Garrard Conley ’20 M.F.A. was halfway to finishing his master’s degree in creative writing at Brooklyn College when the movie Boy Erased premiered. Based on his 2016 bestselling memoir of the same name, the film chronicles Conley’s life as he was outed as gay to his parents. His minister father’s solution was to enroll his son in a conversion therapy program.

The author’s experience with conversion therapy—a dangerous and discredited practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression—

is one that he shares with approximately 700,000 other Americans. Conley left the program when he witnessed the psychological and emotional damage being done to the participants, and himself.

“What was happening to me and my family is what’s happening to many other families on a much larger scale,” says Conley.  “And it’s worse for the trans community,” he adds. “Trans people are twice as likely as other LGBQ people to be subjected to conversion therapy, substantially increasing the risk for suicide.”

The memoir became a New York Times bestseller and was cited by Kentucky senators when banning conversion therapy in that state. Conley became a much sought-after speaker. “I was intent on being a writer but inadvertently became an activist,” he says.

To date, more than 20 states, the District of Columbia, and 100 municipalities have bans on the therapy for adults and minors or the use of state or federal funds to practice conversion therapy on minors. Still, Conley admits that there is much to do to educate people about conversion therapy and help the more than 20,000 Americans currently being affected by this practice. Today, he speaks at schools and other venues across the country on topics such as growing up gay in the South, radical compassion, and the practice of writing through trauma.

Even with his early success as a published author, Conley chose to come to Brooklyn College to study writing so he could fully hone his craft—and explore fiction. The creative writing program enabled him to work with Assistant Professor of Fiction Ernesto Mestre-Reed, whose classes he had specifically sought out. “Professor Mestre offered great critiques, and told us to have fun and do what we want.”

Today, Conley teaches creative writing at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta. “I tell my students that we’re not there to tear things down; we’re there to realize their visions as artists.” Conley says that this was the type of generous support he received at Brooklyn College, where he was encouraged to “try out things in my writing that felt dangerous.”

What the author deemed dangerous has now been translated into a debut novel, All the World Beside (Riverhead/Penguin, 2024). It is the story of a famous preacher who falls in love with another man during Puritan New England’s “Great Awakening,” a time in 18th-century America of evangelism and fervent religious piety.

“It’s inspired by The Scarlet Letter, 18th-century language, and love’s mysteries,” says Conley. “There is this closeted, sympathetic preacher, but he is fine with oppressive laws such as the fugitive slave laws of the time. As the story unfolds, he becomes a better person through the power of love,” says Conley.

The ability to evolve beyond limiting beliefs and prejudices resonates with Conley deeply. “If you knew the kinds of things I said as a kid because of how I grew up,” he says. “Getting on Twitter and shaming people for making terrible decisions is not the best way to change their minds. I have had people in my home state of Arkansas, and other places, thanking me for not vilifying them as Christians.” Conley, who is close to his own family, credits “the transformative power of love” to much of the healing that happened after he left conversion therapy.

In the current climate where books—including his own—are being banned, Conley feels it is imperative that people know their history and share authentic stories.

“For me, going to public school—subjects like Charles Darwin and the Native American Trail of Tears were missing from the curriculum,” says Conley. “When I got to attend a liberal arts college, things opened up. I’ve become a lifelong educator because I believe that younger people need to be taught our histories.”

As Conley’s writing and teaching career continues to evolve, he is committed to doing just that.