This year, two high-profile films will attempt to tackle the subject of conversion therapy, the dangerous and discredited practice of attempting to “cure” LGBTQ people of their identities. Also known as “reparative” or “ex-gay” therapy, these programs use various forms of psychological manipulation, and sometimes physical abuse, to confront “same-sex attractions,” or “SSA’s.”
In November, Lady Bird’s Lucas Hedges will star in Boy Erased as a pastor’s son who undergoes conversion therapy, based on a memoir by Garrard Conley. Desiree Akhvan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post (adapted from the novel by Emily Danforth), out now, follows a young gay woman named Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is sent away to a gay conversion camp in the mid-1990s, where the close friendships she forms with the other participants serve as a respite from the ongoing psychological torments inflicted upon her.
While conversion therapy may seem like an antiquated relic to those of us living in progressive enclaves, it still happens in the United States all the time — in camps like the one seen in Cameron Post, in religious institutions, and in one-on-one “counseling” sessions. Currently, conversion therapy of minors is banned in 14 states, and advocates are working to pass legislation across the country. Yet despite being rejected as harmful and ineffective by all leading medical and mental health experts, an estimated 20,000 LGBTQ youth will undergo conversion therapy in the U.S. before they turn 18.
We talked to eight survivors of conversion therapy about trauma, recovery, and seeing their own experiences reflected onscreen in Cameron Post. While everyone we spoke to underwent conversion therapy in Christian-affiliated programs, not all people who undergo conversion therapy are from religious backgrounds.
Some names have been changed.
Being brought up in a Christian fundamentalist family, I knew from the get-go that I was not going to be accepted. A big part of my conversion therapy happened within my own family walls.
The church played a big role, too. There was one really abusive act, where three ministers held me down for six and a half hours and were screaming in my face, trying to get the gayness out of me. I asked them, “Does this mean that I’m not going to be gay anymore?” They were like, “Yes.” I was like, “Wait a minute, so that means I’ll no longer be attracted to women?” They were like, “Yes. Well, there is this thing called gaydar …” — some parts of the church believe gaydar is the ability to see a demon in another person. Seriously. When I started questioning this probably about five and a half hours into this process, I realized their logic didn’t make sense. The person who has become my wife was in my life at that point, and I knew that what they were saying didn’t add up. I really did love her, so it was at that moment I stopped this process. I walked out the door. They screamed at me, “You’ve chosen Hell.” Then I left the church for about a decade.
It was quite the journey to watch this film. I actually was originally critical of the beginning because the three characters they focused in on were already skeptical of conversion therapy to begin with, and of Christianity, and that’s not my experience. I think the key thing is that I wanted to change a lot of the time because I had so much self-hate — I was very much participating in it. The church was my entire childhood community, which was everything for me, saying that I no longer was a beloved child of God. The type of mental brainwashing and the emotional abuse that comes with that is significant. When you actually really have been brought up to believe that this is the Word of God, for most of us, we pretty much will do anything to not lose that.
Larry, 48, Michigan, educator and writer
I told myself I would give it about five years, and see what the results would be. And it was easy for me to do because I kind of believed it. I wanted to believe it. Like in the movie, there’s this whole iceberg scene [about discovering the “causes” of one’s homosexuality] and the girl in the movie mocked it. But to me it was like, “Oh, my God. This is it. This is what’s going on, and I have all this stuff underneath.” I really bought into it.
The people that were participating with me is was what kept me in it, because we had such a bond. We were in this together. I had nothing outside of that. I was bullied so much growing up. I was so isolated. The people I met in conversion therapy were like a big band of brothers for me.
Another strange thing was there were some things that weren’t totally detrimental. Part of it is forgiving and learning to forgive your parents. Me and my dad had a really rough relationship. He didn’t have the skills to come to me, but I learned the skills through that to go to him, and try and get healing in a relationship. But it was all under the pretext that if I could heal this relationship, and if I could hang out and identify with straight guys, then that would get me over the hump.
But I can’t underscore this enough: The conversion camps were so toxic. They were so bad.
Watching this movie was really emotional for me. It made me sad that kids go through this, and the kids in the film were somewhat resisting all the way, and I didn’t. I was in my 20s, and I went through this voluntarily. It was sad for me that kids are forced to do that. That’s gotta be worse.
Thomas, 27, graduate student, Washington State
I grew up in a very conservative Baptist home. We were taught to love people, but to actually despise the LGBT population. There was really not much worse than being gay. It wasn’t until I was 22 that I actually ever uttered the words, I like men.
I came out to my church pastor because I was at a point where I had no resources. I said, “I know this is terrible. I know this is an awful sin, but I don’t know what to do with it and I need help. I’m an adult. I’ve prayed for years that God would either take this away from me or let me die and he hasn’t done either one, and so I need someone else’s help.” My pastor said, “You know, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s a terrible sin, but as long as you don’t act out on it and as long as you don’t tell anyone else, we can get through this.” It became apparent to me very quickly after coming out to him that his answer was way too simplistic. He didn’t have anything that was actually helping me, so I started seeking out other options.
The first time I met with [a conversion therapist], he basically interrogated me for 45 minutes. We ended up sitting on this couch in this back room of this strange house, and he starts firing off questions. He starts accusing me of things in my childhood and in my adolescence. “You didn’t have a good relationship with your father, did you? Your mother was too overbearing. You clearly started watching porn when you were a child. You have a distant relationship with your dad. You didn’t feel loved by him, did you? You feel distant from your peers.” This man didn’t know me from Adam, and all of a sudden he thinks he knows my whole life story, just because I told him that I happen to like dudes.
Each time that I went to this evening meeting I felt, much like Cameron in the film, not only is the program so structured that you feel like a criminal, but there’s a flattening of identity, a stereotyping where they tell you what your story is. Because you like the same sex your story has to be this. The counselors say, “This was my story, so this must be your story.” I would say, no. I don’t. I don’t feel that way.
I’m kind of a natural nerdy academic, just by nature. So, the day after I’d go to [conversion therapy] I’d bury myself in the periodical section of the library and read articles about homosexuality and the more of those articles that I read, the broader perspective that I got. It made me start to realize, much like Cameron does in the film when she’s sitting there with Rick [one of the counselors] and he kind of starts to break down. Cameron looks at him and says, “You people have no idea what you’re doing, do you?” That line, I think maybe more than any other line in the film, resonated with me so much because it made me think about the counselors I saw who weren’t actually engaging with me. They weren’t really thinking about my question and trying to answer it, not at all.
Brooke, 25, New Mexico, office manager
I didn’t start coming out until I was in college. I went to a Christian college, where I was actually outed by my roommate. So I was placed in conversion therapy by the university, and I had to undergo a lot of different interventions with different departments at the school. They did exorcisms with holy water, kind of baptizing to try and get the demon out. For one of my classes I had to write a paper talking about why I was going to Hell for being gay.
It was awful. I definitely questioned myself. I was in a relationship with my then girlfriend, now my wife, and I was even questioning our relationship. It definitely caused a lot of issues in all areas of my life.
I was doing a ministry working with kids and they actually shut that down because they couldn’t “have a pedophile running that ministry.” When they took that away it made everything worse because my purpose was gone, or what I thought was my purpose. It was just one thing after another and I definitely thought, They’re right and I’m wrong and what’s the point of any of this?
I graduated from that same college, but then I started going to this church that was incredibly affirming. There was a small group of LGBT Christians that were so helpful, and the church actually paid for me to see another therapist to talk about the conversion therapy I’d received at school. It was incredibly, incredibly helpful.
Micah, 29, Portland, works for a medical company
I come from a farming community in northern Idaho, and I grew up in a very conservative church. My grandpa built the actual building, my dad was the worship pastor, my uncle was my Sunday school teacher. The church and the Bible were very much everything in my life.
When I was in college in Portland I did a two-year conversion therapy program — it was like a Tuesday-night group thing where we all met up in a room together. My first year I was the youngest there by 20 or 30 years. It was all a bunch of grown men and this terrified little 18-year-old, who by the way, was there completely voluntarily. My parents weren’t forcing me to go. There was no kidnapping in the night or anything like that. I definitely believed it was something I needed to get over. I was using terms like “SSA” and not calling myself gay for a very long time.
In Cameron Post, her character is very much on the fringes of the church. She clearly wasn’t buying into what was being taught. She was just there because that’s what she was supposed to be doing. But I was the kid who went to Bible study every time and answered all the questions. I was that kid. I didn’t come out of conversion therapy and think, I’m done with Christianity.
One thing I learned from growing up in a farming community was everything is a real long, slow process. I’m in the moment of trying to figure out how to reconcile my faith and my sexuality. I guess now I identify as gay, and I definitely believe there’s no changing that, and even if there was I don’t know that you should. But I’m still dealing with the baggage and the traditions of where I grew up and what I do believe in, because I still identify as a Christian, though maybe not Evangelical. But I do identify with the Christian faith.
Samuel, 28, Washington State, park ranger
My parents were very religious. I went straight from the hospital to being baptized. From birth to about 22 I was pretty much full-time involved in the church. When I started realizing that I was gay, I officially came out and was still trying to change it at 15. From basically about 12 to 21 I was doing some variation of “praying the gay away.”
My last year in college I did one-on-one therapy — during that, I was encouraged to look at straight porn quite often, which was also strange to me. It was against the rules, but they were like, “It’s to make you straight. You’re the exception to the rule.” I had been raised to believe that porn is horrible and awful and terrible, but they were like, “No, we need you to watch straight porn, and specifically focus on the vagina and whatnot, and how it would feel to be in a vagina.” It made porn so awkward. Not that porn isn’t already awkward to some extent, but it’s getting analytical about it. Every week and they’d be like, “Did you look at porn? Did you enjoy it?”
It was kind of like two split personalities, where I was trying to live in two worlds. I had been raised to believe that being gay is horrible and terrible and awful and sinful, and you’re going to go to Hell. But also I was gay.
I tried to kill myself twice. But eventually, I got to this point where I was like, “I can’t change. If that’s a problem with God then that’s not a religion that I want to be a part of, and that’s not a god that I think would be a good god.” By then, pretty much 95 percent of my community base that I had grown up with didn’t want anything to do with me. They disowned me.
The gay part of my life is great. I’ve got a wide array of LGBTQ friends. We watch gay movies together and all that jazz. I’ve pretty much embraced it and am comfortable in it now.
Closer to the end of the film the characters talk about lying to get through the program. I remember being in therapy sessions and they’d be like, “How do you feel? What do you feel like your progress is?” I’m like, “Boobs are fantastic and I’m finding myself more mesmerized by the female form,” and having to really awkwardly lie and be like, “Yes, women are great and beautiful and I want to have sex with them.” It was always really, really strange. All I wanted to do was get out.
Jon, 57, California, teacher
I grew up in a very conservative, religious, fundamentalist family. Wanted to go into church work myself. Was active with a few guys in college. Then I kind of put all of that away and went into a marriage with a woman and was married for about 15 years and had two sons. And of course that marriage got dicey — I ended up in ex-gay therapy at the referral of a pastor at about the age of 37, 38. I did therapy for about seven and a half, eight years, off and on. And then I participated in and led reparative groups, faith-based ones, for I believe 10 or 11 years in different places. I realize now looking back, how emotionally and spiritually abusive it was. Watching Cameron Post brought that out — the conflict, the internal turmoil.
I raised my sons pretty much religious. When I came out to them they were 15 and 19, and they both had a hard time with that, even though I wasn’t dating guys at the time. By then I had stopped seeing myself as “unwanted same-sex attracted” and started seeing myself as more of what I would call “gay side B,” chaste and celibate. I went through a really messy divorce and spent years in family law court fighting for custody of my kids. It’s really awful.
Now they’re 26 and 21. They’ve basically cut off all communication with their dad. They have a hard time having a gay dad, and I don’t have a lot of contact with their mom. I’ve been out now for about almost three years dating guys, which is a big change in my life.
Yes, I led groups and I influenced other people in some ways. I drank the Kool-Aid, you know? I bought the story, hook, line, and sinker, and I believed it sincerely. But I think everyone on both sides is a victim, the leaders too. I don’t really feel guilty about it.
I do regret raising my sons so religious. I wish that weren’t so. The hardest thing for me has been my son, my older son, I believe he’s gay. A few years ago he met a girl in February, got engaged to her in April, they got married in August, split up in October and were divorced by the end of the year. It was like a horror story for me, a train wreck to watch. I still wish I would’ve been a dad, but I would’ve done that with a male partner and adopted and, you know, raised kids that way.
I’m in a Facebook community of 220 guys that are all like me. Who have come out of marriages, midlife, in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and are in the process of divorces, and are dating guys and and sowing their wild oats. You know, making up for lost time.
Julie, 32, writer and activist, D.C.
When I first started conversion therapy I was really angry. For the first six months I was sort of more like Jane Fonda [Sasha Lane’s character] in the film, going off and smoking cigarettes and rehearsing and trying in my little teenage way to be like rebellious. And then I think after about four or five months I realized that I had another year living with my parents, and the way to make peace was to find a way to be good. And to be good meant not to be gay.
I end up really getting drawn into it and decided that I was gonna fully give my life to Jesus and this process. My family pulled me out of my public school and put me in a small Christian school with like 17 students. And I was really involved with this organization, this ex-gay organization. I’d go to weekly pastoral counseling meetings. Weekly support group. Weekly healing prayer group. I was really involved with that organization for about eight years. They also had me start giving my ex-gay testimony when I was 17. I did it all throughout college. I would say, I’m choosing Jesus over my sexuality and I have hope that God is going to continue to transform me.
I think after three or four years I realized that I hadn’t changed and that it was all pretty questionable, but it was also little bit like a cult in the sense that I felt like I couldn’t leave. I didn’t know where I would go. I didn’t know who I would be. I didn’t know where I’d find intimacy and community. And so I stayed for a long time trying to figure out where to go from there.
For a while I identified as a gay Christian, but I was still in such conservative circles that I sort of tried to do this thing that’s gaining some traction publicly where you acknowledge that you’re gay and Christian but you’re committed to lifelong celibacy and singleness. I was actually the first openly gay person hired by a Christian college, to sort of work with LGBT students there. It was sort of ideal for them because they could hire a gay person but you could still sign their statement of faith and community covenants. But as I was meeting with these students, I felt like these LGBT young people were struggling so much — they were so vulnerable and they were hurting. The people that were really in power, the decision makers, the funders, just saw them as a problem and wanted to find a way to deal with the problem without really listening to them or meeting their needs. So I sort of publicly came out and said, “You know I actually believe that same-sex relationships are good and beautiful. And I see God in the love and care and tenderness that these couples show for one another. And I can’t sort of promote any sort of system that is gonna make them feel isolated and alienated and burdened, when they already feel like minorities.”
I obviously couldn’t work at that college anymore. So now I just write and speak and I live in D.C. I’m actually engaged. I’m getting married next month to an amazing woman. We have an incredible community of people that love us and support us and celebrate us. I still identify as a Christian and still love Jesus and go to church and feel very much called to minister to people. And I feel like God delights in me as a lesbian.
But how much did I lose, spending all my 20s in conversion therapy?