Garrard Conley has spent much of his adult life raising awareness about the horrors of gay conversion therapy. As Conley's website notes, over 700,000 Americans have been subjected to the controversial practice, and over 20,000 Americans are currently enrolled in this kind of treatment. This is a statistic Conley knows intimately. When he was 19, Conley's fundamentalist Christian parents shipped him off to a conversion camp called Love in Action. He had a two-week evaluation, then spent six months in one-to-one therapy. The process left him near suicidal.
The movie Boy Erased, out November 2, amounts to another prong in Conley's mission. Boy Erased is based on Conley's 2016 memoir of the same title, which goes into detail about his childhood as the son of a Baptist minister in Arkansas, as well as the deeply disturbing ordeals of the camp. In the film, Lucas Hedges plays a fictionalized version of Conley, with a tweaked name (he's Jared Eamons).
Throughout high school, Conley hid his sexuality. In fact, he expected to marry high school girlfriend of two years. Conley rationalized his homosexuality away: "I did love her in many ways, and she'd protected me. So, I thought, 'Well, there's just this sex thing — what does that matter?'" Conley told BBC.
When Conley graduated from high school, he attended a small liberal arts college in Arkansas and finally experienced the freedom he longed for in the "cult-like" environment of his childhood, as he explained to BBC News. Conley stopped going to church and explored literature, which he later said "saved him." He especially connected with Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. "Okay, people hate her based on what she looks like and who she is, and everyone in this town is wrong! It was amazing: Someone took the time to craft this narrative that lets me know that everyone in a town can be wrong about an issue," Conley explained to Electric Literature.
But the exploratory phase came with a terrible price: A new friend, called David in the book, raped Conley — then called his mother and outed him as gay.
Conley's father gave him stark choice: He could renounce his family ties, or he could attend Love in Action (LIA), a therapy camp in Memphis, TN, to "cure" himself of his homosexuality. In Conley's father's mind, same-sex attraction was a sickness. Conley agreed to his father's conditions. That's how Conley found himself at the LIA facility in 2004, turning over his phone, wallet, driver's license, and journal, a marker for the even more stringent restrictions that would come.
LIA was structured around a 12-step program, like the one found in Alcoholics Anonymous. As Conley explained in an interview with The Rumpus, "They were AA steps, but they’d been modified. I always felt like each step was a narrowing down of experiences and pain. Each step was like we’re going to shrink it a little more, until by 12 you are no longer really a person at all." Everyone was given a 374-page handbook for becoming straight. Conley likens the experience to brainwashing. He didn't feel as though there we a way out.
And there wasn't. Not until his mother, Martha, intervened. When she and her husband chose to send Conley to LIA, Martha hadn't realized how dangerous the therapy — which is banned in nine states — really was. The organization came recommended by her congregation and boasted an "84% cure rate." While Conley was away, she began researching. “I was doing the homework that I should have done before we took him, and that’s part of my guilt right there,” Martha told The New York Times.
After six months, his parents took him out of the program. His mother only learned the details of what really occurred when they read the memoir in 2016. Conley told the BBC his father hasn't read the memoir, but he is supportive of his son – within certain bounds. The night Conley spoke to his father about the memoir, his father got behind the pulpit and said, “'My son has this book coming out that’s about gay stuff. If you need to leave the church I’ll understand, but I’m staying here.” For Conley, his father's acknowledging the book was a kind of acceptance.
Since Conley's harrowing experience in 2004, the gay conversion therapy landscape has changed slightly. In 2012, Exodus International, a large umbrella organization for the camps, rebranded and is now focusing on encouraging gay people to embrace celibacy or to enter heterosexual marriages nonetheless. And some figures have left the "ex-gay" community entirely: In 2014, John Smid, the former director of Love in Action (and the man who welcomed Conley on his first day at LIA), married his same-sex partner. But camps still exist. In an interview with The Rumpus, Conley noted that since Love in Action shut down and Exodus rebranded, the camps have become smaller and harder to track.
"There’s no doubt in my mind that these little groups are going to do something disturbing again, if they aren’t already. I don’t have enough information on this, and one of my frustrations with this whole research process is that I just couldn’t find accurate information," Conley said.