It’s Wednesday morning, and Aaron Aupperle is in a theater watching his funeral.
The scene comes late in the movie “Boy Erased.”
The 114-minute film, now showing at the Lincoln Grand Cinema, stars Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Lucas Hedges. It’s based on a memoir by Garrard Conley (played by Hedges), who describes his experience in gay conversion therapy in 2004.
In the film version, a character named Cameron is made to kneel in front of a coffin where he is flogged with Bibles by his family for not properly renouncing his homosexuality as his fellow program participants look on.
Aupperle was the real-life Cameron.
The Lincoln High grad was 22 in 1998 when his own mock funeral was held in a residential conversion program in Memphis, Tennessee. He’d violated the rules by having a sexual relationship with a coworker, he says.
Staff made him lie on a table.
There were fake flowers and sad faces and fellow members of the program delivering eulogies.
“They were trying to scare people out of their behaviors,” Aupperle says. “I think it was more traumatic for the other clients.”
For a long time, he buried that moment, one of many in the months he spent trying — and failing — to become straight.
The story of his mock funeral was included in a decade-old documentary about the Love in Action conversion program, and Conley came across the story while researching his book.
The two men connected before the film was released and Aupperle flew to the New York premiere in late October.
“I know he’s really proud of what I’ve tried to do so far,” Aupperle says.
Aupperle lives in Lincoln and works at Bryan East Campus. He came out to his parents on New Year's Day 1993, when he was 17.
Their religion considered homosexuality a sin and, after his dad died the following year, his mom wanted him to go to a fundamentalist Christian counselor in town. When he wasn’t making progress becoming straight, he found a support group and eventually its leader recommended the Love in Action program in Memphis.
The program was run by counselors with few credentials and based on pseudoscience and “Freudian crap,” Aupperle says.
“A lot of them were just drug and alcohol counselors.”
Aupperle enrolled twice: 1995 and again in 1998. He went willingly both times.
“I thought it was going to be like the ‘Real World’ on MTV,” he says.
“I obviously didn’t read all the materials they sent me.”
The orientation manual was 275 pages long and filled with rules that included how to sit and how to stand, how to cross your legs and how to control your facial expressions. (They practiced “resting face,” Aupperle says.)
Bible verses were handed out as prescriptions for combating sexual sins.
And, as depicted in the movie, participants were instructed to write and share their “moral inventories,” including intimate sexual experiences they recited aloud to the group.
The premise: “God doesn’t want you to be that way and it’s changeable.”
The damage is still being done, Aupperle says.
And he’s doing his part to mitigate it.
He told his story at the opening of the film in Omaha on Nov. 15, and he’s handed out flyers to moviegoers in Lincoln, slips of brightly-colored paper with the headline: HELP STOP CONVERSION THERAPY!
He included statistics: That it’s still legal in 36 states to run conversion therapy programs. (Nebraska is one of them.) That a third of the 77,000 participants are minors.
“FEAR keeps these institutions operating,” Aupperle wrote. “Help spread the word.”
It’s become his mission. He was interviewed for the podcast “Unerased: The History of Conversion Therapy.” (You can hear him on Episode 4.)
He’s seen “Boy Erased” seven times. He's happy the filmmakers didn't demonize the parents, but instead explored their motivations, which were based on their beliefs.
"My hope is that it challenges Christians to listen to LGBTQ youth before making these kinds of decisions," Aupperle says.
The character in the movie who had the fake funeral? He takes his own life.
At Wednesday’s showing, Aupperle wore a small pin on his shirt: 50/50. The goal of the anti-conversion therapy advocates, he says, is to end the damaging practice in every state.
He still struggles with issues — separate from his sexual orientation — that he dealt with as a teenager, exacerbated by his months of trauma at the conversion center, Aupperle says.
He had a nervous breakdown during his second stay. Flashbacks that started before he walked in the door. Locking himself in the bathroom and begging to go home.
It’s still a battle, he says. “Basically, you’re frozen at the age you were when you went into that situation in a mental and emotional way. It’s something I need to seek help for.”
He’s surprised that so many people are surprised to hear that conversion therapy still exists.
“They think it’s a thing of the past and that’s bull crap,” says the man who survived his own funeral.
“I wanted Lincoln to know. I want people to go see this movie.”