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Praying the Gay Away

This year two narrative films shared the same subject matter: the damage that conversion therapy does to gay people following a regimen based on Christian fundamentalism and bogus psychotherapy in order to “change”. “The Boy Erased” had a bigger budget and a more conventional Hollywood distribution path than the indie “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” that played in arthouses but both are excellent. The first is currently playing in theaters everywhere, advertised heavily, and considered as possible Oscar-bait while the second that opened over the summer can now be seen as VOD. I made a point of seeing both films after watching a segment on Sunday Morning CBS News a couple of months ago about conversion therapy, a practice that struck me as utterly barbaric. After saying something about the two films, I will conclude with some observations about how the “sky religions” have managed to maintain utterly inhuman practices based on a couple of sentences in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, notwithstanding shifting attitudes toward same-sexers over the eons.

“The Boy Erased” is based on a memoir written by Garrard Conley who was the son of a car salesman and part-time Baptist minister in Arkansas. Conley is played by Lucas Hedges, an actor who describes his sexuality as “fluid” and speaks on behalf of LGBT causes. His father is played by Russell Crowe, who looks like he put on as much weight as Christian Bale did to play Dick Cheney or else has just developed a middle-age paunch. His mother is played by Nicole Kidman. Crowe and Kidman are seasoned pros and fully believable as Arkansas Baptists. In the film, their characters are called Marshall and Nancy Eamons while Garrad is called Jared—probably to spare the family the name recognition attached to a painful episode.

Jared is normal in every sense of the word. He is a basketball player on his high school team, dating a pretty girl, and spending free time playing video games. However, he cannot get over his sexual attraction to other boys, a problem his devout parents are determined to solve.

The Love in Action conversion therapy center is run by a therapist/minister named Victor Sykes whose own experience being “changed” is proof that faith in God can work wonders for the boys and men who sign up for treatment. Sykes is played by Joel Edgerton, an Aussie like Crowe and Kidman, who also directed and wrote the screenplay. Edgerton is just as convincing as an Arkansas denizen driven by blind faith. He also played a “good old boy” in “Loving”, the husband of a Black woman who joined him in a landmark legal case to put an end to miscegenation laws. Edgerton also wrote the screenplay and directed “A Boy Erased”. Clearly, his heart is in films that take up the cause of those suffering from the discrimination that capitalist society churns up, even if its roots are in Hebrew scriptures written 2,500 years ago. Edgerton works closely with The Fred Hollows Foundation that sends eye doctors to provide free cataract surgery to people in places like Nepal that allows them to see once again.

Therapy at Love in Action operates on a number of levels. To start with, Sykes has them draw a family tree going back as remember that will provide the basis for a “moral inventory”. For each relative, this means identifying some “weakness” that might account for their succumbing to homosexuality. This might include alcoholism, drugs, same-sex preference and any other departure from the straight and narrow Christian path. Poor Jared is forced to make up a story about one of his relatives since everybody in the Eamons clan is squeaky clean.

Therapy also includes exercises such as teaching boys to hold a baseball bat properly, to avoid effeminate behavior such as crossing your legs, etc. Jared has no problem satisfying these requirements since he was an all-American boy except for his desire to have sex with men. Another boy who fell into the same category was a hulking football player who kept getting punished for other infractions. At one point, the infractions become so serious that he is forced to get on his hands and knees while the other boys smack him on the rear end with a bible. At the end of his tether, the boy commits suicide. His suffering from what amounted to a boot camp reminded me of Vincent D’Onofrio killing himself in the latrine in “Full Metal Jacket”.

In the climax of the film, Jared’s mother comes to Love in Action to rescue her son who has finally come to the realization that he cannot change. In the closing notes at the end of the film, we learn that Victor Sykes could not change as well. Sykes was based on John J. Smid who 3 years after leaving his post at Love in Action announced that he was still gay and that he had “never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual.” Three years after making this statement, he married his same-sex partner, Larry McQueen.

In his memoir, Conley describes the sort of person who would have ended up at Love in Action:

Most of us were from the South, most of us from some part of the Bible Belt. Most of our stories sounded remarkably similar. We had all met with ultimatums that didn’t exist for many other people, conditions often absent from the love between parents and children. At some point, a “change this or else” had come to each of us: Otherwise we would be homeless, penniless, excommunicated, exiled. We had all been too afraid to fall through the cracks; all of us had been told cautionary tales of drug addicts, of sex addicts, of people who ended up dying in the throes of AIDS in some urban West Coast gutter. The story always went this way. And we believed the story. For the most part, the media we consumed corroborated it. You could hardly find a movie in small-town theaters that spoke openly of homosexuality, and when you did, it almost always ended with someone dying of AIDS.

While undoubtedly most of you would understand how this would correspond to the experience of someone growing up in Arkansas, the fact is that conversion therapy is legal in 36 states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Wisconsin. The Williams Institute states that 700,000 people have been through conversion therapy and likely many more will suffer the same fate until a nation-wide ban is in effect. Vice President Pence is someone who supports “those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” Given his Christian fundamentalist fervor and the perception that anybody has to be better than Trump, let’s hope that impeachment is not on the agenda.

“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is based on a teen-novel by Emily M. Danforth who is Associate Professor of English at Rhode Island College, where she teaches creative writing and literature. In 2012, Danforth wrote an article for Huffington Post that began:

Sometimes when people ask me why I write, I tell them that it’s because I grew up gay (very gay) way out in the middle of cowboy country in the windswept and dusty badlands of eastern Montana. I don’t know that this answer is very satisfying to anyone. Sometimes people chuckle, uncertain. Sometimes they cock their heads, ask me to elaborate. Sometimes they just nod knowingly (you know how some people do that). What I think I mean by that answer, though, is that falling in love and in crush with other girls in Miles City, Mont. in the 1990s felt so fraught and, frankly, dangerous that from the ages of 8 to 18, closeted-me inhabited a very active and wholly imagined fantasy world in which a braver, not-closeted-me, was, well, braver and not closeted.

Although she never went through conversion therapy, one imagines that her own experience was reflected in the lead character of the film based on her novel. Cameron Post, who calls herself Cam, has been raised by her aunt Ruth after her parents died in an auto crash.

At the senior prom, she ditches the boy who brought her there and goes out to his car with her best friend and lover Coley when he isn’t looking. Once there, the two girls began making out passionately and as fate would have it get caught in the act by her date. When word gets out about her transgression, Aunt Ruth sends her to God’s Promise, a conversion therapy camp where she is instructed early on to call herself Cameron since Cam is a boy’s name.

Like Love in Action, God’s Promise is run by a man who has “changed”. And, also like Love in Action, therapy begins with a drawing exercise. They are told to draw an iceberg with only about 10 percent of it above water. They have to fill in the iceberg below the water with all the issues that prevent them from changing. This includes an unhealthy relationship with sports if you are a girl, absent parents, etc.

Unlike Jared, Cam has little of the Christian passion that allowed him to put up with the mistreatment he suffered undergoing “therapy”. She openly admits that she does not believe in God and tries to make a marijuana connection a day or two after she arrives.

A girl named Jane becomes Cam’s supplier, containing her stash in a prosthetic leg. Cam, Jane and her best friend Adam become a crew of dissidents who mock the people in charge and conspire on ways to fool them into thinking that they are open to “change”. Adam is an American Indian who explains his sexual orientation as an expression of his tribe’s belief in “two-spirit” personalities. If you’ve seen Jean Vigo’s “Zero for Conduct”, you’ll get a good idea of how the three amigos work together to spread havoc at God’s Promise and finally make it on the lam.

In the back of my mind as I watched both films, I kept wondering how those two sentences in Leviticus can haunt us to this day:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Of course, you could also be put to death for cursing your parents, having sex with a menstruating woman, and conducting adultery—not that you will ever see the Westboro scum out protesting people who have so transgressed.

In Saul Olyan’s article on Leviticus and homosexuality for the October 1994 “Journal of the History of Sexuality”, there is a scholarly discussion of how to understand the context for these taboos. The main point is that this is the only place in the OT that homosexuality is condemned. Indeed, a close reading of the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah would reveal that the cities were destroyed not for defying Leviticus but for gang rape, mob violence and turning their backs on strangers—sins more closely resembling contemporary America.

Olyan points out that it is not exactly homosexuality that is condemned but anal intercourse and only for the man who is doing the penetrating. In his view, the vehemence is linked to the overarching belief that the Hebrew seed had to be preserved at all costs in order to preserve the tribal ownership of the Kingdom of Israel. Whatever interpretation you advance, you have to conclude that the OT is mostly obsessed with idolatry rather than anal sex. One supposes that a jealous God would give you a pass on anal sex as long as you don’t pray to Baal.

In 1982, David F. Greenberg and Marcia H. Bystryn co-authored an article titled “Christian Intolerance of Homosexuality” for the November 1982 American Journal of Sociology that is a real eye-opener. They argue convincingly that Christianity cracked down on homosexuality during a period when asceticism was on the rise. In the decline of the Roman empire and its vulnerability to attacks from the Huns, Visigoths, et al, a growing mood of insecurity fueled beliefs that the material world was evil and that deliverance only came from spiritual pursuits. At its extreme, this meant sexual abstention from the priesthood and the passing of laws that reined in not only homosexuality but prostitution as well. They write:

Moreover, Christian hostility to homosexuality was not directed against that alone, but toward all forms of sexual activity. Although the New Testament did not look favorably on sexual expression, the leaders of the early church gave sex much greater attention and rejected it far more passionately and completely. Virtually all the church fathers–Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome–praised virginity and looked on sex with horror. Tertullian regarded unchastity as worse than death.

In the early days of feudalism, homosexuality became acceptable once again as warriors displaced the clergy as the ruling elite. Like the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire and the Greek army of Pericles’s day, it was considered normal for the hierarchical organization of the military to permit ranking officers to take pleasure in those below them. Once the knighthood became obsolete, such practices were frowned upon and worse.

Meanwhile, in the Muslim world, homosexuality was widespread as visitors to North Africa and the Middle East would testify. There was no mention of gay sex in the Quran after all, but only in the Hadiths.

For a lively treatise on how all that changed, I recommend “A Note on the Study of Homosexuality in the Arab/Islamic Civilization” by As’ad AbuKhalil, the Angry Arab, that appeared in Fall 1993, Arab Studies Journal. He writes:

The advent of westernization in the Middle East brought with it various elements of western ideologies of hostility, like anti Semitism and homophobia. This is not to say that there were not anti-homosexual (or anti-Jewish) elements in Arab/Islamic history, but these elements never constituted an ideology of hostility as such. Furthermore, Muslims have been trying since the last century to live up to the western moral code. Islamic thinkers wanted to conform sexual and moral mores to western (primarily Christian) codes of behavior.

The modern state has also contributed to homophobia by referring to homosexuality as shudhudh jinsi (literally, sexual perversion). The term was never used in Arab/Islamic history and it carries the moral position of the Christian faith. Moreover, ignorance about AIDS in the Arab World has allowed some writers in Egypt— and elsewhere in the Arab world—to propagate the myth that all AIDS cases in the Arab World were caused by Mossad agents who were sent to corrupt and destroy the Muslim youths. Thus, homophobic theologians in the Arab World are associating the spread of AIDS, with complete disregard to scientific evidence, with the very practice of homosexuality. Furthermore, the attribution of AIDS cases in the Arab World by some Egyptian theologians to a western/Zionist conspiracy is intended to discredit and ostracize known homosexuals in society. The homosexual becomes, in the mind of the modern ideology of Islamic homophobia, a man with a double condemnation: first, for being immoral for engaging in illicit sex and, secondly, for betraying the umma by serving as the tool of the enemy. Not unlike what is customary in Arab political discourse, the distinction between violation of the sexual norms and the violation of the political norms are obscured. After all, the Arab defeat in 1948 continues to be referred to in Arab poetry and prose as the “rape of Palestine”.

What a rejoinder to the monstrous repression in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where homosexuals and lesbians fear for their lives for only loving the same sex. Is it any wonder why a country so homophobic as the USA can maintain such bonds with Saudi Arabia? Or, for that matter, why Russia has the same kind of relationship to Iran? Clearly, an independent class perspective that harkens back to the enlightened views that prevailed in Weimar Germany and the early USSR have to wipe this kind of medieval bestiality off the face of the earth.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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