Ex-Gay Therapy from the Inside – An Interview with Garrard Conley
In recent years, so-called “ex-gay” Christian therapy programs have come under fire, with one of the most notable headlines being the closure of umbrella organization Exodus International in 2013. The most common media narrative has been a story of repentance and redemption, leaders of the movement publicly claiming regret for what they’ve done. But there is a more urgent story: that of the people who survived, or didn’t survive, the damage inflicted by these programs.
In 2004, during his first year of college, 19-year-old Garrard Conley was outed to his family against his will. While this would be a traumatic experience for anyone, it was complicated by Conley’s conservative environment. His father was a Missionary Baptist preacher in a small, close-knit Arkansas town. His family gave him an ultimatum: attend a two-week “ex-gay” therapy program in Memphis called Love in Action (LIA, the original conference that spawned Exodus International), or be disowned. Conley chose to attend LIA.
Boy Erased, published by Riverhead Books this May, is Conley’s account of the dehumanizing LIA experience. It is a story told from the inside, from someone who endured the dismantling of identity inherent in “ex-gay” therapy and lived to talk about it. As Maud Newton said in her blurb for the book, it is a story “from a survivor and former believer, rather than the incredulous outside,” which is what makes it nuanced and vital.
As a writer who grew up in a similarly repressive church in Northwest Indiana, I was drawn to Boy Erased and the need for its message, in a time where, even post-marriage equality, LGBTQ people are still facing discrimination, LGTBQ youth are still committing suicide at alarming rates, and “ex-gay” therapy is banned in only five states. Conley lives in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he teaches English literature at the American College of Sofia and promotes LGBTQ equality. I spoke to him via Skype before he left for the U.S. to embark on his book tour.
You dedicate the book to your parents, and you thank them in the acknowledgements. How has your relationship with them evolved?
Garrard Conley: It’s always complicated. But there were a few developments that happened right after the book sold. One is mentioned in the epilogue. I called my dad and told him that I had to write this book, and that it was going to sell and he really, I think earnestly, wanted me to be happy. So it felt like a sort of natural ending or some sort of sense of closure for the book even though, obviously, it’s not very tidy. My mom told me that he went into his office and cried quite a bit after I told him that I wrote the book because I love him, and I really wanted to make his character as nuanced as possible. He decided to write sort of his own coming out, not as a gay person but as a father of a gay son. He went to church and told everyone in the congregation that this book was going to be published. He told them he didn’t agree with everything that I did, but I am his son and if anybody wants to walk out they can. And so that was a big moment in our family, obviously. But then, just recently, some church member of his got on my Twitter and saw that I was being “too gay” and told my dad that he needed to check my Twitter. I don’t know what my dad read, but my mom said that he’s afraid that I’m going to Hell again, so that’s where we are currently.
So you are moving forward and backward.
GC: I always say this to my students in Bulgaria. We have an elective on LGBTQ history. I also teach it in my classes because it’s a very important topic here because, as you know, Eastern Europe is not the best at LGBTQ rights. I tell them that progress is not this clean line from one point to the other, and my father’s and my relationship is Exhibit A. We’re moving along but it’s complicated.
I think that what ends up happening between you and your father, the relationship that you portray, might be unexpected for many readers, especially with his position in the church. You portray him as a complex character, but the love certainly comes through. How did you two come to terms with what happened? As you were writing the book, did you discover anything about his character that you didn’t know before?
GC: Definitely. One of the things that happened in writing the book was that I understood my father as this larger than life, unusual figure that most people don’t necessarily have in their lives. Everywhere we went he was capable of drawing a crowd. You would go anywhere and he would be holding court at the end of the table. I think that’s something that I always resented, and I wanted to be different from him in that respect. I wanted to be nuanced and particular, and I didn’t really want to use those skills that he had, but writing the book I sort of found a new appreciation for what he was doing, even if it was problematic. Because it’s impressive that this man is just capable of taking whatever turn life has given him and just making something. Being the only person who can actually run a cotton gin in that 200-mile radius by himself. He can fix anything in that entire gin. I’m going to speak at a church at an event [on my book tour], and I just feel like this whole process has taught me that I’m not that different from him in that way. I do want to talk about things and I want to have influence in certain ways and hopefully use that in ways that will help other people.
I would imagine that you have to let go of concerns at a certain point and just sort of follow where the writing takes you.
GC: Yeah, and it’s been amazing. After the excerpt of Boy Erased was published in The Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), a few ex-ex-gays, or ex-gays survivors, as they call themselves, reached out to me and said, “That’s exactly how I remember it.” I posted the excerpt in a Facebook survivor’s group. And then John Smid [the former director of LIA], who is a member of the group, writes, “It’s so painful for me to read this, I don’t know how I can come to terms with it, but my office was not that ugly.” (Laughs) And I was like, That’s the thing you worried about? Your office looks ugly in my book. The This American Life segment featuring Smid talks about how he completely “transformed.” It’s the story that sells. This man is responsible for dozens of suicides, and now he’s married to a man and living in Texas and designing furniture. He really just needs to shut up. He just needs to shut up, wait a few years, and listen to everybody, because he has the blood of dozens of people on his hands. It’s time for him to listen to other people. I really believe he thought he was doing the right thing, and that’s scary. I know that probably comes across as bitter. It is, a little bit. I see his struggle and I actually have a bit of compassion for it, but it’s just hard to do it when he gets a lot of attention in this really strange way. I don’t think that’s the story that needs to be told at this moment. I think the real story is: how did people survive it, and what about the people that didn’t survive it? Ex-gay therapy is always treated as a joke in pop culture. I think it’s getting a lot more attention right now, but for years I feared telling people because they would laugh, or they would be like, “That’s so stupid.” I would say, “Yeah it is, but it’s also really harmful and painful and it ruined my life.”
As many times as people tell you it’s not what they expected, you’ll probably get the other reaction, which is that this is an important message. I think what makes it so strong is that you are firmly you throughout the book, and you didn’t change that to meet some sort of marketing need.
GC: If you saw how neurotic I am about this book, you’d be really worried about me. (Laughs) But the one thing I’m confident about is that if I was going to do this book right, it just couldn’t be simple. Even if people don’t see it, even if it’s a total flop, I’m still going to be proud of it because I really believe that that’s what it should be. It’s like a weird little creature. (Laughs)
It seems that the sensationalist expose type book is what people expect, but those things are always like a bright flash and then they fade. This is meant to last, like you said.
GC: I hated Garth Greenwell throughout the whole process [of his novel What Belongs to You] because I was like, “How are you doing, Garth? You just got a rave review from the New Yorker,” and he said, “I’m a mess, I hate everything.” I thought, You liar. (Laughs) And then as I’ve been around him more, I think, Oh, okay. It’s part of the writer’s mindset that you’re just always going to be kind of neurotic about this sort of thing.
Navigating it and making connections with people seem like innate skills that some people have.
GC: He set the groundwork quite a while ago. You couldn’t do it if you didn’t have those sentences. Garth has them. But he also set the groundwork for it to be appreciated. I saw all of the groundwork being laid, it was brilliant. He’s a genius in that way, and I’m learning from him, actually. He has helped my book so much.
Your tour of North Carolina was part of the Authors for Action series, meant to protest North Carolina’s “bathroom law,” called HB2. Why was it important for you to do this when a lot of other artists are boycotting that state? Why be visible and vigilant in the South, in your opinion?
Garth and I had the same exact reaction because we’re both Southern boys and we were both not able to escape when we wanted to. So a big part of my heart goes out to people who live in these states and can’t just be mobile enough to leave. I totally understand the boycotts and I support them. I support anyone who makes that decision. But the decision is also coming from a place of privilege, and I think that, for me, the more important issue is the fact that people can’t leave. It’s one thing for Bruce Springsteen to boycott and it’s another for a gay author who’s dealing with issues of repression in the South to boycott the South.
And that’s the heart of your story.
GC: That’s the audience that I was writing to in many ways, and that’s the audience that I would like to still speak to. It has nothing to do with the boycott, in my opinion, it has everything to do with support for people who are still living there. The people at these bookstores are fantastic and have been doing advocacy for decades and should not be discounted in a moment when their state is acting cray, (laughs) because every state’s going to act a little crazy at some point. I think the message gets louder when you’re in a place that’s sort of in turmoil. Really, what we’re doing is just raising the volume.
I was stricken by all the acronyms that you had to learn for this program. You spell it out for the reader, but it seems like in no time, you’re speaking in this jargon. What effect does that have? Why do you think the program designers tailored it that way?
GC: I would like to say something profound about it, but I think it’s because they borrowed from AA. I have an extreme aversion to AA, for obvious reasons. I think it’s done a lot of good, but I can’t even think about it without feeling sick. I think that a lot of that is a way of distancing. If you say “False Image,” it sounds kind of creepy. It makes it feel like it’s not necessarily concerning you, it’s just this sort of objective thing that we should watch out for. “Watch out for your FIs.” “You’ve got a little Ab [abortion] in your family. There’s some D [drugs] there.” (Laughs) It’s funny when you say it out loud.
Like you have diabetes or low blood sugar.
GC: (Laughs) “There was an Ab before you were born.” But I think that that’s the main reason it was used. It was that pop psychology shit that they just copied. But I also think that, like any of that language that was used in the ex-gay facility, whether intentional or not, it is dehumanizing. You can say, “Oh, he’s just in Step Three.” It describes a range of struggles that are potentially life-ending struggles, but if you just say Step Three, it collapses it down to a manageable size and moves you into the next step, and I think that’s what’s terrible about it. As Charles Baxter said in my blurb, it is an attempt at soul-murder, whether it was intentional or not. Each of those steps is another shrinking of the soul, so that by the time you get to Step Twelve, it’s pretty much gone. There’s not a whole lot of dignity left. That’s what I think it actually does. I don’t know if they intended any of that. I think they were just like, “Well, AA works.”
In the book, you describe being exposed to new ideas in college, ideas that had once seemed so “otherworldly and unapproachable.” How much of the introduction of these outside ideas was responsible for you later being able to gather the strength to walk out of the program?
GC: I was going through a lot of pain, but I was also in one of the happiest moments of my life, where I was reading these great works and I had these amazing teachers who were introducing me to new ways of seeing the world. I think a lot of the tools I used to counteract what ex-gay therapy had done to me came from the study of literature or philosophy. Those were the tools. A lot of ex-gay therapy prided itself on the fact that they knew things you didn’t know, and they knew the Bible better in certain ways than you could, and so the best way to fight that was to know the Bible better than they did. To know it with nuance and to actually have sound arguments and have real change in the way that you saw the world. I just loved the fact that I could take those tools and use them against the counselors. I did that for a good decade in my recovery. My natural reaction is to think I’m doing something wrong or I’m not entitled or I’m going to Hell. That’s still in there somewhere. But the trick is using the tools to follow these logical trains of thought that very clearly lead to absurdity.
I’d imagine it takes a long time to untangle the brainwashing you endured.
GC: Yeah. Literature was everything for me. I just read obsessively because I just thought, I can’t let these people win. It was just so frustrating to realize that I’d wasted so much time thinking stupid thoughts and worrying about stupid shit that didn’t really have that much of an effect on my life beyond ex-gay therapy. All that time I thought [things like], Well, if a demon possessed me, what would I do? What would my first five moves be? Would I be able to fight off the demon? Would I need to read the Bible for X number of hours? All that stupid shit; I can’t even recall how stupid it was. But I just remember being really pissed off that I had not learned as much as my peers had. And that I was stunted in this really bizarre way. After I got over being really frustrated, I was furious. I thought, I’m going to read everything, I’m going to understand everything, and nobody’s going to say they’re smarter than me anymore. That was the youthful drive that took me out of the ex-gay therapy mindset. Nobody can trick me again. Not my dad, not these ex-gay therapists. It took me awhile to get off of that because, as you can imagine, having that attitude can be really harmful for the people around you when you won’t listen to them.
Now that the book is out in the world, what, to you, would be the best outcome for the effect it will have on people?
GC: My hope is that it sparks a real conversation about ex-gay therapy in a way that sticks, because there have been plenty of articles about it, but it doesn’t seem to enter mainstream conversation at any point. Only as a joke or an expose or something. When the Michelle Bachman stuff came out, people talked about it, but I would like it to be a real discussion that’s sort of political. Obama last year came out in favor of ending ex-gay therapy, and that was a big statement. Hillary Clinton has mentioned it several times on Twitter. So I feel like it’s ready to be discussed in a very serious way. And it won’t even take much discussion. It’s like, How many people have killed themselves? Where is the research that it’s okay in any way? What is the harm that’s been done? You just have that conversation, and then even bigots will hopefully say, “Well, that is pretty crazy.” I don’t need it to be a big conversation, I just need it to be something that is considered, and then we put an end to it. It’s a no-brainer, really. I want the book to serve as a reminder that these things can happen and that it doesn’t take something as extreme as ex-gay therapy to highlight some of the harmful practices that still occur in the United States because it’s all there. This is something that we’ve learned from the Trump candidacy as well, and we keep learning it over and over again, and everyone’s shocked every time. I would like people to get over their shock and get more active in preventing these sorts of things. There’s a bill in Arkansas that was discriminatory in the same way that HB2 was in North Carolina. A few people talked about it, everyone was protesting in Little Rock, but it wasn’t making national news like HB2 is because it wasn’t as absurd as the bathroom bill. But I was really frustrated that that it didn’t start a conversation when it could have prevented HB2. This is not an inevitable thing at all; we could pay attention.
One of the biggest concerns I had when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, because “mainstream” culture was celebrating a victory, was that there are still LGBTQ teenagers killing themselves and places in the country where this oppression is still happening, and that’s what’s so important about your book.
GC: The largest number of homeless is still LGBTQ teens, and that’s crazy. Crazy that it’s not being talked about in a more obvious way. I also put mainstream culture in quotes. I didn’t know what it was until a couple days ago — I feel like I figured out what it is. This guy that works on Good Morning America said to me, “I don’t think your subject is something that would be on Good Morning America or 20/20, but I do think that Nightline could be edgy enough.” I was like, I think I understand mainstream America now. It’s what’s marketed toward mainstream America. The fact that he used the word edgy to describe Nightline. As if my book would ever be considered edgy. Let’s end ex-gay therapy, so edgy. If you put me on Good Morning America, I would be at my most charming and nice. I would fit Middle America. But no, it’s too edgy. (Laughs) Of course, I was like, sure, Nightline, put me on. I have a few friends who say, “I think your message is too conservative,” and I get that. They’re probably right in some ways, but I’m really pragmatic when it comes to how I think nonfiction should deal with culture. I would like it to be mainstream in some way.
It goes back to the idea of getting the message to the broadest audience possible and not just to a liberal core of people who already agree with you.
GC: That’s what Riverhead said when they took the book, and that’s one of the reasons I went with them. Because I was hearing from other publishers who said, “It’s just going to end up in the gay and lesbian section.” And then Riverhead said, “I think this is a story about family, I think it’s about a larger issue in the culture, I think it’s a timeless piece in that way,” and I said, “You. You’re the one.” And of course they are. Those are my people. They take risks on their voices, which is what I really appreciate. They said, “Yeah, you are a gay voice but that doesn’t make you only a gay voice, it makes you interesting, so let’s do it.” It was a really different message.
Todd Summar writes essays and fiction, and serves as an editor for publishers and individuals. His work has appeared in PANK, Literary Hub, and Joyland, among others. He is the founding editor of Goreyesque and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago.