This isn’t America’s past, it’s our present: minors who hearken from religious families continue to be subjected to conversion therapy in hopes of curbing the onset of homosexuality and other “deviant” behaviors. Despite universal condemnation from leading health organizations (as well as from President Obama) and warnings that these programs are likely to encourage depression and suicide, they are still legal in all but five US states. In other words, this isn’t just our present — unless something changes, it’s also our future.
In Boy Erased, a new memoir from Riverhead Books, Garrard Conley relives the events which led him to voluntarily submit to ex-gay therapy at age nineteen, inviting readers to tread a narrow, rocky path alongside him exploring the motivations of everyone involved in that decision. Lacking support from his father, a Baptist pastor whose charitable works include offering candy to prisoners in exchange for rote memorization of Bible verses, or his mother, torn between her religious beliefs and concern for her child’s welfare, Conley finds himself defenseless against a college friend’s acts of sexual betrayal.
Rather than cast blame, Conley’s memoir seems engineered to illuminate the darker corners of these religious communities, honoring their growing pains and exchanging snap-judgments for deeper discussions about the social, sexual, and spiritual needs of young people — and the dangers parents court by refusing to acknowledge them.
SIGNATURE: Reading Boy Erased is bound to stir up a lot of uncomfortable feelings, particularly in readers who can strongly relate to your journey. Have you been finding kinship with a lot of people who have similar backgrounds?
GARRARD CONLEY: I have, and that’s been maybe the best part of this experience on the tour so far. People have reached out through Facebook to spill their story, and I actually find it really healing and helpful — at least at this point. It was obviously very painful to write and to reconstruct honestly, because there’s this temptation in memoir to constantly find some sort of veneer or lens through which I can look at the past, because otherwise when I go into those scenes it feels like it’s too close. I had to remind myself it just wouldn’t be effective; I had to sort of make the reader go through it with me instead. So I wanted to make it to feel like each day of that ex gay facility was very real. That’s one of the reasons I’m very happy people are saying it’s painful to read at times, I’m happy it’s effective in that way.
SIG: It occurred to me that the process of writing a memoir sort of mirrors your ex-gay therapy assignments, which asked you to chronicle each and every one of your sins. Were there realizations about that whole experience you don’t think you would’ve ever had if you hadn’t written this book?
GC: Definitely, and I’m so glad you picked up on that, because it was one of the most important aspects of the structure for me. The second part of the book starts off with that Foucault quote about internalizing rules and using them against the ones who initially imposed the rules, so a lot of my thinking on the structure of those chapters was based on the genogram with the sin symbols I had to complete — so what happens if I show that, and then in the subsequent chapters demonstrate what my family’s actually like, all of the nuance involved in a family life. And then the second day was the moral inventory I had to perform, which asks you to talk about any sinful thoughts or actions, and I thought: wouldn’t it be interesting to show how much they’re omitting by asking those questions, like they’re not considering the fact that you might have been raped, or the fear of even touching another person? So I was using those rules against them. But I don’t think I ever felt bitter writing it, I just wanted to see where those ideas took me.
That’s a long answer, but it did totally make me rethink the past by considering those exercises from a new perspective, and a more generous one. When you’re in pain, it’s really hard to be generous to the people who are inflicting the pain, and especially to yourself. So, I couldn’t write the book until I really forgave myself for any complicit behavior that could have led me to that place.
SIG: You write about how exposure to literature coincided with your sexual awakening, but also observed that in most of the literature commonly available to the public, gay sex is still associated in print with rape and shame. People may talk about how gay has become “normal” and “mainstream,” but the literature that’s most widely available still doesn’t necessarily reflect that. Is that something you think will change?
GC: I think it is changing currently — these past few years have had many great LGBT titles that have become more mainstream. You can look at Garth Greenwell’s narrative, which may be about secret desire, but it’s also a celebration of the body. I think when I was a kid — and I don’t know how much of this is a projection — but it seemed like everything I found that was gay had some sort of prurient feel to it, like it was an exposé or something from an outsider’s perspective, even if it was written by a gay man. I don’t know how accurate that is, but it felt very real to me growing up in that small town. Especially in film: you just didn’t see a gay person who wasn’t dying of AIDS for a while.
I think the closest I came to seeing some different portrayal of gay life was “Queer as Folk,” but I never identified with club culture, which was up front in that show. For a kid from Arkansas, it was really hard to connect with characters who were already in a big city and already partying; they had their own family. I didn’t see a way forward; in many ways I think the [mainstream] culture didn’t want us to find a way forward.
SIG: Even when you get out into the wider world where there’s more representation, people still get very upset about how they’re being represented. Some of that is valid, but maybe sometimes it’s merely showing us a side of ourselves we can’t relate to, or don’t like?
GC: I think a lot of that has to do with self-loathing, and I think people should be excused for it sometimes. Again, it’s part of the process. There’s the coming out, and then there’s the coming out, which for me is a constant process of realizing I’ve internalized something negative about myself, or about gay culture. When I was younger and just getting out of the ex-gay stuff, I would have conversations with my mom that now make me cringe so much. I’d say things like, “I want a man, I don’t want anyone effeminate,” or “Don’t worry, I’m not into wearing heels or anything,” which all sounds so stupid now, because it’s fascinating how many varieties of sexuality we can experience. At the time I was clawing my way to an identity, and because there didn’t seem to be one I could just fit into, I felt very much that I had to push up against other identities and lessen them in some way.
SIG: People who’ve experienced a religion or small-town culture and then left it behind seem to have a unique view of it from the outside; we see something about them that they can’t see about themselves. Deep down, you think that’s part of their fear?
GC: It’s infinitely complicated. There’s always bias against people who live in different cultures, the way people in big cities like New York look down on Southerners, and vice versa. All that is easy enough for us to dismiss, but the person who’s crossed over from one into the other is uniquely positioned to call out the real forms of bigotry that the South is perpetuating, for example, and it’s easier for us to understand the ideas that are important to the South — like the emphasis on family, and continuing family heritage. We can know that and also say: “What you’re doing right now is not good for your family, it is not making you a good Southerner.”
Again, you can take their rules and use them against them, and of course they don’t like that. Whenever my dad and I are arguing about the Bible, I can spout off like five or six different verses to contradict anything he’s saying, and that’s uncomfortable. I think that’s the real work, in many ways, of my life and my book: to speak their language, but also speak the language of tolerance.
SIG: I loved the way the book also reflects your mom’s journey. Has she read the book yet? What is her journey like now?
GC: She’s read only parts of the book. Before I sent it in, we had several conversations that were taped — that’s all said in the book, I think. I wanted to make sure we had her story as much as possible, because I had no idea what she’d gone through, since I’d been so upset with my parents for so long.
Right after I sold the proposal for the book, which didn’t have much about my mom in it at the time, we were sitting on this roof in Savannah celebrating the 4th of July, and a woman saw I had these advance reader copies on the table that I’d just gotten from Riverhead. She asked about my job, and I said, “I just sold my book.” She asked the inevitable followup, “What is your book about?” I told her it was about having gone through ex-gay therapy, and she said: “How the f*** could any parent do that?” The woman had no idea my mom was sitting right next to me, and she started sobbing. And I was like: “That’s a really good question, but it makes me angry that you don’t know the answer to it.”
I mean, have you ever been to the South? Have you ever been to any of those churches? Have you ever taken the time to understand what half the country is like? We do worse things to our children. It’s no surprise that among the homeless, LBGT make up 40%. Parents do worse than that!
So that was when I realized my mom’s story could function as a way for someone like that woman on the roof to understand what her journey was — just how a parent could do that.
SIG: The issue of gay rape is very seldom discussed, even in the gay community. It’s an inevitable byproduct of a world that isolates people and pushes them to desperate extremes for sexual fulfillment, as well as a culture that touts sexual freedom above all else. Why do you think the community has such a hard time discussing it?
GC: I’m so naive, I didn’t even know it was a difficult thing to discuss until I started trying to discuss it with people. I’m not the best resource on gay culture, because I’ve never lived in a place that really likes gay people. I’ve got a very skewed perspective on it, but I’m just beginning to understand this is a thing in the culture at large. It’s obviously not just LGBTQ culture — male rape is itself just something that doesn’t really get discussed.
My experience was that I didn’t want to believe it was rape, because I didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that someone had physically dominated me in that way; it was a very masculine response. So I went from there to “Obviously some part of me must have wanted it, because I’m gay.” It took a while to realize it was just very directly rape.
We’re vulnerable because we’re not part of mainstream culture, not even with marriage equality; we’re still so far from being normalized. That’s a good thing in many ways, but it can also make us vulnerable. I’ve found that if I ask any gay man “What were your first sexual experiences?” they tend to be sort of murky or confusing or even violent. I think because that’s been sort of a rite of passage, there’s an element of “I didn’t get any help, so why should you? This is a normal thing. Buck up.”
SIG: There may also be this reluctance to address it because gays have so often been stereotyped as sexual predators; the fact that there is a lot of predation is something we’d rather not draw attention to.
GC: I don’t recall if I addressed this in the book, but that was definitely one of the reasons why I went into ex-gay therapy, because [my rapist] had confessed to me that he’d also previously raped a fourteen-year-old boy, and so I blamed myself for staying in that room after he told me that. I also blamed myself because I thought, “If this is what gay people do, then I don’t want to be gay.” I believed what everyone had always told me, and thought: “I don’t want to be a pedophile, and since I don’t have those feelings now, I should stop while I can.”
SIG: Ex-gay therapy has been made illegal in lots of states, but the one thing we know about churches is they believe they answer to a higher power. Is there a risk that the practices will persist, and just be moved underground?
GC: I think there was a New York Times opinion piece about this very thing. People say it should be banned everywhere, but then others come back and say, “Well they’re just going to go underground.” I think both of those statements are true. My theory is that when you have laws that go top down, sure, it will go underground — but it also sends a much larger cultural message. At least if there was some kind of Federal law banning it, there would be a conversation to be had.
SIG: And parents would know it was a major transgression.
GC: Exactly. They’d have to be a Tea Party crazy and believe the entire country was wrong. Those parents do still exist, of course, but we still need that larger cultural message. Then we need people who are willing to really investigate the places where it’s still going on and really raise awareness about it. Otherwise, what’s the difference between going underground or operating the way they do now? I don’t see much difference there.
Right now it’s just sort of a joke — a lot of times when I tell people about my experience, they say “No way, that could never possibly happen.” But look at all the crazy stuff that can still exist in 2016. We have Trump as the Republican nominee! These things don’t come out of nowhere, and we need to show people this is still part of our culture, and really try to end this right now.
SIG: A lot of readers will relate to your use of video gaming as a distraction and teenage coping device. In the book you write about ultimately rejecting that coping device, and in a way everything that happened afterward was a result of that. Have you gotten to a point where you can enjoy video games again?
GC: I do, I finally got back to them. For years I wouldn’t, thinking “It will make me lax again, it will break my focus and I’ll let people do horrible things to me again.” I live in Bulgaria now, and my boyfriend (who’s also Bulgarian) and I play the Wii, which is not very intense gaming, it’s just like, “Let’s play Mario!” He never grew up playing video games, so it’s been really fun to introduce him to this side of myself. He doesn’t quite get why we’re doing it, it’s just weird to him. But it’s purely recreational, not as serious as it used to be.
SIG: You’re also not as alone in it as you used to be.
GC: That’s true, I have lots of friends now. At the time I really needed to sink into those worlds. Though I admit, I do wish I had just one week with no obligations when I could stay home and play the latest Final Fantasy game!