Monday, November 19, 2018

"Boy Erased" and the Destructive Effects of So-Called "Conversion" Therapy: Commentary on the Film

American Psychiatric Association, "APA Reiterates Strong Opposition to Conversion Therapy":

In the wake of recent popular entertainment portrayals of conversion therapy, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) today reiterates its long-standing opposition to the practice. APA made clear with its 1998 position statement that "APA opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as 'reparative' or 'conversion' therapy, that is based on the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or is based on the a priori assumption that the patient should change his or her homosexual orientation."
APA expanded on that position with a statement in 2013: "The American Psychiatric Association does not believe that same-sex orientation should or needs to be changed, and efforts to do so represent a significant risk of harm by subjecting individuals to forms of treatment which have not been scientifically validated and by undermining self-esteem when sexual orientation fails to change. No credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed."
Conversion therapy is banned in 14 states as well as the District of Columbia. The APA calls upon other lawmakers to ban the harmful and discriminatory practice.

Last week, I saw the film "Boy Erased." I blogged about Garrard Conley's book Boy Erased, on which the film is based, two years ago after I had finished reading the book. My statement was entitled "Garrard Conley's Boy Erased: Template for Understanding Religion-Based Homophobia and Its Assault on Queer Humanity" (and see also herehere, and here). As my posting notes, Conley's book tells the story of the decision of his parents — his father is a Baptist pastor in Arkansas — to send him to the now-closed Love in Action "conversion" therapy outfit in Memphis called Love in Action. The movie closely follows the story of his memoir about his experiences at Love in Action. 

Here's what I shared on social media after I saw "Boy Erased" last week:

So-called "conversion" therapy or "reparative" therapy is torture.

As a statement that scrolls across the screen at the end of "Boy Erased" reminds us, 36 states still permit so-called "conversion"/"reparative" therapy.

"Conversion" therapy is state-sanctioned torture. This bogus, discredited "therapy" that is denounced by all major professional health organizations continues to have state sanction and support in many quarters of American society because it purports to mesh with biblical-religious injunctions.

Many Americans don't want to touch, curb, challenge anything that has the stamp of religious approval, no matter how outlandish or dangerous. (We conveniently forget that our nation was birthed in a witch craze in which women were executed by the state on charges of witchcraft – at the bequest of churchmen – and that we permitted and practiced bible-blessed, church-sanctioned slavery for nearly two centuries.)

"Conversion" therapy exists not to change people's sexual orientation – abundant empirical evidence shows that it does not and cannot accomplish this goal – but to make those of us who are uncomfortable with the existence of LGBTQ human beings more comfortable with our prejudices.

"Conversion" therapy exists and thrives in some areas especially to make parents comfortable with their refusal to love and accept their LGBTQ children. This is a key aspect of Garrard Conley's story as he tells it in his book Boy Erased and as it's told in the film based on that book.

Parents subjecting their children to "conversion" therapy because they are uncomfortable accepting their children’s God-given, innate sexual orientation – usually for religious reasons – are handing those children over to torturers.

The fact that these torturers have state sanction and religious approval does not make the torture they practice any less outrageous and cruel. 

"Conversion" therapy is about trying to force people to pretend that they are who they are not, so that the rest of us can feel more comfortable. It is especially about forcing people to pretend to fit into torturous, tiny gender boxes that make the rest of us comfortable, when their real selves do not fit those boxes neatly.

"Conversion" therapy is above all about protecting the sacred shibboleth of "masculinity" and forcing queer males to act like "real" men so that the rest of us can feel comfortable and the central symbol of the "real" man can continue to go unchallenged in our society and our churches.

We need that symbol to go unchallenged because much of our economic and cultural life is arranged around the idea that heterosexual males are the top of a totem pole around which the world turns when it’s working as it should work.

At the very top of that totem pole, surmounting heterosexual males, is a God who is, we have decided to believe, a heterosexual male – and this is why heterosexual males stand at the top of the totem pole around which the world turns: because they represent God more completely than anyone else in the world does.

American Christian churches have invested heavily in these ideas. This is why many American Christians choose to torture their queer children and force them to live in tiny, torturous gender boxes that do not fit their real identities – so that the rest of us can be comfortable and complacent in believing our totem-pole, straight-men-on-top myths.

All of this is what biblical texts decry as idolatry, as making blood sacrifices to bloody idols. In permitting "conversion" therapy to do its destructive work, we are permitting our own children to be given as blood sacrifices to bloody idols.

"Conversion" therapy does not change the God-given, innate nature of those children. At best, it succeeds only in making them hate and fear who they are naturally; it makes them live tortured lives, pretending to be someone else so that the rest of us can be more comfortable with our prejudices.

Civilized societies would not permit this kind of torture to continue – even if it does claim biblical or religious sanction (just as the practice of enslaving human beings and executing witches claimed biblical or religious sanction).

All of the above is the powerful message of "Boy Erased," a film that deserves a very wide audience – though the people who most need to see it will not see it. In Arkansas, where the story is set and where Garrard Conley was born and grew up, it is playing in only one theater in the entire state.

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