)
Some portions of the book are influenced by White’s own experience of growing up in a Baptist church in Mississippi.
While Redd said he personally never went to conversion therapy, he relates to growing up Baptist in Mississippi. He said his church often brought up what he calls “clobber verses” — Bible passages on which many Christians base their belief that homosexuality is a sin. This idea of LGBTQ+ people’s sinfulness is used to legitimize harmful conversion therapy practices.
“A lot of the men that I’ve talked to who have had this experience, they want it to work, because they think they’re broken. They think there’s something wrong with them, and they go to this looking to fix themselves and fix their lives. They want to get right with their families and get right with their churches,” Redd said.
However, conversion therapy has been found to be largely ineffective. The people who aren’t helped by the therapy are often left wrestling with even more shame about their sexuality.
White, who did not come out until he was an adult, said he would have gone to conversion therapy had he been outed when he was younger.
“You’re looking at a former president of the Baptist Student Union. I was in deep, honey,” White said.
“I would have gone on my own. My parents wouldn’t have had to have forced me. I would have insisted on recovering from this. That was really hard for me to reckon with that in myself, and to think about the ways in which I, as a person, have so much internalized homophobia that I continually have to unpack.”
From the page to the stage
After the pandemic put the play’s original timeline on hold, this summer Redd will put on a live reading of the play, complete with a live audience at Jackson’s New Stage Theater as part of the Eudora Welty New Play and Mississippi Writers series. This workshop is sponsored by The LGBTQ Fund of Mississippi and the Community Foundation of Mississippi
Much has been said about efforts to change young people’s sexuality. These practices, largely referred to as “conversion therapy” have been denounced by every major medical group, and the Supreme Court has upheld bans on the practice.
Putting a conversion therapy story on stage has the potential to reach new audiences in new ways, Redd said.
“That old South mindset that everybody knows—we know we should tell this story, but we’re gonna get a lot of pushback. We have to tell the story. We have to move on,” Redd said.
But, why put on this play in Jackson, Mississippi? For Redd, it’s a simple answer. This Mississippi story needs to be told in Mississippi first.
While Redd is excited about the heavy interest in the play, he has a hunch it will make waves in Jackson.
“I knew it was a story that I wanted to tell in Mississippi first. I wanted it to shake things up a bit,” Redd said. “So far, everybody immediately connected to the play, and then the audiences that have seen it so far, are very supportive, and know that it’s a story that we should be telling.”
One way LGBTQ people and allies can help to end conversion therapy is through telling their stories, said Rob Hill, director of the Mississippi chapter of the Human Rights Coalition.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘What can I do? I’m an ally.’ To that I say, tell your story. Speak to the person, whether it’s in the grocery store, at work or the person in the office cubicle next to you or on the Zoom call,” Hill said.
“Let your colleagues know, your friends know that you love everybody. Let them know LGBTQ people should be accepted like everybody else. That’s the kind of advocacy that changes lives even just at a grassroots level.”