When a 19-year old Garrard Conley was sent to a “conversion therapy” program in 2004, it wasn’t something people discussed openly.
“If you were to search for it on the Internet – probably on Yahoo back then – you would have gotten all these smiling pictures and testimonials from people saying how it worked for them, how they weren’t gay now and they were happy.”
That’s not the case today.
“Now you’d see a lot more,” Conley said Wednesday evening before giving a talk in Durham with his friend Sam Brinton, director of Advocacy for The Trevor Project. “Now you’d see us.”
Conley and Brinton are part of a generation of survivors who have torn the curtain away from so-called “conversion therapy,” exposing the practice that seeks to “cure” lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Conley’s 2016 memoir, “Boy Erased” became a New York Times bestseller and spawned a movie adaptation starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe.
Brinton, a transgender nuclear physicist who has advised both the Obama and Trump White Houses, became a crusader for LGBTQ youth.
Their work with The Trevor Project’s “50 Bills 50 States” initiative has helped to make it the fastest growing LGBTQ movement in history – a development now being monitored by the Library of Congress.
It’s succeeded in securing the introduction of bills to ban conversion therapy in 40 U.S. states. Those bills have already become law in 16 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.
North Carolina’s bill, the Mental Health Protection Act, was filed last month. Despite recent polling showing overwhelming bipartisan support for outlawing the practice for those under 18, the bill is struggling to even get a hearing in the Republican dominated General Assembly.
But just getting the bill filed for the first time is a victory, Brinton said.
In Colorado, a bill was filed five times before finally passing the House and Senate this year. The governor is expected to sign it into law next week.
In Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage back in 2004, a bill outlawing conversion therapy wasn’t passed until just this month.
“Submitting the bills is the important part,” said Brinton. “We talk about the Colorados and the Massachusettses, but North Carolina filing a bill was radical. Youth here are calling us and saying ‘I’m not in crisis now, I’m in celebration.’”
“It’s kind of like the starter pistol when a state puts forth a bill,” he said. “When I was in Texas speaking not too long ago, they had a bill fail. But the woman who was there who had put it forward was like, ‘We were able to have a huge conversation. We were able to have op-eds in the paper. It was a basis for discussion. So, as many times as you have to do that, keep doing it.’”
The conversation is key, Brinton said.
“It’s another mother who says, ‘Should I be putting my child through this?’” Brinton said. “Because the state is debating whether this should even be legal.”
Conley and Brinton’s parents didn’t have that perspective.
Conley’s father, a Baptist minister who would later become the pastor of his own church, told his son he was not welcome in the house if he did not attempt to change himself. His mother, not educated on the issue, struggled with the decision to subject him to six months of one-on-one conversion therapy and two weeks in a group program. She eventually helped him leave the religiously based conversion program, where participants were verbally abused, beaten with Bibles and counselors with no psychological training misapplied outmoded theories and used therapy tactics condemned by actual therapists and psychiatrists.
Brinton’s father, a religious missionary, punched Brinton in the face when confronted with the fact his child might have same-sex attraction. Brinton was then told that gay people were responsible for bringing the devastation of AIDS that his family had seen in foreign countries to the U.S. Brinton was subjected to physical torture, including having ice and hot wires applied to his hands while being shown photos of men holding hands in an attempt to engender psychological unease with same-sex affection.
In his memoir, Conley writes about praying that the program would be successful in changing him. But as he underwent the clumsy, sometimes terrifying conversion techniques, something dawned on him.
He had already read George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984” with its descriptions of brainwashing techniques designed to crush peoples’ spirits and eliminate individuality.
He was also versed with the King James Bible, which had taught him to believe in God’s love for all of his creations.
The conversion therapy program seemed a lot more like one book than the other.
Despite their experiences and the trauma they’re still processing, both Conley and Brinton said they understand how their parents made the decisions they did.
“My mother loved me enough to put me through that,” Brinton said. “She didn’t hate me. She loved me and that was what she thought she had to do.”
Brinton maintained a strong Christian faith and today, in addition to work in activism and science, is a pastor. Brinton writes a postcard to the family who tried to change him every two weeks, like clockwork. They have never replied.
“When they finally do, I’ve been ready all along,” Brinton said.
Conley’s relationship with Christianity is still difficult, given the trauma he experienced in its name. But he has a close relationship with his family. His mother has fully supported his writing and the film of his memoir, released last year. While his father’s work as a Baptist pastor keeps him from publicly embracing those things, the two still have deep and meaningful talks.
“I’ve had people in my own community say you have to separate from your religion, you have to separate from your family to live your life,” Conley said. “And that’s necessary for some people. But it’s not what I want.”
Both Conley and Brinton are committed to making sure other families can avoid the mistakes and traumas that have been so much a part of their own lives.
“I always say to people, especially when I’m asked to speak in churches, ‘I’m not talking about marriage. I’m not talking about changing your beliefs. All I’m talking about now is not torturing kids.’ Hopefully we can all agree on that.”
While the residents of North Carolina appear to agree, getting a law that actually protects those children could be years away.
“I think the Republican leadership have their agenda set,” said N.C. Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Davidson). “I have no indication that banning conversion therapy is part of their agenda.”
Marcus, a primary sponsor of the Mental Health Protection Act, attended Conley and Brinton’s talk Wednesday night. She agreed that, however difficult the road, filing and fighting for the bill is worth it in North Carolina.
It may take a political shift in 2020 to change the leadership in the General Assembly, she said, and to accomplish what other states already have.
“But what we’re doing now is how it starts.”