‘Boy Erased’ reminds us of the harrowing impact of conversion therapy

Ryan Cahill

Ryan Cahill on the damaging potential of ‘gay cures’ and why we mustn’t forget about those still suffering

19 November 2018 11:24

I first heard of conversion therapy via ​Embarrassing Bodies’ Dr. Christian Jessen and his one-off Channel 4 TV show ​Undercover Doctor: Cure Me, I’m Gay (2014), in which he underwent a variety of ‘gay cures’ that had been used on gay and bisexual men throughout history – the types of cures that were either founded by medical professionals or religious figureheads. There was one cure in the documentary that stuck in my head from the moment I saw it. Jessen was forced to take a special pill that induced sickness while looking at homoerotic images. He was captured on camera graphically vomiting on the floor of a small hospital room, while a TV screen flashed through images of gay pornography. He was told that he had to vomit on the floor to make the experience more traumatic and inhumane. Of all the cures that he endured for the project, this one left him particularly shaken, evident from footage of him sobbing uncontrollably once the experiment reached its climax. The most harrowing part was that this ‘therapy’ was once available on the NHS, provided to parents and guardians of gay kids in an attempt to traumatise them out of their sexual preferences.

At the beginning and end of the series, Jessen took Cornell University’s orientation test to see if the therapies had any effect on his sexual orientation. As expected, his results turned out exactly the same at the end as they were at the start. He was actually found to be so attracted to men, that he was more aroused by images of clouds than of women.

Despite it being expressively distressing and hugely informative, at the time, the documentary was somewhat overlooked. An openly gay writer for The Times gave it just one star in his review, describing it as ‘disgraceful’ and stating that it was ‘in essence, a stunt’. It was watched by just 1 million people, which in TV-land is pretty sparse. ​The Great British Sewing Bee, which also aired at the time, collected more than double the number of viewers. ​Undercover Doctor did, however, see a lot of engagement on Twitter, highlighting that people were intrigued and interested by the somewhat controversial subject matter – the few that did watch had something to say about it.

He was actually found to be so attracted to men, that he was more aroused by images of clouds than of women.

Since then, discussion surrounding conversion therapy has been sparse, mainly because the series seemed to suggest that such practices were archaic and no longer in use. Recently, however, the hardships of these treatments have been mainstreamed once again – and on a bigger scale – with the release of ​Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton, 2018), an adaptation of a memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley. Starring Troye Sivan, Lucas Hedges and Nicole Kidman, it chronicles the experiences of a young boy who is forced into conversion therapy by his parents, who are both devout Christian missionaries. The film navigates a sexual exploration of Conley as he comes to realise his attraction to the same-sex. We witness as he undergoes an internal struggle, battling against religious beliefs that have been instilled in him since birth, and the ‘sinful’ yearnings of his sexuality. Unlike Jessen’s exploration of gay cures, it shows us that methods of conversion are still very much alive and kicking.

The film’s focus on the religious spin of conversion therapy is interesting because, instead of using medicinal treatments, it adopts a more psychological approach. It plays on the emotions of the individual, turning their sexuality inwards and making it seem like a hereditary problem that can be stamped out via the grace of God. Those enrolled in the programme, named Love In Action (LIA), must go through an assessment programme that tests how long they require therapy. Some of the people in attendance will be admitted into residential homes and spend years going through the treatment. As part of this, attendees must explore the roots of their family tree, looking at their relatives who have struggled with other sins, such as addiction and gambling. They’re also forced to reveal the details of their ‘afflictions’ to the group in an attempt to humiliate them. The film also shows one of the ‘patients’ being Bible-bashed for having a physical reaction to his homosexuality. While Jessen’s exploration of conversion therapy was harrowing and physically graphic, ​Boy Erased demonstrates how emotions are dangerously used as a power tactic to manipulate. The worst part is that the story is based on the very real experiences of Conley, and that all of this was happening not too long ago. Ironically (spoiler alert), we’re told at the end of the film that the main councillor and founder of the programme is currently living in New York with his long-term husband.

Methods of conversion are still very much alive and kicking.

While the film is a brilliant example of the complete insanity surrounding conversion therapy, it reminds us that, despite the absurdity, these kinds of treatments are still exercised in quite a few US states – and undoubtedly around the world. We constantly champion the big steps that society is taking towards LGBTQ+ equality, but while it’s great (and important) to celebrate our advances, we must also remember the horrors that are still being lived out in some corners of the earth. It’s imperative that more stories focusing on conversion therapy are shared with the rest of the world. People need to be familiar with the ridiculousness of these cures and therapies – that way, the government and political officials in communities where these cures still exist will recognise that it’s time to stamp them out. They’re outdated and they’re unsuccessful. The Trevor Project, an organisation that focuses on providing crisis intervention for LGBTQ+ youth contemplating suicide, reports that queer individuals consider suicide around three times more than heterosexual individuals. It also found that LGBTQ+ individuals who have been rejected by their families are eight times more likely to have thought about or attempted suicide than those who have been accepted – forcing someone into a conversion therapy programme is ​not acceptance.

Mass media productions might help to shine a spotlight on issues that are being played out in real life, but we can never really appreciate the true horrors of someone’s personal experiences unless we’ve been in that situation ourselves. Somewhere, right now, someone is undergoing some form of conversion therapy, probably pushed parents who believe that they can pay thousands of pounds to realign their offspring’s sexual preferences. If we’re really living in the ‘woke’ era, it’s time for all of us to wake up and smell the coffee – gay cures are nothing more than a scam.