Author Garrard Conley’s life as a teenager revolved primarily around two things: his family and his church.
When Conley realized he was gay, he knew it could impact those relationships negatively. And he was correct. But what he could not have possibly imagined is that his ordeal would eventually lead to a best-selling book and film called Boy Erased, as well as a mission to end the atrocity of so-called gay conversion therapy.
“Since I was a kid, I was told to follow my heart and make the right choices, even if it’s hard. My dad hasn’t decided to do that, unfortunately, and I think it makes him a bit of a coward, but I hope that changes.”
When Conley was 16, his father started the multiyear process of becoming a pastor at a Missionary Baptist church in rural Arkansas. In the midst of that process, Conley, now 33, came to terms with his sexual orientation.
Conley and his mother struggled with how to reveal his gay identity to his father. In their congregation (as in many Southern churches), a pastor’s children are considered reflections of their parents, for better or worse. When Conley came out at 19 in 2004, his father gave him an ultimatum: go to Love In Action, a gay conversion therapy camp, or be ostracized from his family and church, which seemed like an untenable option for the teen.
From Page to Screen
Joel Edgerton adapted the screenplay for Conley’s book, Boy Erased: A Memoir. He also directed the film and stars in it as the story’s antagonist. “When Joel approached me, I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with a straight man taking my story, rewriting it, and directing a film about it,” Conley says in an exclusive interview with OutSmart.
“When we met, Joel told me that he wanted to talk to as many survivors as he could first,” Conley recalls. “That felt very good to hear. I told him he needed to meet with several LGBTQ civil-rights organizations, as well as groups like The Trevor Project from the beginning—and he did. I had complete veto power on anything that I thought was insensitive to the story, and I was allowed to give input on all of the drafts the story went through. That made me comfortable enough to trust him with it.”
Although Conley had written the 2016 memoir, he opted not to pen the screenplay. “I didn’t want to. I had already re-lived the experience while writing the book, and I didn’t want to do it again for the film. Edgerton wrote the first draft in about two weeks while he was filming Red Sparrow with Jennifer Lawrence. He sent me a draft and I was shocked at how immersed he was in this story.”
Conley was not cavalier about granting permission to adapt his story. Prior to being approached by Edgerton, he had rejected another screenplay offer that would have developed a dual story, split between Conley and John Smid, who served as executive director of Love In Action from 1990 to 2008. Smid eventually left the organization where he did so much damage to so many people, and came out of the closet himself. He is now married to his husband and lives in Texas, and his story received a significant amount of attention prior to Boy Erased.
“To focus on Smid would take away from the story about the victims of these places,” Conley says. “People gravitate toward a story of this anti-hero demon-turned-angel. I think that it is a harmful narrative. We forget to focus on the victims of people like John. Although I appreciate that he has made a positive change in his life, and I think he is going about trying to rectify [the pain he inflicted] in the right way, I don’t want it to distract from the families and kids that are still being subject to this and who are committing suicide as a result of it.”
Boy Erased also stars Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as the parents of Conley’s character, Jared, played by queer actor Lucas Hedges.
Although Hedges recently came out, saying he identifies as being on the queer spectrum, he had not yet done so when a story about the film was first leaked to the media. As a result, the production received early criticism for an anticipated “straight-washing” of a queer story.
“When the story was leaked, I had already met Lucas and knew that he was not straight, and I thought it was wrong for people to assume his sexuality at age 20,” Conley says. “He revealed to me that he was ‘on the spectrum.’ But aside from that, he is an amazing actor. I think that people got very trigger-happy in regards to that conversation about the production. They failed to see that we had a significant amount of queer representation, in front of and behind the camera. There are so many queer actors in the film, there were two queer co-producers of the film, and I had a tremendous amount of say in the process.”
Queer pop star Troye Sivan, who is also in the film, wrote a song with Jónsi (a musician with the Icelandic band Sigur Rós) called “Revelation” that is featured on the soundtrack and the film’s trailer.
Dealing with the Fame
Conley says he enjoys a great relationship with his mother, Martha, who has become something of a gay icon as a result of Hollywood’s attention to their story. Martha, whose character is portrayed by Nicole Kidman, was recently the subject of an entire article in the New York Times.
“Mom was stalked by a reporter in Arkansas the other day,” Conley laughs. “He showed up at a place where she was getting a pedicure. They had to shoo him out with a broom.”
For Conley and his mother, seeing their lives play out in print—and then on the big screen—has been an emotional experience at times. Conley recalls what it was like seeing the film at an early private screening. “I remember being embarrassed. Writing the book, you have the padding of your words to [explain to the reader] whatever bad decisions you are about to make. But watching it, I just thought, ‘How could I have been so dumb?’ I know that I view it through a different lens than the audience will, but that’s what I felt.”
His mother’s experience was a little different. “Mom saw [the movie] for the first time at the Toronto Film Festival. I thought it was going to be a really emotional experience for her, sitting in a crowd of 1,700 people. She loved it, though. She thought they got it exactly right. She thought they put Nicole Kidman in way too many Walmart tops, but other than that it was a nice experience.”
Martha Conley, who lives in Mountain Home, Arkansas, with Conley’s father, has embraced the attention and the responsibility of shedding light on the damage caused by gay conversion camps. She spends much of her time as an advocate and as a PFLAG mom with ties to a network of “momma bears” throughout the country, including in Texas.
“Every time a pastor says something non-affirming to an LGBT person, or a parent forces them to be something that they are not, it does harm and it is happening all of the time to a lot of people. My goal is to jolt people awake.”
Conley’s father is a different story. “[My father] has not seen [the movie] and he is not going to the premiere. He says he hasn’t read the book, although I am not sure how much I believe that. He is still a pastor, and even if he himself might be up-to-date that [being gay] is not a choice, he fears that by admitting that publicly, he would run the risk of losing his church.”
For a while, Garrard Conley and his father exchanged poetry, which allowed them to communicate despite their differences. Conley joked during a 2017 speech that he was working on “slipping a few female authors in” to expand his father’s horizons. But lately that has slowed down.
“The whole process of becoming a public figure has threatened him a bit, and we have much more of a strained relationship at the moment,” Conley says. “It’s a shame. Since I was a kid, I was told to follow my heart and make the right choices, even if it’s hard. My dad hasn’t decided to do that, unfortunately, and I think it makes him a bit of a coward, but I hope that changes,” Conley adds, before a long pause. “That was the first time I ever said something like that during one of these interviews.”
The Enduring Trauma
It is clear in talking to Conley that he and his family are still working through the raw trauma inflicted on him by conversion therapy. But many LGBTQ people who undergo conversion therapy do not have the resources or opportunity to seek healing after their ordeal.
A June 2018 study conducted by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at UCLA estimated that about 698,000 LGBTQ adults have endured conversion therapy, including about 350,000 as adolescents.
Nine states, DC, and 32 localities have enacted laws banning conversion therapy for minors. Texas is not one of those states.
Even in the states that ban the use of conversion therapy by mental-health professionals, some religious organizations continue the harmful practice. In 2018, it is estimated that 77,000 adolescents will be subjected to conversion therapy in the U.S., either from mental-health practitioners or religious institutions.
“For me, my immediate goal is to get gay conversion therapy banned in every state,” Conley says. “But even in the states where it is banned, religious groups can still practice it because the laws do not consider this type of therapy a fraud that would be classified as illegal.”
Indeed, anti-LGBTQ groups have argued that banning conversion therapy impedes their religious liberty. This is a similar argument to the one used to allow discrimination against LGBTQ people in court cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop, in which a baker refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple by citing his religious beliefs.
“Long term, my goal is to battle the type of bigotry that creates this issue in the first place,” Conley says. “Every time a pastor says something non-affirming to an LGBT person, or a parent forces them to be something that they are not, it does harm and it is happening all of the time to a lot of people. My goal is to jolt people awake.”
Conley hopes that the film, the book, and his new podcast, Unerased, will help accomplish these goals. The podcast is a four-part series explaining the history of conversion therapy. It includes conversations with both the survivors and the perpetrators of the abuse, including John Smid. That podcast launches on November 2, coinciding with the release of the film. Conley currently lives in New York with his husband of three years, and is working on a new novel.
This article appears in the November 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.