‘Boy Erased’ Author Garrard Conley on Gay Conversion Therapy, Why Mike Pence Is ‘Definitely Our Enemy’

Confronted with the horrors of gay conversion therapy, 'Boy Erased' author Garrard Conley refused to break. He now vows to save the lives of others.

Garrard Conley
Boy Erased author Garrard Conley. Kaitlyn Flannagan for Observer

In 2016, Garrard Conley released a memoir about his time as a teenager undergoing gay-conversion therapy with the Christian fundamentalist organization Love In Action (now known as Restoration Path). Boy Erased details the two weeks he spent trying to pray the gay away with the help of the Memphis-based ministry’s 12-step program, as well as the trauma of being outed by a college crush who raped him.

Conley’s heartbreaking, redemptive story has now been made into a movie, adapted and directed by actor Joel Edgerton, who also stars as Love in Action’s lead ex-gay therapist. Lucas Hedges plays Jared, who is based on Conley; Nicole Kidman plays Jared’s mother, Nancy; and Russell Crowe plays his Baptist pastor father, Marshall. The film is as moving as its source material, but while he does explicitly condemn the abusive practices of conversion therapy, Edgerton insisted on a more objective depiction of what happened to Conley. That meant doing away with the first-person perspective of the memoir, which worried Conley. Without his voice to guide them and explain his decision at 19 to enter the program, would audiences judge him? “It was terrifying at first,” he said. “It was like, People are gonna think I’m just dumb.

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In reality, this new adaptation of Conley’s harrowing journey has only cast a light on his bravery and indefatigable spirit. In the face of core-shaking manipulation and abject horror, Conley refused to break. Instead, he escaped, making a pact that he’d continue to share his tale of suffering and survival in an effort to save the lives of others.

Observer spoke with Conley about the joy and discomfort he felt seeing Boy Erased on the big screen, his reluctance to turn his story over to a straight director and why he continues to visit his father’s church in Arkansas each year to declare his humanity.

Observer: When you were writing Boy Erased, did it ever occur to you that it might be something someone would want to adapt into a film?

Conley: No. First of all, people were like, “It’s a gay book, so it’s probably not going to sell very much.” I heard that from people in the industry. That’s still something people aren’t afraid to say.

And that was just two years ago.

Yeah, and they’re still saying it. It’s really unfortunate that people feel entitled to say that, especially after something like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which was a huge book, or What Belongs to You, which my friend Garth Greenwell wrote. They were huge successes, so let’s stop pretending like LGBTQ books can’t be successful—especially memoirs.

You’ve said that the trauma that you write about in the book is still pretty raw for you after all these years. What was it like for you seeing it depicted in this film?

It’s so strange. In a memoir you have the chance to fluff up everything through your language. You can make yourself seem really smart even though you’re agreeing to go to conversion therapy. You can explain your thinking in a way that provides the reader with a map into that experience. You can’t really do that in film. It’s just so much more objective in that sense, especially since Joel really chose to tell the parents’ story as well. So, the first time I watched it, I was so embarrassed. I just thought I was so dumb. Lucas is such a wonderful performer, and he shows the nuance of character through his facial expressions, but the first time I watched it I was just incredibly embarrassed that that’s who I am.

Nicole Kidman and Lucas Hedges in Boy Erased. Focus Features

So there was no distance from that character? Because the names have been changed.

To Jared? [Laughs] It’s weird, because almost everything is play-by-play the same story. A few things were changed, but not many. When Joel and I were talking about it pretty early on, when we were constructing this idea together, he was like, “I want it to be a stand-in for more people’s experiences.” So the other characters at Love in Action, like Cameron [played by Britton Sear]—with the Bible beating and the fake funeral—he was based on a real person who actually attended a screening of the film; he did not kill himself. There were people who killed themselves from my program, though. But Joel had to summarize that with one character and compress it.

Just in talking with Lucas—who was very much a part of the character creation and very deeply involved in it because he’d read the book three or four times and loved it—when we talked he was like, “I don’t want to feel the pressure of having to be you. I want it to be my own take.” So that’s when we decided, it’s Jared, not Garrard.

What aspects of your younger self did you recognize in Lucas’ performance?

There was this sort of uncanny thing that happened. When he was first doing the table read, it didn’t feel like he was doing me necessarily, but his mannerisms and the pain inscribed on his face in various places…now that I watch it, I can see that’s what we all sort of looked like. And it’s a bit uncanny that he was able to do that without having any access to that world. But we talked so much, and he was also probably looking at me while I was recounting things. He visited my family with Joel and David Joseph Craig, the co-producer of the film who also plays Michael, who you hate because he checks Jared in. So we all went to visit my family, and I think Lucas could see me sort of regress a bit when I was home and when my dad was a bit awkward around everyone. I was that kid again, in that setting.

What do your parents think of the film?

My mom just saw it at the Toronto Film Festival and loved it. She was like, “Thank God, they got it right!” Dad has not seen it. I think he’ll probably stream it at some point. We invited him to come to the premiere and everything, but he’s still a pastor at that church and it’s incredibly complicated. No matter what he may believe now, those people are not ready.

But I’m very stubborn, and I also think that as a cis gay man, I have the privilege to go back into these spaces and educate people, and I feel like I can. So, I’ll go back to church and be like, “What are you gonna do about it?” My dad has 200 members [in his congregation], and even though that may be a small number, it’s 200 people that may change their minds in Arkansas. And so I show up maybe once a year and just declare my humanity. Hopefully that in itself will do something. And my dad does not speak out against LGBTQ people. He says that he loves them, but he stops there. That’s a step.

Garrard Conley with his mother, Martha Conley, on the set of Boy Erased.
Garrard Conley with his mother, Martha Conley, on the set of Boy Erased. Kyle Kaplan / Focus Features

Did you have a particularly strong reaction to any of the scenes in the film?

You can probably imagine which one—the rape sequence. Strangely enough, I’ve never had a bad reaction to it. I actually thought that it was very tastefully done, but it captured the horror of having that as your first sexual experience and the impetus for saying yes to going to conversion therapy, because you’re already spinning out of control. My reaction every time I watch it is that it is really well done. Thankfully, we have a depiction of male-on-male rape in a film so we can talk about it. I’m happy about that.

Let’s talk about the confrontation between Hedges’ character and Crowe’s character. You’ve said that one of the insights you’ve had over the years is that your father isn’t the villain and you’re not the victim. Joel Edgerton has said he wanted to make that clear in this film—that everyone did what they did for complicated reasons. 

I do think the movie takes a side. But in taking that side, it doesn’t throw people under the bus. Because the real enemy is the culture that created [the situation]. One of the things I’m very determined to do in every interview is mention what’s going on with trans people right now. Because now we have real enemies. I mean we’ve always had them, but now they’re in power. I never want to say that Mike Pence is not our enemy. He is definitely our enemy. But the churches—it’s hard for me to say this, but even the people who voted for him and feel differently now, they are not our enemies.

But I did have a lot of anger around that time. The “lie chair” exercise, where I had to sit across from an empty chair and imagine my dad there, when they were telling me what I had to feel, that was different for me than anything else they’d done. When they told me that I had to hate my parents, basically, it wasn’t hatred being used, it was almost mind control. Even my most basic emotional reaction, you’re telling me that’s wrong. I think there are moments in our lives when intuition or instinct finally kicks in and we realize, This is my last chance to be a normal person. If I go any further with this, I’m not going to be who I am anymore. I think a lot of people feel that and a lot of people repress it.

The impetus for Jared to finally quit the program is insisting that he’s not angry with his father. But in the end, he really is angry with his father.

There’s an irony there that gets played out. 

Were you at all hesitant about actors and filmmakers who do not identify as gay telling your story?

Definitely. I think I was wary at first. But I was also a struggling artist and was like, Oh, my god, money! I can have money! But at the same time, I didn’t want to sell out. Joel heard me out. We’ve been honest from the very beginning. I said, “Why are you doing this?” I wrote him this crazy four-page document on LGBTQ representation, and I was like, “If you do not make a good faith effort to hire as many LGBTQ people for both in front of and behind the camera then I can’t support this.” And he did. When you were on set it was very queer. I think he knew that he was manning the ship, but this was not his story. But he also knew the crowd that he’s trying to convert. It’s these parents around these queer kids who don’t have a way out of these towns. We’re trying to get as many people as we can who are around these queer kids to be allies, and that’s really hard to do.

How do you feel about the way gay-conversion therapy has been depicted in popular culture? How does Boy Erased fit into the cannon with films like But I’m a Cheerleader and this year’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post?

When I first came back from conversion therapy, my boyfriend at the time made me watch But I’m a Cheerleader. My first reaction was so much anger! This isn’t it. It’s not right. But, of course, I love it now.

I think that with any representation of a story like this, you need to have a multiplicity of narratives. I love that Cameron Post is more in the tradition of But I’m a Cheerleader and it has dramatic elements. I think it’s a very queer film, obviously. It’s from a queer director and you have a very queer perspective there. I also love that Boy Erased, from what I’ve heard from survivors, is the most accurate depiction of conversion therapy to date. For that reason, it’s very triggering for people. But I think it’s going to stand the test of time. It’ll be a document that people can look at and say, “That’s really accurate!” I love that we have both of these stories in the same year. I was actually a consultant on Miseducation. I met with Desiree [Akhavan, who directed the film] and Chloë [Grace Moretz, who stars in it] and gave them my book, so I like to think that they brought in a little more drama because of that.

I think it’s wonderful that conversion therapy will finally be a mainstream topic. I don’t want anyone to ever come up to me again and be like, “I can’t believe this is happening! I never knew about it!” I want everyone to know. ‘Boy Erased’ Author Garrard Conley on Gay Conversion Therapy, Why Mike Pence Is ‘Definitely Our Enemy’