Beyond the graphic horrors of conversion therapy are covert messages of assumed heterosexuality
There is a scene in Boy Erased, the new film based on writer Garrard Conley’s experience of “gay conversion therapy”, where one of his peers is led towards his own coffin. There he must kneel before it as his family beat the gay out of him with their bibles. He later kills himself. Sorry, should I have spoilered this? Or would you, like me, have known what was coming before the scene was over, before the opening credits, before, perhaps, you bought your popcorn, to enjoy another story about the many ways we hurt each other in 2019.
The practice of conversion therapy, the dangerous belief that homosexuality is a pathology resulting from early childhood trauma that can be “cured”, is being exposed on screen – in Boy Erased as well as in the recent The Miseducation of Cameron Post (and with the 1999 romcom But I’m a Cheerleader now being developed as a TV show) – as well as in the news. A recent survey of 4,600 religious LGBT+ people found that 1 in 10 had personal experience of attempts to change their sexual orientation. Of them, a fifth had attempted suicide.
One of the leading figures of the movement, gay conversion “therapist” (apologies in advance, there will be a lot of quote marks in this column – if reading aloud do be mindful of knuckle strength) David Matheson, came out as gay himself last month, claiming the practice which nearly 700,000 Americans have undergone is not only built on a harmful philosophy, but should be banned.
In February, Amazon was criticised for selling numerous “gay cure” books, including A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. That same week a protest was held in Belfast over the screening of a film organised by the Christian group Core Issues Trust, which demonstrators said promotes the “therapy”. The head of the organisation, Mike Davidson, countered that it does not offer “gay conversion therapy”, but rather “standard psychotherapeutic and counselling approaches that explore sexual fluidity in [individual’s] lives”. His knowing use of the word “fluidity” here, plucked from the internet like a ripe apple, troubles me almost as much as the idea of the film itself.
But while conversion therapy is shocking and cruel, and easy to condemn, the less comfortable truth, especially for heterosexual people, is that these “therapies” express something old and dark and rotten in our culture. It’s easy to attack a practice that the government has promised to ban and one that has been proven to significantly worsen a person’s mental health. But by concentrating on these extreme examples of homophobic abuse, are we ignoring the fact that while not all LGBT+ people are beaten with bibles, many are growing up in fear? Of young LGBT+ people who have faced homelessness, 77% say this was the result of family rejection or abuse.
The most recent survey from the Government Equalities Office found that at least 2 in 5 LGBT+ people have experienced harassment or violence that year, but that 9 in 10 of those incidents went unreported, the most common reason being, “it happens all the time”. And alongside news about the horrors of gay conversion therapy sit pieces questioning the rights and identities of transgender people, especially children, with seemingly no connection being made between the religious movement to eradicate homosexuality and the everyday experiences of trans people who must continuously make a case for their right to exist.
We can start with these stories, of preachers and beatings, but then we must widen our lens. To the covert message of assimilation that comes from assumed heterosexuality. From the lack of diverse representation in politics and on film, to what conversion therapy might look like in a time and place unruled by religion, where legislation around equality is outrunning the attitudes we see in schools and on the streets. And in families, too, where the idea of a child being “different” still weighs heavily on parents so keen for their kid to move safely through a still-biased world – but also for the family to be seen as “normal”, regardless of what painful compromises they need to make to pass.
Reviewing Boy Erased in Variety, film critic Peter Debruge considered the redemptive value of Garrard Conley sharing his story with his parents. “My father also lives in Arkansas,” he wrote. “Since I came out, we have come to an arrangement: I never talk about my private life, and he never asks – which means, for nearly the last 20 years, he hasn’t really known me. That’s what it means to be a boy erased.”
One more thing…
When my beloved local cinema, the Phoenix, in Finchley, London, one of the oldest in the country, was in trouble last year they started talks with Curzon about becoming part of their chain. But brilliantly they’ve decided to try and remain independent, by crowdfunding the cash they need to keep afloat. My fingers are crossed, my wallet is open: find them on JustGiving.
If everyone’s citizenship was reviewed by the Home Office on the basis of choices they made when they were 15, like Shamima Begum, I don’t think a single person I know would keep their passport.
This weather is freaking me out in 99 different ways, including what to wear, of course, and the sounds of bees buzzing, but also the combination of joy and fear at what this bright sunshine means, compounded with a guilt that only retreats slightly at the realisation I can go out without a coat.