why are we all talking about conversion therapy?

Movies like 'The Miseducation of Cameron Post' and 'Boy, Erased' show that we've come a long way since 'Will & Grace.'

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Aug 13 2018, 6:14pm

Images via Youtube. 

For many queer kids coming of age in the early 2000s, the first and most significant interactions with queer vernacular came, for better and for worse, from Will & Grace. Along with taking terms like “twinks”, “bears,” and “queens” out of the underground lexicon and inserting them firmly into mainstream discourse, once again for better and for worse, it also introduced many to the concept of the “ex-gay.”

These were queer individuals who had sought a “fix” for their biological urges via pseudoscientific “gay conversion therapy,” usually at the behest of religious fanatics, extremist family members, or a burning self-loathing drummed into them via their environments. They then came out the other side — newly heterosexual (or so they claimed), usually God-fearing and, at least according to Will & Grace, figures of comic tragedy.

But fast forward nearly two decades, and today’s queer youth won’t be introduced to the horrors of gay conversion therapy via cheap gags or stereotyping, but instead via pop culture determined to expose the true psychological horror of the practice. In fact, conversion therapy has come to dominate queer cinema and television in 2018, from films like The Miseducation of Cameron Post and the forthcoming Boy Erased, to series including Riverdale and the far more politically conscious Will & Grace revival.

It’s a trend that speaks as much to a political climate in which individual US states and international governments are finally seeking to outlaw conversion therapy as it does to a lurking sense of dread that every queer person is likely to have experienced in recent years.

Back in 2000, two seasons into Will & Grace and a burgeoning queering of the mainstream courtesy of figures like Ellen DeGeneres and George Michael, the ex-gay movement was largely imagined as something inherently comedic, with fabulous gays brainwashed into becoming button-downed zombies entirely made up of J. Crew beige. 1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader, that seminal queer classic, depicted a gay conversion camp as a place of ludicrous candy-colored gender-conformity activities, with the literal RuPaul amongst its ex-gay staff.

Will & Grace, in its fledgling years, directly lampooned gay conversion therapy too, but tread a similar path. “Girls, Interrupted,” an episode towards the end of the show’s second season, saw Jack and Karen, the show’s cartoonish side characters, intercept an ex-gay support group in order for Jack to seduce a man he had fallen in love with from afar.

The man in question, played by Neil Patrick Harris, is revealed to be the leader of Welcome Back Home, a group the show describes as a cult (“like the Moonies or the homeless,” Karen snarks) that trains queer individuals into embracing heterosexuality. While Jack attempts to woo Harris with talk of locker room showers and football game homoeroticism, Karen mingles with a pair of ex-gay marrieds made up of a high-voiced man with a John Waters mustache and a pink sweater tied around his neck, and a butch woman dressed exactly like vintage KD Lang.

It was a half-hour that (somewhat unsurprisingly) bypassed any of the real horrors of such groups, instead turning gender stereotypes and pop culture references into zingers and puns, as so much of Will & Grace did. Nuance was never its strong-suit, with the show’s executive story editor Jon Kinnally rebuffing a letter of complaint from an “expert on homosexuality and youth issues” within the Christian group Focus on the Family with: “Even you’ve got to admit that fags trying to pretend they’re straight is pretty darn funny.”

But something unusual happened during last year’s Will & Grace revival. Returning to the ex-gay well, an episode from its most recent season saw Jack meeting his grandson, who had arrived in New York en route to a gay conversion camp at the order of his parents. There was still a comedic component to the story that relied on stereotyping (out actors Jane Lynch and Andrew Rannells were cast as the camp’s married leaders, for one), but it also went deeper: the episode sees Jack attempt to rescue his grandson, and he later promises to him that while things will be hard and families will often prove difficult, staying true to himself will eventually lead to a life of openness and love. “This place can’t fix you,” Jack tells him, “because you’re not broken.”

Such a radical shift in tone is in keeping with a widespread new approach to gay conversion therapy in entertainment, mirroring a political climate in which joking about it undermines the fact that it remains a very active threat. In the United States, gay conversion therapy remains legal in 41 states, and a January study by the UCLA LGBTQ+ research group the Williams Institute found that an estimated 698,000 adults have undergone conversion therapy in the country. 20,000 LGBTQ+ Americans will additionally experience conversion therapy from a licensed professional before they turn 18.

Earlier this year, Sam Brinton, the head of advocacy and environmental affairs at the Trevor Project, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he recalled being bound to a table at age 12 by a licensed doctor, who then proceeded to torture him with ice, heat and electricity while forcing him to watch video clips of men engaged in physical affection, from hand-holding to pornographic sex. Conversion therapy, which often involves similar “treatment methods” that allegedly train the brain to associate any homosexual thought with some kind of physical suffering, remains in existence today, despite popular belief that it is a relic of a barbaric past.

Cultural discussion of gay conversion therapy has been particularly potent during the Trump administration, with Vice President Mike Pence having once supported the financing of “institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior,” a campaign pledge during his run for congress in 2000 that many have interpreted as a personal support for conversion therapy, though Pence has never explicitly confirmed his stance.

That Pence has ascended to one of the most senior positions in government has proven a wake-up call to the very real threat conversion therapy still poses to the world’s LGBTQ+ youth. And like The Handmaid’s Tale and its ability to dramatize a terrifying scenario that feels less and less fantastical with every additional Trump tweet, Hollywood’s newfound focus on conversion therapy as a plot point reflects a growing feeling of unease within queer circles that social progression isn’t as secure as we once thought.

“It may be something to do with a feeling of complacency,” says Paul Twocock, the director of campaigns, policy and research for Stonewall UK. “Conversion therapy was often regarded as a practice of the past, but there has certainly been a lot of evidence in the last few years about how prevalent gay conversion therapy is, not only in places it has obviously been described as occurring in, like the United States, but also around the world. Most people have thought that it died out, but we know now that that’s not the case.”

In May, Maryland became the 11th US state to ban conversion therapy for minors, the UK last month announced plans to ban the practice all-together, and 20,000 people in New Zealand have this week signed petitions demanding their own government follows suit. But it has been a different story elsewhere, with a judge in Brazil last year overturning a 16-year ban on conversion therapy in the country, and a Human Rights Watch study published last year revealing 17 cases of forced gay conversion therapy in China between the years of 2009 and 2017. Speaking to The Guardian earlier this year, Nigerian gay activist Bisi Alimi, who experienced a week of imprisonment and fasting by his Christian pastor at age 17 when he told him of his sexuality, claimed that conversion therapy remains “an epidemic” in some conservative black and Asian communities. It is currently legal in countries including Russia, Egypt, Jamaica and Indonesia.

With so much at stake, it means that those eager to dramatise conversion therapy in popular culture must approach it with a degree of sensitivity that wasn’t as expected 20 years ago. When Riverdale, the CW’s gonzo Archie Comics reimagining, announced its intention to have the sexually-fluid Cheryl Blossom undergo gay conversion therapy at a mental institution, it was met with significant worry. By the time a scenery-chewing nun was explaining the need to rid Cheryl of “all those naughty demons”, Riverdale’s inherent campiness threatened to once again turn gay conversion therapy into something more comedic than horrifying.

Chloe Moretz, the star of Cameron Post, has also criticised Boy Erased, arguing in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that “queer movies should be told through a queer lens and created by queer people,” citing her director Desiree Akhavan. Boy Erased, though adapted from an autobiographical text by activist and conversion therapy survivor Garrard Conley and starring queer names including Cherry Jones, Xavier Dolan and Troye Sivan, is directed by the straight actor-turned-filmmaker Joel Edgerton.

Despite the controversy over Boy Erased, which will inevitably trail it upon its release in November, and the tricky tightrope any project tackling gay conversion therapy will walk, Twocock is confident that major representation of a very real epidemic will only result in positive action in the long term.

“The more light being shone on this and the more evidence there is that this is a problem, it will encourage more people to share their own stories,” he says. “You can see an analogy in the #MeToo movement in terms of abuse against women. These films will galvanize people to realize that these prejudices do exist, and despite the progress that has been made, progress can also be turned back."