Boy Erased

The movie that is causing a lot of discussion on conservative blogs, Boy Erased, came out on Amazon Prime a couple of weeks ago.  So I finally had the chance to watch it.  It is based on the autobiographical book by Garrard Conley.   Part of the controversy seems to be over the decision to make the events at “Love in Action,” the orientation change program Conley attended for a few weeks, visually harsher than they were in real life.

I think I understand why they added in these more graphic scenes; of a participant being hit with Bibles, being held under water and of “Jared” being physically locked in and prevented from leaving by the staff.  Firstly, although they did not happen in this particular program, these kinds of things have been done in various orientation change programs elsewhere.  The producers wanted to make the film about more than just Conley’s own experience.  They wanted to show a broader picture.  I suspect, also, that there was the difficulty of filming the emotional trauma of the real life program.  How do you show the emotional damage in a visual medium.  I think Conley himself, in an interview, said that he had initially expressed some concern that a movie would not be able to get across the internal trauma.  So they chose a visual representation of emotional trauma to get across the experience.

I understand that.  And, yet, I can’t help being disappointed that they chose to alter the facts of the program, even for artistic and legitimate reasons, because doing so has opened the door for the kind of criticism we are now seeing from the conservative, change affirming, side of the issue.  It is too easy for Christians to say “but we are not like that; not all orientation change efforts are abusive like that.”  It gives too many people an excuse to separate themselves from the real damage that is done.

The real damage of orientation change programs is not what methods they use; whether behavioral modification and aversion methods like those done in the film, or reparative counseling and 12 step methods like those used by the real life Love in Action.

The real damage isn’t even in the change efforts themselves.  It is in the message of the Church that one is not really a member of Christ’s Body unless you are straight.  You grow up thinking your parents will be disappointed in you, God will hate you and your friends will turn on you if you are not straight.  These programs seemed to offer a path to so very much – the love of family, the love of God, a place in the Church, friends.  In fact, they far too often replaced the cross as the path to salvation for gay kids.  And it has not helped that pastors and churches, instead of doing the hard job of ministering to LGBT people, sent them, instead, to the extra-congregational programs to be “healed.”  The message was clear: “Go get yourself fixed and THEN we can be your family in Christ.”  Literally eternity was riding on becoming lustfully attracted to the opposite sex.

This made the failure and false promises of these programs and methods diabolical indeed.  When they do not work, the participant is left outside God’s love and outside His family.   To present false hope and to make so much dependent on that failed promise instead of ministering to people is truly the work of the devil.

The fact is that these programs simply do not work.  And they are expensive.  Yet people, often young people, paid huge amounts to attend these programs in the hopes of “being normal” and being loved by their church, family and God.  If for no other reason, that they were expensive and ineffective should have meant that Christians, who stand for honestly and charity, should have opposed them.

And yet, we still see conservative and Christian groups fighting to maintain such efforts under the guise of “free speech” or “freedom of religion.”  Orientation change programs are neither.  They are garbage with a thin veneer of Christian terms and language.  There is nothing positive they accomplish that can not be done just as well, if not better, with standard counseling and therapy.  They are often run by people with little or no actual training.  They are worse than snake oil (because actual snake oil does have some minor health benefits).

For this reason, I wish the movie had been able to show the real Love in Action program and the damage such programs do without resorting to a more graphical adaptation.  Churches need to face the diabolical basis and results of these programs and not be given an out or an excuse that “that is not really us – we would not do that.”  We should be the first to support legislation outlawing false advertising and abuse, not defending its continues existence.