Exclusive: The Pain of Ex-Gay Conversion Therapy Experienced Firsthand

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Photo by Colin Boyd Shafer

The son of a Baptist preacher, Garrard Conley knows all too well the pains of growing up gay in the Bible Belt of America. Outed at the age of 19, Conley was given an ultimatum from his deeply religious parents: go to an ex-gay conversion therapy program or face estrangement. The conversion program was modelled off the same steps as Alcoholics Anonymous—only replacing the steps with Bible passages—and promised to “cure” him of his homosexuality. Now 30, Conley is releasing Boy Erased, a memoir about his experiences in ex-gay therapy that chronicles the many struggles of faith and sexuality he endured.

Conley currently lives in Sofia, Bulgaria teaching English at the America College. He says that his time teaching in the eastern European nation parallels many of the experiences growing up gay in South, where young LGBT youths struggle to come out because of strong anti-LGBT sentiment and the prevalence of religious discrimination in the country.

Out: Can tell us about your experiences with ex-gay conversion therapy?

Garrard Conley: The idea behind conversion therapy is that all sexual desire that comes from a LGBTQ drive is treatable and can be cured through an understanding of addiction. It was modelled off Alcoholics Anonymous and actually used the same steps as AA, but it was replaced by Bible verses and so each step had Bible verses to represent the stages.

A typical day would feature group therapy sessions, in which people talked about their moral failings or where you’d explain a sexual experience in great detail. But do it in a way so it does not cause another person to “stumble.” You can say what you did but not how it felt or what the other person was feeling. And then afterwards there was activity time: watching sports and talking about it. Every behavior that would seem effeminate for a man would be corrected and these were called “false images.”

Why did you want to write this memoir?

I didn’t want to speak about the subject for about a decade. I was in a non-fiction class at UNC [University of North Carolina] and each person around the room said what they were doing. When I announced my subject, everyone in the class just leaned forward and wanted to know more details. One of things they kept asking was, “How could any parent do this to a child?” That was a really frustrating question and guided the writing of the book.

What was the most difficult part about writing Boy Erased?

Two things were extremely difficult for me. One was recalling all of the trauma that I was feeling at the time. When I look back at it and look back at the handbook again, it all looks very absurd. If you look at how the mainstream media represents it [ex-gay conversion therapy] they do it as a joke or with an incredulous attitude. So it was difficult to take stuff out of my head from ex-gay therapy and go back to that moment when I was really vulnerable kid.

The other things was that I just didn’t know how to write a memoir. I stayed up so many nights worrying about getting all the details correct. But at some point I just had to let it go.

What is your relationship to your family like now?

My relationship is complicated. My mom is very supportive of me and my relationship [to my partner]. My father was somewhat more supportive of me about the book. After a conversation with my father about the book, my mom told me he went to his study and cried for several hours. At the service that night, he went in front of the congregation and said, “While I don’t agree with everything my son has done, he’s writing this book and I support him as a writer and if you need to leave, that’s fine, I’m not leaving.” And that was a big moment in our family.

In light of the recent controversy around North Carolina’s anti-LGBT HB946 Bill, how does it feel to be publishing your book during this heated time?

I think it’s really beneficial my book is coming out at this time. It’s unfortunate though that this law exists. I think the reason this bill has so much attention is because it has captured the “bathroom issue,” which has so many other issues wrapped up in it that are so prejudicial. It really shows there’s not a clear line of progression for the LGBT community.

Are there any parallels between living in Bulgaria as a gay man and in the Bible Belt of the South?

The feeling in Bulgaria is very similar to the South. It feels very limited [for my partner and I] to not be able to hold hands or be out and be affectionate. It can be hard.

Do gay students approach you for guidance or mentoring?

It’s happened quite a lot actually. These kids are hiding. They come to me at times and places other people may not see, which is quite a big burden and is really overwhelming. I feel like I’m not qualified to help these kids through their incredibly difficult experiences that in many ways match mine. But because they have so many other complications [living in Bulgaria] there is really no other place to go.

Garrard Conley is speaking about Boy Erased at a number of locations in May. Appearances can be found listed here.

Nathan Smith is an arts and culture writer. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Forbes. Nathan tweets at @nathansmithr.

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