“I was given an ultimatum by my father: go into conversion therapy or I won’t see my family again and get an education,” Garrard Conley told PinkNews.
As a teen, Conley was outed to his parents and sent to a conversion camp called Love in Action in Memphis, Tennessee.
“When you’re deep in the brainwashing, you don’t know you’re in a cult,” Conley explained.
“There are still days when I feel extreme bouts of shame that wash over – I think about all the years I lost.
“How do you possibly get those years of your life back?”
Conley has written a book, Boy Erased: A Memoir, about his experiences inside a gay ‘conversion’ camp, which is being adapted into a film starring Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, out later this year.
His father, a preacher, forced Conley to choose between taking gay ‘conversion’ therapy alongside “paedophiles and people with beastiality,” or be cut off from his family.
“I couldn’t just run away,” he told PinkNews.
“A lot of queer people can’t just run away because they don’t have the money, or the emotional stability because they’re already suicidal.
“So I entered the therapy thinking yeah this might be crazy but there’s no other option and I’ve been here before, praying on my knees for the past five years.”
Inside the camp, Conley was submitted to repeated shaming tactics in a closely supervised camp where he was “constantly surveilled.”
“Every movement we made – every smile, gesture, hand on hip, anything – was scrutinised and labelled in our rule books,” he said.
“So if someone did something that was considered to be ‘sexually suspect’, then we were to report to a counsellor and tell them that someone had done that.”
“We had daily therapy sessions where we were asked to list off every sexual sin that we’d engaged in – that could be anything from a fantasy to an actual sexual experience, of which I didn’t have many.
“Then we had to tell that to the whole group every morning and we were shamed for it.
“We had to do a series of activities, some of them playing sports, trying to become more masculine.
“We were all grouped together based on the idea we were all sex addicts, so I was sat next to a person dealing with paedophilia, another person dealing with beastiality, another person dealing with marriage issues.”
The camp, which based itself on Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step programme, told participants it should avoid creating a False Image, which could be an arm gesture, the pitch of your voice, having a beard or side burn.
“Everything was extremely dictacted,” Conley explained.
“That’s something you don’t get over very easily.
“Being queer in the South isn’t easy anyway, but being in this surveillance environment was terrifying.
Conley finally left the camp after a conversation with his mother.
“We were in the car and my mum turned to me and said: ‘do you think you’re going to kill yourself?’ because she’d noticed me becoming really unhappy every day of the therapy session, and she’d heard rumours about people committing suicide from conversion therapy.
“I said yes, and she didn’t question it.
“She drove me home and when I arrived home my dad said: ‘have you been cured?’
“I said no, of course not, and we didn’t talk about it for about a decade after that.”
While many years have passed, Conley is still working to undo the damage the camp enforced.
“I often resist the narrative that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger because I would be a hell of a lot stronger if I hadn’t been almost killed – and I think that’s true of anyone who’s been through conversion therapy.
“It’s not like we come out of it an enlightened person – it damages us forever.
“It felt like soul murder, like nothing about myself was inherently interesting – I was worthless without God.
“Everything in my life was seen as a hindrance to my becoming a ‘straight’ individual.
“I don’t see a therapist right now because it bothers me to even enter a therapy setting now.
Conley remains in contact with his mother and father and says he forgives them for sending him to gay ‘cure’ therapy.
“I’ve definitely forgiven my parents for what they did.
“I was the lucky one – a lot of queer individuals don’t have the option of knowing their family anymore.
“They made a terrible mistake that could have cost me my life and they have asked for forgiveness, and I gave it to them.”
Conley’s mother will now even be an extra in the film about his life.
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Boy Erased is out later this year, starring Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his parents.
“The freakiest thing is that Russell Crowe is 100 percent my dad – I watch the screen and I can’t tell the difference.
“It’s that uncanny, he has my dad’s mannerisms, the way that he talks, pauses – it’s the most surreal thing.”
Conley hopes sharing his story will bring the “brutality” of gay ‘cure’ therapy into the limelight and help push for a worldwide ban.
“Had my parents seen something like this in the news, they might have actually done a Google search, looked up what the suicide rates are with this,” he said.
“So I think it’s incredibly important to keep pushing for a ban on conversion therapy in every country across the world.
“Believe it or not, there are places I know of in the UK, in Germany, across the world – a lot of them underground.
Talking about it and pushing for the ban is “one of the most important things we can do for queer people right now.”