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Conversion Therapy Dangers and Debate at the Heart of “Boy Erased”

Arkansas parents seek to “scrub the gay” out of their 18-year-old son in the new movie.

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In the wake of National Coming-Out Day, the second of two movies released this year about the perils of gay conversion therapy, Boy Erased, opens Friday. Aussie filmmaker Joel Edgerton directs himself and fellow countrymen Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe in a memoir-based tale of conservative Arkansas parents who dispatch their forcibly-outed homosexual 18-year-old Jared (Lucas Hedges) to a conversion camp in order to scrub out the gay.

While it may be that the film, along with the Sundance Grand Jury winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post (which opened last August and has grossed a modest $905k) will continue to preach to the choir, the fact that the conversion therapy debate remains live seems to be another wobble in cultural advancement – battles we thought were fought yet continue to raise their gnarly heads.

Why are filmmakers still dramatizing disturbing practices like conversion therapy that have largely been discredited legally and scientifically? Because they still exist – and the more aberrant practices reveal larger cracks in acceptance of LGBQT citizens as full participants in our society.

Opening to generally positive reviews that praise the movie’s dramatic acting and good intentions, Boy Erased does not seemed poised to change the larger debate – as in most culture wars, both sides have taken to the barricades. Those that defend the therapy won’t see it – and those that find it anathema may find the drama relatively heavy lifting.

As Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson wrote of his first impression: “I liked the movie, but that it didn’t tell me anything new. Which I immediately realized wasn’t really fair; who cares, really, what it tells me—a long-out gay adult doing fine—personally? Joel Edgerton’s earnest, solidly made film will be most effective on, and maybe necessary for, those immediately suffering under the crush of anti-gay bigotry, and those perpetrating it…so I hope the film will somehow reach those it might truly rattle, comfort, and change.”

On a parallel course, the female-driven version put Chloe Grace Moretz’s character in the conversion chamber as the title character in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, directed a co-written by Desiree Akhavan. Taking a relatively lighter tone, the drama finds high school sweetheart Post caught canoodling in a car with another woman on prom night. Send her to a teen treatment center, heap indignities on her – and see how she bonds with others “suffering from same-sex attraction.”

Over at the Dallas Morning News, Chris Vognar wrote that it “… is a modest-size film that performs a service opposite to that of conversion therapy: It respects the vulnerability that accompanies the emergence of any young person’s sexuality.”

The therapy itself, which at times has included electro-shock aversion treatments, has never been on sound medical footing. As early as 1920, father of psychology Sigmund Freud wrote about treating a lesbian whose father sought help in altering her preference. He found little evidence that sexual orientation was alterable.

By 1935, while treating another patient, he wrote, homosexuality “is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation. It cannot be classified as an illness.” And, yet, that didn’t dissuade a Viennese endocrinologist from experimenting in testicle transplants from heterosexual to homosexual patients.

Since the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, conversion therapy organizations have lost the last shred of scientific underpinnings for their practice. And, yet, the therapies continue despite no proof of success. A 2018 report by the Williams Institute of the UCLA Law School posits that 698,000 LGBQT individuals between 18 and 59 youths have been subjected to ex-gay therapy in their lifetimes, and that 350,000 underwent treatment as adolescents.

Similar shocking statistics appear with the end credits of Boy Erased. The trauma that the practice heaps upon individuals already experiencing prejudice and fear seems incompatible with civilized society in the 21st Century. At this moment of re-litigating the definition of what it is to be an American, the frustration with social regression overwhelms. What next: burning witches, or female circumcision, or honor killing?

These movies fundamentally address keeping America the land of the free – and expose a widespread disagreement about what that freedom means and whether privileged powerful men get to dictate their biases and peccadillos from on high, all the way to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court.

Conversion therapy movies fit into the larger genre of the persecution of homosexuals here and abroad, including but not limited to Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, Javier Bardem as the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry and the chilling documentary about Nazi persecution of gays and lesbians, Paragraph 175.

The fear channeled by Boy Erased is that what seemed settled no longer is. Is the unconscionable making a comeback?

Speaking out poignantly at the conclusion of his Boy Erased review, Variety‘s Peter Debruge argues that the movie itself is an act of therapy: “For Garrard Conley, whose memoir inspired Edgerton’s film, sharing his story was the key to repairing things with his parents. Maybe there’s a lesson in there for us. There is for me: My father also lives in Arkansas. 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.”