In 2004, Garrard Conley attended Love In Action (LIA), a fundamentalist Christian organization founded in 1973 in San Rafael, California. It promised to “cure” LGBTQ people of their “sexual addiction.” Over the next several decades, LIA and its umbrella organization, Exodus International, grew.
Love in Action, now called Restoration Path and led by David Jones, has buckets of blood on its hands. In 1977, Jack McIntyre, who had been a member of LIA for four years, committed suicide. Despite this high-profile controversy, plus the countless other lives LIA shattered along the way, it continued to flourish. Exodus International grew and expanded throughout the world.
It peaked at two hundred ministries in the U.S. alone. It continued to operate in the face of controversy, and in 2003, opened its Refuge program, which was designed to cure teenagers and adults with “sexual addictions.”
The following year, Garrard Conley spent nine days in the belly of the beast, after his Baptist pastor father discovered that he was gay. He escaped and lived to write his story in the haunting memoir Boy Erased, the movie adaptation of which, directed by Joel Edgerton, comes out in November starring Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, and Lucas Hedges.
In the midst of the whirlwind surrounding the upcoming release of Boy Erased, Conley took some time to talk with OUT FRONT over the phone about the book, movie, fundamentalism, and conversion therapy.
How do you cope with reliving your trauma in the public eye?
It was definitely easier to do when it was a book. The only feedback I ever received would be in the form of an email about someone who was touched by it or had gone through something similar. It felt like a hug every time I would open my email inbox. That’s not always the case anymore.
Especially since the trailer dropped, people were reaching out… for example, there was a man from Honduras who said he was planning to kill himself; he had seen the trailer; it re-triggered him. I know there’s not a lot you can do in those situations, but it was the first of those kinds of emails. I felt a responsibility and a weight that had been placed on me like, ‘Oh my God this can help people and trigger people who have been through stuff like this.’
I spoke with The Trevor Project and got strategies for dealing with that, some context, that other people receive messages like that frequently with projects like this. That kind of responsibility weighs me down a lot because I started out to just be a writer, and you get a certain amount of anonymity.
Right. With being a writer you at least get to feel protected by the book.
More so with fiction. With memoir it’s different… I don’t think I’m going to write another one.
Well, you only have the one life.
Right, and let’s hope nothing else horrible happens.
I found one of the most striking aspects of the book to be the relationship between yourself and your mother. Did you have any idea at the time that she was questioning whether this was the right thing to do, or did all of this come up in later discussions?
I had always been very close to my mom, so I had a certain amount of knowledge about her reaction to these things. I always knew she wouldn’t react positively to knowing that I was gay, but I had no real insight because thoughts were swirling in my own brain at the time.
When I started writing the book I was like, ‘This isn’t going to be a complete account unless I understand what my parents did and what the counselors did. I was interested in having everyone be three-dimensional in the text, because it’s uninteresting to have cardboard cutouts of people. I sat with Mom and did quite a few interviews to piece together her life. Pretty much halfway through the book, there’s a moment where you’re just in the scene with her, and I’m out of it – she’s looking at the brochures, and it’s reconstructed from what she told me. I wanted that to show readers that the parents’ journey is as compelling in ways as the person who’s been placed in conversion therapy.
I wouldn’t say my parents were victims, but the circumstances in which they were raised pretty much determined that they would say yes to conversion therapy; there was no other way of thinking. They consulted with the biggest church in the area in Memphis; it was known as like the Mecca nearby and you sought advice from them, so when my dad heard that LIA was the place to go; he didn’t question it at all. I always knew I had to hold my mom accountable for what she did, but I also wanted to show that there were a lot of other factors.
I’m doing a lot of research into the origins of that kind of strain of evangelistic thought that I grew up with, because it’s fascinating to see how it’s morphed over time. I would say that–I’m not sure it is a form of cognitive dissonance, but it’s almost like the logic usually holds. You’re using real logic, but the premises the logic is based off of are perhaps flawed.
The assumption is that we’re all born sinful, and when you make that assumption, you can make a lot of logical leaps. There’s no questioning those fundamental building blocks: we’re born with sin; you must be saved by Jesus Christ or you won’t get into Heaven. Within that logic, there’s a lot of variation and a lot of creativity, where you’ll see people say things like, “Well, God speaks to me this way; I know I’m saved because X Y Z. Someone else will have a total different set of answers. There’s breathing room inside that logic, and you can pick and choose which verses apply to you and which version of God makes the most sense to you.
It’s something media often gets wrong about fundamentalism; they’re too reductive. There’s a tendency to believe that it’s a completely black-and-white world view. The fundamentals are black-and-white, but in those communities, there’s variation and creativity and, for better or worse, people find ways to justify those ideas.
Now that I’m wiser about what the country needs in this discussion, my first step is to say, “I don’t think you’re stupid; I don’t think that you don’t have the same brain as me.” Media approaches these insular communities with the perspective that they’re ignorant. They’re not; they get some things right, like a sense of community, strong family values, things you can wish for the rest of the country to feel at times. But a lot of that thinking is based off of homophobia, xenophobia, all the phobias.
That’s where we have to approach them. I feel like I have a superpower where I know how to talk to fundamentalists, like, “I get it; I know where you’re coming from; I get that you’re not dumb. Let’s take time to pick apart this idea that you have.”
Do you have any thoughts on how people who don’t have that superpower can talk to fundamentalists to begin bridging that gap in these communities where they may not feel safe?
I’ve thought about this a lot, because when I interview people, it’s people who are doing LGBTQ-oriented pieces. I’m always like, “What do we do?” For me, first of all I know that a lot of survivors of conversion therapy, on the LGBTQ spectrum or not, it’s not up to them to go back to these communities and educate people, because they’ve been through too much; just to survive is important.
I’ve always felt–aside from suicidal periods–a calling to go back and educate. I’ve been a teacher for a long time as well, so it comes naturally to me, but there’s also a huge cost. It’s dangerous sometimes, but those of us who can and feel that it’s important work should take time to do it. If there’s a way to do it within reason, to go back, even if it’s just Thanksgiving with a racist or homophobic part of the family–to not allow those spaces to feel comfortable when someone does or says something wrong.
I know it seems like a small thing, but I’ve started doing it with my family; if someone says something insensitive or stupid, I’ll just say, “I don’t want to offend you, but I want to give you information about this; here are some websites.” I was in Telluride for the film festival and my driver, for a two-hour drive, started talking about Trump and how great he was for the country. And my Pakistani husband was sitting next to me, and my husband–I think he willingly forced himself to sleep.
At one point the man said something terrible about immigrants, and I said, “That’s really harmful and hurtful.” Myy husband’s sitting next to me, and I go, “my husband is Pakistani, and he could be deported; this is a thing.” And I just let it be a really terrible atmosphere for basically two hours. I continued to talk to this man, and I refused to stop. I know it doesn’t maybe do anything in that moment, but when we plant these seeds, it’s important.
We can put the civility vs. protesting debate to bed. Being civil isn’t going to do it; it’s never done it; we have to disrupt and make these people uncomfortable. But the way I do it–like for example, with the elevator appeal to Jeff Flake [the senator who was confronted in an elevator by sexual assault survivors]. It wasn’t just survivors yelling; it was them saying look at me; look at my pain; acknowledge me. That’s so much more powerful than just a ‘f*ck you.’
It’s not civility to say you’re going to challenge someone on a statement–civility is the wrong word people are using; they’re talking about papering something over, mollifying. You can have civil discourse that’s challenging and uncomfortable. The other thing I would say is–this journalist published this amazing expose of conversion therapy in South Carolina, tons of reporters worked on it; it’s explosive because you see how strong the industry is right now. By giving us that information, it’s paved the way for me to understand how other states are operating.
It’s so closed, that I think part of what we have to do is just get those details, the education, out there, and it may seem small for the little Charlotte press to do this expose, but it’s actually not at all; it helps a ton of people. As you can see, we’re not winning right now in terms of the Kavanaugh thing, but we’ve gotten to the point where it’s something people have to discuss morally and consider on a deep level, which isn’t enough, but now the senators who vote ‘yes’ are going to be held accountable. It’s not a small thing.
Be proud, live fully and love yourself.
— Boy Erased (@BoyErased) November 30, 2018
How do you think this movie fits into the changing times?
The secular bans of conversion therapy have energized so many pro-conversion therapy people, because they’ve doubled down on labeling it as non-profit–the laws are only banning secular people. None of these bans would affect anyone’s enrollment in LIA.
It’s an incredibly difficult battle to fight, because of the whole discussion around religious liberty which is being almost run exclusively by this organization and law firm called The Alliance Defending Freedom. They did the Masterpiece cake case and won. They defended LIA in 2007 and won. They are aligned with Tony Perkins and Mike Pence and that whole crowd, and tons of evangelicals are super excited about them, because they’re making it mainstream to say, “Parents have the right to choose what kind of therapy their kids undergo; they’re treading on our religious rights; we have the right to feel however we want to about homosexuality.”
It’s become sexy to be anti-establishment. Which is really scary. It feels a little bit like pre-next Civil War, because the way that it’s going, there may no longer be mainstream in the sense that decency and this idea of globalism was mainstream. It feels like there’s gonna be a lot of different groups of people who choose their own realitie, and they don’t necessarily get along.
But all I know is to be aware that it’s happening, and it’s happening right in front of us and being justified by people who claim to believe in Jesus. I would just say like–I think [the current political environment] has energized a lot of people to be activists. I know it has me, and I think that it’s always been this way; we’ve always had to fight really hard just to be seen as human beings. I hope that’s not the case one day, but we had a bit of premature celebration during the Obama era. I think a lot of people forget that even Obama changed his mind about marriage equality halfway through. He was never our adversary, and I loved him, but it was more complicated than we all kind of remember it.
I think the film–Joel [Edgerton, writer and director] from the very beginning designed the film to speak to parents who were on the fence or who had done something wrong to their LGBTQ children or relatives. It sort of speaks to them in that language that they can understand.
I see it as this: I have the book; we have a podcast coming out called UnErased produced by Radiolab that looks at the whole history of conversion therapy and goes in really close with survivors. The podcast does the history; my book does a personal, queer account, and the movie is a particular piece of activism designed for middle America in many ways.
Queer people can enjoy it and feel a cathartic effect if it’s not too triggering, but Joel from the beginning said, “I want to make this for someone like your dad to realize he made a mistake.” That’s a tricky but good goal to have. At first I was so interested in like, ‘Okay do we have enough queer actors;is it a queer production?’ It does meet all those check marks, but aside from that, it was, ‘What are we using this film for?’ Whenever you get all these stars in it, suddenly we can actually tap into the mainstream; we can actually make conversion therapy a mainstream topic.
So the movie–can you talk a little bit about your involvement with the script and production?
Early on, I met with Joel before we’d signed anything, and he said, “I don’t know if I’m the right person to do this; I’m a straight guy from Australia, but I read the book, and I felt what you wanted me to feel, and I want to help get your voice out there.”
In that first meeting, he met with a bunch of survivors; he asked and I arranged it and thought it was such a good gesture. He said, “If you want to write the script, you can,” and I said, “No f*cking way; I’m not gonna write my own rape from a movie perspective; it doesn’t feel right.”
But he sent me every draft and gave me veto power over it and allowed me to change anything that felt like it wasn’t right tonally. I was able to see every draft and change anything that didn’t feel true to the story. I also suggested that from the beginning, he send the script to pretty much every single LGBTQ organization in the country for sensitivity reads. That was so awesome, because we knew there wasn’t going to be any big controversy early on. When you’re dealing with something so sensitive and a community that’s been harmed by bad representation for many years, it’s important to get it right. It’s not fun to sit and watch LGBTQ people be tortured basically, but we wanted them to have dignity and no harmful messages in the film for our community.
I was on set probably five or six times; Mom was on set; we were both extras; my husband’s an extra; the co-producer, David Craig, and I have become close friends; Lucas [Hedges] and I have become close friends. Lucas shared with me his sexuality–he recently talked about it in Vulture. He’s somewhere on the spectrum, and he said he felt shame and said it would hurt him to do the role, but he felt like it was important.
Everything felt safe in that way; everyone doing it really cared, and that to me is the only thing I ever ask for when doing a collaborative art piece–is everyone here for the right reason? All the awards stuff isn’t what we were thinking about; we wanted to change people’s minds, make a good film, not turn it into Oscar bait. But of course when you start to cast these people in it…
Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe are Oscar bait.
But it’s good that it makes people take it seriously, and that’s important. What was it like walking onto set?
Joel chose to shoot everything on location–Nicole and Russell actually stayed in the house together for a lot of the film; people were at the church that LIA was created at; they were there all day, everything was arranged to look like that was the facility.
You couldn’t tell that it wasn’t what the place was designed for. I wasn’t prepared for that, because the first day on set everyone’s in their white button-downs with their handbooks–they copied the real handbook–and they’re sitting there in character talking to each other. I was just like, ‘This is too much.’ It was actually very depressing. But I was overwhelmed and amazed by the amount of detail that Joel put into it and the expertise with which he approached the material; it was just like he’d absorbed it all.
How did the writing of the book, and then the production of the movie, and subsequent publicity tour, change your relationship with your family, especially your father?
That’s tough, because Dad can’t really go anywhere without people saying something like, “Oh I’m so sorry your son is gay and happy about it.” And Mom has the opposite experience–everywhere she goes people are like, “Oh Nicole Kidman is playing you!”
They live in two different worlds, and I live in a different world now. And I care deeply about their representation in the book and movie. Joel visited my family’s house and ate their barbecue and stuff; we were all very careful. Dad felt he could trust Joel. But now things have shifted a bit, and it feels like now that it’s a real thing, Dad is very unhappy, and I can’t continue to bend over backwards all the time for this person who sent me to conversion therapy and hasn’t apologized for it.
At this point, I make a bit of a mental calculation: what is my purpose on this earth? And it seems like it’s to make sure this stuff ends and that people stop committing suicide because they feel hated. My dad’s discomfort pales in comparison to that mission.
Restoration Path continues to operate in the Bible Belt along with many other organizations like it that claim to “cure sexual addiction” while causing untold harm to individuals, families, and communities. Its mission statement, as per its website, is “To be a Christian Discipleship Ministry to restore those trapped in sexual and relational sin through the power of Jesus Christ.”
In order to do this, they destroy the lives of LGBTQ people and leave a river of blood in their wake. Conley made it out and was able to tell his story, but his is just one of countless other voices around the world that could tell a story such as this. The Williams Institute estimated in January 2018 that nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults in the US alone have received conversion therapy treatment since its nexus in the 1890s.
Conley lives in New York with his husband and works as an activist and speaker, traveling the country to lecture at schools and other venues about radical compassion, trauma, and being gay in the South. He has a forthcoming novel from Penguin, to be published in 2020. His podcast, UnErased, debuts this fall and will explore the history of conversion therapy.
Photos courtesy of Boy Erased and Facebook