Cured On Camera: Conversion Therapy In Documentary Film

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Conversion Therapy

Our society is moving towards a greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ people; more rights, more protections, greater recognition and celebration. Yet threats, collectively and individually, persist. One threat is conversion therapy—a therapy in name only.

Conversion therapy claims that, through ‘treatments,’ homosexuality is curable. To those unaware such a movement seems like a relic of the past. It’s uncomfortable to learn therefore that in 2021—after a global pandemic, economic crashes and 20-year war on terrorism—conversion therapy is still legal in Britain.

If you didn’t know that, you are not alone. In a poll, 75% of responders didn’t know it was legal. A further 63% were surprised at this. The responses mirror these numbers, with people “really shocked” that it’s legal and wondering if “hate speech is illegal,” then surely conversion therapy should be covered under this.

Even if you don’t know it is legal in Britain, you might have an idea about the kind of place conversion therapy would be a plausible undertaking. The practice has an exclusive home in the Bible Belt of America, you may assume, celebrated by congregations of arm-waving evangelicals. It’s an American issue, you could say, citing the Westboro Baptist Church and images of ‘God Hates F*gs’ picketing. Documentaries like Netflix’s recent release Pray Away and Dr. Christian Jessen’s 2014 documentary Cure Me I’m Gay thoroughly explore this, unnerving viewers with their frank attempts to dissect this practice.

Wading through the crossover of the professional and personal, Dr. Christian plays guinea pig in Cure, submitting himself to so-called therapies to test if he can be ‘cured.’ Meanwhile, Pray Away is an interview-style program, tracing the histories of former leaders of the ‘ex-gay movement.’ For a gay man like myself, these documentaries fall into the ‘know thy enemy’ column.

Much of conversion therapy is the poisonous fruit of certain Christian sects, who regard homosexuality as a sin. The interviewees of Pray Away recount the rhetoric of sinfulness; broken, unclean, wrong. Curative prayers focus on the desire to be cleansed and transformed, turning their love to Jesus. Homosexuality also becomes guilty by association, grouped with other sins like drunkenness and blasphemy.

Equally detrimental is the dangerous amalgamation of religion and science. While “most leaders did not have formal education in psychology or counselling,” the Church-conceived sins are dressed up as psychological issues. In both documentaries, homosexuality as the result of abuse or identifying with the wrong parent is repeated like a catechism. At 16, Pray Away interviewee Julie Rodgers admitted “not knowing much about science.” To her, explaining her desires as an illness proved convincing. The interviewees unabashedly admitted to believing this, the two-pronged indoctrination of pseudo-science and religion running deep.

Several cures Dr. Christian attempted exist in this liminal space between science and religion. One example was a bizarre form of reparative therapy. Going undercover, he was given a drawing of a brain to colour in. The ‘therapist’ meanwhile is explaining how the areas of the brain ‘talk’ to each other, areas that had caused his homosexuality. It’s laughable really, a therapy that is nothing more than how you would occupy a child at a restaurant. The therapist in question had no medical training (evident by his insistence that the adrenal glands are in the brain) but was a former evangelical minister. It is not just a hybrid of prayer and therapy, but a switching between the two.

What is fascinating to watch in Cure is how Dr. Christian navigates his identity as a gay man and as a doctor. Trusting his university-taught knowledge, he knows that the pseudo-medical knowledge these therapists spew is “nonsense”—nothing more than “phrenology by numbers”. Outside of a church, Dr. Christian is physically uncomfortable, listening to teenagers echo the teachings of their church; that homosexuality is a sin caused by evil spirits. Vulnerable and without any trappings of a doctor, he is visibly distraught and unnerved by these ideas being spoken by the next generation.

Without being in that situation or from that specific background, it’s difficult to comprehend how people find themselves drawn into conversion therapy. Set to the backdrop of her wedding preparations, Julie recalls “finding the beauty in God as a creator,” and as a child “wanting to be Jesus’ friend.” Such devotion and faith might cause individuals to do anything to rectify their relationship with their religion, such as attempting to ‘fix’ your attraction to members of the same gender.

Less obvious is how the need for community is a lure to conversion therapy. Grouped with others experiencing the same feelings, Julie remembers finally belonging, sleepovers being a “safe place where they could be their queer selves.” It’s hard to identify abuse when it’s dressed up in religion, healing and community.

There is identifiable established scientific thinking behind some of these therapies. Using a nausea-inducing drug and watching gay material, Dr. Christian participated in a form of aversion therapy. Used as recently as the 1980s, the ‘treatment’ would attempt to retrain the brain, associating pain with gay feelings. A nurse who had helped to administer the practice said he had never seen anyone be cured. After days of sitting in their own waste, individuals would concede simply to escape.

You want to turn away from the screen as you watch Dr. Christian cry, vomit and crouch in pain. It is nothing less than physical, mental and emotional pain that you are witnessing. To me, in being subjected to this practice, Dr. Christian connects with previous queer generations, via a shared trauma that is yet to be healed.

Concurrent with scenes of Julie’s wedding, Pray Away concludes with the promise from previous leaders that they condemn the movement. Admitting they have blood on their hands, these ex-leaders should be the target of viewers’ wrath, outrage and disgust. Yet their doubling identity of victim and perpetrator complicates this natural response. All you can feel is sorrow.

According to Instagram account Ban Conversion Therapy, as of 29 March this year it had been 1000 days since the UK government vowed to ban conversion therapy. So far, only a consultation on the ban has been planned. While Dr. Christian, unsurprisingly, was not cured, conversion therapy is a reality and a present possibility in UK. It is a dangerous undercurrent hiding beneath calm waters of acceptance and protection.

Words by James Reynolds


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