At just nineteen years old, Garrard Conley was forced to make an unthinkable decision. After being outed to his religious parents by a boy at his college, Garrard was told he had to attend Love In Action, a gay conversion therapy program that would “cure” him of his homosexuality, or risk losing his family, friends, and the financial support that was making his college education possible.
Conley’s memoir, Boy Erased, focuses primarily on the two weeks he spent at Love In Action. Upon entering, all of his possessions, including the journal he’d kept for years, were taken from him, and the way he walked, spoke, and thought was monitored, labeled as shameful, and then “corrected” in order to fit LIA’s idea of what a straight man should be. But Boy Erased also weaves in Conley’s childhood in a small, homophobic town in Arkansas as the son of a Missionary Baptist pastor, showing that Love In Action is not an anomaly but rather an extension of a much larger culture of repression.
In the past few years — after the suicides of hundreds of patients — many conversion therapy programs have been dismantled, but until now, the survivors have rarely seen their stories in print. For this and many other reasons Conley’s memoir is an essential text and a reminder, as author Garth Greenwell puts it, that “America remains a place where queer people have to fight for their lives.
I spoke with Conley about the lifesaving importance of fiction, his work as an LGBTQ advocate in Bulgaria, and how empathy is the ultimate tool for dismantling hate. —Amy Gall
The Barnes & Noble Review: This book is incredibly vulnerable and personal. How did you know you were ready to tell your story?
Garrard Conley: It took me about nine years to even talk about it with people. I assumed it was a typical experience that happens to kids in the South, and so I minimized the experience. But, as I grew older, I kept having relationship problems and being terrified of intimacy and emotional closeness. I began to research other people’s experience with ex-gay therapy, and they had gone through the exact same trajectory. It was this moment of “Oh yeah, I’ve been dealing with this trauma for years and I haven’t properly addressed it with anyone.”
Then, in my MFA program, I took a nonfiction class, and my professor said to me, “You need to find your big subject,” and I said, “Well, I went to this ex-gay therapy thing,” and the whole class leaned forward and were like “WHAT?!” The big question in that room, in that moment, was “How could any parent do that to a child?” And that made me upset, because my immediate answer was “Of course they could have done this. Have you never been to Arkansas? Do you not know what it’s like growing up in a fundamentalist family?”
But of course they didn’t know. So, the book started out as an essay that was just addressing the idea that yes, it’s actually very easy for parents in this culture [to send their kid to ex-gay therapy] and it’s part of the a continuum that is still alive today, as we see now with HB 2 [North Carolina’s new law regulating gender and restroom use] and similar acts in the South and Midwest. It is not a new thing and it’s not going away. My big drive for writing the book was wanting to bridge this cultural divide for liberals who seem to be incredulous when they are facing the extreme Right, and I felt that I was in a position to do that, because I’m liberal, but I know exactly how conservatives think.
BNR: The book made me think about my own position as a secular liberal and the biases I have against the religious Right, which, while justified, aren’t ultimately going to bridge any divides. How can we set aside our own rage in order to be a resource, especially for kids who were in the position you were in?
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GC: It’s hard, because there’s a lot at stake in the culture here. It’s a transitional period. You can see, at the same time as we have marriage equality, we have all this backlash occurring. Trump didn’t come out of nowhere with his agenda. But what’s at stake are the lives of LGBTQ homeless kids. These kids are dying, they are killing themselves. My first impulse is to say ‘”Fuck you” to conservatives. And when you look at the ex-gay counselor who ran the whole [Love In Action] program, I have almost no sympathy for him. But my role is unique in the sense that I can not seem to get out of the middle between these two cultural divides. So I figure, if I’m stuck with that, I might as well tell this story that humanizes both sides. It’s a necessary addition. But I think outrage is a necessary addition, too. And I would never want to tell someone who is angry to stop being angry.
I used a Foucault quote in the second half of my book about using the rules that have been created for you against the people who initially imposed them, because I really believe that. LIA created these “steps” we had to go through to stop being gay, which condensed a range of experiences and pain into something falsely manageable that you moved through in order to be “cured.” But those steps just destroy your soul. Those labels and rules were really dangerous. But the opposite of that ideology is humanity. We are all human beings, and everyone who came through LIA’s doors is a human being. So the biggest tool we can use to fight that dehumanization is to be human and let people see our scars.
BNR: In the book, you say, “Most of my same-sex attractions had developed right alongside my love of literature.” Did the Bible play a part in your understanding of your sexuality?
GC: I don’t think I appreciated, well, I don’t want to say appreciated, but, understood the Bible’s effect on me until I was older. When I was young, it was just a thing I breathed. If someone had a problem, there was a Bible verse for it, if there was something I had done wrong, a Bible verse condemning that action went through my head. I took it for granted and didn’t consider the fact that it was just a text like any other text, because Missionary Baptists believe it is the actual word of God. You can ignore it and go to hell or you can read it and feel love for God.
So when I first encountered secular books, that was a different experience. There was nuance and character development. There wasn’t just people being punished for what they did or what their fathers did. And that was electric for me.
The first time I read The Scarlet Letter, I had an instant connection to it. Here was this girl who was being judged by everyone in the town, but everyone in the town was wrong and not the girl. But I also had a real sense of confusion about it. In the Bible, Hester Prynne would have just been a slut. So why did this author take the time to talk about her in this way and show me who she is? And I realized that fiction prizes empathy and gives readers a chance to actually understand what motivates someone, what makes them tick, and what actually happens to people when we judge or condemn them.
When I’m not depressed about how much time I lost [because of Love In Action] and how much time I spent being in pain and almost killing myself, I feel strangely fortunate that I had to learn to identify with stories that weren’t about me, to find myself in characters like Hester Prynne. It’s, of course, important to have these queer narratives that represent who I am, but equally important is my ability to enter into other narratives that don’t reflect my experience. It’s easy for me now and it’s fun.
BNR: The book includes some pieces of an interview you did with your mother years after your parents sent you to the camp. How did that come about?
GC: When the book sold, I’d gotten to the point where I wanted to write about Love In Action, but I didn’t know how much I wanted my family to be in it. And then on the Fourth of July, I was with my mom, and a woman came up to us and we got to talking about the fact that my book got sold, which I was very excited about. She asked what the book was about and when I told her, the woman freaked out and said, “How could anyone do that to a child?” My mom just started sobbing.
I realized, okay, I need to write about my mom, and I need to write her in a way that’s going to honor her experience. So we had this interview session. It was maybe one of the most awkward moments of my life, but also really exciting, because I could feel us growing closer with each thing we said to each other. And that was beautiful. She’s apologized to me every time I call her or talk to her, since [my time at Love In Action]. Because, at the time, she thought she was doing the right thing. I don’t think she knew how close I came to suicide, but once she understood that, it was really hard for her to live with that guilt.
BNR: What kind of work are you doing now to promote LGBTQ equality?
GC: I teach at the American College of Sofia, which is a high school in Bulgaria, where Garth Greenwell taught, and he paved the way for me and my friends to talk about LGBTQ issues. My friends created a weekly elective that is the first LGBTQ class in eastern Europe that I help run. We try not to teach too much, but rather give the students a lot of resources and so that they can talk about and research whatever they are interested in.
I get called out all the time in that class and I love it. One of the girls said to me, “Mr. Conley, you don’t think about asexuality,” and I was like, “You’re right, I don’t.” So she did a whole presentation on asexuality. We do school-wide trainings on what a safe zone is, and we even had the woman who did the first study of LGBTQ visibility in Bulgaria come to visit the school. In Bulgaria people are still saying there’s no LGBTQ visibility/safety issue because LGBTQ people don’t exist, and it was amazing and powerful to have the statistics to refute that. The class is a small step, but it’s a first, which makes it really exciting. It’s some of the most important and fulfilling work I’ve ever done.