It’s been 14 years since Garrard Conley, the gay son of an Arkansas Baptist preacher, was sent to conversion therapy and two years since he published a memoir about what he calls the “psychological torture” he endured there.
But it was only after watching “Boy Erased,” the movie version of his own story, that what happened to him fully came home.
“With memoir and writing, you are able to create some padding around the experience. But on film you can’t hide anything,” Conley said.
“I was able to have some distance from it and to see myself and think ‘Oh, I didn’t do anything wrong.’ I submitted to conversion therapy under duress – I was going to lose my family, the God that I knew, and the community. When you see it enacted on screen it makes it a little bit clearer,” he said.
“Boy Erased,” opening in U.S. movie theaters on Friday, stars Lucas Hedges as Conley, with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe playing his parents.
It dramatizes then 19 year-old Conley’s stay at a “Love in Action” religious fundamentalist center in 2004 where gay men and women were beaten with bibles by family members, drilled in “manly” sports, and told their same-sex attraction was linked to alcoholism and gambling in their families.
Some 700,000 Americans have been forced to undergo a form of conversion therapy, according to the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Some 36 U.S. states still allow the practice.
Conley hopes the film will serve both as an act of solidarity to those who have gone through such programs and to help end them.
He has helped set up a website, with the backing of LGBT groups, and a podcast series, “Unerased,” that takes a comprehensive look at the history of gay conversion therapy through the stories of those who have gone through it, their parents, and some of those who used to administer.
One of them is former “Love in Action” director John Smid, who resigned from the organization in 2008, later married his gay partner, and who has apologized publicly.
“I am happy to see John doing the right stuff, and it is important for him and people like him to say, ‘This never worked’,” Conley said.
Conley says the real heroes are people like his mother, who rescued him from the conversion program, but who still live in small American towns where LGBT people are shunned.
“My mom is out here in Los Angeles for the film, getting applause. But when she goes back home to Arkansas people are like ‘Oh, I’m so sorry your son is gay’.”
“She has to deal with that bigotry on a daily basis, like I used to have to. Those are the heroes that actually change culture. The rest of us leave,” he said.