[Editor’s Note: While this post does not include spoilers, several of the linked reviews do.]
Boy Erased, a newly-released film about a gay teen’s experience with conversion therapy is “one of the most important films you will see this year,” wrote one reviewer who was not the only person reflecting on the film’s connections to Catholic theology.
Sr. Rose Pacatte reviewed Boy Erased for the National Catholic Reporter. The film follows the story of 18-year-old Jared Eamons and the “ex-gay therapy” he is forced to endure after being outed to his conservative, Christian parents. Pacatte commented on this destructive practice’s relationship to theology, a theme addressed in the memoir-based film:
“It is simply impossible ‘to pray away the gay’ and change a person by threatening hell and abandonment by God. . .The most intense event of the days Jared spends at The Refuge program is a mock funeral for a young man, Cameron (Britton Sear), who lapses. In front of a casket, with all the participants looking on, he is made to fall on his knees and bend over as Sykes, his parents and little sister, strike him with a Bible. The humiliation of it all brought me to tears. . .
“The theology on which gay conversion therapy is based is a perversion of everything Christianity stands for. It blames the family or nurture for homosexuality rather than exploring nature. In ‘Boy Erased,’ each participant must make a family tree chart and designate people as alcoholic, homosexual, someone who had an abortion, or other moral failing to figure out what caused them to be gay. Often it is a parent who is to blame, especially the father.”
Pacatte’s review included a specific note, indeed an exhortation, to parents with LGBT children, saying the film is “a wake-up call” for them to “be engaged in their children’s lives and love them unconditionally as God does.” She wrote:
“Boy Erased is a starting point for parents wondering what God is asking of them when they discover their child is LGBTQ. First, you love your child unconditionally and go from there. You don’t hurt them, or give them pain and suffering, so that ‘good’ (change of sexual orientation) may come of it, as the Refuge’s [ex-gay conversion program] homemade handbook dictates.”
Another reviewer, Chris Williams, S.J. of The Jesuit Post, also reflected on the theological connections in Boy Erased. He wrote that he left the theater “stunned because of the brutality of what happened” and with the troubling question about “whether it was possible that Catholic Church teaching or pastoral practice with LGBTQ people had contributed to the kind of violence depicted in Jared’s story.” Researching that question led Williams to conclude:
“In sum, the Catholic Church has had a troubling connection with conversion therapy over the past fifty years. Several of the individuals and organizations above have had powerful influence at least within the American Catholic Church, and probably beyond. . .
“I am not here to debate the Church’s moral teaching about homosexuality. And I am optimistic enough to believe that our Church leaders and many Catholics have no malicious intent toward homosexual people when they defend the language of ‘disorder.’
“But regardless of intention, the truth of the past is that this language and the ideas surrounding homosexuality in the Church have morphed into destructive messages of shame. These messages have lodged themselves deep in the hearts of LGBTQ children, teenagers, and adults and have caused mental illness, family abandonment, physical violence, and even suicide.”
Ciaran Freeman of America Magazine described Boy Erased as a “call to action,” noting a statement at the film’s end which reminds the audience that just 14 U.S. states have banned the abusive practice. He concluded:
“For things to begin to change we have to bear witness to injustice and listen to the stories of those abused and oppressed. ‘Boy Erased’ gives us the opportunity to do just that. Unfortunately, even in 2018, it is necessary viewing.”
Finally, a less positive, but still notable review comes from Peter Sheehan of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting [though a U.S. film, many of the stars, including Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, are Australian]. Posted on the Australian bishops’ official website, Sheehan used the language of “same-sex attraction” and provided a less critical description of “ex-gay” practices. Nonetheless, he commended the approach of “Boy Erased”:
“The film is fiercely critical of conversion therapy for its false assumptions and the ruthlessness of its treatment strategies. The film does not ridicule entirely those who believe homosexuality is a choice that cannot be reversed, and it expresses tolerance for the view that Christians can have homosexual feelings that can coexist with religious belief. The film also recognises that the convictions of Jared’s parent’s are valid to them. . .This film is a humanistic drama of considerable emotional force. It doesn’t answer all the questions it raises, but it cautions one against rushing to answer them unwisely, inhumanely, or unthinkingly.”
These reviewers each have pointed out important considerations for Catholics, given the Church’s ambivalent and sometimes complicit record when it comes to the practice. They encourage Catholics to bear witness, admit our failings, seek unity even when there is difference (but never compromise on health and safety), love LGBT people unconditionally, and, most of all, do no harm to other human beings.
It is estimated that some 700,000 people in the United States have been subjected to “ex-gay therapy,” which has roundly been condemned by LGBT groups, as well as high-profile medical and psychological associations. 36 states still allow the practice. In the midst of this suffering, there is an opportunity for Catholics. Many church leaders have suggested their desire to be in growing solidarity with LGBT communities. A forceful witness against a practice which at times borders on torture would do just that without needing to address sexual ethics and/or marriage rights. Bishops and pastors should use a little time this Advent to be moved sufferings of Jared Eamons and the thousands of LGBT youth he represents, stories which will hopefully propel these leaders to take a stand against “ex-gay therapy” and all the harm it does.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 5, 2018