Garrard Conley is the author of the memoir Boy Erased, about his experience in a gay conversion camp, now a major motion picture set for release by Focus Features on November 2nd. Boy Erased was nominated for a Lamdba Literary Award and was featured as a top 2016 nonfiction book by O Magazine, Buzzfeed Books, and Shelf Awareness, among others. It has now been translated in over a dozen languages.
Conley is an activist and speaker for Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau, lecturing at schools and venues across the country on radical compassion, writing through trauma, and growing up gay in the complicated South. He works with other activists to help end conversion therapy in the United States and abroad.
His work can be found in The New York Times, TIME, VICE, CNN, BuzzFeed, Them, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Huffington Post, among other places, and he is currently at work on a novel (Penguin 2020) about queer 18th century lives.
I spoke to Conley at the Toronto International Film Festival last month on the day of Boy Erased‘s premiere that evening. We talked at length about his superstar mother, his relationship with his father, why Joel Edgerton was the right person to direct the film of his story, the impossible beauty of Troye Sivan and his goal to eliminate gay conversion camps across all 50 states.
AW: There has been a lot of heated discussion on social media about who can and should be making films about women, people of color and the LGBTQ community. What was it about Joel Edgerton that made you feel good about giving your story to him?
GC: I knew him from Loving and I’d seen him on those press tours talking about marriage equality and he’s linking it to interracial marriage issues. And I thought okay, well at least he, an ally was like the first thought. Then at our first meeting here he wanted to meet with other survivors and so that was another good sign. Then while he was during his real research, I would send him like so many links, so many interviews. He would talk with me about them and really absorb them and actually became better in some ways of talking about the different iterations of conversion therapy than I was because he was so deep into it. He asked me to do the screenplay, which I thought was also a good sign, but I was like, I’m not about to write my own rape for the screen. I’m sorry. I’ve already done that for a memoir. Like that being said, it was still really worried because, you know, we’ve been burned in the past with certain portrayals.
I also thought my book gets to exist in this weird space between being a very queer text because I queer the Bible in it. I like play with, you know, dry humor and things that we recognize the register of that straight people often don’t get. So within that context of writing that book, I was able to critique some of the easy pot shots that were being taken against every parent that had done this and I was able to sort of say like, hey, listen [to my own community], like not everyone’s story ends up to where you cut off your parents forever. A lot of people do and I respect that and you have to because those people were real villains. But like, what do we do, what are the guidebooks for when a family has been broken apart and how do they come back and we want to keep them, you know, how you do that.
So that felt safe in some ways. I got like a little bit of criticism of people saying like, ‘Oh, you have Stockholm Syndrome.’ But I was able to ignore it because I was like; you don’t get to choose who you love. And also nobody gets to tell me how I react to my own trauma. Like, nobody gets to do that. But I always couched it in terms of this is not a universal story. This is a very particular story. And you can take things from it but do not universalize it. I was really worried about the film potentially making it seem as though the parents didn’t do anything too bad or whatever. I didn’t write any of the script. I didn’t tinker with the language or anything like that because I was just like, if I’m not gonna do it, I’m not going to do it. But, I did occasionally say this doesn’t feel true or this feels too pat and Joel would immediately redraft.
Like a producer’s note.
He was awesome. He always listened to my notes. The actual end of the film is pretty significantly different from the original. There was an arc that was a little bit more hopeful in terms of the father and son dynamics and Joel changed that. And I loved that because I felt like, okay, if we’ve got a film where a queer person is being tortured the whole time, you’ve got to at least give him a moment of being like, I’m going to stand up to you and say like, you need to change. So then there’s a kind of quiet irony to who’s being converted. Yeah. Actually these are the ones that are converting.
This whole process is just terrifying to me.
All of it I this must be.
I want to be in the moment, but it’s just really difficult because the last thing I want to do is say that everyone’s gonna have a happy ending or that parents shouldn’t be held accountable. Watching the movie I don’t get that message. I just hope that other people don’t. You know what I mean? Yeah. I like that. That being said, I did really love The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Loved it. And I think it’s really important to have an abundance of these types of stories. They’re both different takes on the experience I really want people to see both of them.
I do too. I think it’s amazing that they’re both existing coexisting at the same time. It’s really cool. And they’re telling very different stories and in very different ways.
You know, I consulted for that.
Yeah. Desiree is wonderful. So it was just, it was cool to see these different iterations of the story.
Yeah, I absolutely agree. It’s really good.
And it’s important that she directed it.
I recently read that you, that a high school student that you spoke to wrote a play about your life. Can you talk a little bit about that feeling and how your story is having this real world impact?
Oh my God, it was so awesome. It’s the best thing in the world. I mean, I’ve gotten so many emails, I mean really sad emails, but also really happy ones. Or like some people will send me like sketches of what they think the book looks like, which I think is really cool.
The play that the student did is amazing. It’s got really good dialogue. I was like, where were you? You should have written this. But been so great and the movie has allowed me to really, like in every major trade publication, start spouting off facts about conversion therapy, which is very exciting. Like people in the middle of nowhere are going to be seeing this. And then in addition to that, the podcast that we’re producing a, it’s, you know, they’re like, I got to work with Radiolab, which is like the coolest thing in the world. And we get to tell the other stories of survivors, not just mine. And that was really important to me. Like, I’m so tired of my own fucking story that I’m like; let us please let these other people talk about their stories. If there’s one thing that I want to come out of this movie getting so much attention is like I really want these other people to be able to also have a vehicle for telling their stories and to link it to something that’s being talked about.
I was doing a photo shoot for Interview magazine and my stylist had gone through conversion therapy. She’s trans and she had been sent to a facility in Texas to try to make her quote unquote normal. And she was telling her about the month that she spent there. And she was like laughing about it. We were both just really happy and we were like in New York and I was thinking, this is so cool. Like I want her story to, you know, that in some ways that’s way more dramatic of a story.
How have your parents seen the film?
Mom is seeing it tomorrow [at the Toronto International Film Festival]. She’s coming in today. I was talking to Focus [Features] and I was like, ‘You think that I’m your secret weapon? But actually my mom is the secret weapon.’ When you get her on the stage with Nicole, it’ll be actually, she’s going to upstage Nicole [spoiler alert: she did].
She’s going to go to like 20,000 followers.
She’s got the volume turned all the way to the top.
She likes and retweets every single thing about the movie. She’s such a champion.
I feel like everyone’s going to hate me and if they follow my mom because she’s just like always like ‘Garrard’s there!’ I don’t do that. Like I’ve been very careful about what I tweet. Some people are going to hate me if I keep tweeting this great stuff.
I sort of look at it like when people are closeted for a long time and they are finally able to come out, they kind of have to relive the part of their lives that they weren’t allowed to live.
And I sort of feel it feels like your mom is she doing that in a way.
She is; that’s really accurate.
And that’s not something that you really see portrayed or hear about; that the parent gets to sort of have a coming out.
I know, my mom totally changed. She did come out of her own closet.
It’s really amazing. I think your mom is a legend and an icon. She could be the one of the biggest gay icons ever.
PBS News Hour wanted to do an hour-long interview with her, but the schedule didn’t line up but I think there’ll be a lot of things like that.
I think so too.
I think once they realize that she’s actually a brilliant speaker in addition to being like fiery and funny that it’s just a perfect combo, she’s so funny.
I adore her. What about your father? What’s his relationship to all of this?
It’s complicated. I mean, we talked yesterday, it was his birthday and it was strained. He still feels complicated about this issue. I think he’s coming around personally about his opinion of it. I think that in his congregation, which is like 150 people in north Arkansas, he’d be kicked out if he says certain things. So it’s a really dicey situation that we’re very careful with. I do love him and I just continue to. It’s kind of ridiculous, but you can’t choose.
It’s a work in progress.
Yeah, it is and I think that’s important. I mean it’s important to have my finger on one part of the cultural pulse that’s still where he is but it makes it a bit frustrating. Like, you know, all the conversations that we have, our representation and, and um, and the need for no more sad queer stories is important, but it also, sometimes it feels a little bit sheltered because I know queer people in Arkansas who are sending me messages and crying and videos of them crying being like just the trailer has given me life. And like, thank you for saying that. You know, like I think both things are true that like we’re, we need to have happy career stories and we need to have, you know, we need to have stories that show a different side other than just torture, but I also think that there are so many people still in that situation right now and it’s actually kind of the majority of the LGBTQ community around the world.
There is no one story. As with any group there needs to be multiple stories; there needs to be different versions of Love, Simon and Moonlight and Boy Erased and Cameron Post because they all hit on somebody’s truth.
Yeah, I think it’s going to hit parents the most. Honestly.
That’s something that I was thinking about immediately after watching it because I try, even from critical point of view, to look at something and say who is this for and who was it made for and it did it succeed in, in that. Something I took away from the film is that if it felt like it was speaking to parents, not in a villainous way, but in a way to help them understand.
One of the reasons I trusted Joel is that I think that he understands that on a pretty deep level, he grew up in a very similar community where, you know, queer was not a positive term, it was being hurled around as an insult and he hates that sort of thing. He hates injustice. And I could feel that. I could see where certain criticisms can be like, well this might not seem like a truly queer film because of that. But I kind of liked the fact that it’s sort of poking at something that’s very sensitive for a lot of people. Like the parents who’ve messed up or you know, I just don’t know if there’s been a movie that really gives parents a path to reconciliation and I just hope that queer people that see it don’t feel insulted by that. That’s my main thing. I’m not insulted by it obviously. I mean I’ve worked really hard for that message to be part of my book as well and I think that it’s an important one. I just hope that it’s cathartic for queer people too or people who’ve been through it.
I think it will be.
I know but you can’t help but be neurotic about these things. Like my whole, my whole fan base is based around people not getting pissed off about this. (both laughing) And you know, Twitter.
Yeah. Well I mean that’s…yeah. I wouldn’t rely on that as the…
Oh yeah. I tried to stay away, my goodness. But I mean, I think it’s been really great to have the rest of the world understand what I understood about Lucas as well because when I agreed, I mean Joel pretty much said, “Do you want Lucas to do this?”
I was going to ask if you had a hand in casting.
So we met up and we were walking around and he told me his own story, which he told to New York Magazine later and he had every page of my book marked up, like every single one, and was really vulnerable with me. And I was like, “this is the one. Yes, Joel,” like that. I had already seen him in Manchester by the Sea and loved his performance in that. So it was a no brainer for me and it was really painful to see people assuming his sexual identity on a personal level, which I can see why people made that assumption. But they also had bad, not gaydar, but spectrum-dar because I have good spectrum-dar.
It was painful to watch that. It was like, what does that feel like for Lucas to see that miss representation.
Especially for someone who’s really on a trajectory. I mean, it’s a pretty common Hollywood thing to do, to just speculate like crazy.
I mean, I know why people were so worried, you know, because usually that’s what does happen. But I was just sitting there behind my computer screen and just being like, please somebody figure it out because this is why I really wanted him to be in the part because I felt like he was, he understood it.
I think that adds a layer to his performance that’s really going to be important for people to understand.
Yeah. Me too, quite a bit. I was thrilled that even though they have smaller parts, that Joel listened to me when I sent him a document that was like five pages long about how we’re going to hell if he doesn’t properly look at representation.
And so he to his immense credit and his ability as a person to just get everyone to agree to everything. I mean, he was like “I wrote a personal letter to Cherry Jones.” I was like, yeah, right. Then just to have her in a little scene is so fun. It’s so random.
It is, but it’s just peppered with these little gay icons like Troye Sivan and Xavier Dolan and it’s amazing.
It’s like he’s blowing up and it’s so insane.
I want a Troye Sivan movie now. He just does anything that he wants. I don’t care.
Can it just be like a sort of like auto fiction of him just like being at these photo shoots? I would just watch that; like where he’s like kind of like kind of over it and you sort of watch him sort of go through the motions of being like this, like beautiful person all the time.
He did great. I like can’t even like, I love him so much, but when I’m next to him I’m like, please do not photograph me. Do not. This is just not fair.
Like he’s just a beautiful creature.
It’s ridiculous. I love it.
And then we had Xavier Dolan in this like sort of creepy role. When Joel was like, ‘Xavier Dolan is in,’ I was like, “Huh, Xavier Dolan is never going to agree to do this. Like he’s like too cool for everyone.”
But then when he was there on the set, he was writing his next script for the new film had shooting. He was writing it there on the set and he was telling me about it and I was like, this is so weird. It’s amazing. And Flea shared his memoir with me.
That is exciting.
So apparently everyone’s fluid these days I guess. I mean I think everyone probably was, it’s just that people now feel comfortable saying it.
Yes, and even just having access to a word like fluid, which was not the case before. That’s one of the things where when new language and terminology comes along it’s actually a way to understand and learn and identify and respect people more.
Well, yeah, I mean you’re basically being totalitarian when you’re like ‘no new words’ because the words have specific meanings. It’s not as if we’re making up a word that already exists and we’re not like, here’s a better word for 2018, we’re finding words for things that we didn’t quite have words for. So that’s just good. Like, make the effort people. Get over yourselves. You don’t have a good vocabulary anyway. I’ve had to lecture friends, and close ones, about that. You do not want to have that on your face. It looks bad.
We’ve talked a little bit about Lucas. I think we have to talk a little bit about Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe because OH MY GOD.
Whispering in a wig (both laugh hysterically). Nicole, that’s my review. I love her; I think she just brings so much warmth to that character and it’s like, it’s a little more toned down from mom. Mom was actually much more intense but it sort of had to be because people would be like, this is so outlandish. What’s it doing in this movie? But I love that every time I see her I think she needed to be in it more. I wanted in more scenes. I just wanted a whole movie with her. But every time I watch it I’m affected a bit more by a different thing that she does. She’s so good at these micro moments. For me, the last time I watched it in Telluride, it’s the moment when she picks up the paper that has the moral inventory on it and she just like, has this like defeated thing with the paper and it’s just sort of falls over on the couch and I just started sobbing. She’s really good at those little quiet moments. Her eyes when Jared (played by Hedges) is a being asked by Marshall (played by Russell Crowe) whether or not he wants to change and he looks over at her and she just has that like sudden movement and then looks away, which tells you everything it tells you she wants him almost to say no. But then she’s defeated and like she becomes a coward and when she becomes a coward he says yes because she’s not there for him.
So what about Russell Crowe?
Russell Crowe’s really funny. I wasn’t quite expecting his antics on the set. Basically the first time we met he was in costume as my dad and it’s uncanny. His facial tics and the way he talks are exactly like my dad. It’s actually scary to watch. So he came up to me totally as my dad and he goes, “I’m proud of you son,” and like hugged me and I was like, what do I feel right now? I don’t think… thank you, daddy? It was weird as fuck. But he is something. When he came in to do his preaching sequences and there’s like a crowd of extras, he commanded that entire room. He had a joke for every, he would do like the Bible, he’d be reading the Bible or he’d be like saying biblical stuff and then he’d just say like the most foul stuff with it and it was just the funniest thing ever.
Oh my God.
My mom was there to that scene and she was just like, ‘okay,’ because you know mom’s a real good Christian. So she was like, “what’s going on here?” But it was, I loved it. I mean, I think he’s really fun.
I think he’s amazing in it.
Oh, I actually, that’s the performance that I was like, what? This is next level Russell Crowe. He could really have a comeback.
I think people are going to be, maybe not surprised, but really impressed and really happy to see it.
You mentioned the teaming with Radiolab podcast. When does that come out?
It’s called UnErased and comes out on Stitcher first, some exclusive thing, two weeks before the film comes out, and then it’ll be available on all platforms right as the film is released on November 2nd.
I’m super excited about that because I think that it’s a more comprehensive history of the whole thing. I mean when the Radiolab team does a story, they go deep. So I’m super excited about that.
I’ve seen it all over Advocate and Out and it’s really getting a lot of attention.
I keep mentioning everywhere. And I’m like, Joel, tell everyone about the podcast.
One of the great things about that is that for people in small towns that’s an access they can have to material if they have to do it secretly.
And they don’t have to show up in a movie. And then later when the movies streaming, they can just watch it.
I know my book is actually tough because the front has like a quote that says like ‘this will help queer teens everywhere’ and I love that quote, it’s from Garth Greenwell who I’m in love with. But I was like, no, because then the teens who have it will have the word queer on it, you know, I want people to be able to hide it if they need to.
Yeah, absolutely. But now we have audio books, e-books.
Yeah, we got it covered.
It’s one of the great benefits of this generation versus yours and mine where it was like having to hide in libraries to try and read books that we weren’t supposed.
It’s a bit distracting when your reading experience is to be terrified. (laughs)
One paragraph at a time! (laughs)
77,000 people are currently being held in conversion therapy across America. For more information, please visit http://stoperasing.com , and spread awareness.
Boy Erased will be released in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco from Focus Features on November 2nd and expand nationwide on November 16th.