emily m. danforth’s new debut novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Balzer + Bray), is already getting comparisons to the classics. Curtis Sittenfeld, bestselling author of American Wife, said, “If Holden Caulfield had been a gay girl from Montana, this is the story he might have told — it’s funny, heartbreaking, and beautifully rendered. emily danforth remembers exactly what it’s like to be a teenager, and she has written a new classic.” danforth tells us it was the least she could do.
At about age nine or ten, I realized that I felt about girls the way my friends felt about the members of New Kids on the Block. This was a strange time for the LGBTQ community: after the so-called gay liberation movements, but before Ellen DeGeneres appeared on the cover of Time magazine proclaiming “Yep, I’m Gay.” It was all the stranger to experience it growing up in the conservative cowboy culture of Miles City, Montana, as I did. I stayed closeted throughout high school, believing that my only chance to live openly was to leave, which I did after graduating.
It was when I was back in Miles City during the summer of 2005, staying with my parents and beginning work on what would become this novel, that I learned about a teenager from Tennessee named Zach Stark. His parents had sent him to Refuge, which he referred to on his Myspace page as a fundamentalist boot camp intended to turn gay kids straight. I’d never heard of religious conversion therapy as a horrifying way for parents to attempt to “fix” the mistake/psychological impairment/abomination they suspected in their children.
I soon became obsessed: joining the mailing lists of Exodus International (“The world’s largest ministry to individuals and families impacted by homosexuality”) and its subsidiaries, frequenting the websites of these organizations, purchasing the books and other materials produced by its leaders. (Eventually, I even had a brief Myspace message exchange with Zach Stark himself. We talked mostly about daily life at Refuge.)
Despite Katy Perry on the radio and a kiss between two guys on Glee, we still live in a world in need of the It Gets Better Project, created as a response to the seven (known) suicides of LGBTQ teens during September of 2010. I wrote my first novel for all of us who still hear, on a daily basis — from church leaders, from politicians, from parents — that being anything other than straight is both a sin and a choice. I wrote this book for the me who grew up in Miles City and was too afraid to ask a girl to prom.
emily m. danforth is the assistant director of the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She teaches creative writing and literature courses at Rhode Island College and is coeditor of The Cupboard.