Shame on You and Shame on Me Too: Gay Conversion and the Martyrdom of Self
I don’t remember this business being funny. But it is funny. “...You’re not born a gay, you’re born again!” quips Hillary Faye (Mandy Moore) in the 2004 Brian Dannelly-directed comedy Saved!
To have such an ignorant and insidious philosophy reduced to a goofy mnemonic catchphrase, well, that’s funny in the movie. I just don’t remember it that way.
Here’s what I remember:
“If you believe you can be gay and a Christian, stand on this side of the classroom.” That’s what I was told. Not nearly as quirky.
Then I remember that we were divided up. Those who believed in the possibility of a gay Christian were placed with our backs against the sickly green wall. We stared at each other across fold-out tables. The debate would soon follow, and for some of us, so would a mountain of internal shame. I remember the debate. Those of us against the wall were asked to defend our position, while the opposing line defended theirs. But only one collective included individuals who were, perhaps advertently, being asked to defend ourselves. Where we stood determined our piety, our ethics, and for me, my belief in myself. As far as I can remember, religion has been a divide in my life and in the lives of people I’ve loved. By embracing conventional Christian morality regarding homosexuality, I denied myself meaningful relationships with people I loved. Most of all I was denied a total acceptance of myself.
But it’s still funny in Saved! when Mary (Jena Malone) has sex with her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust) after he comes out as gay. In a moment of disorientation, Mary believes Jesus has commanded her to do all she can to save her boyfriend from total separation with God. This results in an unwanted pregnancy and a trip to gay conversion therapy camp for Dean, but even those scenarios, structured as slightly shocking situational comedic framework, are funny. I earnestly enjoy this movie...
...even as I remember the immense pressure to save the people around you that you feel when you’re a Christian. That false sense of responsibility that’s deeply rooted in guilt controls the decision-making process. The Christian reality of Hell is absolutely terrifying, and it’s a key factor in manipulating people’s beliefs. Imagining that your friends and loved ones might spend eternity in suffering and agony weighs heavy on the conscience even without the added stoking of the flames from religious institutions.
Imagine being told that you alone are responsible for the fate of every person you’ve connected with, that at the end of your life you’d face each and every one of them on their way to hell and they’d blame you for not saving their souls. Now add in the damning belief that having sin in your heart is just as bad as committing it. Empathetic and feeling people find this extremely distressing, and it’s this fear that misguides their actions. Actions that are done with the best of intentions can easily become abusive and take on a life of their own when weeks of fasting and prayer turn to desperation. Level-headed debates and pleas turn to anger and abject fear, and that’s when things get taken too far. I remember what it feels like to have that worry and to ask myself what I would do to save my friends from eternal damnation.
In Saved!, Mary is what we at Bible College would have called a “missionary dater.” These are typically God-fearing people who form romantic bonds with people who aren’t “saved” in order to convert them to their religion. This happens more than one might expect, with young people sincerely believing that God has told them to save the souls of the (conveniently attractive) unsaved. If you frame that with the right actors and tie it up in witty lines, it can be a very funny idea.
In real life, it is not really that funny at all. “God told me we are going to get married” is something I heard often in my Bible College days. A rejection by the intended party often resulted in a crisis of faith that felt insurmountable to young people who were encouraged to identify the voice of God in their own lives. If we could not differentiate between divine intervention and our own feelings, how were we supposed to live godly lives? And what if those feelings moved us toward action that was frowned upon by the church?
The now commonly known process of “gay conversion” starts early in religious circles, even before admission to the now properly demonized official programs, and anyone living a closeted lifestyle is pushed further into the quiet, lonely darkness very quickly. Even this pre-experience experience tells these individuals (who, at that time, are, like I was, closeted even to their own selves) that they will never be able to be themselves, and that in order to survive, they must “kill” a part of their identity, a part whose necessity and significance they have not even been permitted to measure.
Some movies mine into this mindset without the levity and relief of superficial comedy. In Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, it’s this very kind of fear and misunderstanding that motivates Ruth (Kerry Butler) to send her niece Cameron (Chloe Grace-Moretz) to God’s Promise, a conservative gay conversion camp. The movie opens on a youth bible study, the teens being told that they’re at an age where they’re “especially vulnerable to evil” and that “what feels like fun is actually the enemy, and that enemy is closing the noose around your neck.” Cameron’s fun is an innocent budding sexual relationship with her best friend Coley (Quinn Shepard), a tryst that the two hide from the world around them. It’s clear in the film that what they share is a loving relationship behind closed doors. But when Cameron’s boyfriend walks in on the two in a sexy, heated moment, everything in her life falls apart.
Cameron is abandoned at camp and stripped of her personal rights. She’s then manipulated and shamed, shown the tired iceberg metaphor and told that her same-sex attraction is a symptom of greater problems under the surface, and she’s surrounded by other teens working to identify their own icebergs. Once they are made to believe something is wrong with them, the teens’ main mission becomes finding the root in order to stamp it out, as if this will fix everything. Most often they find the root is some flaw within themselves. Desperate to find the root of their sin, they turn to their families to tear them apart. Was it the bonding over sports with her dad that made Erin (Emily Skeggs) a lesbian? Was Mark (Owen Campbell) coddled too much by his mother, and that’s what makes him effeminate? The most important question in the film becomes “who is to blame?”
Oh, boy. That really is an important question.
Martyrdom is a complex concept. The true meaning of the word determines that someone who dies for their beliefs is given the distinction, but martyrdom can occur on several levels, real and imagined. Perceived victimhood is a major player in a martyr complex, which obviously isn’t the same as being a martyr. But if the fear and manipulation that I have been describing is systemically imbedded in the institution, where does the line of victims stop and the blame start? Which of us are the martyrs and which of us have a martyr complex?
In 2018’s Boy Erased, Jared Eamon’s father Marshall (Russell Crowe) is one of those maybe gray area “victims.” The pastor of a large successful congregation, Marshall is devastated by the news that his son is gay. He is unable to see past how he is affected into Jared’s (Lucas Hedges) world. Curing his son of this spiritual disease is what stands between him and a true connection with God. How can his congregation respect him when his own son is a living abomination? The most important thing to Marshall is coming to terms with his inability to balance his beliefs and his reality. When friends and family members perceive themselves as victims, they can develop a complex and obsess over what will happen to them rather than their loved one. Perceived victimhood blinds empathy for others and places the emphasis on self.
While Jared’s father reacts with inward anger, his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) turns more to sorrow, and in her sorrow there is hope. An ever-obedient pastor’s wife, she first goes along with the plan to send Jared away, hoping that this experience will bring him closer to God. Nancy is not exempt from the same holy fear her husband is so driven by, but she is moved in a different way. It’s easy to paint her as a villain initially, but the truth is she was also likely living with extraordinary fear in her heart about Jared’s fate. From her limited worldview, she really does want what’s best for her son. And as time goes on, her maternal instincts kick in and she recognizes something is very wrong. A brief moment of reconciliation is shown where she expresses regret for having gone along with the plan, and a vow to do things differently. This rare showing of support is likely what saved Jared’s life.
While I was never subjected to gay conversion therapy, the films that I am discussing were very familiar to me. Boy Erased contained a sermon I have heard word for word more than once, and all of the movies felt uncomfortably authentic in their faith-based examples. As a result of my own experiences, there were parts of myself I attempted to kill at a young age. My attraction to other women started young and was noticed by almost everyone else before me. Outside of the church I was bullied and stigmatized for my misunderstood attractions, and in the church I was shamed into complete denial and silence about discovering it for myself. I really believed that the Devil was perverting the love that I had to give by making me attracted to other girls, and that to resist it was resisting the Devil himself. I prayed fervently for the attraction to end. When a young same-sex romance began to bud, I quashed it with cruel fear and disdain, hurting my friend deeply. I often have thoughts of regret about the way the relationship ended, and what I missed out on because of my own self-hatred and fear. I also became a hypocrite, disowning my best friend for his homosexuality when I began to become more involved in the church. I mistakenly believed that interacting with him would only encourage me to fall deeper into sin. I felt immense guilt for my “slips” into homosexuality and viewed them only as gaps in my faith. I lived in great denial of my sexuality into bible college where it was further drilled into my mind that being queer was unacceptable. When another student bravely stood in front of the entire college and gave a sermon about his own sexuality, I remained quietly impressed with his bravery but took no action of my own. The college’s response was to give a sermon on all the ways the bible was against being gay.
These are things that I struggle with even today, that I struggle with even, as you can probably tell, as I write this essay. Who should I blame for putting me on this path? Who can I credit with helping save me from it?
Sometimes film criticism means critiquing a film; sometimes it means considering the idea and value of film in general, or of broader types of film. Sometimes, when a topical trope hits close to your heart, you have to let it break you and then investigate the pieces. You have to have maybe two different experiences at once. I thought maybe committing myself to writing an essay on the martyrdom of gay conversion therapy in popular movies would provide an opportunity for me to make some concrete academic point by exploring the theme through my personal experience, or exploring my personal experience with the films. But really, the best I can do is realize that a profound understanding on the topic cannot possibly be arrived at in a 90 or 120 minute runtime, but the movies might still contain small shimmering spots of healing truth, or a reason to laugh. Just as, reflexively, I am in a profoundly better place today, but I still carry a little hurt.
As his parents face their own individual struggles, Jared does his best to kill the part of him that is so displeasing to his father. He stands in front of the group repeating the phrase: “I’m using sexual sin and homosexuality to fill a God-shaped void in my life” and so begins his martyrdom of self. By denying his very real and natural attractions to other men, Jared hopes to find freedom. Instead, he becomes a prisoner to ideology and expectation. If the goal is to completely eradicate his attraction to other men, achieving it is impossible. As long as he tries to kill this part of himself, he will never be happy.
To kill part of one’s self means to quash a fundamental part of who you are as a person. You are literally stifling a part of your soul in order to fit a distorted image of who you are supposed to be.
There are, of course, literal martyrs for this cause. In Jared’s case, a fellow victim named Cameron takes his own life while being reprogrammed. This devastating act follows an episode wherein Cameron attends his own mock funeral and is literally beaten with a Bible to chase out the demon of homosexuality that resides within him. Meanwhile, in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Cameron’s peer Mark uses a razor to mutilate his genitals and pours bleach into the wounds after being rejected by his father for being too effeminate.
A healthy view of sexuality and self cannot be maintained through forced actions and this type of abuse. Healthy sexuality requires acceptance and room to grow, and a true connection with self. Sexuality should be viewed as fluid and free, and our love for someone should not be based on who they choose to fuck.
If we don’t know who we are and what we want, and allow ourselves to express and explore these ideas, then we are repeatedly martyring a sacred part of ourselves. The idea of healthy sexuality being seen as devious or wrong or a problem to be solved is severely detrimental to a person’s wellbeing, and asking someone to destroy their attraction and love for someone is damaging often to a point that total destruction can feel like the only way out. When someone is made to believe that an imaginary problem lies within their existence, and that the only path to peace is to solve the problem, guilt and fear can drive them to the darkest corners of their mind.
These are things I didn’t realize as I made every effort to quash my own attractions. They are things I’m still learning, even as I watched these films. I carry a lot of guilt for the way I treated others back then, and also for the way I treated my young self. But that’s just part of the deal growing up Christian - guilt is a major motivator and a very powerful extension of fear. It makes some people stay in the shadows, and it makes others strike out in anger. No matter where one falls on the scale of perceived victim or martyr, fear is the shared experience that can either bring us together, or tear us apart.
“I love God. God loves me. And I love my son,” Nancy says to Jared years later, “It’s that simple.” And this makes me feel happy, because the beautiful part of me that over the years has found its room to grow realizes now that this is true. It is that simple. And this makes me feel sad, because the part of me whose growth was inhibited for years realizes now that that is not always true. For some, it has never been that simple.