New Film Addresses Old Cultural Scar of “Ex-Gay” Therapy in Ireland

Pádraig Ó Tuama

Ireland’s public television network has aired a new film about conversion therapy and the damage it causes people who undergo it. The film reveals the long shadow that a history of LGBTQ persecution in a largely Catholic country casts despite legal advances for LGBTQ equality in recent years.

The film, Converted, directed by Suzie Keegan, was released by Irish news network RTÉ. The film examines the widely condemned practice of attempting to repress or reverse a person’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or gender presentation. The practice is widely condemned by mental health professionals and LGBTQ advocates.

In a review, Vice praised the film:

“The documentary gives a broad sweep to the long history of conversion ‘therapy’. We see famous gay activist and Irish Senator David Norris lambast the old practice of ‘aversion therapy’, which involved showing men pornographic pictures of the same gender, and administering an electric shock if they became aroused. Shockingly, recent investigations revealed that this ‘therapy’ was administered to students of Queen’s University, in Belfast well into the 70s. Such revelations are shocking not just because they expose the suffering of the past, but because they bring us to think about what sort of present we’ve inherited. And what we’ve inherited from these barbaric practices is a spurious, toxic network of ‘conversion therapy’ advocates who believe that sexual orientation can be fixed, and discipline their queer victims into thinking so too.”

One prominent subject of the film is Pádraig Ó Tuama, a gay Irish poet and theologian. Ó Tuama has spoken on many occasions about his faith and experience with accepting his sexuality, such as a brief anecdote for BBC’s Thought For The Day, or a longer piece for the storytelling radio show The Moth. In the latter piece, he goes into great detail about his experiences in ‘reparative therapy’, how he joined missionary work in his adolescence whilst trying to understand himself, and what he wanted to do with his life. To hear him say it: 

“So I joined this missionary organization, and because I ticked that box, that monster box, shortly after I joined they arranged an exorcism for me. But it didn’t work, so there was another one, and another one. And they got worse; people screaming holy words in your ear that felt anything but holy. Using language that is meant to be elevated but was actually terrible. And when three exorcisms didn’t work, it was decided that I should go to ‘reparative therapy.'” 

In the Vice article, Ó Tuama speaks to the lasting scars these ordeals left on him:

“He was 18 years old, having just moved to Dublin, and joined a prayer group. In the documentary, his eyes brim with tears as he recounts said group’s persistent threats of sin, loneliness and AIDS, as well as the humiliations which led whole rooms of members to pray over him. ‘Those were such formative times for me. That sort of thing doesn’t leave you when you’re 22.'”

A bill in the Irish government has been proposed to ban the practice of conversion therapy. The bill was introduced in 2018, and it is currently in the later stages of review by the Irish Senate. Fintan Warfield, the Sinn Féin senator who introduced the bill, commented on the issue of faith in the second round of debate:

“‘It is essential that we recognize the importance of faith in this conversation and that some religious people experience psychological distress because they see their sexual orientation and faith as being irreconcilable. Positive exploration can address both the reality of sexual orientation and the possibilities of a spiritually and religiously meaningful life. They can be reconciled. I have no doubt there are huge numbers of religious people who wound find the concept of conversion therapy as abhorrent as I do. This is about legislating for the common good, which is the reason we are here.'”

Converted is now available on RTÉ Player.

Artemis Walsh, December 9, 2019

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