Garrard Conley is audibly tickled to be interviewed by an LGBTQ publication.
“I don’t like talking to straight magazines,” says the 33-year-old gay author of Boy Erased, his memoir about his few torturous weeks spent in a conversion therapy program as a teenager. Realizing how that sounds, he clarifies.
“It’s not that I don’t like talking to straight ones. I talk to straight ones because I want the topic to be mainstream. I want everyone to get angry about it and do something about it, but it’s like a breath of fresh air when I’m talking to someone who’s LGBTQ because they just get it — they understand the trauma. It gets exhausting to try to explain your basic humanity to [straight] people, you know? During the interview, I’ll be like, ‘Can we please talk about how the administration is erasing trans people from existence? That’s conversion therapy.’ And they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ and they’ll cut that from the piece because they only want to talk about whether or not I cried when I watched the film. It’s just a different tone.”
The second film released this year to deal with the horrors of conversion therapy — the first being The Miseducation of Cameron Post, starring Chloe Grace-Moretz — Boy Erased is about as mainstream Hollywood as a topical film gets. The film was adapted and directed by Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who also stars as its antagonist, Victor Sykes, the man who runs Love in Action, where anything but love is deployed to break the spirit and brainwash LGBTQ people into believing they can be cured of their same-sex attraction. Sykes is a fictionalized stand-in for the camp’s real former head, John Smid, much as Jared Eamons, sensitively and passionately portrayed by Lucas Hedges, is a fictionalized version of Conley.
“It’s interesting to go to work and be violent or malevolent or bigoted or racist,” says Edgerton. “And yet in life those things would feel obviously very uncomfortable to me, and I’d feel very upset with myself for holding the opinions or views of these characters.” Still, as hateful as Victor is, Edgerton felt it was important to portray the man as more than a cookie-cutter villain.
“I have to bring an element of warmth and charisma to him,” he says. “He is presented as a real shoulder to cry on and a person who could be there to help and be a mentor. I wanted to just unsettle the audience in the beginning when they walk in that facility with Lucas’ character, to go, ‘Oh, this guy looks like he’s there to help. This guy may actually make these kids feel safe.’ And have the character do what John [Smid] did in real life, which is to use that safe space that he created, to use information he learns, to shame the children. I think that’s really insidious.”
In addition to Hedges, Edgerton cast Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as Jared’s parents, Nancy and Marshall.
“I think a lot of people think that I just have this Australian connection and that Russell and Nicole are on speed dial,” says Edgerton, “and that I was just being lazy and calling on my mates. But I was scared of casting them because I didn’t want people to think with me and Nicole and Russell that it was an Australian movie.”
Apart from the compelling acting chops Crowe and, especially, Kidman bring to the proceedings, Edgerton cast them for their uncanny resemblance to Conley’s actual parents. “I asked Garrard to see some of the family photos from that era. And when I saw pictures of him with his mom and dad, it was like I was staring at Russell and Nicole.”
Edgerton’s involvement with the film — along with commitments from his stars — helped fast-track the film, which is being released nationally by Focus Features this weekend.
“When I read the book, I knew I wanted to be involved somehow,” Edgerton recalls. “I didn’t know if I was the right person to make the film. Obviously, I’m not in the LGBTQ community and for that reason I was like ‘Ugh, I love this story. I feel so impassioned by it and inflamed by it, but I’m not allowed to be the one to make the movie.’ I very quickly turned that around, purely because I got so obsessed on a daily basis by Garrard’s story.”
The film garnered a bit of outspoken criticism from Cameron Post‘s Moretz, who was vocal in a summer interview with the L.A. Times over her frustration with Boy Erased getting major studio support despite lacking LGBTQ involvement. “Queer movies should be told through a queer lens and created by queer people,” said Moretz. She noted that Boy Erased “is going to be big — it’s written and directed by a white man, it’s shot through a straight male gaze.” Cameron Post‘s writer-director, by contrast, was Desiree Akhavan, a member of the LGBTQ community.
“I remember when that came out,” says Edgerton. “I have to admit, I was a little disappointed at the time that we weren’t able to just stand in solidarity and celebrate the fact that there was a double-pronged takedown of conversion therapy brewing in the same year.” Edgerton says Moretz reached out to after the article came out and made amends.
“I was a consultant on The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” adds Conley. “I met with Chloe and I met with Desiree, and so I was a little flabbergasted by that statement, especially because I’m the only survivor of conversion therapy that has anything to do with a film about conversion therapy…. I still think it’s valid to question why a queer person of color did not receive as much attention as a straight white man. That’s a valid question and I think it should be raised. I don’t agree that Boy Erased is an entirely straight white venture because so many people in front of the camera and behind the camera are queer in this film — we made sure of that, and every single LGBTQ organization was behind this film from the start.”
Conley stands behind the final product and Edgerton’s efforts in bringing the story to the screen with sensitivity, clarity, and powerful emotional depth: “For this particular piece of advocacy, I think it’s better that Joel directed it.”
“Like no other project, Boy Erased picked me and dragged me along, and I don’t feel any doubts about why I am the right person to have made it,” says Edgerton. “I’m happy that it exists in the world. The sooner it got out into the world, the better. I’m happy that I made it and I feel the support of many people now who have seen the film and I don’t feel judged for it and nor do I judge myself for it.”
Edgerton is hopeful that the film will bring the topic of conversion therapy into a greater national discussion. “I really hope it just puts the floodlights so much on the subject, and draws attention to it enough, that people who don’t know about conversion therapy will then form an opinion and hopefully do something about it. Our aim is to take it off the table and make it a thing of the past.
“I see Garrard’s story as a wonderful roadmap, because while his parents made the wrong choice by sending him to Love in Action, they also, in their own separate ways, have come around to a different point of view,” he continues. “Parents stand to learn the most from this movie and I really hope anyone who is close to making the decisions [Garrard’s parents] made, or have made those decisions in the past, or have a child in conversion therapy at the moment, or feel like that conversation of coming out is looming in their household, I hope that they see this film and see that there’s a different set of choices moving forward than Garrett’s family did.”
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with the notion of writing a memoir. What does it take to lay out yours and your family’s demons in full public view?
GARRARD CONLEY: That’s a good question. Before I even wrote a word of it, ten years had passed. Previously, I was only writing fiction, and pretty much everything that I wrote as fiction was some sort of version of conversion therapy. It would be like some sort of dystopian narrative, and the novels would always fall apart. I think truth is so much stranger than fiction — in fiction your details can’t be so wild because you have to somehow justify why you put a specific detail in there. It can feel exploitative. But whenever you write something as a memoir, the details become really important — recorded history — and then you can riff off of that.
So my story was always going to work better as the truth. I’d had 10 years to think about it and I couldn’t imagine why I had agreed to go into conversion therapy in the first place. I remember I was reading some blogs that were about conversion therapy and people were listing symptoms that had occurred after they’d been in conversion therapy. They were many of the same symptoms that I recognized in myself, like my inability to touch a man at certain points, the sense of shame I felt stayed with me. No matter how rational I’d become, there were these irrational parts of me, so I started to write it. But it didn’t feel complete. It felt like it was just one side of a story.
When I got serious about writing it, I visited with my mom in Florida. She was on vacation and I think I ruined her vacation. I came to see her and asked her to tell her story from the beginning. She was 16 when she got married to this man who she thought she loved, but she sort of disappeared into his life. And when I heard that story and why she agreed to conversion therapy, which was that she couldn’t go against the advice of these men around her, that was when I knew that I had a real story. It was no longer just my own journey, but my mom’s journey. And then, by looking at mom’s journey, and also my dad’s, I was like, “Well, what if I also looked at the counselor’s journey?” That was the hardest to do because I had to “friend” John Smid, who ran [Love in Action], on Facebook, and then communicate with someone who had been my abuser. But I’ll do anything for writing.
MW: What did you worry about most while writing the book?
CONLEY: When the book sold on proposal, I was terrified because I knew it was going to be a real thing. It was easier to think it wasn’t going to be a real thing because most books don’t get published. But when everything lined up so quickly, it felt like it would be a book that maybe a lot of people would talk about, and that was hard. I spent a year of my life with bad sleep, worrying about the truth. Did I get it all right? Did I reconstruct it properly? Am I showing my parents in a compassionate light? Is my family going to hate me?
In the middle of all that, I went to a writer’s conference, and while I was at that conference I did a thing that writers should never do. I ran up to Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild, this really great memoir that I enjoyed, and I said, “Please give me some advice on this. I feel like my family’s going to hate me when I publish this book.” And she said to me, “The people who hate you are going to continue to hate you, and the people who love you are going to continue to love you.” And I was like, that’s such a Cheryl Strayed thing to say, I’m going to just take it. It has proven true throughout.
MW: The book came out in 2016. Two years later it’s already a major motion picture. That’s a very fast trajectory.
CONLEY: Yeah, the timing of all this has been very strange to me. I was going around on my book tour in 2016 and warning people about Trump’s rise, because I was going back to Arkansas and seeing how excited people were, and I was taking that barometer, and I could tell that something was happening, and people were laughing at me. They were saying, “Oh, there’s no way.” My roommates at the time were saying, “Oh, I’m not even going to vote because it doesn’t matter.” I was so mad and angry. Just throw away your vote.
And then suddenly, a year later, when I was going around talking to the same people who couldn’t believe that conversion therapy was going on in the country, they were suddenly like, “Oh yeah, of course it’s going on,” because they’d been exposed to the underbelly of the country that they’d ignored for so long. It’s one of the things that has frustrated me so much about dealing with nice liberal crowds, which I’m a part of. But I’m also a southerner who knows what it’s like to be on the ground in a lot of these communities, and why this kind of harmful rhetoric is appealing to a lot of these people.
To this day, every Q&A that I do, there are many crowds here in New York, or L.A., or San Francisco where they’re just like, “I had no idea this was happening.” My response is a little bit catty because I’m like, “Did you also not know that 40 percent of all youth homelessness is LGBTQ? Did you know that? Do you not know anything about the country?” I’m the buzzkill for every city I go to, just spouting statistics.
MW: Those statistics are important, and the movie ends with some. If I recall correctly, a title card at the end of the film notes that 35 states still allow some form of legal conversion therapy.
CONLEY: Yeah, that’s true. Also, the bans that have been passed are only for teens or younger. In addition to that, any religious organization that wants to perform conversion therapy can charge for it because of religious protection laws in this country. So, Love in Action would not ever be banned according to that standard. We’ve got a long way to go.
MW: Do you think there’s something wrong with a religion that preaches love and goodness, and yet encourages this form of unsubstantiated cruelty?
CONLEY: What it is, I think, is that religion and faith have been co-opted by a few really bad seeds. Tony Perkins is one of them — he’s part of the Family Research Council and he’s someone who’s been a huge champion of conversion therapy, along with Mike Pence who, in the past, has donated to places like Focus On the Family. We know their funds went directly into supporting conversion therapy. Pence has tried to distance himself from that, but we know better. We know his track record on LGBTQ rights.
I think that these people have very cynically co-opted evangelical and fundamentalist movements that otherwise would have dealt with the issue very differently. For example, my father, had he known what Love in Action was doing, trying to make me hate him in order to be cured, he would’ve never sent me there. He wouldn’t have been a PFLAG dad, suddenly hanging out with my gay partners, but he wouldn’t have sent me to conversion therapy to be tortured.
I’d like to believe that most of these people who have supported conversion therapy haven’t really done a lot of digging into why it’s harmful. I think it’s a few really cynical people that are using terms like family and faith in a really dark way, pushing all the right buttons.
MW: I read an interview where you said “Pence is evil.”
CONLEY: [Laughs.] Oops!
MW: Was that really an “oops,” or do you genuinely believe that?
CONLEY: I do believe that. I also don’t like to say it because it angers all the conservatives, but yeah, I believe that.
MW: Why do you think people believe they have to “cure” homosexuality?
CONLEY: Let me talk about my father’s experience and then extrapolate from there. For my father, his faith is resting on something that is very rickety. I like to think of it as a Jenga game, and if you begin to prod at the Bible verses, you start to realize that these are all stories that were created in a historical period that had its own rules. And if you do that, then a lot of this sort of dogmatic or fundamentalist faith tends to erode, and what you’re left with is simply love or hatred. Those are the two sides of the coin. So, when you get rid of all of the scaffolding that people hide behind, what you find is people that don’t like LGBTQ people. They don’t like them not because of the Bible, because the Bible also says we should have slaves, but my dad doesn’t believe that slavery is okay. So, what is it? If it’s not the Bible, what is it? And I think that the answer is disgust.
MW: They see it as a sin against God.
CONLEY: I heard this the other day from someone. They said, “I hate it when people say Mike Pence is secretly gay, because it lets straight people off the hook. It makes it about our own community doing this to ourselves. But our own community is not doing this to ourselves — it’s the straight people that are bigoted that are doing this.” I get that argument. It’s too easy to say that every single person who’s homophobic is secretly gay or bi, you know? It just means then that we’re torturing ourselves. It’s hard for people to give up power once they have it, and so allowing for equality in this way seems to threaten them.
MW: How did you feel the first time you watched the film?
CONLEY: When I first saw the first cut of the film, I was with Joel [Edgerton] and my husband, and a few other people. It was a very intimate, small screening. I was just so embarrassed because I saw Lucas [Hedges] playing my part and I guess I just felt like, how could I have ever been that dumb? That was the first thought I had.
I was so confused when I watched it the first time, I didn’t know what I felt. I didn’t know if I liked the movie, and I said to Joel, “Can I watch it by myself? Can you send me a link and I’ll watch it on my laptop.” When I shut out the rest of the world and watched it the second time, I had a lot of sympathy for Lucas’ character and I was able to see him as someone other than me. I was like, “Oh, I know why he made this decision. He was raped and then he was outed to his parents and he was going to lose everything.” It felt extremely cathartic.
The third time I watched it was the final cut at Telluride Film Festival, and Nicole came in and was watching it for the first time. She was really nervous for me to watch it in front of everyone in a big crowd for the first time, so during all the really rough parts of the movie, she was giving me this back massage. I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to remember this moment because Nicole Kidman is giving me a back massage and this is really weird and amazing.” So I don’t think I’ve ever had a pure viewing experience. I think it’s just always going to be really surreal for me.
MW: How accurate was the movie with regard to your own memory of events, the big conversation between Kidman and Hedges, in particular?
CONLEY: It’s completely accurate. That’s what’s so crazy. That entire end sequence is pretty much right out of my life. The reality was actually more dramatic than the movie. My mom and I remember it pretty vividly, and Joel did a lot to play down some of the parts because he didn’t want it to be melodramatic. He didn’t want to make people caricatures even if they could easily be caricatures.
MW: Joel didn’t take dramatic liberties?
CONLEY: There weren’t many liberties taken at all. The only thing that happened was that a lot of details that are in the book were kept out. Like, you may not have known that there were people who were much older in the program that were dealing with pedophilia and bestiality and were all grouped together into a 12-step program. You might not have known that some of the other activities were even more harmful. If anything, things were omitted that Joel didn’t have time for in a two-hour movie.
There was a lot more with my first girlfriend in the book, and a lot more context about the rape. The movie shows the rape, it shows him crying, and then the rape is used against him by [Love in Action’s] Victor Sykes, who basically says, “I know you’re not telling me everything.” And that’s like a really dark thing that did happen, but I definitely explored what the rape meant a lot more in my book, especially because I thought rape hasn’t been written about thoroughly in general. People have so many weird assumptions about it, but yeah, I’d say if anything, things were just omitted.
MW: How does the trauma of the rape impact you to this day?
CONLEY: I think I’ve gotten over a lot of it, but I don’t think it ever leaves you, the trauma. There can be certain triggering moments, but yeah, it really sucks because basically my first sexual experience was taken from me, and my coming out was taken from me as well, by the same person. And he was just like a monster — I have absolutely no sympathy for him. He’s the only person in the book I don’t try to humanize, because I think there are just some people that turn into monsters or do something so bad that there’s just not much you can say about them.
One of the things that is really disturbing was that he raped me, and then told me that he raped a 14-year old boy in his congregation. In doing so, he basically seemed to confirm the very bigoted stuff that I’d always heard growing up: all gay men are pedophiles or perverts. And you know there’s a long history of that term with us, being called a pervert. And so it was another reason I joined conversion therapy because I thought, “Well, if that’s what sex is, and sex is rape, and if I’m going to turn into a child molester, then I don’t want that.” That’s a really insidious idea to be placed on someone at a pretty young age. If anything, it just made it easier for me to go into conversion therapy.
MW: I can’t imagine what that was like for you watching that scene on film. What’s interesting is that we think it’s leading toward a romantic moment, and then it turns into something brutal and dark and sad.
CONLEY: I know. It’s the thing that was most difficult for Joel to get right, because it is a very tricky moment and you don’t want it to be misread as that’s what gay sex is. It was a really hard thing I think for him to write.
MW: If you hadn’t experienced this trauma, do you think you would have fought harder against the conversion therapy?
CONLEY: Yeah, I really think had he not done what he’d done, both raped me and outed me, I would’ve never gone to conversion therapy. Once it was all out, and I was dealing with that trauma, and then, in addition, the trauma of my father saying to me, “You’re not going to step foot in this house again if you don’t do this.” That’s three blows in one. You just lost everything. There’s nothing there to hold onto.
MW: That’s the greatest fear for any kid coming out. “Am I going to be ousted from the family?”
CONLEY: And I think the movie plays it a little softer because I think Joel wants these people to be more sympathetic. In two hours you can’t both have a father saying, “I don’t want to talk to you again unless you go to this,” and then have that final scene [of understanding] between him and his son. In a book you can, because there’s a lot more time and you have a lot more space to sort of explain why he did what he did, but in a movie you just can’t because the audience would automatically be like, “No, he doesn’t deserve to talk to Jared right now.” So I think if anything the trauma is really downplayed in the film.
John Smid, for all he’s doing now and as great as it is that he’s changed his tune and is now married to a man, in his original promotional materials to his supporters, wrote about going to see a man who was dying of AIDS in a hospital. He writes about it with gratuitous detail, and then he says, “Let’s make sure that no one else will die by this lifestyle, so you should donate money.” That’s really dark, dark stuff. Again, the movie doesn’t show that.
MW: He’s still a fairly dark and sinister presence in the film. Do you forgive him for what he did to you and others? I mean, it seemed he was trying to make you worse so he could justify keeping you in the live-in program and extorting more money from your parents.
CONLEY: I’ve talked to Smid, and he’s doing all the right things now. I can see that he’s a different person in many ways, but it’s just really hard to forget.
MW: What do you think Smid’s motivations were? Given that he’s now acknowledged that he’s gay, was he doing this purely out of greed or self-loathing at the time?
CONLEY: I think it’s incredibly complicated, actually. I know for a fact that he was subjected to a lot of homophobia when he was younger and he did not have an easy life. It was actually a very difficult life, so I cut him slack there. I think that once he became the head of Love in Action, like anything, power can go to your head. I think that he, for the first time, felt really important. I think Exodus International, the umbrella group that operated all of the conversion therapy facilities, made him feel like he was really important, and that’s important to realize. I think they were using him, but I also think that he was like, “Well, what if I changed it? What if I made it even more important? What if I added Freudian theory and Alcoholics Anonymous and all this other stuff?” That’s where I think he’s extremely culpable. I found out later that in one year they were making a million dollars — this was a small place and that’s not a small amount of money. So I can’t imagine that money and greed and power didn’t play into his role.
MW: Who do you think Boy Erased is for? Who is its primary audience?
CONLEY: I don’t think it’s necessarily for queer people. I think that survivors [of conversion therapy] who have watched it, they’ve all told me that it was for them. I try to imagine watching this outside of my own experience and I think I would’ve needed it as a survivor. That being said, I think it’s for parents and people around LGBTQ youth, because that’s the audience that needs to see it.
It’s not for maybe someone who’s been out of the closet for a long time. That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy watching it. I think the movie is a piece of advocacy, and the podcast [UnErased: The History of Conversion Therapy in America] continues that trend to where it shows the whole history of conversion therapy. So I like to think of them all operating as windows that people can enter from different perspectives.
MW: Honestly, the movie feels like a call to arms.
CONLEY: It is. It’s a call back to those types of movies that are basically like, “Okay, let’s get political now.” I’m into that. The whole reason I let Joel take the rights is because here’s a man who has really great contacts who can make this a mainstream topic. We very intentionally made sure that Hollywood stars were in it so that we could get people to watch it who might not otherwise. Will it work? I don’t know. Is it worth trying? Yes. Even if it affected one person, which I already know it affected a lot of people because they’re coming up to me after screenings, crying, and psychologists who are in Texas, for example, are using the film as a way to talk to their patients who have been through trauma. So already it’s doing its job.
Last night, I got two letters from two different girls in New York City who were not out yet that said that the movie spoke to them and gave them courage to come out. These were two letters that were handed to me at a screening last night. I’ve received emails from people who are still struggling.
I can see why, to an outside viewer, especially someone who’s in a metropolitan area who is gay and been out for a while could be like, what is this movie for? It’s definitely not Call Me By Your Name. But I also know the work it’s doing, and that’s good enough for me.
Boy Erased is Rated R and opens Friday, Nov. 9, at area theaters, including Landmark’s E Street Cinema in D.C., ArcLight Bethesda in Maryland, and Anjelika Film Center Mosaic in Virginia. Visit fandango.com. The book, published by Riverhead Books, is available for purchase at Amazon.com.