Films like Boy Erased are important – but should be viewed in the context of all the more insidious ways LGBTQ people are oppressed
When I was 10 years old, I sat down with my family to watch Hook. It took almost no time at all for me to become completely infatuated with Rufio. The leader of the Lost Boys was my first crush – but I also vividly remember running up to my room after watching, getting on my knees, and praying to a God I didn’t believe in to change me.
My experience, which is by no means unique to me as an LGBTQ person, goes to the very heart of why we need to change the way society thinks and talks about ‘conversion therapy’. The practice of ‘converting’ homosexual people has long been a lightning rod for film and TV (see the Natasha Lyonne-starring 1999 cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader). And thanks to tireless investigative reporting from the likes of Patrick Strudwick, and recent films like Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the barbaric practice is now moving even further into mainstream conversations about LGBTQ equality in 2019.
Just last week, Amazon came under fire for selling guides on how ‘treat’ homosexuality, while in February 2018, Vue Cinemas canceled the screening of a gay ‘cure’ therapy documentary after protests erupted. Events like these – along with movies and books telling harrowing, personal stories of conversion therapy – are becoming increasingly commonplace in today’s society.
These stories serve as a necessary reminder that conversion therapy is still happening, all over the world. We’re right to be horrified. Attempts to ‘cure’ LGBTQ people have taken the form of counselling, electroshock therapy, exorcisms, and countless other horrific kinds of abuse. It’s rightly been condemned by every mental health organisation in Britain for being dangerous and ineffective, and last year, the British government promised to ban the practice. However, the conversation we’re having right now is also flawed because it’s too narrow, and that comes with some unintended consequences. By defining and limiting conversion therapy to being about an isolated practice, committed by a few extreme individuals and religious groups, we are ignoring the broader societal norms that lay the foundation that makes this practice possible.
Conversion therapy does not exist within a vacuum. The uncomfortable truth is that forms of conversion therapy are all around us. We live in a society that continues to privilege and centre heterosexuality and being cisgender as normal. The implication of this is that there are certain kinds of love (and identities) that are inferior and wrong. It is this idea that continues to be impressed upon LGBTQ people that needs to be robustly interrogated. If we’re going to effectively end conversion therapy, the practice needs to be part of a much bigger and far-reaching conversation about the many ways heterosexuality and being cisgender is ingrained into everyday life.
“I learned to hate myself before I even really knew who I was. Consequently, I was desperate to be anything but gay. This is the cost of cultural conformity to heteronormativity”
It's a message that comes from a young age, when you turn on the TV and see that no one looks, loves or lusts like you do; or when the only time you hear the word ‘gay’ is when it’s an insult being thrown at you on the school playground. For children who are LGBTQ, the experience of learning who you are is often shaped by isolation, loneliness and an overwhelming feeling of being ‘othered’. This is conversion therapy in the form of a thousand paper cuts, erasures and slurs.
I learned to hate myself before I even really knew who I was. Consequently, I was desperate to be anything but gay. This is the cost of cultural conformity to heteronormativity, which still permeates every aspect of modern, mainstream society. It’s no wonder that half of LGBTQ people (52 per cent) have experienced depression in the last year.
My point isn’t to minimise how unimaginably painful the experience of undergoing conversion therapy must be. Instead, I believe we urgently need a more nuanced understanding of conversion therapy – one that situates the practice within a spectrum of wider hetero norms. It’s much simpler to displace blame for this ongoing practice on the shoulders of a few radical, religious groups. What’s more challenging is to look at how society, for all our claims of ‘progress’, continues to relegate LGBTQ people to the margins, especially those who are not white, cis, gay men – and in doing so, how we can be complicit in sustaining the ideas that underpin conversion therapy.
The fact that more people than ever are talking about conversion therapy and wanting to do something about it is a really positive thing. We need more films like Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post in the mainstream – but we also can’t be complacent in tackling all the other covert and overt ways society harms LGBTQ people. These films should be a starting point for a much more complex discussion about challenging all forms of conversion therapy that happen on a daily basis. We just have to be careful to ensure that we’re balancing addressing this extreme issue and the pain it causes our community, with a wider focus on the battle for LGBTQ rights generally. If we can start fighting back like this, it will mean we are closer to a world where every LGBTQ person will learn that who they are is every bit as valid, and as worthy of love, as those who are not.