Surviving The South—And Summer Camp

Nick White explores gay conversion camp in his debut novel, "How to Survive a Summer."

Nick White’s debut novel, How to Survive a Summer ($26, Blue Rider Press) is so steeped in the flavor of Mississippi that you’ll assume it’s a memoir. But considering its painful episodes in a gay conversion camp, you’ll be glad to know you’re at least half wrong.

“I wanted to write an alternative history for myself, like what would have happened had I been outed or come out as a teenager,” says White from his office at Ohio State University, where he’s an assistant professor of English. These days White, 32, is a happily gay grownup, enjoying a serious relationship, and gunning for his place in the queer literary canon. But that’s not how it was when he was 12 years old, giving his life to Jesus back in Possum Neck, Mississippi. For a queer Southern reader who grew up in church, How to Survive rings true. It’s the delayed coming-of-age story of a religious young boy who couldn’t pray away the gay.

Will “Rooster” Dillard is a young gay academic who’s been repressing his memories of a long-ago Mississippi summer at a backwoods gay conversion camp. When a gay slasher movie hits theaters and becomes a queer cause celebre, Will realizes it’s based on his own ordeal. It’s his personal cue to go home and face his demons head on.

Those demons are exuberantly drawn: Mother Maude is a Tammy Faye Bakker–style evangelist, out to save young gay souls and their bodies be damned. Her husband, Father Drake, is the father figure—or should we say “daddy”? But some of Will’s demons are loving too: his preacher father, whose disappointment was harder to bear than condemnation; and his mother, who knew enough to let him try on her tiara.

Meanwhile, back in Will’s adult life on campus, a certain trans guy named Zeus might just turn out to be the true love Will never expected to find.

Honey, I love your book.

Oh thank you so much. You’re from the South!

What was the conversion experience you went through?

I wrote the book as an alternative history for myself, like what would have happened had I been outed or come out as a teenager. I grew up in the Baptist Church, and I knew that such therapies existed. When I reached a certain age—I think I was 12 or 13—I went to the youth group and was given a book. I think it was called Every Young Man’s Battle. It was this treatise on the dangers of masturbation and pornography. And in the back there was a short little chapter about same-sex attraction and possible reasons for it—like you’d have an overbearing mother or you don’t really have a good father influence, that sort of thing. I was in such denial when I was younger that I didn’t come out until my 20s. Being in denial saved me from experiencing [the conversion camp experience]. The type of true believer that I was back then, if I had been outed in some way, or if I’d had a conversation with my parents about this, or a preacher, I would have insisted that they send me to one of these conversion camps. I would have gladly broken myself in a thousand different ways to be what they wanted me to be. That was the inspiration for the book, in trying to understand the person I was and the place I grew up in, and trying to do it too without judgment.

Your dad wasn’t an actual pastor.

He was a song leader.

It’s well known that song leaders have gay children.

[Laughs] He was a song leader, and I was very active in the church. My summers were filled with vacation bible school and youth group retreats and short overnight mission trips to heathen cities like Memphis and New Orleans. I was baptized when I was 12, and I recommitted my life to Christ when I was 18 before I left for college. And even in junior college, I was president of the Baptist Student Union. Many of my family thought I was going to be a preacher.

In a way, you became a preacher. This book is testimony. Still, all the way up to junior college, had you not suspected?

I did suspect. I met boys. I would have these stirrings. My desires were clear to me, but I refused to connect the dots. I did not come out until I left Mississippi. I went to graduate school at Ohio State, and when I started graduate school here, [one of my teachers] said this very profound thing: “You are writing the kinds of stories you think you should write instead of the kinds of stories you want to write.” Not only was that true about my stories, it was also true about my life. And so I explored queerness first in my work, because I’ve always been braver on the page.

I came out here at Ohio State first, to my friends, and it was just a beautiful experience of acceptance. And I felt so lucky. Because I know that, especially where I’m from, so many kids are not allowed to come out on their own terms. Sometimes they’re outed, sometimes they can’t hide in the closet. [I also felt] a certain amount of guilt, like maybe I waited too late to come out, and why did it take me so long.

Why would that make you feel guilty?

Maybe by waiting and not facing it in Mississippi, that I had been in some ways a coward.

I know exactly what you mean. But have you ever heard that expression, “Don’t confuse ’em with the facts”? Like, “Don’t bother to try logic on some people, because they already know what they know”? It takes a long time to really accept that homosexuality cannot be explained to someone who is determined that it’s wrong.

Mississippi felt and still does feel insular. I grew up in a time when you’d think I would feel identification in popular culture, because I grew up when Ellen came out in the Puppy Episode, and Will & Grace was just starting, but all of that was elsewhere. And that wasn’t how we lived and how we comported ourselves in Mississippi. We were taught to be in the world but not of it.

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Do you still have a Christian faith? Did your faith evolve, or did you have it shattered?

At first it had to be shattered, and then—I wouldn’t say a Christian faith, but I don’t want to also say the vague “spiritual.” It’s a constant struggle. I feel like [Gillian Anderson] on The X-Files. I want to believe. I definitely agree with the social justice aspects of Christianity, but it’s been very hard, especially—I don’t want to beat a dead horse by now, but especially during the election.

Oh, let’s beat that horse.

During the election, it felt very hard to see Evangelicals twist themselves into pretzels to support this man. It was like, my god, what has happened?

And Pence! What a Pharisee.

Right. I was so heartsick after the election, as I’m sure a lot of people were. You know how being an Evangelical means you’re supposed to spread the faith? If an Evangelical in the South were to witness to me now, and they voted for Trump, I would say, you have no moral ground to tell me what to do with my spiritual life by casting your vote that way. That sounds really harsh.

No, it doesn’t!

But it’s a hard pill to swallow. Both of my parents are working class—my dad drives a truck, my mom works at a small business—and they voted for him, you know? We love each other and want to be in each other’s life, and we know that if we ever started talking about the things that we disagree on, we would never talk about anything else. So we agree to disagree. I’m an only child, and they were very good to me when I was growing up, and I want to be in their lives. I had a very happy childhood with them.

So how do we forgive each other, parents and children, in this South that we have? Can we forgive each other? How do you and I get justice in that, and is our justice less important than theirs?

[Sigh] That’s a great question. Maybe forgiveness for me has always been separate from justice. And I’ve always thought forgiveness is about, moving on. Trying to not let things in the past keep you from living now. My parents were 18 years old when they got married, and they had me when they were 25. They were really doing the best that they could with the resources that were available to them. When I came out to my parents, they surprised me with love. I put it off and put it off. It started to feel like the third rail. I was like, Surely they must know. Also there were little indications, looking back. With the proliferation of queer culture now, being a fan of The Golden Girls isn’t necessarily a dead giveaway of being gay, as it was back then. But when I was in the 11th grade, I wrote Bea Arthur a fan letter and got an autographed picture back from her, and my parents saw it and didn’t think anything of it, but looking back, I was like, God, that was such a red flag.

There were opportunities to tell them that I was gay face to face. I’m a type-one diabetic, and my mom suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, so when I’d go home, one of the things we would do is schedule our doctors’ appointments on the same day in Jackson. We would drive together and keep each other company. And I remember her asking me once, “So, do you ever date?” It was the perfect opportunity to come out to her, and I just completely chickened out. I just said [chirpy voice], “Nope! Too busy!” I started to get stories published, and they were queer stories, but my parents had never read much [of my writing]. But while I was getting my Ph.D. in Nebraska, I got a book contract, and so I figured, I’ve got to have this conversation with my parents. Before they read it somewhere else, they need to hear it from me. Like my character in the book, I had spent a long time in academia, hiding from the world, and so I went to my graduate office at Nebraska, surrounded by books like The History of Sexuality and Stone Butch Blues. I was surrounded by all my queer favorites, and my framed picture of Bea Arthur was on the wall, and I called my mother, and I told her about the book contract, and then I told her about me being gay.

She was driving from work, and it was hard for her. There were tears; there were a lot of questions. She said “I love you and I’m going to stand by you.” It was very sweet to hear. Then she said, “But I think we need to call your dad.” And I was just emotionally exhausted from having this conversation, and I think I said, “No! Let’s just wait!” [laughing] She said, “Oh, no, I’m not going through this alone. I’m going to call your father and tell him.” And I was like, “Fine, you call and tell him!” So I’d been crying, and while she called, I went to the restroom, and when I came back to the office, my dad was calling me. And my dad is working class, [and] sort of exudes that Southern masculine prototype. And he called me, and he said, “Your mother told me something.” And I said, “Yeah?” And he said, “I know my love has never been worth much, but it is unconditional.”

I really underestimated them, and I underestimated their love for me. And that’s not to say that we haven’t had struggles and disagreements moving forward. But to go back to your other question about forgiveness—and this sounds really corny, I know; it sounds like a preacher talking—but if you stand on the foundations of love, I think you can forgive and you can accept almost anything.

How to Survive a Summer is out June 6 on Blue Rider Press.

Anne Stockwell is a journalist, filmmaker, and fierce cancer activist. A former editor-in-chief of The Advocate and three-time ovarian cancer survivor, she is the founder of Well Again, which helps survivors find new direction, confidence, and community.