“I’d love to say it gets easier”: a talk with Boy Erased author Garrard Conley

by Andrew Parker

It’s a rainy autumn afternoon just after Daylight Savings Time in Toronto; the kind of damp, chilly, and dark day that makes one yearn for warmth. People tend to move a little slower or prefer to not leave their homes on such days, but author and LGBTQ activist Garrard Conley appears positively energized and enthusiastic to talk about the film adaptation of his bestselling memoirs, Boy Erased, which opens in select Canadian cities this weekend and expands to additional markets in the coming weeks. It’s surprising when one considers that Conley has been going pretty much non-stop promoting his book and the film without many breaks over the past couple of years.

“It’s crazy to think about,” Conley says with a light chuckle in the lobby of a Yorkville hotel about the continued momentum behind his memoir. “It was published only in 2016. I’ve already been told many times that this almost never happens in any industry, and that I shouldn’t get used to it.”

Boy Erased, which was published in 2016, found Conley speaking out about a deeply traumatic period in his life. At the age of nineteen, Garrard Conley, who now lives in New York with his husband, but was raised in a fundamentalist baptist Arkansas family, chose to enter highly controversial conversion therapy for homosexuality. Spurred on by personal traumas and the devout beliefs of his mother and pastor father, Conley enrolled in intensive conversion therapy with Love in Action, a group that believes they can help “those in trouble” with their sexuality “pray the gay away.” Over months of intensive “therapeutic interventions,” Conley realized the program was doing more harm than good, pleading with his mother to get him out of Love in Action. The book reads like something truly therapeutic rather the false notion of self-help espoused by Love in Action; a painfully honest recounting of what he witnessed and felt during a formative and tumultuous period in his young life.

It wasn’t long after the book’s publication that Conley’s story caught the eye and heart of Australian director, screenwriter, and actor Joel Edgerton, who was keen on bringing Boy Erased to the big screen. Directed and written by Edgerton (who also appears as Love in Action’s primary counsellor), the film casts award winning young actor Lucas Hedges as Conley (in one of three films he’ll appear in this fall, alongside Jonah Hill’s Mid90s and his father Peter’s addiction narrative Ben is Back) and Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as Garrard’s parents.

And while Conley was kept closely involved with the film’s production by Edgerton, the author and tireless advocate has been keeping busy on any number of other projects while he criss-crosses the globe in the continued support of Boy Erased. He’s currently researching queer lives during America’s Great Awakening for his next book, centering around an ex-pat British pastor and a family harbouring no small number of secrets. He recently began producing and hosting a podcast alongside the creators of Radiolab called UnErased: The History of Conversion Therapy in America, the first episode of which premiered last week. As if that weren’t enough, we’re speaking together on the day before the U.S. midterm elections, something that understandably means a lot to him and millions around the world, and he has been eagerly urging people to vote and make their voice hear during a pivotal moment in American politics.

We were grateful to speak with Conley during his second swing through Toronto in as many months (following the film’s Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September) to talk about the delicate nature of bringing Boy Erased to the big screen, what it’s like hearing stories from other conversion therapy survivors, what makes such programs so insidious and damaging, working with Edgerton and Hedges, how the book and film capture the history of such programs, and how it fits in with other similar works on the subject.

Trigger warning: talk of suicide and rape ahead.

I’m sure that between the book and the film, the past couple of years have opened you up to the experiences of other people who’ve similarly survived conversion therapy programs that, in some cases, might’ve been worse or more intense than your own. Between the initial publication of your memoirs up until the release of the film adaptation of them, has it gotten easier or more overwhelming to respond to the outpouring of similar stories that you hear on a regular basis?

Garrard Conley: I’d love to say it gets easier, but it does get more overwhelming. The first few messages and emails that I got when the book was published were largely from survivors of conversion therapy or from people who’d been previously involved in some form of fundamentalist Christianity, or other similar faiths. Those were emails of solidarity for the most part, or that’s how I labeled them in my mind. They might be full of pain, but they were mostly notes along the lines of “Thank you so much for writing this.”

And now, it’s somewhat different. As I’m sure you know, more people pay attention to movies these days than they do to books. When the trailer for Boy Erased dropped, I started getting these emails that were terrifying to me. I got a few threats, of course, and probably enough to feel significant. But the emails that I got that upset me and rocked me more often came from people who were suicidal, and they would say, “Please respond to me or I’m going to commit suicide.” I got several of those, and that made the responsibility I already felt feel even greater.

I called The Trevor Project, which is a big LGBT group in the U.S. that provides support in these situations, and I asked, “Well, what do I do?” And they told me that it was really important not to meet the demands they were asking, but instead give them resources. But at that point, I realized that this was on a completely different level than I had been on before. People’s lives were on the line, and what I said could affect their well being. That was scary, and it still is to me. There’s still so much pain out there.

And I’m sure it’s even scarier when one considers that so much has changed in the U.S. in such a short period of time. The time period your book and the film captures is vastly different from when you wrote down your story, and it’s even more chaotic and different now than when the book was published, especially when it comes to LGBT rights.

Garrard Conley: When I was writing the book in 2014 and 2015, that was during the Obama administration, and at the time, it was kinda radical to think “let’s try to understand these people, what they’re going through, and what they’ve been through.” Now, I don’t think I could write the same book that I did. It would be too angry, and I don’t think I could humanize my parents or the counsellors the way I did. I still think it’s worthwhile that I did it, but there’s still so much of this talk today among people that I don’t understand or think is constructive. “Well, you just need to understand why they’re racist or bigoted.” That’s such B.S. You don’t have to spend your energy doing that.

We’ve been dealing with a lot of that here with our own elections, with an extreme right wing candidate finishing third in the mayoral election, and last weekend there was a huge protest downtown when Steve Bannon came to town to engage in a debate of sorts.

Garrard Conley: How was he even allowed to do it in the first place? You can’t debate with people like that. People like my parents can change. I know this because I’ve seen that it’s possible from firsthand experience. But there are certain people that you simply cannot debate with. I just got done reading this article that says when someone is so far beyond the pale when it comes to hating people, you can’t meet them in the middle. Meeting them in the middle means you’re slightly racist or slightly bigoted or slightly homophobic. There’s no middle to meet there.

Martha Conley and her son and author Garrard Conley.

It’s fascinating to me that the film version of this was crafted by Joel Edgerton with Lucas Hedges in the leads because the first time I ever met Joel was alongside Lucas’ father, Peter, when they worked together on a different film. I would meet Lucas later, but his father was one of the most sensitive, open, and empathetic people I’d ever met, and I could immediately see those same qualities in his son. And Joel’s career has been so fascinating in the sense that he’s made some fairly dark films as a director and as a co-writer alongside his brother, but he’s also worked with some of the most astute and empathetic filmmakers today like Peter Hedges and Jeff Nichols. What was it like working alongside people like Joel and Lucas who seem to have great respect for the empathy you showed in your story?

Garrard Conley: Well, if you think of Joel’s first film as a director, The Gift, that’s a film about bullying. You’re always wondering throughout that film if Jason Bateman’s character is going to do the right thing, and how things could’ve turned out differently if he did. As sometimes sadistic as that plot can seem, it has a really strong moral message. And I think Boy Erased is also about bullying. Joel is always so interested and thoughtful when it comes to talking about subjects like that because he wants to understand them with hopes of making sure people don’t have to go through such things.

Lucas is a doll. He’s the sweetest person in the world. We first met in Brooklyn, and he just said that I should come and see the house where he grew up and lived with his father. One of the first things that he said was they he should see part of his life because I had given him so much of mine. I went over to his apartment, and I met Peter and his mom. It was so disarming that he would just give me this access to his life almost right off the bat. But later I learned that it’s just how he is. If you know him, he’s totally open.

Author Garrard Conley and actor Lucas Hedges on the set of Boy Erased.

When Joel decided he wanted to make the film, naturally he wanted to meet with some other people who had survived conversion therapy camps and programs, which you helped to facilitate. You wrote a book all about it, but you also had to be a guide for Joel into the experiences of others. What considerations did you have to take into account when bringing Joel into the lives of other survivors?

Garrard Conley: There wasn’t too much really. From the start, I always had the sense that Joel would never say the wrong thing. He would know how to ask things properly and respectfully. He’s very good at saying things the right way, and a lot of the people I introduced to Joel were seasoned speakers who’d been out and doing this stuff for awhile. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t introducing him to people who were so raw and not so far removed from their experiences that it would be immediately intimidating to a director. But Joel was always wonderful, and there was never a moment where I questioned his motivations. He kept me involved with everything and always stayed focused on the truth.

It also has to be interesting to have a film made about your experiences in the wake of documentaries that have covered conversion therapy programs and other fictional films like But I’m a Cheerleader and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, where you can see the cultural differences that make their way into youth culture and technological advances in the world around these characters, but you can also witness how these institutions double down on their religious ideologies. Across all these films you can see how the ideas and approaches generally stay the same, but the people going through these programs change with the times. What’s it like being a part of a similar film where these progressions and stagnancies can be charted almost along a timeline?

Garrard Conley: One of the things that I think you see in movies about this subject is that the general ideas are the same, but the people trying to force them onto others change their approaches. People are always finding new ways of saying things. They might not be different ideas, but they’re voiced through different language and mediums. Now, one of the biggest things being talked about is that it’s being referred to as “restoration” instead of “conversion.” These people will always find a way to move forward in their own minds without ever really moving forward. That’s the danger of what they do. They’re always repackaging themselves, and you can see that in these kinds of films.

I absolutely love But I’m a Cheerleader, and I was actually a consultant on Miseducation of Cameron Post. I really wish that one had more attention and distribution, but I was really happy to work on two movies that were so different. Miseducation was kind of a queer, slightly more fun take on things, but it still had a lot of drama in it, too. And then there was something like Boy Erased which is so serious. It was great to work on two films where people could enter this subject from two different entry points, experiences, and perspectives.

It’s kind of the right zeitgeist-y moment, if you think about it, to have two films like this coming out. Vice President Mike Pence supported conversion therapy, and people within the Trump administration are now talking about it in ways that are very scary, and even scarier for Trans people. When two movies come out around the same time like this, it feels really kismet and necessary.

And they’ve helped to bring about progress because people are speaking out and realizing that representation in these matters makes a huge difference. Lucas came out recently about his sexual fluidity, and a lot of the people behind the camera and in front of the camera on Boy Erased were queer, and that was so important for me. Even Joel was partnering immediately with LGBT organizations from the beginning. Joel is the definition of a good ally. It’s so hard to find one, but he’s one of the best. He was so great to work with.

When you found out this was going to be a film, were there any elements of the book that you were really guarded about when it came to Joel’s adaptation, either from your own perspective or for the sake of anyone else portrayed in your memoirs? Was there anything that was off limits for the film that you put in the book?

Garrard Conley: You know, once I handed it over to Joel, I more or less said, “From artist to artist, you take it and do what you want.” I had actually turned down writing the screenplay. I didn’t want to do it. I just gave it to him, trusted him, and I wasn’t going to try and get in the way.

That being said, of course my sexual assault was something I was very concerned with how it was going to be portrayed. I think Joel did a good job of it, capturing what that really felt like. But it’s still something that makes me feel uncomfortable, obviously. It makes me sad, but it’s a necessary part of the story. It’s sad that it has to be told, and I’m sad that a lot of people will be triggered by this experience. It’s going to be upsetting for a lot of people, but the truth is often the most upsetting thing to hear or bear witness to.

Well, something like that often opens up a doorway to other deeply uncomfortable feelings and self-doubts.

Garrard Conley: You’re right, and I think they all tie into why conversion therapy is so insidious. I talk a lot more about it in the book than can be shown in a two hour movie, but for me being raped and being told that my rapist had done the same thing to an even younger boy confirmed in a really sick and incredulous way everything I’d heard growing up about LGBTQ people being predators. At the time, conversion therapy made me think that my sexuality could make me into my attacker. At the time, the first thought was “Fuck that, cure me.” All of that feeds into why people go into conversion therapy in the first place. It all starts with fear and discomfort. The same common denominator always exists, which is bigotry. Being raped is always going to be a horrible experience, but when you’re raped and you or someone close to you starts filtering it through that lens of bigotry, that’s hard to escape.

And as someone’s who’s been through normal, licensed forms of therapy, it’s unsettling and disheartening to see untrained people using similar methodologies to forward a religious agenda.

Garrard Conley: They do, and that’s what’s so dangerous. In the end, when you try to go into regular therapy, you’re supposed to get emotionally distraught whenever stuff gets brought up, and then you work through it, think about it, and talk it out. Love in Action was doing the first part of that by breaking people down, and then telling them to pray on it. When you combine real therapeutic techniques with religion or pseudoscience, it has a lasting impact on how you see the world around you that’s really unfortunate and damaging.

Boy Erased opens in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver on Friday, November 9. It expands to cities across Canada on November 16.

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