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Interview with Garrard Conley

When current students stop and think about Lyon, beauty might not be the first word that comes to mind. We get bogged down in the reality of four-hour labs and twelve-page papers, and often forget about the tiny details of the place we live and work. It takes a reminder to look past the harshness, to find the beauty and wonder that initially drew us here. My conversation with Garrard Conley was one of those moments for me. Occurring in a kitchenette just off the stage in Brown Chapel, I was reminded of the unique spirit Lyon carries. We have a history—evident in the painted bricks for the 1974 Dracula production in the kitchenette, or the donor celebration bricks outside of Ed’s. His memoir, Boy Erased, captured some of these same moments:

Lynch: “What was campus like for LGBT students when you were here?”

Conley: “When I was here, there weren’t a lot of out LGBT people at all. There had been some people that were gay, but I don’t know how open they were about it. But I never felt unwelcome. I had been going through a lot of stuff at the time, there was a lot of pressure from my family—as you know from my book—but when I came here it was fine. Dr. Gary Harris (the theater professor) would do film viewings in the quad. And we watched LGBT films and had discussions afterwards and it was fine.

So, it was an environment where people could feel free to come out if they wanted to, but no one did. I was not comfortable coming out until after I was outed to my family. And several people came out after that, it was sort of like a chain reaction.

But even when people were out, they didn’t always come to GSA (Gay Straight Alliance). That was what I always found to be disturbing. It’s like, we can’t get complacent, we’ve got to be a united force. But I get it because now I’m 32 and I’m just like “You don’t know what it was like back then!” And it automatically happens when people have had more rights, they get a bit more complacent. I feel conflicted about that because I want people to live their lives and not have to revolve around being somewhere on the spectrum.

Lynch: “They should have the ability to not think about it.”

Conley: “Yeah! Like it’s just assumed that you can live your life and be okay, and that’s wonderful. Then again, I don’t think we’re there yet.”

The reason for this return to the past is Garrard’s memoir Boy Erased. It details his time at Lyon, when he was outed to his parents during his freshman year and subsequently spent time in gay conversion therapy. The book chronicles his struggles during that time, but not without leaving room for hope and beauty. Even though terrible things happened to him while here, his love for Lyon is palpable throughout. The college we all know and love can be seen within the book—the struggles and the triumphs:

Lynch: “What was the rest of your time at Lyon like?”

Conley: “I loved Lyon College so much. It was truly a great place. The time I discussed in the book was full of pain. I didn’t always love every aspect of Lyon College. I was raped by a person on campus, and then he outed me to everyone. That was very painful. And as you know from the book, there was someone who was in a leadership position who didn’t quite step up at the time. That was really hard to have happen, to see the failure of leadership right in front of my face. But that’s not Lyon College’s fault. That was that individual’s fault. And they didn’t put me in the room with that person.

And when I came back after conversion therapy, Lyon was a lifeline. I could study literature. I could enter into other people’s stories and enjoy them. It was like breathing for the first time. I got to dive into some of these people and do 18th, 19th century literature for the first time. I found that there’s a whole world so much bigger than my experiences.”

Lynch: “Yeah. It’s more than just like, small town Arkansas.”

Conley: “Yeah, exactly. I remember feeling this affinity to certain authors, thinking “Okay. I can make it.”

‘College is hard’ is the understatement of the century. Everyone at Lyon has their own mental, physical, and emotional struggles. Trying to compare them is like trying to compare a broken arm to a broken leg—both equally suck. However, we don’t all rewind through our darkest hours in order to try and create change. Boy Erased is a difficult book to read precisely because of this. A lot of horrible things happened to someone who literally was in our position ten years ago:

Lynch: “Honestly, the book is fantastic and the movie news is so exciting. How has it been, having that kind of reception with a book detailing such a painful part of your life?”

Conley: “You know, it’s a very strange book. I think it’s one that ten years from now I’ll say ‘uhh, don’t mention it’. It required a lot of going back to the really dark stuff in my past. It was not fun to write. Reading from it’s not fun either. It’s a bit of a downer, but I wanted to honor the actual struggle that people go through. Not just in conversion therapy, but in these small towns around America. And I had it easy compared to a lot of people. Trans people and people of color have it ten times worse in some cases. Many of them are kicked out of their houses or try and commit suicide. I didn’t want to make light of any of this. I tried to say ‘this is a document of that time. It’s not going to make you feel good to read it, but you need to read it.’ It was a weird book to have to write.

I want to tell people “I’m not the same person that I was when I wrote that book. I’m also not the same person that I seem to be in the book.” It’s a persona, it’s curated. It’s making a story out of life, but life is chaotic. There’s no real story. Like, we’re making stories and that’s great. Let’s keep making stories. Family, struggle, LGBT rights are all really good stories. But they’re not the chaos of life. I also wanted to show that conversion therapy wasn’t something that was isolated. That this stuff has been in the water the whole time. And there’s not going to be a tidy ending.”

Lynch: “Do you have anything you’d like to say to LGBT students on campus?”

Conley: “Yeah! Like we were saying earlier I do want people to be aware of the history of the movement. Stonewall, and even pre-Stonewall, had a lot of people fighting a very long time for basic human rights. And that’s what we really have to look out for as people of privilege being at Lyon. There’s a very rarified air here. And I think as LGBT people who are in that environment, it’s really important that we don’t erase or white-wash our history. Black trans people led that movement. We have to be cognizant of that and make way for people. Whatever we can do to amplify those voices is really important.

And it’s important no matter who you are, even if you are straight, white, male, and cisgender. Your life journey is still important. Just because other people’s voices need amplification doesn’t mean it’s eroding your importance. The journey that you have in life is still an important journey. Just because other people’s voices need amplification doesn’t mean it’s eroding anything. I think a lot of people—not Lyon students necessarily—see it as an attack when we amplify other people’s voices. But bad things can happen to anyone.

I think we’ve got to be really careful about our assumptions, and to move forward with the knowledge of who needs to be amplified. We have to create a strong sense of community. Part of that is meeting together and creating that community. We’ve got to have a set time to do that. I think that’s something that always needs to be done.”

Lynch: “I think that the great thing about SPECTRA. Since it is a GSA, you can just be like “I’m straight, I’m an ally, I just want to be here.”

Conley: “Exactly. Or at the very least, wear a pin, do something to show support. It is truly the allies that make this world safer for us. We can gather in numbers and feel safe with ourselves, but when we go out into the world and aren’t all bunched together it’s a really scary place for a lot of us. The allies are who we need to get on board. You know, I hear a lot of people who say ‘well I’m just like a straight woman. What am I supposed to do?’ And I say ‘be an ally.’ You’re a treasure. Everyone listens to you. Start talking.”

Boy Erased has been adapted for the screen staring Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Lucas Hedges, and Joel Edgerton. It is scheduled to be released September 28, 2018.

*Interview edited for clarity and length