When her Mormon parents learned she was gay and had a girlfriend, 15-year-old Alex Cooper was sent away to live with a pair of sadistic Mormons appointed to “cure” her of her homosexuality. Her harrowing experience with conversion therapy was the basis for her 2016 memoir, Saving Alex: When I Was Fifteen I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That’s When My Nightmare Began, which has now been adapted into a gripping Lifetime movie, Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story.
Portrayed by Addison Holley, Cooper is a rebellious, fiery spirit devastated when her parents, after claiming she will live with her grandparents, deposit her in the Utah home of Johnny and Tiana Simms (played by Ian Lake and Sarah Booth), who subject her and other queer teens (alongside their own biological children) to abuse and humiliation around the clock. The Simms are so well-connected within the community that when Alex is finally allowed to go outside they know her every move, which proves even more treacherous when Cooper meets an out gay teen, Jason (Stephen Joffe), at the local high school. Will she ever escape and be reunited with her girlfriend?
Adapted by gay screenwriter and Star Trek: Discovery executive producer Michelle Paradise (who also comes from a Mormon background), Trapped is a compelling, suspenseful, infuriating piece of work, but—spoiler alert—it has a happy ending. Currently based in Portland, Ore., the real-life Cooper was extricated from her horrifying situation after eight months with help from Utah-based lawyer and champion for LGBTQ rights Paul C. Burke. She recently chatted with NewNowNext about seeing her life on screen, the enduring saga of conversion therapy in America, and what she’d say to McKrae Game if she met him.
So how did your book end up becoming a Lifetime original movie?
I think our end goal was always to make it a film. We started talking with [executive producer and director] Jeffrey Hunt and Michelle, and though there were a couple of other [studios and producers that approached], they really had a great pitch and it felt they were coming from the right place.
How does the Lifetime adaptation differ most from the book?
The biggest difference is the ending. Unfortunately, unlike in the movie, I didn’t get to be reunited with my girlfriend. It had been eight months and we went our separate ways, and we haven’t seen each other since just before I went into conversion therapy. But I was able to focus on school, graduated early, and started dating a bishop’s daughter. We were able to get a court order saying that I was legally allowed to do normal teenage things, like date a girl.
Were you expecting that from a judge?
No. Definitely not. Especially in St. George, in southern Utah. But it happened, and it was really thanks to Paul Burke and the NCLR [National Center for Lesbian Rights], which made sure that I’m able to live authentically and freely. My parents also had to go to mandatory PFLAG meetings, and it helped a lot.
Let’s talk about the Simms. How did your family find out about them?
My parents were introduced to them by my grandparents. The Mormon church has wards—that’s how [church] meetings are broken up—and my grandparents were in the same ward as the Simms. The Simms always had new kids with them at church, and my grandparents knew they were practicing conversion therapy and approached them after my parents came to them not knowing what to do [about my being gay]. The Simms said they would take me.
Do you hate your grandparents for that?
I don’t. I think everything they and my parents did was out of concern. Unfortunately, it was very misdirected, but I don’t think they did anything in hopes that I would be tortured. I think they did things so I could meet them in the celestial kingdom one day, which is fucked. But I can’t be mad at them.
What were the other queer teens in the Simms’ home like? They seem desperate to stay out of trouble in the movie.
That’s definitely what it was like. There were times when we trusted each other enough to form a group escape plan, and when that backfired we all turned on each other. “Stay away from me, don’t talk to me, I don’t want to get in trouble.” We would narc on each other, unfortunately.
I like that the movie doesn’t shy away from depicting the Simms as straight-up sadistic villains. Were they truly diabolical?
Oh, for sure. They got weird pleasure from hurting and torturing children, even their own children. I didn’t blame my parents for what happened, but I do blame the Simms 100%. I try to get over my anger for them—it’s been a lot of years—but I do hate them. I think they’re terrible people.
Are they still doing their thing?
They’re not. They were forced to stop. They actually worked in residential treatment facilities in southern Utah and lost their jobs as well.
How did you feel about the other recent conversion therapy–related movies, like The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased?
Honestly, I haven’t seen them. I talk a lot about conversion therapy and feel like it’s my whole life, so when hanging out I’m not trying to watch a movie about it.
Where are we now as far as the fight against conversion therapy and the “ex-gay” movement?
All these laws being passed against conversion therapy are amazing. When I first started talking about it, it was legal in every state. Now it’s legal in 33 states, which is still too many, but it’s a huge amount of progress. Yet those laws wouldn’t stop what happened to me from happening again. My parents signed over parental guardianship to these people—I was living in their home. I wasn’t in a facility being treated by a therapist. I was in someone’s home, as their legal child, and they were preaching the word of the LDS church, which is not illegal. The physical abuse was illegal for sure, but everything else wasn’t, and this happens a lot more than we think. It could be your next-door neighbor.
New York City recently dropped its ban on conversion therapy because a Christian group had filed a federal lawsuit and it feared it would get to our conservative-leaning SCOTUS and result in the practice being legally protected as “religious freedom.” What are your thoughts on that strategy?
I don’t know. Any measure we’re taking to stop conversion therapy and bring awareness to people is something. I do think it’s a slightly dangerous strategy, but there are so many ways for conversion therapy to go under the radar of the law. If you’re an adult and want conversion therapy, you can do it, but if you’re a parent, you can’t make your child do it. So the more awareness the better.
How do you feel about McKrae Game recently coming out as gay?
I’m not surprised at all.
What would you say if you met him?
I don’t even know what I would say. I pity him. I think I’d want to ask him a question: “Wouldn’t it have been easier to come out instead of putting everyone through hell?” I know coming out isn’t easy, but it’s easier than dragging people through hell.
Was Mr. Simms a closet case, too?
I think maybe he could have been a closeted gay. It’s possible, but I don’t know.
How do your parents feel about the movie?
They’re very supportive. A lot more supportive than I ever thought they would be. Every interview I do about this, they’re great.
Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story premieres September 28 on Lifetime.