“Boy Erased” is no salacious “Real Housewives” drama about “conversion therapy.” Rather, the new film by Joel Edgerton is a quiet, mesmerizing revelation about how a dedication to love can overcome anti-LGBT religiosity and lead to profound transformation. It should be required viewing for evangelical Christians and others wrestling with the belief that homosexuality is a sin but also desperately love and don’t want to harm their children. These are the people with whom out Assemblymember Evan Low hopes to connect to introduce a collaborative bill banning “conversion therapy.”
The story—based on gay author Garrard Conley’s willing descent into hell to please his Baptist pastor father—subtly exposes the heart-wrenching moments when the inner call for personal authenticity clashes with the demanding expectations of others. Ironically, after the 19-year-old boy confronts his own truth, stops the increasingly painful erasure of his own humanity and stands up for himself, it is his parents who are forced to look in the mirror, decide love or homophobia, and change.
So-called “conversion therapy” has been around for ages. When homosexuality was officially considered a perverted mental illness, the “cure” was lobotomy, shock therapy, imprisonment in some sanatorium to change the despised behavior through “Clockwork Orange” style programs. “Queer”-bashing and murder were acceptable since, as the LAPD reveal later, “no human” was involved.
Even after the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973, conservative religious institutions insisted that the Bible called for death for homosexuals and publicly declared that “AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality.” Increasingly, charlatans created “ex-gay” organizations such as NARTH and Love in Action (founded in San Rafael, California in 1973) to “convert” the gay-to-straight for money.
In the early 2000s, LGBT non-profits such as Truth Wins Out exposed the “pray-away-the-gay” con artists. Even John Smid—upon whom the “Boy Erased” Love In Action leader is based—came out, admitted no gay had changed and is now living with his husband in Paris, Texas. Smid recently gave his papers to the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., which gave them to the Smithsonian Institution. Conley is on Mattachine’s Board of Advisers.
On Sept. 29, 2012, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed then-State Sen. Ted Lieu’s historic bill banning “reparative therapy” for minors, calling it psychological child abuse. “This bill bans non-scientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide. These practices have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery,” Brown said.
Today, however, “conversion therapy” appears permitted through anti-LGBT believer Vice President Mike Pence and the unregulated billion-dollar Christian camp “troubled teen” industry is thriving. The Williams Institute reports that an estimated 700,000 people have gone through “conversion therapy,” while Survivors of Institutional Abuse has documented hundreds of “conversion therapy”-related deaths through suicide, neglect, abuse, and murder.
“Boy Erased” notes the profit-motive when Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) tells his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) that the head counselor Victor Sykes (Edgerton) is keeping information from her to keep the money flowing. In an angry confrontation, Nancy confronts Sykes, asks for his credentials, and getting no response, rescues Jared.
“Conversion therapy is evil,” Martha Conley tells the Los Angeles Blade at the film’s LA premiere on Oct. 29. “They kept so many secrets from us. And he wasn’t even allowed to tell me what was going on daily. When you start seeing that kind of thing, I don’t care what you’re taking your child to – you better get them out of there—because it later became a cult. So I just say, do your homework.”
Edgerton says the film is one family’s story about “how people’s beliefs can affect the rights and freedoms of individuals.”
“The threat of the walking back of trans people’s rights is so deeply connected to the story we’re telling here, sadly. We hope that as soon as possible, this film is irrelevant. But we hope it speaks to people and raises awareness,” he tells the Los Angeles Blade. “It’s about humanity. It’s not about the LGBTQ community on their own.”
Garrard Conley hopes the film makes a difference. “A lot of people who’ve just seen the trailer have had a sense of solidarity with the story,” he tells the Los Angeles Blade. “I’ve had people as far away as Honduras saying that it helped them to not feel suicidal for a moment. So that was a huge thing for me. You never know but I think when you tell the truth and tell it as accurately and with as much justice to the story as possible, you can reach a lot of people.”
“Boy Erased” is relevant today. “Trump is trying to erase trans people,” he says. “Trans people are two-to-three times more likely to end up in ‘conversion therapy.’ Leelah Alcorn, who took her life, left a suicide note behind that said, ‘I just want to be treated like a human. I just want to be respected for who I am.’ And that’s our goal—to raise awareness of other people’s stories, as well.”
But importantly, “Boy Erased” treats religious believers fairly.
“They aren’t these villains twirling their moustaches like you would expect them to be. And so the movie doesn’t attack them,” says Conley. “It actually shows them as full human beings, with complicated histories. A lot of the ‘ex-gay’ folks were gay themselves. So we try to approach it with a bit of compassion while still holding them accountable for their actions. In my case, my parents did ask for forgiveness and I gave it to them. I know not everyone’s experience is that way. But we wanted to make a roadmap for people to do the right thing next. You can mess up. We all mess up. But you can still do the right thing.”