I arrive in Dublin city every evening after a day spent in the wastelands of county Dublin. Each day I walk past the ten screen Savoy Cinema, and throw a glance at the neon display showing the schedule, just in case there is anything that piques my interest and is about to start. Very occasionally something does. Today was one of those days.
Into screen 10 I went, just as the opening credits for ‘Boy Erased’ started to roll. Based on the true life memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley, this film tells the story of a teenage boy sent to a gay conversion therapy camp by his deeply religious parents in the Deep South of the USA. Starring Lucas Hedges as Conley, and Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his parents, this is a bleak but powerful film.
Gay conversion therapy has existed in several guises for many decades. The intention is always the same – to turn the afflicted person from their life of homosexuality to the one true path of married, heterosexual bliss. From chemical castration (performed on scientific genius Alan Turing after world war two before he committed suicide), to aversion therapy in the 1960s (showing the patient erotic pictures of men and then administering electric shock therapy so that same sex attraction is associated with pain and suffering); this film is associated with the Christian form of conversion therapy – the ‘pray the gay away’ method, where vulnerable young people are subjected to cod counseling where their evil lifestyle of homosexuality is determined to be a ‘choice’ and that with enough effort they can suppress their true nature and following the path of heterosexual righteousness.
What all these methods of conversion therapy have in common is that none of them work, and that its victims endure psychological or physical torture for no reason.
What was so desperately sad about this film is that despite the horrible abuse on display, there were no villains in the piece. Kidman and Crowe as the parents genuinely believe they are doing right by their son by subjecting him to the abuse at the clinic. The counselors at the camp – including Victor Sykes (played by the film’s director Joel Edgerton) – are all gay themselves, but are so poisoned by self hatred that they believe they are doing the will of ‘god’. The patients all desperately want to be ‘cured’ of their affliction – or at least endure it until they can escape to the city or the graveyard.
Even though the film reaches a slightly hopeful conclusion, it cannot be described in any way as a happy ending.
A deeply unsettling film it brought me back to my own teenage years. Maybe I am lucky. Even though I grew up at a time where homosexuality was illegal in Ireland, it was the great unmentionable. So the moral condemnation was muted. I was committed to staying silent about my own homosexuality for as long as I lived (or at least until I could escape to the city); but I was never plagued by any ethical doubt. I always that being gay was morally no different to being green-eyed or left handed. I was just going to stay quiet. I could bide my time.
Gay conversion therapy is dangerous quack science, that amazingly is still legal in most countries.
This is a harrowing film that shows the dangers of unchecked religious belief. Highly recommended.