I want to say right off the bat, I have not seen the movie. I have only seen the trailer, read a lot of responses, and watched interviews about the movie. I live in Orlando and at the time of this writing, it hasn’t been released here yet. However, I have seen enough responses to determine that ex-gay conversion ministries still don’t understand how their beliefs fuel the actual real-world abuse depicted in the movie.
Anne Paulk, director of Restored Hope Network (RHN) is quite upset about the movie. She and her supporters are convinced the movie is about them and a Hollywood plot to hurt people who are “seeking help.” They have been on a Facebook crusade against former Exodus leaders who are now out and/orLGBT+ affirming. She has posted comments that are now deleted on their profilestrying to put them on the defensive. Regarding former Exodus and Love In Action (Exodus Member Ministry) John Smid, shewrites: (emphasis mine):
Concerning Boy Erased, I have seen claims via the movie mentioned that on your watch teens were screamed at, yelled at, a crowd of people takes turns beating a boy with Bibles, submerging him in water???? Seriously?!
That is beyond the pale and if those things were true at Love in Action, you deserved lawsuits and to be prosecuted for such behavior. I have NEVER heard of those things happening in any Exodus ministry and am appalled that if they did not happen that you do not refute them even as a gay man now. Truth matters. Did they happen or did they not happen? It is not good to hide behind GLBT ideology that you are now in favor of—the truth is what matters. You were the director of Love in Action at the time of this fictionalized setting. So you are responsible.
Notice the assignment of responsibility. With regard to the intent of the film Anne writes (emphasis mine):
… the intent if the movie is to hurt the opportunity for those with unwanted same-sex attraction to have any help to leave homosexuality, including kind pastoral help and support groups.
Separately, John Smid writes on the Grace Rivers Blog:
Boy Erased is a movie, a theatrical production of a book written by Garrard Conley. The messages in the movie reflect the tragic situations that LGBTQ people have suffered in the name of religion. They convey the trauma and confusion that families go through when they discover they have a gay son and bring in their church authority for help. The movie tells the painful story that many people relate to, which is reflected by the many, many tears that are shed by people in the audiences as they see the film.
Later in the same post, John humbly shares his responsibility, regret, and remorse. While I haven’t seen the movie, the theme of “at least we are not like that” keeps coming up with those who are involved in RHN or were a part of Exodus International. I understand their defensiveness because I used to live under the delusions that we didn’t deserve that type of scrutiny or accountability.. The ex-gay/conversion ministry perspective on this is myopic at best, or a harmful defense mechanism that reinforces denial that their stigmatized beliefs about LGBT+ people are the exact same beliefs that fuel the abusive behavior depicted in the movie. I would hope that instead of defensiveness that the few folks who still believe in all of that would see this as an opportunity for self-reflection and accountability.
The Exodus ministry I was once a part of, Living Hope in ArlingtonTexas, in terms of approach wasn’t like what I have seen so far in the movie. I don’t know what it is like today but in 1992 it wasn’t physically abusive or publicly shaming. Of course, I believe now that they/we inculcated toxic theology that teaches it is ok to stigmatize LGBT+ people, but they didn’t force-feed it to me. Also, years later as the Exodus Vice President we did everything we could to remove abusive and shaming ministries from our networks. In my role at ExodusInternational during the time that this film was set in, if they truly did all that was involved in the movie in real life, Love In Action would have been immediately removed from the Exodus Network.
That said, Love In Action was incredibly strident and controlling of those that went into their program. Its reputation in the network was revered as one of the first ministries but also one of the most legalistic with some strange rules.
However, one of the weaknesses I saw then and now is that ministry networks like Exodus International was, and the Restored Hope Network is, tend to think they are the only game in town. Plus, the leadership at the top is deeply invested in covering up “fires” or “indiscretions” of what would be considered outlier ministries in their orbit. They suffer from living onMyopia Mountain where they think they are the center of the universe regarding ex-gaydom and don’t acknowledge the fringe within their own realm. They never speak to or against the much broader abusive ex-gay/conversion efforts beyond their reach because it is too uncomfortable; too close to home.
As with any work of fiction “based on a true story” liberties are taken to obviously incorporate the much broader context of what happens to LGBT+ people at the hands of religious zealots. In my role, at Exodus, I did have to call the police on non-Exodus ministries and reportExodus therapists to state licensing boards after removing them from the network. In my early ex-gay ministry participant years, I was abused by a ministry in Dallas that never ever joined Exodus. Another non-Exodus Therapist in Dallas was convicted of sexual assault on his clients after years of manipulating them with horrendous “aversion therapy.” This horrible man would have the men in his “therapy group” pop their wrists with rubber bands if they had a “same-sex struggle” thought or pop an ammonia stick into their nostril at the point of orgasm if they were fantasizing about men.
He was a horrible man. I was all too willing to share what I knew with the authorities. What hurt the worst about this though, is the realization that the underlying current that drove this man to do those horrible things was the stigmatized theology against LGBT+ people. The same theology I and the rest of Exodus believed in.
The uncomfortable truth that ex-gay/conversion ministries should face but won’t, is that the “kind pastoral care” is a different approach based on the same cultural attitude that allows people to think it is ok to beat teens with Bibles and pop ammonia sticks up people’s nostrils. Or, even in not so distant decades ago LGBT+ people thinking they needed to be in electro-shock-treatment because the DSM classified us as mentally ill.
Perhaps current ex-gay conversion ministries like RHN should learn to be less like a modern-day Pharisee (religious hypocrite) and more like the person who is fully aware of the wrongs they have committed; that they take account of while they may not be physically assaulting people directly, their beliefs do.