Garrard Conley: My book is very grey

I wanted it to be a truthful piece, which means not black and white

Boy Erased gave me a convenient metaphor to talk about sexuality and religion because so much of what was happening to me was a kind of erasure - to say “You don't exist as a gay man, you can't be a gay man because gay people don't exist.”, says Garrard Conley in an interview to Eropost.

Why did you decide to come to Bulgaria in the first place? Many Bulgarians your age want to go to the US.

Do you know the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation? They do a lot of writing related things in Bulgaria. I first came to the country because I was given a fellowship for writing on the Black Sea. And so I came for a week, loved it, and I met the author Garth Greenwell, who wrote a book called What Belongs to You (I think it was also translated into Bulgarian). He was working at the American College of Sofia, and he basically said, “Do you want my job?” And I said, “Yeah, I would love your job.” So he really worked to give me that job. I also had a boyfriend at the time who was Bulgarian, so I decided to move because of love.

What was your experience here, given that Bulgarians are not known for being tolerant?

It was always a bit difficult, but the American College was very supportive. My students were very supportive, actually. You know, sometimes there were problems with certain students and their parents, but, for the most part, everyone was very supportive and kind of interested. My boyfriend and I knew not to hold hands on the streets or anything like that, but we were safe, we were careful. I think, for the most part, people didn't really care.

New York, where I live, is very tolerant and supportive. With so many types of people there, you have to be supportive because every street corner is filled with so many different ethnicities, religions and sexualities that it's impossible to be bigoted or homophobic.

So what motivated you to pour it all out?

Well, I waited a decade before I wrote any of the story, and I think you have to wait a certain amount of time so that you're not angry. You want your book to feel honest and measured and careful, and so I waited for that time because I didn't want it to be revenge or some kind of politically driven piece. I wanted it to be a truthful piece, which means not black and white, it's very grey. The other reason is that I wrote an essay that got a lot of attention. My current agent read the piece and she signed me and said, “I think you should write a book about this.” I was like, “Well, I'm moving to Bulgaria, but I'll write it while I'm there.” So I finished it while I was here.

Did you have any fears that you would be naked in front of the world?

Yeah, completely. On one hand, all of my friends and family knew about my sexuality, but not everyone in all of my jobs. So there was a fear of being seen as gay more than a writer. I didn't want people to be like, “Oh, he is a gay writer, he's not a writer.” But anyone who reads Boy Erased, or my next novel that I'm working on, knows that I'm interested in sentences. I'm a literally writer. You can call me a gay writer, that's fine, but I'm a writer first.

How did you decide on the title?

Boy Erased was a hard title because I had so many others. But I needed something that was evocative; it makes you question “What does that mean, what is the erasure.” And also, it gave me a convenient metaphor to talk about sexuality and religion because so much of what was happening to me was a kind of erasure - to say “You don't exist as a gay man, you can't be a gay man because gay people don't exist.” That is what they said: “You can have same-sex attractions, but you can't be gay.” You see the difference there, right? It's not an identity, it's a temptation. And that erasure means that you never find out who you are. It's like if I said: “You have opposite-sex attractions but you're not straight.” It's a weird thing, right? So there's a way that the language of a lot of these people was used as a kind of erasure.

How did you like the film adaptation of Boy Erased? What was your involvement in bringing your story to the big screen?

I was on the set a lot. I also read each version of the script and gave notes. I met all the actors. Lucas Hedges, who plays me, and I just had dinner with him at my apartment again; he has stayed in my life. So I had a lot of connection to it. The first time I saw the movie I hated it because I was so close to it and emotionally not ready to see myself from the outside. I had written something from the inside, a memoir is internal, right? But to see it from the outside was so difficult, it was just painful. But I've watched it since, I watched it a couple of weeks ago and I liked it. I was like, “Oh, OK now I can see it as somebody else.” Sometimes I'll sit for one or two scenes, but then I'll walk out and just wait to do a Q&A because I can't go through the experience. You can imagine - speaking about this so many times, seeing it so many times, eventually I want this to be over, to go on with my life. That's why I'm writing fiction now, I'm not writing a memoir again.

Tell us about the next book that you're writing. Do you see it made into a film too?

I would love that. It would be a much more pleasant experience having a fiction become a movie. It's called The Great Revelation at this time, and it is set in the 18th century so it's a historical novel. It follows an English preacher who comes to the colonies before America is America. He starts a family and there are a lot of scandals in the family that almost tear them apart. Again, it's a book that's very interested in the intersection of religion and sexuality - and not just LGBT sexuality but straight people who are forced into certain very narrow ideas of marriage and love. I think I'll always be interested in writing about religion.

What is the connection between religion and sexuality?

I think that religion can be a help to people in a lot of ways, I have nothing against religion and I'm always careful not to attack any form of it.

Do you consider yourself a religious person?

I think that I'm a spiritual but not a religious person at this point. I'm in the grey area and very happy to be there. I think that anytime you create a set of rules that are moral, sexuality is going to (raise) some big questions because it has the ability to be revolutionary. Sex, when you don't consider morality, can be a very revolutionary act. The way that people decide to engage with sex or be sexual beings can be radical. So religion, which is mainly concerned with morality, is always going to have a lot of difficult questions when it comes to sex and it's always going to be like, “Should we control it, should we say what acts are OK which ones are not?” I find that really fascinating, I love that subject.

Can you tell us a bit about conversion therapy?

Conversion therapy is any attempt to alter a person's sexuality from LGBTQ, whatever, to straight. In addition to erasing people's identity, I think it's an attempt to manufacture a “normal” person. And we know, as humans who are part animal part divine, that it's complex. No one is the same, no one is “normal” and it's difficult when people are told “Do these steps and you'll be normal.” I think it's a lie to say that anyone can be cured of their sexuality. It's like if I said to you: “I'm going to cure you of your straightness, you'll be a lesbian by tomorrow.” It's not going to work, it's not possible.

Are such therapies still going strong?

There are psychologists or psychiatrists or therapists in Bulgaria who are doing it. I've heard stories. They're not advertising, they're not saying it, but I know people who have gone to these places. In the US alone, there are 33 states that have not banned conversion therapy. There are 700,000 people who have been through it so far, which is roughly the population of Boston. It's an international phenomenon so conversion has been exported to a lot of different countries, by evangelicals mostly. It's a long battle to stop all of this, but I'm really optimistic and I think that the main message is not just about shutting down these therapists. The bigger part of the battle is convincing people that homophobia is something to be wary of, that it is dangerous for people and completely unnecessary. Life is incredibly hard - it's hard to be alive, make money and survive - so why are you complicating it, why are you making it harder for people to be happy?

When did you know you were different? Now you have a voice. Ellen DeGeneres was among the first to come out while you were growing up.

It was scandalous when Ellen came out. It was shocking.

How many voices have helped you?

Ellen was a big voice that did help because she made it normal. She was like, “It's just a thing, I just love this woman.” I knew when I was in third grade. I had a crush on my teacher, who was male. I just knew, I was like, “I want to marry Mr Smith.” I actually didn't think anything was strange about it for a long time growing up. When I would say “I love you” to my male friends or I would like to really kiss them when I was in third grade, they would be like, “Oh, you're funny.” And then when they understood that there was something different about it, that's when it became dangerous. I never quite understood why it was so weird. Men show affection for each other all the time, but suddenly it's weird if I'm gay. Why? You're my friend, it doesn't mean that I'm going to try to have sex with you at all times. It's just funny. But I knew pretty early. There were a lot of writers that I discovered. We have Barnes & Noble in the US, a big bookshop, and I would always go to the local Barnes & Noble and there would be a gay and lesbian section, very hidden. I remember I would go and sneak by, pretend like I wasn't looking, and I would take one of the books and put it behind another book and read. A lot of those books helped me because they had information. The internet was new at the time I was growing up and if you typed in “gay” on the internet, it would be porn, that's all it would show up. So as a kid trying to figure out stuff, you're like, “Oh, no, if someone sees these words typed in the computer, they'll know.” So books were my way of finding that.

What was that like growing up in your family?

We just didn't talk about it. Until they found out I was gay, it wasn't a subject. If we did talk about it, it was like Matthew Shepard who was murdered in the 1990s, left for dead tied to a fence. In their minds, people thought that what happened if you are gay was you either get murdered or die of AIDS, those were the two stories. So when I was younger I thought if I ever did anything sexual with a man, I would immediately have AIDS and die, just instantly. It was scary; those were the narratives that existed at the time.

How do you try to help people who have not come out to their families?

I always say that you have to wait for the right time to come out. If you're struggling with your sexuality or questioning things, telling people at the wrong time could be very dangerous, especially if the people around you are homophobic. Sometimes you have to wait until you go off to college or you have to find friends in your high school who you know will never tell - and those are hard to find because people love gossip, it's the biggest piece of gossip to say “this person is gay”, so that's tough. The internet is a great resource if no one is checking your phone history, you can find great resources like the programme Single Step, which is now doing chat rooms - people can go and say: “I'm feeling this way, are there any resources?” And they'll point you to the right direction.

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Garrard Conley is an American author and LGBTQ activist. He was born in 1985 in Arkansas in a family of religious fundamentalists. In 2016 he published his autobiography Boy Erased: A Memoir, which he wrote while teaching at the American College of Sofia. He dedicated his book to the “treatment” which his parents made him go through as part of a conversion therapy against homosexuality. The memoir inspired director Joel Edgerton for his eponymous movie which recently took the second prize at the CineLibri 2019 festival in Sofia.

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