*This piece originally appeared in Teen Vogue on August 3, 2018.
BY MATHEW SHURKA
NCLR Born Perfect Strategist
I was 21-years-old when I had my last conversion therapy session. It was 2009, and the secret ate away at me. I thought there was no one I could talk to about what I lived through, a part of my life when I was berated by people who told me that who I was attracted to was wrong, that there was something wrong with me. I felt isolated.
But the fact of the matter is that I wasn’t alone. Nearly 700,000 people in the United States have been through conversion therapy, with 350,000 of those who faced it during their adolescence. And plenty more will continue to go through it. According to a study from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, an estimated 20,000 LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13 and 17 will undergo conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before turning 18; about 57,000 youth will receive the treatment from a religious or spiritual advisor.
These numbers might be staggering, but it’s a wake-up call that this is continually happening to young people. And now, popular culture is putting a spotlight on the realities of conversion therapy and those who have lived through it.
Chloë Grace Moretz plays the lead role in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, directed by Desiree Akhavan and based on the book of the same name, written by Emily Danforth. In the film, Chloë’s character is sent to a Christian conversion camp after she’s caught kissing another girl. During her time there, she meets other teenagers from diverse backgrounds who have all been shipped away to “cure” their “same-sex attractions.” To better understand what happens at these camps and their effects, Chloë and Desiree consulted with conversion therapy survivors, including myself, before shooting the film in upstate New York.
And despite the fact that a number of major medical and mental health organizations— including the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, and American Psychiatric Association — have denounced conversion therapy as harmful and ineffective, many licensed therapists in the United States continue this so-called practice. Those who have been exposed to conversion therapy are likely to become depressed and are 8.9 times more likely to develop suicidal ideation. Clearly, conversion therapy puts people in danger.
Boy Erased, directed by Joel Edgerton, is another upcoming movie based on a memoir written by Garrard Conley. Slated to come out later this year, the film stars Lucas Hedges as a gay teen pressured by his family Baptist parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) to enter a conversion therapy program — or else be exiled by his family and church.
Garrard is a fellow conversion therapy survivor that I’ve known for the last six years. As we survivors have connected through various means, including the internet, I have had the incredible opportunity to grow and observe how other survivors overcame the traumatic experiences of conversion therapy. Garrard sharing his story of time spent in a conversion therapy program called Love in Action through a published book and now a major motion picture shows how survivors can use their own experiences to bring visibility to an issue that many people may not talk about but affects thousands.
The June 2014 launch of Born Perfect and the introduction of state legislation to outlaw conversion therapy to protect LGBTQ minors has helped survivors connect. There is an opportunity for them to tell their stories to the public in legislative hearings, with news outlets, on television shows, and now feature films. This movement is creating a space where people can shed light on organizations that tell young people there’s nothing wrong with who they love. And by doing so, hopefully eradicating harmful programs such as conversion therapy.
While The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased bring these stories to the big screen, groups and campaigns such as Born Perfect are also building momentum to ban these practices nationwide and protect our youth. To date, 20 states, the District of Columbia, and more than 100 cities have passed laws protecting LGBTQ youth from these dangerous practices. Now, more organizations than ever are working together to raise awareness and increase public education on conversion therapy.
As director Desiree would tell us, “Going to the cinema is your vote to the ballot. You’re voting on what stories get told.” What’s incredibly powerful about these films, is their potential to change hearts and minds, to show audiences what many LGBTQ people have and will continue to face. And while there’s plenty of more to be done, this shift and movement is pushing to get that work done.
If you are a survivor of conversion therapy, consider sharing your story and speaking out to protect others. Your email to us will be confidential. We will not share your story without your permission. Even if you do not want to share your story publicly, hearing about your experience can help us learn more and protect others from being harmed by these damaging “therapies.”