January 25, 2022 – This movie comes at the subject of Christian “conversion therapy” from a unique perspective, that of former leaders of a huge anti-gay organization who later renounced the organization, and their former anti-gay positions.
Exodus International, originally formed in 1976 as a support group for gay Christians, became a massive organization built on the idea that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, rather than a hard-wired sexual orientation, and that gay believers can change their very sexual orientations through faith. But the Christian faith is one where belief is more important than behavior, and this documentary film examines this peculiar dichotomy between belief and behavior very closely.
Among those interviewed for this film are the founder of Exodus International, Michael Bussee, a former president of the board of Exodus, John Paulk, and a former spokesman for Exodus, Julie Rodgers. These, three, and other former leaders of Exodus, all left the organization, and they all condemn conversion therapy as harmful.
A troubling statistic in the film is that people who have gone through conversion therapy, are twice as likely to attempt suicide, as those who haven't gone through it. I looked it up, and this appears to be a reference to a U.S. study of 1,518 “nontransgender sexual minority adults.” I gather this study, published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2020, is part of something called the “Generations Study.” This particular result is limited to those who identify as queer, as opposed to transgender people, who are included in a separate, related study. More on this later.
This is a powerful film because it tells the very emotional personal stories of those who went through religious conversion therapy and were harmed by it. They tell of self-loathing and self-harm generated because their inner feelings were different than the beliefs they were actively promoting. These people were able to change their appearances, and change their behaviors, but they could not change their hearts, or their innermost desires.
Former Exodus spokesman Julie Rodgers, who talks about burning her own skin because of her inner crisis, is particularly troubling. Since quitting Exodus, she seems to be a lot happier. The same goes for John Paulk, who seems to be at ease with himself after his divorce from fellow convert Anne Paulk, and taking up a relationship with another man. He was fired from his high position in Exodus, after being “outed”.
Anne Paulk, a lesbian who went through conversion therapy, becoming the wife of John Paulk, and a mother, seems to have stayed with her new converted identity. At one point, she and John were the poster couple for Exodus. Michael Bussee, having witnessed the harm of conversion therapy, left Exodus in 1979.
In 2012, Exodus president Alan Chambers (also in the film) renounced conversion therapy, and the following year, he closed down Exodus International, but the practice conversion therapy, both religious and secular, continues to this day. The film describes the relationship between purely psychiatric conversion therapy and religious conversion therapy as a mutually profitable one. According to the study cited above, 80 percent of people undergoing conversion therapy were treated by religious authorities, 31 percent were treated by health care providers, and some were treated by both.
It should be noted that this film is not based on science, despite the reference to the study above. Rather, it is based on the personal experiences of a few people. There is a spectrum of sexual identities from extreme homosexuality to extreme heterosexuality, and a lot of people fall somewhere in between those two extremes. It stands to reason that people more towards the middle of the scale will react differently to conversion therapy than those on the extreme homosexual end of the scale.
This isn't directly addressed in the film, but one woman seems to embody this idea in the film, and that is Yvette Cantu Schneider, who was a lesbian for several years, but now is a married woman. She seems at ease with both identities. I got the impression that perhaps she is more in the middle of the scale than those who identify as extreme homosexual. Yvette expresses regret over her role in passing Proposition Eight (banning same-sex marriage) in California. The feeling that she was betraying her own people became so strong that she became physically ill. Another former Exodus activist interviewed in the film expressed similar regrets about helping to pass Proposition Eight.
It seems to me that Yvette's crisis is more moral than sexual, and that the film conflates the two. She is able to be in a loving relationship with a man, but now feels it is wrong to force others into a narrow sexual conformity. Her problem doesn't seem to be with the personal choice she made, rather it is in her moral pain from being part of a successful effort to impose a legal prohibition against same sex marriage.
Her moral crisis, her regrets — this represents the bigger issue, bigger than conversion therapy itself, which is a discredited practice, undergone by a small minority of gay people. This bigger, related issue has to do with the questionable morality of using the political power of religious belief to impose legal restrictions on those who don't share those beliefs. Outlawing abortion, like Proposition Eight, is being pushed by a religious and political minority, which just so happens, by hook and by crook, to have grabbed the legal levers of power in the highest court in the land.
If Roe V Wade, supported by a majority of Americans, is overturned by the current Republican, and religious-oriented, U.S. Supreme Court, it won't really matter if some of those responsible might someday suffer emotionally, or have regrets for what they did. What will really matter will be the pain and suffering imposed by the powerful upon the powerless, as well as the enormous cost to society as a whole. This movie rates an A.
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