2018 Mini-Trend: Films about LGBT Conversion “Therapies”
Sometimes when studying popular culture, one cannot help but notice certain trends or patterns arising. For example, we are in yet another “Year of the Superhero.” We may have escaped from the zombie plagues made popular by George Romero (RIP) and Brad Pitt – or maybe not, if The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead is any indication.
Films about LGBT issues are still a little niche – but getting more mainstream by the day, with the successes of Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, and Love, Simon boding well for at least the G in LGBT. The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased are both successful films, recently released, that take on the always-looming spectre of gay conversion therapy. Both films are worth a watch, but Boy Erased grapples with more themes successfully.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post directed by Desiree Akhavan, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Jennifer Ehle, John Gallagher Jr.
Cameron (Moretz) is to the right, travelling with friends
The Miseducation of Cameron Post begins with Cameron (Moretz) is having a hot tryst with a girl in a car when both are caught. Cameron is shortly driven by her religious aunt to God’s Promise, a seemingly idyllic camp run by Dr. Lydia Marsh (Ehle, doing her best Nurse Ratched here). Dr. Marsh has supposedly cured the homosexual yearnings of her own brother, Rick (Gallagher Jr.), and feels that she can save various children afflicted with SSA or “same-sex attraction.”
An interesting note struck in this film is the idea of “passing” or “playing along.”
One of the first assignments Dr. Marsh and Rick give newcomers is to draw an iceberg explaining the root of one’s SSA. Those on the metaphorical boat are afraid of the tip of the iceberg, not seeing the damage it has already caused underneath: the same parallel is drawn to explain the supposed insidious nature of SSA. The top, I assume, are the feelings of sexual desire one feels towards a member of the same sex, and below are the familial influences (or neglect) that have led the way.
The majority of the campers are able to see that this “scientific” theory is bullshit. Yet, they play along, spouting phrases like, “playing sports heightened my gender confusion,” knowing what Dr. Marsh and Rick are looking for. There are some campers that eat up the psycho-babble they are given, but others are just going through the motions, perhaps escaping from abusive or neglectful home environments. However, one must wonder at what damage playing along ultimately causes – perhaps you reach a point where you no longer pretend, but actually believe.
Dr. Lydia Marsh (Ehle) and her brother, Rick (Gallagher Jr.)
A challenge with this film is the scope of it. It not only wants to tell Cameron’s story, but that of all the participants at the camp, and, unfortunately, it loses traction as a result. It’s not due to the acting ability of the young actors, which is phenomenal, but it’s just that the narrative energy and momentum slows down when focusing on characters other than Cameron. We also do not see enough of Cameron’s prior life – for example, when did she discover an interest in women, and how was she affected by the death of her parents?
An inherent challenge with LGBT conversion films is that the conversion (or lack thereof) is an internal factor, which is hard to represent on screen. I can say I once liked guys and no longer do now, but how does that ultimately affect me if you cannot see inside of me?
Boy Erased directed by Joel Edgerton, starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton
Boy Erased touches on many of the same themes as Cameron, but is able to go deeper by virtue of allowing us to see Jared’s (the sweet, innocent Hedges) home life before he is caught and sent to the Love in Action program. It is based on a memoir written by Gerrard Conley of the same name.
I’m sure you can guess what is happening!
Jared is the son of a preacher (Crowe) and hairstylist (Kidman), who is idolized by his parents (at first). When Jared’s SSA (the term is still used here as well) is discovered, his mother attempts to support her son as much as possible, renting a hotel room not far away from the Love in Action facility, and checking with him daily – because, at first, Jared is allowed to leave the facility. Kidman is phenomenal as Jared’s mom, and I’m not saying that because she reminded me of a friend’s mother who was rather religious – but because she is able to convey the heartache and the eventual acceptance that was warranted in this case. Crowe’s scenes come at the end of the film, but he, too, does not disappoint.
This film conveys the inability of religious-based sexual education to protect those from harm. Ignoring SSA does not make homosexuality go away, and, in fact, destroys feelings of self-worth and self-determination. Jared’s first sexual encounter is not a positive one, probably mirroring many of us that will watch these films – and he has little recourse to make things right without ultimately admitting that he engaged in a homosexual encounter. That negative experience serves to colour Jared’s future experiences, both at Love in Action, and outside of it.
Once again, we have the idea that “you fake it until you make it,” and unlike the iceberg activity, we have a family tree activity where one labels his or her family members as being alcoholics, promiscuous, drug addicts, and so on. Jared’s mom’s response to this activity is one of the highlights of the film, and so is her investigation of the professionalism of Love in Action. As in Cameron, Jared is also expected to denounce all his past transgressions in a public forum – and really, both films have brilliant monologues when it comes time for “denouncing” one’s SSA and “embracing” the teachings of the conversion programs. Hedges delivers an Oscar-worthy speech here, and the encounter he will have with Edgerton’s head shrink was rather tense.
A surprising note about both of these films was how benign conversion therapy appears. Sure, you can fake it the first day, but what about the first week, or the sixth month, or the second year? We know from paying witness to our friends and loved ones that the pain and damage of conversion therapy are often quite severe and life-altering. At the end of Boy Erased, the blurb stated that in the US, 36 states still allow for gay conversion programs (and we all know what Mike Pence likes, as well).
It is through the benign-ness, the mundanity, the monotony, the praise of false confession that, in both films, gay conversion therapy did the most damage to our protagonists. In both films, there were suicides, which led to re-evaluations of the success of both conversion programs. It is important that we continue to witness more stories like these, and I am happy that Moretz and Hedges agree with me.
About the Author
Michael McNeely is a 2nd year law student; entertainment and accessibility critic; filmmaker; and aspiring actor. He enjoys meaningful representations of LGBT folks and those with disabilities in the popular media, and is waiting for the day where nuance, instead of stereotype and prejudice, is the norm. Michael is deaf-blind, meaning that he enjoys the presence of subtitles and other accessibility features.