Garrard Conley grew up in rural Arkansas with his mother and father, the latter of whom was a God-fearing Southern Baptist minister who regularly gave sermons about the coming rapture. So when Conley was outed to his parents at the age of 19, he was given two choices: to be disowned or to “cure” his homosexuality at conversion therapy. He chose the latter and was sent to counseling and, eventually, Memphis to attend an intensive two-week stay at a branch of Love in Action, the largest conversion “therapy” organization in the country. There, he was subjected — and bore witness to — a number of horrors aimed at him and other attendees. He attended a mock funeral for another attendee who tried to run away, and was forced to read an obituary that stated the student contracted HIV and, eventually, died of AIDs. When he admitted he was going to kill himself, his mother pulled him out of the program and he began the long process of understanding what happened to him.
Conley’s memoir of the events, Boy Erased, is a powerful story of a young man surviving trauma and coming to terms with his sexuality, as well as an expose of the evils of a compassionless industry hellbent on making the perfectly natural seem positively immoral. A film based on the book is in theaters now, starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe. We spoke to Conley, who now hosts UnErased a podcast on conversion therapy, about his experience, forgiving his parents, and the dire need to end “pray away the gay” institutions for good.
Why, initially, did you decide to write Boy Erased?
There are so many reasons not to write a book about it. I really wanted to make sure my family was going to be okay if I wrote it, but I also knew that I had to figure out why my parents took me to conversion therapy to begin with. Why the conversion therapist did what they did. I interviewed my mom and dad before I wrote most of it. When I was writing it, I showed chapters that involved my dad the most to a workshop of writers. The only question I asked was ‘What do you think of my dad once you’ve read this?’ and almost everyone in the class said, ‘I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t.’ That meant I could do the story.
Why was that so important to you?
It’s not that I was trying to protect my dad — I believe you should hold people accountable for their actions — but I didn’t want people to have an easy target. It’s too easy to reduce people to monsters and say, ‘I would never do anything like that.’ But that completely ignores the cultural forces at play in towns like the one I grew up in.
That was my target, really: the culture that bred conversion therapy to begin with. If we’re able to say: ‘Your parents are insane, those people are insane and this is an anomaly,’ then that makes it easy to dismiss the bigotry that does exist and continues to exist.
And for your part, it’s clear that at some point, your mom changed course. She pulled you out of conversion therapy. Did that help you forgive her by any means? Is there some level of forgiveness that can’t be given, regardless?
My mom got married at 16. She wanted to be a lawyer, but she ended up helping my dad take over the family business — the church. She got absorbed into the role of his wife. The only thing that allowed her to break out of that was that she was seeing me waste away every day in conversion therapy. Her instincts kicked in. She was like: ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to stand up to say that this is not right. I’ve seen people say ‘Oh, this is straight savior syndrome.’ But my mom was the person who saved me.
Yeah, I think it’s a bit reductive to boil your mom’s actions down to ‘straight savior syndrome.’ She’s your mother. That’s why she saved you.
Had she said to me, ‘Well, just give it another try,’ I think I probably would have. Instead, she said to me: ‘Are you going to kill yourself?’ And when I said yes, she was like, ‘Well then, that’s it. We’re going home.’ Had she not said that, had she not found the strength to do that, I’m not sure what my life would have been.
It’s easy for me to forgive my mom, because she became a real ally. She did the work. She’s the person in the room who calls out homophobia, racism, sexism. She donates to LGBTQ+ organizations.
Have you forgiven your father?
I haven’t forgiven my dad. I still have a relationship with him, but he hasn’t made all the steps that I consider to be necessary for a real act of forgiveness to take place.
That must be tough to have a relationship with him that hasn’t fully moved past the trauma he put you through.
He has apologized, in his own way. I can recognize that apology as a legitimate one from him. I commend him on not criticizing LGBTQ+ people from his pulpit. But it’s also not like he’s standing up there saying it’s our Christian duty to love these people. He’s not saying that, either.
Did your relationship with your parents fundamentally change after they sent you to conversion therapy?
I actually think mom and I got closer. We survived something together. That’s how I see it now. Because, really, when I came out, — or really, when I was outed — she had to come out too, as my mom. When she comes to places like New York or Los Angeles for the premieres, she’s getting a ton of standing ovations, and that’s awesome. But she goes back to Arkansas and people are still saying sorry for the fact that her son is gay. I’m not going back to Arkansas. She’s doing that. My mom will call me and say ‘You’ll never believe what some asshole said to me at the post office today.’ It’s like she’s taken my place, almost.
As it happened, you were outed by the person who raped you. That’s a huge part of your journey, too.
Oh my god. Yeah. Well, first of all, one of the things the movie can’t capture in a two-hour time frame is the fall out of being raped. And what that does to your mentality. When you say yes [to conversion therapy] after something like that, you’re saying it under duress, basically. I was spinning out. I had no idea that it was even rape. And then, people around me would say, ‘Faggots are predators.’
That must have complicated your sense of your sexuality. It’s hard to imagine that you had a healthy self-image of yourself as a gay man.
My parents didn’t say homophobic things when I was growing up, but we were around it all the time. When Matthew Shepard made the news, I’d hear attitudes that were basically like, well, he deserved it. And it was just messed up. And then, being raped — it was just like, oh. I guess that’s what being gay is. I don’t want that.
And you had no one to talk to. Did you find any solace in the outside world? On the internet?
I had 56k internet and television was a thing and I was still able to believe what I’d been told my whole life. It’s so crazy to me. When I typed in gay in 2002, that brought up very different results from what you might get today. I didn’t know where to look. And anyway, if anyone said that being gay is not bad, but then didn’t explain to me why it wasn’t from a biblical perspective, then I would have just not believed it anyway. There are a lot of books now that do that. There’s this great writer Matthew Vines who wrote God and the Gay Christian, which is a really important book.
It’s clear to me that you have opened up a huge and serious conversation about the continued existence of conversion therapy in the United States. There are 36 states that haven’t taken any steps to make it illegal or stop it from happening.
When I started doing this, no one really knew what it was. Whenever they did talk about it, it was just a joke. Like that great movie But I’m A Cheerleader. So we didn’t yet have things like the Miseducation of Cameron Post, which is another great movie on conversion therapy, and Boy Erased. It just felt like I was doing it alone for so long.
But now, it feels like we’ve really reached a moment, where at least the topic has become something that is known. Once people know that conversion therapy is very much alive and 700,000 Americans alone have been in conversion therapy so far — which is a city of human beings — it’s easier to be like, hey. A city’s worth of people have suffered. What are we going to do? Are we going to help them or are we going to ignore it?
Is there any coincidence that this movement has exploded with the rise of Mike Pence, who, at least at one time, publicly supported conversion therapy?
No, it wasn’t. I wrote three articles about Pence and Tony Perkins, who now works for the Trump administration and the Family Research Council. He’s trying to bring back conversation therapy in a big way.
It’s almost refreshing for the rest of the world to see what I’ve been seeing for so long. There are people who want to kill us, and they’re here, and they’re in the administration. Trump is not even really joking when he made that joke about how Pence wants to hang queer people. It’s a joke to Trump, because he doesn’t actually care. But it’s also not really a joke. Pence, I think, has worked actively to make sure that our lives are erased.
To that end, I noticed that you’ve focused a lot on trans youth. Are trans kids disproportionately impacted by conversion therapy today?
Trans kids are three to four times more likely to be taken into conversion therapy. That’s insane. I really didn’t know that.
I did know about Leelah Alcorn, who committed suicide and in her note, she said that she just wanted to be a human being. In addition to that sobering statistic, it’s a reminder that there are a lot of different stories out there, in our communities, that involve conversion therapy, not just the kind at a facility.
What do you mean by that?
There’s the kind of conversion therapy where you sit across from a priest or a pastor and they sit across from you and say something that’s really harmful. It is a very white people thing to send your kid off to a facility and charge for it, but these things are happening in different forms in other communities. It may not look as absurd as the rules that tell you how to dress, but those rules that tell you how to dress just aren’t written down in other communities; they still exist.
In other words, basic denial of humanity is just as harmful to kids as being sent to a facility and being tortured with ice and electric shocks.
It’s a reminder that we have to look more imaginatively about how queer kids are being affected by not just conversion therapy, but the bigotry that creates conversion therapy. Bigotry created conversion therapy. Getting rid of the facilities doesn’t get rid of the possibilities for those places to exist.