Garrard spent years saying the same prayer “Lord, make me pure”. He grew up in a small town of 100 people in Arkansas, the only child of a Southern Baptist minister believing and being taught that hell was real, yoga was wrong, Harry Potter is evil and that evolution was a satanic lie.
Garrard Conley’s Background
Garrard says “That whole environment was just permeated with what my parents believed was a literal interpretation of the Bible”. Church was three times a week, plus extra Bible study sessions and his father, who was a car salesman would hand out “One man + One Woman” bumper stickers. Garrard was alone, angry and confused about his feelings for other boys since third grade. “I had known since third grade that I had an attraction to men, but I think because we were raised in the church, you believe that life is full of temptations, so just having that thought or that feeling is just another temptation, and you ignore it”.
Throughout high school, Garrard hid his sexuality, in fact he was expected to marry a high school girlfriend of two years. “I did love her in many ways and she’d protected me” said Garrard, “So I thought, Well there’s just this sex thing, what does that matter?”
When Garrard graduated from high school, he broke up with his girlfriend and started to attend a small liberal arts college in Arkansas and finally experienced the freedom he longed for. He stopped going to church, wore Radiohead T-shirts, defended evolution in conversations with fellow students and explored literature, which he said saved him.
But unfortunately the exploration phase of Garrard’s life came to a terrible end. His friend David sadly took advantage of Garrard and raped him. “I’d been unable to move from the bed where he had placed me afterward – I believed that God was punishing me physically for my mental transgressions.” A few weeks later “I told some of my friends about it”.
David didn’t take too kindly to this and as revenge rang Garrard’s mother, and in an attempt to cover up what he did to Garrard, outed him and told her that he was gay.
Outed to his family
His mother picked him up from school and brought him straight home, where he knew he would have to face his father. “My father took me inside his bedroom and asked me if I was gay, or what was going on”. At first denying the accusations, Garrards dad then asked him “Do you swear to god?” Garrard was terrified he would lose his family, his faith, and the God he’d prayed to every day of his life and so replied “I can’t do that… I am having these feelings”.
That same night, his father invited over other ministers that he respected to consult with them on Garrard’s “situation”. In his dad’s mind, same sex attraction was a sickness. So when the ministers recommended a Memphis, Tennessee based program called ‘Love in Action’ his dad gave Garrard an ultimatum. He either renounces all ties with his family and move out of the house, or he could attend the Love in Action program. Garrard was scared of losing everything, mind you he was only 19 at the time, and agreed to go the program.
Introduction to Love in Action
Before beginning the two week introduction to the program, called The Source, Garrard had to undergo therapy with an affiliated therapist. “He would ask me to tell him my sexual fantasies, and I would tell him everything, to which he would just reply by saying, well you know, that’s disgusting and God doesn’t love that”.
So at the end his therapist and his parents agreed that Garrard should give Love in Action a try. His mother said “I really thought it was a godsend at first”. And Garrard said that “These were leaders in the church that my dad looked up to, it just felt like an inevitable step”.
So on the morning he arrived at the Love in Action facility in Memphis, TN in 2004, he was asked to first hand over, his phone, his wallet, his driving license and a Moleskine Journal in which he would write short stories. A blonde haired boy that worked at the facility, confiscated the journal and yanked a bunch of pages free from the bindings, saying free of any emotion “False Image”.
False Image is a key tenet of the Love in Action, it refers to anything and everything suggestive of Garrard’s homosexuality. Detecting and destroying False Images was how you ‘got the gay out’. “The concept is stolen from Alcoholics Anonymous, except AA doesn’t have you stay in a place all day and monitoring your every move”.
At LIA the message was unequivocal: Homosexuality meant unhappiness, isolation and death. Garrard recounts a story which 19 year old “defector” was forced to submit to a mock funeral, as other members read out his obituary, describing his slow decline into HIV and then AIDS. Stories like these were unfortunately not uncommon at LIA.
LIA gave Garrard and others a 374 page handbook for becoming straight. It was structured around a 12 step program, each step was a narrowing down of experiences and pain until you get to step 12 in which you weren’t really a person at all. Garrard likens the whole experience to brainwashing and didn’t feel as though there was a way out.
Other rules that LIA had over their attendees included restrictions on where residents could travel within Memphis, or their dressing and grooming (no ‘muscle shirts’, no sideburns “below the top of the ear”), and how they engaged within the secular world (no listening to Beethoven or Bach, or entering “non-Christian bookshops”). Women were forbidden to wear “mannish/boyish clothes”, and men had to avoid “campy” behaviour.
The program was actually angling for a lengthy stay. Participants are generally enrolled for three months, then that would move up to a year, in order to be “cured”. But there was a incentive to doing this because as Garrard recalled his parents and many others would pay $1,500 per week for the program back in 2004.
Atrocities of Love in Action
Among the many ironies of this program and many other conversion therapies such as LIA, they were run and managed largely by gay men who have been through the programs themselves, renounced their past and now seek to make others do the same. Garrard characterises them by their “ex-gay smiles” in which corners of their lips “stretched beyond the limits of normalcy”.
One such person was John Smid, former executive director of LIA and a gay man and Christian who would eventually admit later that he’d “never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual”.
In 2004 though, he was a diehard evangelist for conversion. It was his idea at the time to expand LIA’s mission from adults to teenagers.
But ironically, today Smid lives in Paris, Texas in a same sex marriage. Garrard says “We did become close many years later, and I was able to understand his story, but I also feel he should be spending every day of his life trying to raise awareness for what he did, and apologising to the families he affected”.
Garrard felt as though there was no way out, not until his mother intervened. In the beginning, the organisation came recommended by her congregation and boasted an 84% ‘cure rate’. But whilst Garrard was away, she started to do her own research, “I was doing the homework that I should of done before we took him, and that’s part of my guilt right there”.
Leaving Conversion Therapy
The final straw came when Garrard was ordered to yell at a chair that was supposed to represent his dad, and tell him he hated him. Which Garrard refused. “They were just so angry I wouldn’t do it, I was thinking to myself: this is a Christian institution, and they want me to say that I hate someone, in order to be cured. That seems like the opposite of what Christianity is supposed to be.” Also Garrard didn’t hate his father, he was just upset that he took him to this place and didn’t understand him, but he didn’t have hatred towards him.
That’s when Garrard ran to the place where they kept their belongings, grabbed his phone and other possessions and called his mother to come get him. Once she arrived, she said “I was horrified when I found out what was actually going on. I need to get my son away from this”.
As they were leaving furiously, she questioned John Smid “What are your actual qualifications? Why are you doing this?” After talking to Garrard she recalls “I remember calling Hershel (his dad) and said we’re coming home”. Which he replied saying “It’s not over yet”. She said back, “Well it’s over for Garrard”.
His relationship with his father is always going to be complicated. “My dad feels that I don’t understand the pressure that he has from all of this. The community has disinvited him from certain revivals because my name comes up, he’s lost members who just walked out”. He compares his father to a game of Jenga: “All his tenets are at the bottom, and feels very solid, but if you move one block, everything becomes unbalanced and the one he can’t move, that would bring it all down, is homosexuality, because it’s all tied in to the literal interpretation of the Bible”. But his mother, although very supportive of her son, is now stuck in this in-between; between a very fundamentalist preacher husband and a left- leaning queer son.
He says that “My mom saved my life. If she’d hesitated, if she’d said ‘maybe you should try it, stick it out”. I think I would have gone back but she decided to take me home.”
“It was probably a decade after leaving gay conversion therapy that I felt comfortable talking about the experience in any detail. Before that point, I would say to people, ‘ I went to conversion therapy, and it didn’t work’. That was the extent of it – because I felt so embarrassed about having agreed to go.”
Garrard went on to complete his college education, after coming back from the conversion camp but found himself playing catch up with his peers, learning about Darwin, which was a big no-no in high school. Like many victims of conversion therapy, he thought for a long time that he should just blend in and that his past didn’t define him. It was a coping mechanism that a lot of people who arrive from vastly different backgrounds have. Especially when you go into a more liberal setting.
“After that, I travelled the world, I went into the Peace Corps in Ukraine and taught HIV/AIDS training there and then got my masters in literature. I was happy to keep my conversion therapy in my past, but one day, I remember reading a blog from a former patient at conversion therapy who said that, when he was with his partner, he would sometimes feel a deep shame, as though his skin was on fire. He wondered if anyone else experienced the same, and I recognised it as something that I’d felt so often, I was like ‘Oh, not everyone feels that every time they have sex? OK, maybe there’s something I haven’t dealt with here’”.
That’s when Garrard started to write about his past, without thinking it’d ever be published. He wrote about 20 pages for a fiction course he was taking at the time, but felt as though people needed to hear the non-fiction rather than fiction. There were a lot of people in the classroom who didn’t know anything about conversion therapy, that’s when he realised that his story was important, not just to bring light to conversion therapy but for other survivors and for those like the people in the classroom who needed educating on it.
That’s when in 2012 he started to get involved into the publishing process. He sold the book on proposal and then had to write the rest. He did this whilst living in Bulgaria, where he was teaching in a High School. He says it was exhausting but it was worth it because he was finally getting his truth out into the world. His book “Boy Erased” was published in 2016. Then in January 2017, he received an email from producer Kerry Roberts, who said she had read his book and wanted to find a director to make a film out of it. That’s when director Joel Edgerton. Made “Boy Erased” the film in 2018 with stars, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman and Lucas Hedges and Joel Edgerson starred in it also as the main leader of LIA in the film.
The Painful Reality of Conversion Therapy
Torture is a strong word, but if we get a museum that honours the centuries of suffering inflicted on queer people, a whole wing will need to be dedicated to the unique form of persecution known as conversion therapy, or reparative therapy, which hides under the banner of faith, and has to sought to turn one sexual instinct into another.
“Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness”
~ Sigmund Freud
Garrard story is unfortunately far from unique, and far from the worst. In the US, research suggests that 700,000 adults have undergone such “treatment”, and about half of those are teenagers.
The methods are beyond cruel and frequently violent. From applying electric shocks while being forced to watch gay porn, to mind control games aimed at persuading LGBT “patients” that their desires are rooted in dysfunction, to “disempowering” relationships with their mothers.
This controversial practice has been discredited by the medical community, but is still promoted within a number of fundamentalist Christian churches. From the Southern Poverty Law Center, Scott McCoy says “The idea that homosexuality needs to be cured or fixed in the first place is a misrepresentation”. He adds that groups including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association say “conversion therapy is nonsense and psychologically harmful”.
Garrard Conley now 33, and now married to Shahab in New York says “I think the biggest message I’d like to get out there to young, queer people of faith is that its not incompatible to believe in God and to also be queer. There’s a huge misconception that you can’t do both, there are a lot of churches that are affirming and their numbers are growing, if we were to take everything the Bible says literally then we couldn’t eat shrimp, or go into a religious building without a head covering and women couldn’t talk. So if you don’t believe any of those things, you don’t have to believe that Jesus personally condemned you. When you’re struggling as a queer teen and you’re being told that something that’s sort of keeping you alive, like your faith is against you, that takes away another support system and can result in a lot of suicidal ideation”.
“I think that it’s wise to spend some time – if you have the energy, and people are not super toxic – trying to get people to see your humanity just by showing up in spaces and saying ‘I deserve to be here too’”.
It’s been 14 years since Garrard checked himself out if LIA and called his mother to take him home from conversion therapy. “I didn’t have to leave my parents behind.” He counts himself as one of the lucky ones.
There are 19 states in the USA that denounce conversion therapy and have passed laws to protect the LGBTQ+ youth from it. Britain and Ireland have drawn up bills to outlaw conversion therapy but they have yet to be put in place as of 2020. All major counselling and psychotherapy bodies, as well as the NHS, have concluded that conversion therapy is dangerous and have condemned it by signing a Memorandum of Understanding.
Unfortunately conversion therapy is still legal in 30 states in the US and it’s estimated that 80,000 LGBTQ youth will experience this disgusting practice in coming years.
Conversion therapy needs to be stopped worldwide. It is proven not to work and its creating beautiful and wonderful LGBTQ+ adults and youths to lose their lives and leaving many of them as mentally scarred people in their wake. This needs to end now.
If you have been affected by conversion therapy or you are just someone who needs support please call TrevorLifeline at 1-866-488-7386. They are a crisis intervention and suicide prevention service available 24/7, 365 days of the year.
They also have TrevorChat, which is a confidential online instant messaging with a Trevor counsellor available 24/7. Or if you feel as though texting would be more useful you can text TrevorText by starting your text with the word START at 678-678 and a counsellor will be available 24/7 to talk too.
More information is also available at: https://bornperfect.org/.
If you want to learn more about conversion therapy go to the Trevor Project website to read more about it and there are plenty of other resources online on this topic to learn more about it.
You can find out more about how to get help and bring an end to conversion therapy, as well as signing our petition: https://www.change.org/ban-lgbt-conversion-therapy.
Find out more about Garrard Conley’s story on conversion therapy by listening to our podcast: