Two recent films tackle the problematic subject matter of so-called “gay conversion therapy,” albeit on somewhat different scales. “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” (which can be found streaming online, for example on Amazon Prime) is a relatively small film about a young woman, Cameron Post, played by Chloë Grace Moretz who might be the only cast member many viewers recognize, sent to a residential facility for teenagers. Whereas “Boy Erased” is a somewhat larger production, in theatrical release (in Sacramento at the Tower Theatre) about a young man, Jared Eamons, sent to a day counseling program, starring Lucas Hedges (“Lady Bird”) with supporting performances by Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, and Joel Edgerton.
The most noteworthy thing about watching the former before the latter is the star power in the latter, which initially seems a little out of place or unnecessary. “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is such a simple story, focused on Cameron’s experience alongside the other residents. Her parents are both dead, and there’s relatively little content about the decision to send her away or her living situation with an aunt. She knows from the beginning that the circumstances don’t make sense, that being caught making out with her girlfriend doesn’t justify this, and for her it’s about getting through the experience. It’s based on a novel with the same name by Emily M. Danforth with the major change in the adaptation being that Cameron in the film is significantly older than Cameron in the book, which alters some of the choices being made.
For Jared, the story is different, with “Boy Erased” based on a memoir by Garrard Conley. Here, the decision to attend the program is depicted as being at least somewhat voluntary, although based largely on Jared’s desire to please his parents. And he appears to start out in the program with some hope that it might be effective, even if only for similar reasons. He’s technically an adult but it’s clear that, as a freshman in college, he isn’t especially autonomous yet and is largely heading down paths that are laid out for him. But as the role of the parents become clearer, the casting of Kidman and Crowe does also – they aren’t especially big roles, not what you might expect of those actors, but they are significant.
Both of the programs depicted are based on flawed and flimsy logic, along with religious conviction that outweighs scientific discovery, with the central conceit that homosexuality is either a behavioral choice or something caused rather than intrinsic. In “Post,” it’s all about the environment, with residents drawing “iceberg” charts of factors such as involvement in sports or the presence or lack of siblings. In “Erased,” it’s about the influence of “sinful” behavior among family members, with family trees of perceived discretions such as alcoholism and drug use. In both cases, the idea is that if something is caused, there must be something or someone to blame, without any willingness to even entertain the possibility that homosexuality is something somebody is born with.
Most of the residents in “Post” are, like Cameron, focused on coping with the program. When she secretly looks at the icebergs of the others, it becomes apparent they’ve all done it too. And factors that gain favor with the administrators are shared and copied. In “Erased,” the focus on blame and the assumption that an individual must therefore be angry at somebody in their life becomes the breaking point for Jared who isn’t blaming the people, primarily his father, the leader (Edgerton, who also wrote and directed) thinks he should be. Again, another participant (played by Troye Sivan) encourages him to fake his responses just to get out intact. The irony, of course, in both cases being that the supposed treatment is what’s causing the harm, along with the lack of acceptance of non-heteronormative sexuality that causes programs like this to exist in the first place.
In both films, at least some of the counselors are prior participants in such programs, supposedly there to inspire their charges that change is possible. But all are such clearly unhappy or seemingly unstable individuals that the irony is that they don’t only underline the myth of gay conversion, they also don’t make the outcome look appealing even if you bought into the premise. And the programs are depicted as money making endeavors, where the participants are like easily replaced inventory with, sadly, no apparent shortage of substitutions. In “Post,” keeping the beds full seems of greater importance than results. Whereas in “Erased,” the real goal seems to be, not converting homosexuals into heterosexuals, but converting day participants into residents in the adjacent housing complex.
I haven’t read the novel that “Post” is based on, but the age difference between a 12 year old protagonist contemplating such things as escape, versus an older teenager, seem profound. But it’s indicative of the portrayed risk and fear of harm from the program itself that escape becomes the goal despite the fear of whatever might happen beyond that.
“Erased” is ultimately more powerful but as a family drama rather than an expose on flawed therapy. Those family relationships are both real and commonplace for many LGBTQ people, whether or not they have been subjected to programs such as these.
The unfortunate truth, like so many similar topics, is that the people in the audience who most identify with the characters and their plight aren’t those that need to be told that gay conversion therapy is ridiculous on its face and likely to be harmful. While those that buy into the idea either aren’t going to watch these films or are equally likely to dismiss them as liberal propaganda. Or, worse, use them to fuel their own, more literal propaganda. But one can at least hope that people who recognize and accept, rather than fear, sexuality, but who haven’t experienced such bigotry first hand might better understand the damage and fear associated with anti-LGBTQ programs and legislation of all kinds through stories such as these.