Two new films tackle gay con­ver­sion ther­apy and con­clude that you can’t “pray the gay away”. Have they missed the op­por­tu­nity to de­liver this mes­sage where it’s most needed? By Jeremy Smith

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT -

Is the new film tack­ling gay con­ver­sion ther­apy preach­ing to the choir?

FOL­LOW­ING the mar­riage equal­ity vic­tory in 2017, LGBTIQ Aus­tralians were asked what the next pri­or­ity for our civil rights should be. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port in The Guardian Aus­tralia, a whop­ping 93 per cent of re­spon­dents said that ban­ning the prac­tice of “gay con­ver­sion ther­apy” should top the list.

Gay con­ver­sion ther­apy, some­times re­ferred to as “pray the gay away” is a sin­is­ter, un­sci­en­tific prac­tice that seeks to covert ho­mo­sex­u­als into het­ero­sex­u­als. It uses a va­ri­ety of dam­ag­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal tech­niques in­clud­ing ex­or­cism. It sug­gests that ho­mo­sex­u­als are pos­sessed of evil spir­its and that “suf­fer­ers” will be “cured” if they turn to God. The prac­tice is widely con­demned by in­ter­na­tional health or­gan­i­sa­tions.

Un­for­tu­nately, vul­ner­a­ble young peo­ple are the most com­mon vic­tims of th­ese “ther­a­pies”, ad­min­is­tered at the rec­om­men­da­tion of re­li­gious or spir­i­tual lead­ers.

Brazil, Ecuador, South Africa, Spain, Tai­wan and even China have banned the prac­tice, as have sev­eral US and Cana­dian states, and the state of Vic­to­ria in Aus­tralia. The UK, Ire­land, New Zealand and Ger­many all have plans to make it il­le­gal.

Aus­tralia’s Fed­eral Health Min­ter, Greg Hunt has af­firmed that the govern­ment doesn’t sup­port the prac­tice, how­ever, Prime Min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son in­fa­mously stated that con­ver­sion ther­apy was “not an is­sue” for him

– a state­ment so vague it’s un­cer­tain where he stands on it.

This year, two ma­jor films deal with the sub­ject. Both are based on best-sell­ing nov­els, one of which is a first-hand ac­count. The Mise­d­u­ca­tion Of Cameron Post stars Chloe Grace Moretz and is based on the book by Emily M Dan­forth, who was in­spired by a teenager’s blog posts about his time at a con­ver­sion ther­apy camp.

The sec­ond is Boy Erased – al­ready gen­er­at­ing “Os­car buzz” – and is an adap­tion of Gar­rard Con­ley’s first-hand ac­count of his con­ver­sion ther­apy ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s an Aus­tralian pro­duc­tion di­rected by Joel Edger­ton who also plays the con­ver­sion ther­apy leader.

Its cast is im­pres­sive. Hot from his roles in two Best Pic­ture-nom­i­nated films last year (Lady Bird and Three Bill­boards Out­side Eb­bing Mis­souri), and his Os­car nom­i­na­tion for Manch­ester By The Sea in 2016, Lu­cas Hedges plays Jared, the teenager at the cen­tre of the story. Ni­cole Kid­man is Jared’s mum Nancy, with a per­for­mance that so­lid­i­fies the “Kid­man Re­nais­sance” since her Emmy win for Big Lit­tle Lies last year; and Rus­sell Crowe is Jared’s dad (re­mind­ing us of the time he played gay in one of his early break­out roles, The Sum Of Us in 1994). In sup­port­ing roles are Aussie mu­sic star Troye Si­van and Cana­dian wun­derkind Xavier Dolan as other kids at the camp.

The Mise­d­u­ca­tion Of Cameron Post is a story of teenage friend­ship and group sur­vival in the face of dis­crim­i­na­tion, with scenes de­pict­ing the blos­som­ing re­la­tion­ships at its heart. The film’s pow­er­ful cli­max scene is dur­ing a group ther­apy ses­sion, which em­pha­sises the new re­la­tion­ships be­tween the kids, and sug­gests the film is aimed at a younger au­di­ence.

The cli­max of Boy Erased de­picts a far more dis­turb­ing group sham­ing scene (with an ac­tual cof­fin and a boy be­ing spanked with a bi­ble). It’s far more in­tense than Cameron Post and its dra­matic punch ap­plies to Jared’s par­ents, Nancy and Mar­shall, rather than to Jared him­self. Boy Erased is aimed at an older au­di­ence, in­clud­ing the par­ents of LGBTIQ kids. In­deed, while pro­mot­ing the film on The Late Show With Stephen Col­bert, Troye Si­van said as much.

Nei­ther film speaks di­rectly to LGBTIQ kids who might ac­tu­ally want to un­der­take con­ver­sion ther­apy and who be­lieve they can be­come het­ero­sex­ual. This is a glar­ing omis­sion.

The pro­tag­o­nists in both Cameron Post and Boy Erased don’t want to go to the camps; they’re at­tend­ing be­cause of co­er­cion by fam­ily. Troye Si­van’s char­ac­ter ad­vises Jared to fake his ther­apy re­sults in or­der to sur­vive. Some back­ground char­ac­ters in th­ese dra­mas present as be­liev­ing in the ther­apy but their rea­son­ing and sto­ries are never ad­e­quately ex­plored.

This gives us two sto­ries in which char­ac­ters suc­ceed in over­com­ing ad­ver­sity, rather than sto­ries in which the lead char­ac­ters ex­pe­ri­ence a com­plete re­vi­sion of their strongly held first po­si­tions.

More in­ter­est­ing and nu­anced films would have fo­cused on char­ac­ters who don’t make it out; the boy or girl who goes will­ingly to the camps be­cause they truly be­lieve they can be changed. That would be a harder film to make but a more re­ward­ing one in un­der­stand­ing how and why such mon­strous places and prac­tices con­tinue to ex­ist.

That isn’t to say that Boy Erased shies away from the hor­rors of the prac­tice. Far from it. It’s a deeply dis­turb­ing, in­tense and hard-hit­ting drama that should come with sev­eral trig­ger warn­ings, not only for the trau­ma­tis­ing self­hat­ing prac­tices of con­ver­sion ther­apy, but also for a de­pic­tion of cam­pus rape and the theme of youth sui­cide.

I grew up in a very re­li­gious, Chris­tian en­vi­ron­ment. In my child­hood I ex­pe­ri­enced con­ver­sion ther­apy both per­son­ally and through mem­bers of my im­me­di­ate fam­ily. I found the film ex­cru­ci­at­ing. To those who have had sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences and are con­sid­er­ing watch­ing Boy Erased, be pre­pared to re­live the or­deal in de­tail and be­ware of resid­ual trauma

Boy Erased does not shy away from the hor­rors of the prac­tice. It’s deeply dis­turb­ing and should come with sev­eral trig­ger warn­ings.

resur­fac­ing. Watch it with a close friend who will be sup­port­ive af­ter­wards.

Boy Erased’s best mo­ments are in the par­ents’ pow­er­ful scenes of rev­e­la­tion and redemp­tion. Th­ese mo­ments are, un­for­tu­nately, hand­i­capped by a di­rec­to­rial de­ci­sion to mix up the pro­gres­sion of the film’s sto­ry­line. We open with Jared and his mother driv­ing to, and en­rolling in, the camp with the lead-up to this mo­ment told through a se­ries of flash­backs. This cre­ates both con­fu­sion and di­min­ishes the story arc and pac­ing.

When the cli­mac­tic sham­ing ther­apy scene is re­vealed it comes as a sur­prise be­cause the lead-up in­cludes flash­back scenes that dis­joint the emo­tional punch of the present. Ad­di­tion­ally, any nuance in the sub­ject mat­ter is lost by an over­play­ing Joel Edger­ton. He sledge­ham­mers the au­di­ence with the mes­sage of the stu­pid­ity and hor­ror of the ther­apy with­out en­gag­ing in the con­flicts of the soul that can lead hurt­ing peo­ple to seek it out.

Boy Erased is full of great per­for­mances but is a dis­jointed film that never gets to the ugly heart of its sub­ject. Rather than en­gag­ing with an au­di­ence that may ben­e­fit the most from its telling, it seems happy preach­ing to the choir. This flawed film is, nev­er­the­less, worth watch­ing for the pow­er­house per­for­mances of the cast, par­tic­u­larly the masterly scenes be­tween Jared and his par­ents. The Os­car buzz may re­ward the Boy Erased cast in spite of the film’s lim­i­ta­tions.

A 2009 made-for-TV film, Prayers For Bobby is worth look­ing up. It deals with sim­i­lar sub­ject mat­ter and stars Sigour­ney Weaver as the in­tol­er­ant mother who must even­tu­ally find redemp­tion.

Our Pen­te­costal PM may not think gay con­ver­sion ther­apy is an is­sue for him, but it may well be­come one in next year’s fed­eral elec­tion cam­paign. Both The Greens and La­bor have de­clared their in­ten­tion to make the prac­tice il­le­gal. And, as yet, no one knows where Philip Rud­dock’s Re­li­gious Free­dom Re­view, com­mis­sioned af­ter the mar­riage-equal­ity win, will sit on the sub­ject.

The Mise­d­u­ca­tion Of Cameron Post and Boy Erased are im­por­tant films that need to be seen. They ex­plain, in no un­cer­tain terms, why gay con­ver­sion is dan­ger­ous and should not be le­gal and, as such, have the po­ten­tial to save lives. We can only hope that they find their way to LGBTIQ peo­ple who strug­gling to rec­on­cile their faith and their sex­u­al­ity.

Joel Edger­ton, Ni­cole Kid­man and Troye Si­van at the Toronto Film Fes­ti­val’s screen­ing of Boy Erased.

Ni­cole Kid­man and Rus­sell Crowe in Boy Erased.

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