Tuesday 25 February 2020

Sects Education #4: Straight is Great

But I'm a Cheerleader (1999)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

(Given that this is about gay conversion therapy movies, it's going to deal with some bad stuff. Discretion is as usual advised. Spoilers abound, as ever.

On a less serious note, as this is the last of my Sects Education pieces, I only think it's appropriate to mention that the Sects Education title came from my pal Jon Dear, who rode in as the Dad Joke Cavalry and saved me when I was looking for something sectsually explicit for a title. Ta, Jon.

This post is Cult Cinema #26.)

The sort of evangelicalism that gave us the genesis of apologetics ministry grew out of a feeling of somehow losing control, that since the end of the 19th century, the world was no longer in the shape of the white Christian. If a certain category of Christian – a technocratic, economically and socially privileged category of Christian – did not feel that control was lost, it would not be so desperate to assert control. Apologetics ministry exists because science and history, the external realms of facts, are not doing what the evangelicals want them to, and must be domesticated.

The evangelical fixation on sexuality and the body exists also because it speaks to the same sort of lack of control, changes in the circumstances of the world that require changes in kind in the way that you construct your own world. The threat is existential, and I think that a lot of people who try to argue the point with evangelicals fail to see this: how on earth does gay people getting married threaten you? How does it threaten the family? It doesn't invalidate your marriage or change your family, does it?

But of course, that's not the nature of the threat. The threat is simply that now we're living in a world where gay people can get married. It's less really that it might be wrong, it's that it might be right, and that means that what we thought was right and what was wrong might be fluid. And if those things are fluid, maybe we are fluid too? For many people, that realisation is invigorating, liberating even. But for the evangelical, it's terrifying, for precisely the same reason that apologetics ministry exists: that mechanistic, literalist view of the world shared so profoundly and so ironically by Richard Dawkins and his acolytes.

There's a sense that there's an existential clock ticking, and that it needs to be turned back, even if there was never actually a time to turn the clock back to. It's the same mindset that makes slogans like Make America Great Again and Take Back Control so compelling; neither of them really mean anything, but that sense of false nostalgia is powerful enough to fuel mass movements who firmly believe in the enterprise of clock-rewinding, and since the clock is imaginary, it can be rewound to an imaginary time.

Among the most insidious, even evil examples of this wish to rewind is the very existence of gay conversion therapy. It's a MAGA of the heart, an attempt to rewind the essence of a person to a state of imagined grace. Never mind that there is nothing to go back to. That's not the point. They really want there to be.
The horrors of gay conversion camps – where teenagers are sent away for months at a time and imprisoned in remote places and psychologically tortured until they can act straight – have become well known. Documentaries abound; news pieces on the Internet and the confessional accounts of survivors – and I mean literal survivors, for the suicide rate of those who go through this process is shocking – are simply the matter of a quick Google. But these camps have been a thing for a very long time, and both of the movies I'm looking at that deal with them are set back in the 1990s. Both are directed by queer women, too, which I'm fairly certain is a first for me. 

Of course, Jamie Babbit's film But I'm a Cheerleader was actually made in the 1990s, and was contemporary when it was filmed. It has a sort of John Waters feel to it, a sense that it's unglued from time, and it's oddly retro. Even though its subject matter is absolutely current for its time and place, its bubblegum aesthetic and soundtrack divided between classic girl rock and roll and indiepop separates it from reality. I think this is to the good. It allows But I'm a Cheerleader to ruthlessly lampoon the horrors of conversion therapy, sugar-coating its venom with a camp frosting.

Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is a good-hearted but not tremendously bright 17-year-old who loves being a cheerleader, and it comes as a shock to her when her pious mom and pop (Mink Stole; indie comedy legend Bud Cort) and supposed friends (including a young Michelle Williams – later on we get blink-and-you'll-miss'em appearances from Julie Delpy and Ione Skye) stage an intervention. Enter Mike (intersectional problem in human form RuPaul, out of drag), the “ex-gay” counsellor for True Directions, a boot camp that claims to “cure” young people of their homosexual tendencies. It has never occurred to Megan that she might be gay: just because she likes tofu, has pictures of swimsuit babes in her locker, has a Georgia O'Keeffe flower pillow, listens to Melissa Etheridge, and fantasises about her teammates' bums and boobs while snogging her quarterback boyfriend (whose technique could however frankly turn any woman from the path of heterosexuality), it doesn't mean she's cheering for the other side, right?
The scene in the boot camp where Megan realises with a sort of cross-eyed intensity that all these things are – although circumstantial – signs that she is indeed cheering for that other side is very funny. But it's also very true, and in her drooling snotty tears, it's sort of heartbreaking too. For many of us who aren't straight, it's not so much about the realisation that we're queer, it's the realisation that straight, cisgender people exist (and we aren't them). What I mean is, these feelings are natural to us; in my case I just assumed that most boys occasionally thought of themselves as something other than a boy, and occasionally fancied men. I mean, who didn't, right?

Quite a lot of people, it turned out. And Megan, too, protests that everyone has these feelings, don't they? It hasn't occurred to her that they might not. Because it's natural to her. But at True Directions, that's just denial. And True Directions is all about denial.
Mike: Denial is a normal part of the healing process that we'll explore... at True Directions.
True Directions is like a prison, in that you don't get to choose when you leave, but it's also like a prison in that it's probably the best venue conceivable to train you to be exactly the sort of person that they don't want you to be. Everything is weirdly camp, colour coded in baby blues and pinks, and the uniforms they give the kids are even a bit fetishy. They give everyone little tasers so that if they have unnatural thoughts they can shock themselves, and sort of aversion-therapy themselves out of their queerness, but it doesn't work, and you get goth Sinead (Katherine Towne) just shocking herself over and over in bed as she gazes over at Graham, who she's crushing on, and you realise the association is going the opposite way to how it's intended and she's training herself to be hot for electric shocks.

Megan, meanwhile, discovers who she is largely through getting to know camp rebel Graham (Clea Duvall), with whom she initially clashes, and then falls in love.
Even Mike is not immune and his whole “ex” status is profoundly challenged by the not-even-closeted groundsman, Rock (Eddie Cibrian). Rock is the son of True Directions' manager, Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty) a terrifying, abusive avatar of camp femininity. Mary Brown is also, obviously, locked tightly in her closet. A lovely visual gag hidden in the logo of True Directions underlines the “protesting way too much” theme: the slogan, “Straight is Great”, next to an arrow that really isn't.

There's an escape, facilitated by a pair of older gay guys, Lloyd and Larry (Wesley Mann and Richard Mill) whose calling is to be mentors for the young queers – “the underground homo railroad,” as Megan puts it. They give the kids a place to stay and send paper aeroplane flyers over the fence for the kids to find.

Larry and Lloyd are comically cuddly, and the kids are a variety of comedy stereotypes, and Mike's confusion is played for laughs, and Megan is a loveable dimwit with a heart of gold, and Mary Brown is an irredeemable comic monster, and the whole thing fizzes along and is done in like an hour and seventeen minutes, and it's charming and kooky and funny and camp and its genius is that at no point does it hide the abuse done to these kids.

They are told to hate themselves, told to conform to gender roles – one girl, Jan (Katrina Philips) is actually straight, but she's sort of tomboyish and no one believes she's not a dyke, which is how she ended up here, and it’s killing her. Andre (Douglas Spain) can’t be masculine, no matter how hard he tries. Joel (Joel Michaely) wants so much to be the good Jewish boy his parents want him to be.

The camp encourages the kids to try to conform to traditional gender roles – and Ok, that’s played for laughs, but it’s all about making the girls do cooking and cleaning, and getting the guys chopping wood and playing sports, and more than that to find reasons why they might be turned gay, their “root”.
This – a version of which we’ll see in The Miseducation of Cameron Post as well – is one of the central planks of ex-gay therapy. The idea is, just like scientific creationism or archaeology using the Bible as a geographical manual, based upon principles that the wider academic realm has abandoned a long time ago. Yes, psychology as a body once considered homosexuality to be a psychiatric illness, but largely moved on from that nearly fifty years ago. They haven’t let it go. Since it is an illness, therefore it must have had some root cause that set it off, some event or trauma or circumstance that harmed the child and made them, well, gay. In But I’m a Cheerleader, it’s coded as funny, but it's bitterly so. Megan says something like, “Well Dad was out of work for that year and Mom supported us, and I suppose that was different,” and Mary Brown seizes on it and turns it into a narrative of thwarted gender roles and emasculation, and ignores everyone when they say, hang on, it wasn't like that, because it's not about their stories at all, it's about a version that fits.

And it fits the turning the clock back metaphor. Because if you find a reason in a life story, no matter how tenuous, for someone to be the way they currently are, that means there was a time that they weren't that way. It invalidates their current self, their sexuality, as a disease.

Eventually, the kids will graduate to Simulated Sexual Lifestyle, and OK, it's dressed up as absurd and silly, but it's also still gross and abusive, and it works in the film because at no point is the horrific nature of what Mary Brown makes these kids do – dressing them up in ridiculous Adam and Eve costumes and forcing them to simulate sex acts with each other – hidden. It's sexual abuse.
Joel: What about foreplay?
Mary: No! Foreplay is for sissies! Real men go in, unload and pull out!
But I'm a Cheerleader doesn't hold back on a frankly brutal critique of this kind of performative straightness, and, mischievously, suggests through its visuals, that the sort of straightness Mary Brown espouses is itself a fetish. 
I wanted to make the world of the movie very artificial and polyester. I think it’s a great comment on the artificiality of gender identity. – Jamie Babbit, “But She's Serious”, The Advocate, 4th July 2000
Mike, with his “Straight is great!” T-shirt, is most definitely protesting too much.

Iin family therapy, the kids have to reconnect with their parents in a way precisely calculated to make sure that they understand that their parents do not love them. They might think they do, might even kid themselves that they have packed their kids off to this dayglo plastic hell out of love, but again their love is all too conditional.

If you're the sort of straight who is heavily conditioned to believe that homosexuality is an illness and you're so stunted in human empathy that you're not prepared to listen to your own child's cries for understanding, maybe you get the “sincerely misguided” pass, but there's still something wrong with you.
Now, But I'm a Cheerleader secularises the camp experience, comparing it to Al-Anon-style rehab – Megan's mum calls it “Homosexuals Anonymous” and Mary even makes mention of thanking “your Higher Power”. But make no mistake, this is an evangelical phenomenon, and a lot of this distortion of the meaning of love comes down to the cornerstone of evangelical theology. I'm talking about the concept of penal substitutionary atonement.

If you don't run in church circles, you may not know what that is. And a bit of context is useful here. Evangelicalism goes back only a few hundred years, and the conservative evangelicalism that is so influential in the USA today grew out of the American Fundamentalist movement. And Fundamentalism is in fact no older than groups like the Jehovah's Witness and the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. If you've had contact with conservative evangelicals, you might be surprised to  know that there are other sorts of Christian, and part of this is down to the habit that conservative evangelicals have of refusing to recognise those other sorts as even Christian. In fact, they have idiosyncratic criteria for what makes a Christian, so historically for example they've had more time for Seventh Day Adventists than they have Catholics or Anglicans and Episcopalians. Which fact, ironically, is another point in the argument that conservative evangelicalism is in fact a sect just like the Jehovah's Witness, LDS or Christian Scientists, albeit one that has metastasised into the mainstream.

Conservative evangelicalism, like most other Christian forms, believes that the human race is irreparably damaged by the Fall, that is, the loss of human innocence caused by the appearance of sin, the first example of this being Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge (and in the most conservative versions of evangelicalism, this has to be a literal, historical event, and we get back to that Answers in Genesis-style apologetics ministry). Catholics call this Original Sin. That, at least, is boilerplate Christianity.

Like many other protestants (particularly the variety we call Calvinists), evangelicals believe that as inherently sinful, the human race therefore is, without the Grace of God, condemned to an eternity of torment in the afterlife. God therefore, evangelicals believe, incarnated His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus’s death on the Cross is defined in this version of Christianity as Jesus taking the sentence for the sins of the human race on his own back, and accepting the punishment due to the human race.

As the Doctrinal Basis of UCCF1, which largely controls university Christian Unions and is the UK's most hardline conservative evangelical organisation, puts it:
d. Since the fall, the whole of humankind is sinful and guilty, so that everyone is subject to God's wrath and condemnation.
e. The Lord Jesus Christ, God's incarnate Son, is fully God; he was born of a virgin; his humanity is real and sinless; he died on the cross, was raised bodily from death and is now reigning over heaven and earth.
f. Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God.
g. Those who believe in Christ are pardoned all their sins and accepted in God's sight only because of the righteousness of Christ credited to them; this justification is God's act of undeserved mercy, received solely by trust in him and not by their own efforts.
If you therefore believe with your heart in Jesus, and declare publicly that you are a Christian, you are assured of eternal Salvation, a forever-time of bliss in Heaven. The problems with this are manifold.

Even before we get into what this means for the simple concept of love, you can see the shortcomings of this in the simple fact that it's quite possible to go to a conservative evangelical church for literally weeks – and listen, I'm not exaggerating here, I lived this for sixteen years – and hear about Jesus's death as a central plank of the Gospel without once mentioning that in Christian belief He is also supposed to have come back from the dead. Even if you take the Resurrection entirely literally (and let's quote the late Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who said quite correctly that the Resurrection was “not just a conjuring trick with bones” because however you think of it, it's conceptually a lot more than just someone not being dead anymore), the simple fact is that any idiot can die, but coming back from being tortured to death, there's the trick. And in fact for two thousand years, the majority of historical Christians have considered this the whole point. If the story is all death and no resurrection, what does that say about the way these beliefs are structured?
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3v16)
I wrote that from memory. I must have heard it pretty much every day of my early 20s, and it’s at the centre of the evangelical take on the Christian faith – and all the problems with it. Because first, the evangelical take heavily favours the second half of that sentence. It's conditional. This version of God loves the world enough to sacrifice His Son, but not enough for it to matter unless they love Him back. That's not sacrificial love, that's passive aggression on an eschatological scale. It is, as Christian writer Steve Chalke memorably and controversially put it in 2004, “cosmic child abuse”. But the crux of this is that God still loves us all, even while he consigns us to Hell, and the assumption is that eternal torment is somehow “tough love” manifested.

Whether you define Hell as conscious misery and pain, infinitely applied, or simple annihilation, it descends to this: that the evangelical God, who presumably, is omnipotent and capable of all empathy, loves us enough to murder us if we turn our backs on Him and will withdraw His Grace from a being who shares in His Divine Substance (the technical term is homoousios) for the sake of what appears to be the making of a point.

The usual evangelical response to this argument is to call it out as arrogant: who is an imperfect, Fallen human to make judgements on the moral character of God, or to pretend to understand His eternal and perfect design? OK, fine. It's the big “gotcha” here. But if, as evangelical theology itself attests, all the good in the human spirit is a sign of those residual traces of God's Grace that allow us all to have the chance to become regenerate followers of Christ, and if our ideas of love come – and they do – from the better part of 1700 years where Christianity in some form or other was the dominant moral narrative for white people, then it follows that God is expecting the human race to be better than He is.

This is the point in the argument, in my experience, where evangelical Christians tend to get angry and a bit personal. And then they shout at you. 

This theological discussion matters here because it is significant in terms of the way that conservative evangelicals are encouraged to love their children. God, in evangelical discourse, is the perfect Father, the example of parenthood we should follow. But what sort of example is the evangelical God? He's a monster, by the standards He Himself is supposed to have imposed on us. This God is the one who will express love by damning His Only Begotten Son to make a point. It should come as no surprise that for the sake of a doctrinal point, evangelicals would send their children off to be tortured, and that the children might even willingly go to these places to be tortured – because they do – because love is not just subordinate to doctrine, it is confused with it.

To say “I love you in spite of what and who you are” which is the stance of the evangelical God, is just a euphemism for “I don't really love you,” and I can tell you right now, hearing it from a parent destroys you.
And so, going back to the movies (it's been a while, but we were talking about movies, remember), it makes perfect sense that poor, lovely, sweet-natured, slightly dim Megan, who spends But I'm a Cheerleader seeking her moral compass and eventually finding it in love, is abandoned forever by her evangelical parents, who, most abusively of all, put it on her by telling her that by accepting her sexuality, she is cutting herself off from them.

But because But I'm a Cheerleader is a comedy with a happy ending, Megan has Larry and Lloyd to fall back on, and she, Graham and their friends ride off into the distance on the back of a pick-up truck with Larry at the wheel.
The protagonist escaping a gay conversion camp and riding off on the back of a pick-up with her friends is, incidentally, how Desiree Akhavan’s Sundance-winning film The Miseducation of Cameron Post ends, and a girl packed off to conversion camp in 1993 is how it begins. And some of the things that happen in the middle are parallel. But Cameron Post (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz)’s experience is a much more solemn affair.

It is played straight, absolutely straight, no pun intended, and unlike True Directions in But I’m a Cheerleader, the camp in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which is called God’s Promise, is entirely, explicitly evangelical.

Just as in But I'm a Cheerleader, the camp operates on a good cop/bad cop principle. Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr), the youth worker and worship leader, is “ex-gay”, and keen to share how he's been healed by the Love of God. He is fresh-faced, and likeable, and kind. The manager of the camp is Rick's sister, psychiatrist Dr Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle, thousands of miles away from being the screen's best-ever Elizabeth Bennet). We learn that Dr Marsh set up this place after having cured Rick of his homosexuality by her own method.
Dr Marsh is a terrible person, that particular sort of cold fish who confuses being professional with being a bully.
Adam: I guess it's like having your own Disney villain, only this one won't let you jerk off.
She criticises the young people for having names that aren't distinct enough in gender (Cameron in particular is singled out for this). She tells them that homosexuality doesn't exist, that “same-sex attraction” is their curable disease. “Would you let drug addicts throw parades for themselves?” she says. Her science is wrong and outdated, of course. Homosexuality ceased to be listed as a psychiatric illness in the DSM in 1973. Dr Marsh is two decades out of date, more in fact, since the DSM only reflects where the majority of recognised medical opinion rests, and is necessarily always a little behind the cutting edge.

Relying on obsolete science doesn't mean that Dr Marsh's medical degree is false. It's important to remember that scientists and physicians are still fallible, and they can still be incompetent and even malicious.

The thing with a qualified person is that you still have to be able to trust them. Notwithstanding celebrity Dungeon Master Michael Gove's assertion that we've had enough of experts, in fact people love experts, absolutely adore them, as long as they trust them first. Consider the case of Andrew Wakefield, the former gastroenterologist who could arguably be said to have caused more deaths by negligence than any other single physician after having kicked off the worldwide revival of measles and several other childhood ailments hitherto thought eradicated with a 1998 paper in the Lancet that erroneously linked the MMR vaccine with autism. He was a doctor! I mean, OK, he was struck off after he was found to have had an agenda, fabricated central parts of his research and to have done other parts incompetently, but he was a bona fide qualified physician at the time. And he published in The Lancet, and it might have been retracted and several more papers may have been written discrediting it, but it's there in print. It was published. Someone peer-reviewed it.
The antivaxxers still pay his way for him. They still call him Dr Wakefield (although he's smart enough not to call himself that, because impersonating a doctor of medicine is a serious charge). In all fairness, he probably is an expert in his own branch of pseudoscience, because he's been doing it for more than 20 years, but back in the day, he was a gastroenterologist. He was a doctor who specialised in guts. I know doctors. Good ones. And one thing that good doctors do is that they are super-cautious about making pronouncements outside of their specialisations. It doesn't matter, though, if Wakefield knew nothing about autism, he was a doctor. He was an expert. He got his findings published in a peer-reviewed journal. And for an entire category of mostly white middle-class people who'd rather see their children die in agony than be neurodivergent, it doesn't matter that he's the David Icke of the medical realm, because he's their expert.

And gay conversion therapy is not unlike the antivax (or, as some of its proponents prefer ,“medical autonomy”) movement anyway, in that you have parents who would rather their children were brainwashed, psychologically tortured and driven to the point of suicide rather than be gay.

You take the expertise you want; you find an expert and you decide you trust them, and if their expertise is adjacent, it's probably good enough. The film's Dr Marsh is an expert, and she’s a psychiatrist, and as much as it can be said to have worked, it worked on Rick and it apparently works enough for God’s Promise to be sustainable.
In True Directions, the kids have a “root”; here in God’s Promise, they encourage the young people to draw a picture of an iceberg and write on the bits under the sea the things that they think made them gay. Cue a heart-rending montage where we see each kid’s supposed iceberg moments: Erin (Emily Skeggs) liked watching football with her dad; Mark (Owen Campbell) never really connected with his dad and had a crush on his soccer coach; Adam (Forrest Goodluck) is made to blame his relationship with his mum and his indigenous religion – he’s two-spirit, but his dad got into politics and went hard for evangelicalism; Helen (Melanie Ehrlich) thinks of that one time someone slapped her butt in ninth grade, and the girl she loved in the church choir; but on the other hand, right at the end of the montage we see Jane (Sasha Lane) being taught how to skin up a joint as a little child by her hippy parents.

Some of these things are wholesome, some are sad, and that last one is troubling, but none of them have anything to do with the reason why someone might be gay. But it doesn’t matter. All of these things are repurposed as part of the iceberg of which “same-sex attraction” is the tip. Whatever real meaning these stories have is stripped away. Now, these stories, these histories, are part of the story that God’s Promise says it’s part of.

I remember being a new Christian, and how the way I told my life story changed – and I changed it willingly, just as willingly as the kids in the movie, some of whom are here because they want to be – so that it became part of the underlying subtext of a New Life, and was turned to the purpose of my testimony.
“Testimony” is the name that is given in these circles to a person's story, but it's more than that. It’s the story you tell for a reason, a story with purpose. You tell it to show people what God means to you, in the hope that they will make that decision – whether it’s to give their life to Jesus, sign up to missionary work, or abandon their sinful desires – too. Reverend Rick’s testimony is told enough that the kids can laugh about it in private: he was at a gay bar, and some friends from church, guys, were driving past, and saw his car outside, and came in to get him, and he felt that was God speaking to him. And it’s specifically a testimony; it’s the sort of story that’s told in exactly the way that suggests that it’s been told before, word for word, and will be told again, a well-worn story with its corners smoothed down to rounds by frequent handling, rehearsed and revised, and with its difficult parts effaced. How did those guys know it was Rick’s car? Why were they driving past the gay bar? Did they know he was there all along? Had they suspected he was gay? We’ll never know, but it doesn’t matter. That story isn’t his anymore. Not really.

The kids are broken down. They are made to doubt themselves. Adam’s hair falls in his eyes, and eventually Dr Marsh sits him down and shaves it off, because he cannot be allowed to have anything about himself he likes. Cameron begins to wonder if she didn’t force herself on her best friend back home – and of course we see that this is not the case, and while yes, Cameron initiated their affair, she pauses in mid-lovemaking, and she says, “Tell me when to stop,” because whatever it was she did, she did with her lover’s consent. But that’s not a part of the narrative that Dr Marsh can countenance, because it is healthy, and Cameron’s orientation cannot be healthy.

We see the kids taught to rat each other out, to be divided. When Cameron arrives, she’s got a tape of Last Splash, which is the one Breeders album everyone had – I had it (still do, in fact, and it's amazing) and it was with a jolt that I realised that I am the same age as Cameron Post – and Reverend Rick confiscates it, and says something like “I can’t see the Breeders praising God” and takes everyone to a Christian rock gig instead. And then later on, they’re out shopping (except of course they don’t get to hold the money), and Cameron sees a copy of that Breeders album and tries to steal it, only Erin sees her and says she’s got to rat her out, and Mark, who is a beautiful young man with a warm, accepting heart, comes along and skilfully defuses the situation, convincing Erin in impeccably Christian terms that Cameron had a one-time lapse and he praises Erin for caring enough for Cameron to call her out and say she’ll tell and they embrace, and Cameron thanks Mark, because he’s got wisdom and heart enough for all of them, except he’s in a gay conversion camp and he’s going to be have all that is good in him dashed against the rocks like the Psalmist wishes for the children of Babylon (Psalm 137v9), because that’s what these places do. They suck the life out of these kids. They brainwash them.
Brainwashing is the operative word here. The isolation of these kids, the break down of personal boundaries and of the self, and the repurposing of stories to the agenda of the “therapy”, and the subjugation of personal relationships to doctrine are all tactics that wouldn’t be out of place in Rev. Moon’s indoctrination camps. These children are indoctrinated to hate their sexuality. They are being made to hate their selves.

But they make friendships. Cameron bonds with Jane and Adam, who, like her, aren’t sold on this place. Cameron shares a room with Erin and one night they have sex, because they’re both lonely and isolated and horny, and Cameron tries to kiss Erin, and Erin won’t have it, because she’s guilty, because she feels terrible already, because she came here to not be gay.

Mark’s breakdown at the end of the film is the event that drives Cameron and her friends to make a run for it. Mark has been abandoned by his father, who does not love him more than doctrine, and the boy tearfully reads the “thorn in the flesh” passage (Second Corinthians 12v7-10): “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” And he loses it in front of everyone and all Dr Marsh sees fit to do is to literally stand on him and tell him she won’t get off until he gets a grip.
And he does, and the following morning, Cameron finds blood in the bathroom, and they’re all told Mark had an “accident” – and later Rick confesses that Mark did something terrible and possibly final to himself, although he is currently still alive and in hospital, and Cameron challenges Rick, and realises, even as she’s saying it, that neither he nor his sister have a clue what they’re doing, and Mark, still traumatised by what has been done to poor Mark, freely admits he cannot answer. But it was going to happen. LGBTQ youth experience much higher suicide rates than straight kids anyway; according to The Trevor Project, American kids forced to convert are eight times as likely to attempt to take their own lives.

When Cameron, Jane and Adam make their plan and run away, they say goodbye to Rick, without really saying what they’re doing, and Rick, who sees them having breakfast and clearly knows exactly what's going on, sits there, and eats his cereal, and silently lets them go, because he is at least kind. Because he is sincere. In But I’m a Cheerleader, the kids escape on the back of that pick-up to a new home with Lloyd and Larry, and a new community. But Cameron and her friends don’t have that support. They are homeless. They have nowhere to go. They're on a pickup with a Clinton sticker on it, so at least they've been picked up by a nice liberal who isn't going to take them back, but they're homeless. And this is the fate of a depressingly large number of conversion therapy survivors, who, abandoned by the people who are supposed to love them, are failed, and discarded. It’s not the happy ending it appears to be.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a film that approaches its subject with a great deal of empathy. Everyone in this film feels like a real person, whether they’re kids who wanted to be cured, kids who are only going through the programme so they can come out the other side, and the leaders, too. Rick is sure of the rightness of his calling – until he faces a situation that he cannot answer. Dr Marsh is a stone-faced brute. Evangelicalism has more than its share of those.
Perhaps more kids go willingly to camps like God’s Promise in the real world than they do in Akhavan’s film, but nonetheless, it feels like a film that is true. It feels like this is real. That it could have happened to people of my own age, at the same time that I had the life-changing conversion experience that put me square in the evangelical world but which also saved my life. I was lucky. I was an ocean away. But still. This is a world I recognise.

But now, this is my heresy, the one I’ve come to from 25 years of being a practising Christian, in evangelical, episcopal, and queer-friendly progressive expressions of the faith: I believe that the paradox of the Christian faith is that if you’re a Christian and you don’t love each other more than Jesus, you don’t love Jesus at all, because God is in the people around you, and in the people you love, and in those relationships. If your doctrine supersedes love, your doctrine is faulty. If your Christianity stands above your heart for the humanity of the people around you, if it erases your empathy and stunts your altruism, it is no Christianity at all.
Gay conversion camps are a terrible thing, a crime against humanity, and they are more terrible in the paradox they embody: they claim to be about affirming the integrity of God’s creation, but their every point is about denying what they should be recognising as the creation of God.

If the people running these things believe in God, then surely by denying the natural desires of human beings, they are suggesting that God has made people wrong.

In fact, the only theological option that works with this sort of evangelical belief is that out of these three propositions, you can only have two: God is all-powerful; God is perfectly competent and all-knowing; God is good. So if the evangelical God is omnipotent and good, he can't be 100% competent; if He is entirely competent and good, He can't be all-powerful; if He is omniscient and omnipotent, He cannot be good. Of course, no evangelical can countenance any of these. The faith prides itself on denying that contradictions exist, though, and the trick is that these things aren't really contradictions, they are paradoxes. Evangelicalism survives the tension by tending to a sort of gnosticism.As Jim Reeves would have it:
This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door,
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
Oh Lord you know I have no friend like you,
If heaven's not my home then, Lord, what will I do?
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
All created things are tainted and ugly, and in this faith, a denial of the natural world is the only way to maintain spirituality, even while the enterprise of controlling the physical is a constant concern. Which is how you get a faith that can praise a creator, and yet doesn't give a damn about the state of the environment, and a faith which can constantly speak of the transcendent, but which nonetheless defend the right of billionaires to exist. And a faith which can shudder with horror at the death of an unborn (conceptual) child, but shrug in indifference as living (material, and therefore sinful) children starve to death, or get brutalised in prison camps on the southern border of the USA. People outside of the evangelical sphere often find this confusing, or impossible to countenance, putting it down to hypocrisy, but it isn't really. It's about a faith in paradox, which paradoxically refuses to admit that a paradox exists.

Look. I still go to a church. I am still, as I like to joke, a practising member of at least one world religion. And look, it's still hard for me even to type this, because of my history here, and the terror I feel of what the people I still know from that time will think, but I'm genderfluid and bisexual, and it took me, partly thanks to my life in churches, a terrifyingly long time to own that. I live in contradiction. But if God made me as I am, am I broken from the design up? Did God err in making me?

1. UCCF stands for the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship. It is affiliated with IFES (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students), of which the American InterVarsity Fellowship is also a part. Full disclosure, I have not had a happy experience with UCCF. The organisation is, aside from being very, very conservative, active in its control of Christian Unions (or at least was in the decade between 1994-2004, when I had most of my dealings with it). Every three years, UCCF manages a national evangelistic push, a cross-university mission, and back when I was volunteering in chaplaincies, I spent a week shadowing the UCCF Christian Union in my own alma mater, and, along with interviews with students in other colleges across the country, wound up writing a lengthy and I thought very careful piece for the magazine site Ship of Fools about why this wasn't exactly herding the converts through the doors. It boiled down to the fairly obvious (to me) observation that the evangelists that UCCF had brought in weren't answering questions anyone was asking, notwithstanding exceptional attendance at the evangelistic meetings. I was publicly and furiously denounced and accused of taking part in persecution, and my evangelical church shortly afterwards banned me from the University chaplaincy. Still, it's hard to be too messed up about it, since that was the year that UCCF rebranded itself the Christian Union Movement. But only for a year, since someone must have told them about the acronym that made, and the rebrand was reversed and never spoken of again. (Back)

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