“I’ve never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual.” ~ John Smid, former Executive Director of Love in Action.
In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from their list of mental disorders. In response anti-gay groups formed “Christian Ministries” to “cure” homosexuality through a mix of talk “therapy,” exercise, prayer and electroshock “therapy.” Some organizations have allegedly resorted to beating and raping their “patients.” While adults could choose to enroll voluntarily many minors were placed there against their will. The legality of these programs has come under serious examination.
In the Fall of 2018 two films are opening about the subject of conversion “therapy.” In preparation I decided to read their source novels and watch other films on the topic. The plot generally goes like this: The young protagonist is sent by their family to a conversion “therapy” center. The staff puts them through exercises to “cure” their homosexuality. Eventually the protagonist finds the strength to escape the center, sometimes with a love interest in tow. The difference is in the details.
The following reviews contain mild spoilers
and the subject merits a trigger warning.
From Page to Screen
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012 book). Emily Danforth’s novel follows her teen protagonist through relationships with three very different girlfriends. When the third one outs her she’s sent to “God’s Promise” conversion camp. Cameron is a guarded, passive protagonist. She’s overshadowed by the colorful supporting cast. Still it’s satisfying to watch her come of age and eventually take control of her life. B
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018 film). The film skips ahead to the “God’s Promise” chapters and reduces Cameron to the audience viewpoint character. Chloë Grace Moretz does subtle work with the near-silent role but attention drifts, again, to the supporting cast. The juiciest scenes go to the camp’s Stepford-y counselors (Jennifer Ehle and John Gallagher, Jr.) and two troubled inmates (Emily Skeggs and Owen Campbell). The abridged story has lovely moments but is rather shapeless. B-
Boy Erased: A Memoir (2016 book). Garrard Conley examines his relationship with the parents who placed him into the Love In Action conversion center. He can neither reject nor embrace the preacher father and well-meaning mother who filled him with shame and a literal fear of Hell. It could have been a brutal read but Conley writes with enough bemused detachment to make it palatable. A starry film adaptation opens in November 2018. B
Here is a link to Garrard Conley’s 2014 Ted Talk about his experience.
Conversion “therapy” can be the subject of camp comedy or weepy melodrama. Sometimes both at once.
But I’m a Cheerleader (1999 film). The one that defined the genre. Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall find love at a candy colored conversion camp. Their teen angst contrasts with the clownish adults who seek to “cure” them (RuPaul, Eddie Cibrian and Cathy Moriarty). The film has many fans but the jokes are lazy and the pace drags. Only Moriarty finds a tonal balance between silly and scary. C+
Shock to the System: A Donald Strachey Mystery (2006 film). Chad Allen and Sebastian Spence starred in four TV spin-offs of the Donald Strachey novels. Shock to the System sends Strachey undercover when a patient at a conversion center is murdered. His “therapy” digs up traumatic memories and puts him in conflict with a suspicious “doctor.” Production values are low and the jokes are corny but the chemistry between Allen and Spence is infectious. B-
Save Me (2007 film). Chad Allen again. Here he plays a shouty cocaine addict in a “Christian Recovery Program.” The structured environment helps him kick the drugs but not his sinful gay urges. Soon he’s falling for Robert Gant’s fellow patient and clashing with Judith Light’s ferocious program director. The earnest film turns campy despite everyone’s best efforts to play it… straight. C-
Fair Haven (2016 film). Fragile teen (Michael Grant) returns home from conversion camp. His father (a sullen Tom Wopat) wants him to date the pastor’s daughter and run the family farm. His rebellious ex-boyfriend (a scene-stealing Josh Green) wants him back. Gregory Harrison appears in tense flashbacks as the smug conversion “doctor.” The film is slow paced but builds in suspense as Grant attempts to wake from his brainwashing and escape his father’s control. He and Green make a couple to root for. C
The six aforementioned stories feature:
- Three stern, disapproving fathers: Played by Russell Crowe, Robert Pine and Tom Wopat.
- Three scary female counselors: Played by Jennifer Ehle, Judith Light and Kathy Moriarty.
- Two comically deluded male counselors: Played by RuPaul and John Gallagher, Jr.
- Three scenes of gay men playing “therapeutic” sports: In But I’m a Cheerleader, Save Me and Shock To The System.
- Two triggery suicide attempts: In Cameron Post and Save Me. Suicide is also discussed in Boy Erased and Shock to the System.
- Zero homosexuals converted to heterosexuality.
Truth is stranger than fiction and the following films are difficult to watch.
This Is What Love In Action Looks Like (2011). 16 year old Zach Stark was shipped by his parents to Love In Action, the same organization Garrard Conley attended. He managed to post a blog beforehand which inspired a nationwide protest. We get several interviews with LIA’s Executive Director John Smid. More on him in a bit.
Kidnapped for Christ (2014). Evangelical student visited the Escuela Caribe “reform school” in the Dominican Republic for a film project. There she met David Wernsman, a American student who’d been sent there by his parents for being gay. He begged her to smuggle a note to his friends. In doing so she lost her journalistic integrity but helped spearhead David’s rescue. The film making is sloppy but the “school” would never have let an experienced director through the door.
Here’s a link to a 2017 interview with David Wernsman. He mentions the beatings, armed guards and bounty hunters that the cameras didn’t catch.
Living Through Conversion Therapy (2015). VICE sent a reporter to the Journey to Manhood program to observe “therapy” sessions and angry drum circles. They also spend some time with ex-ex-gay John Smid.
The Sunday Sessions (2018). While Wernsman and Stark were held hostage, Nathan sought therapy of his own free will. Director Richard Yeagley was allowed access to the process. He keeps a professional distance, to the chagrin of some critics, and lets the footage speak for itself.
And for a chaser:
Camp Out (2006). A rare attempt to create a gay friendly summer camp for gay Christian youth. Awkward and sweet.
“What happened to me has made it impossible to speak with God.” ~ Garrard Conley, Boy Erased.
John Smid joined the staff of Love in Action in 1986, rising to the position of Executive Director. He resigned in 2008 and married his male partner in 2014. He is still apologizing.
Exodus International was founded in 1976 and shuttered in 2013. In that time they founded over 300 ex-gay facilities internationally. Former Exodus President Alan Chambers and former Chairman John Paulk are still apologizing.
Why dramatize these stories? Well a conversion center is a juicy location for sexual tension, camp comedy and grueling suspense. It gives the public a peek at an industry that continues to rake in the dollars while causing harm to their “patients.” It also lets survivors of these programs know that they are not alone.
Which of these films have you seen? What are your thoughts?
Do you plan to see Boy Erased this fall? Why or why not?
- LGBT movies with teen male protagonists.
- LGBT movies with adult male protagonists
- LGBT movies: Some favorite moments
- LGBT movies featuring gay adoption
- PFLAG: Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays
- The Trevor Project: A national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth.
- Lambda Legal: Resources for LGBT youth by state.
- TV Tropes: A look at the “Cure Your Gays” trope across film and television.
- Harvard Law Student Scott Blair recounts his confrontation with an “ex-gay counselor.”