In the last entry, I gave my overall impressions about this endearing movie. I hope you’ll read my thoughts, and see the movie.
James returns home, after spending time at a Christian counseling center to deal with the grief of his mother’s death. While there, he was also subjected to “ex-gay” or “conversion therapy,” designed to turn him from gay to straight.
In the opening scene of this movie, we witness an argument between James and his father. James is furious that his college fund has been spent without his consent. He's been accepted at a prestigious music program, and now his father is insisting James give up music school to major in agriculture and someday run Fair Haven Orchards, their family farm.
His father informs: “Sometimes life isn’t fair; we both know that.”
And it’s true! So much of what happens to James is not fair.
He struggles with the disappointment of his unrealized dreams, the demands of his depressed, distant father, being true to his faith, the desires he’s trying to overcome and his feelings for a former love.
It's certainly not fair that James was subjected to “ex-gay” therapy. No one should be forced to endure the abuse involved with these bogus treatments. Because it was a crucial element in the film, and it's a subject about which I’m extremely informed (from personal experience and years of ongoing research), there was more I wanted to say.
Obviously, we aren't given a full picture of these mind-numbing, soul-destroying programs. (I reckon that'd make it a horror film, not a sweet love story.) We don't see or hear the condemnation and self-recrimination taught by these groups, or witness the pressure they exert on the participants to conform. We don't watch as young people are told their soul's eternal destiny is in jeopardy, dependent on changing their desires. Nor do we have any scenes where kids are pressured to pray longer, read the Bible more, believe stronger. There's nothing that gives us a clear picture of the intimidation involved.
Compared to some "ex-gay" programs and techniques, the one in this story came across almost humane.
Until we listen carefully to the words of the leader.
I was impressed with the subtle way the process was portrayed, and I want to highlight several important elements—common in these groups—that show up:
- Concerned Leader.
So often in movies that involve “ex-gay” treatment, the leaders are shown as cartoonish, or diabolical, or with a sexually repressed, predatory agenda. (Granted, some do fit easily all those qualities in real life!) I imagine most of the people who lead these groups—though misguided—are probably well intentioned and kindhearted people. To me, that makes them more dangerous!
The unnamed facility here is run by Dr. Gallagher, played by Gregory Harrison (Trapper John, Rizzoli & Isles). We’re given no backstory to let us know why he runs this program, or anything of his qualifications. (Many who fill this role have their own journey, and the group/ministry grew out their battle to overcome their same-sex attractions.) He’s not Nurse Ratched, or Dr. Mengele. Instead, he’s sincere, earnest and concerned about those in the group. He’s never overtly harsh or cruel, but steadfast and unyielding in his “righteous” mission. With Gallagher, we only glimpse his traditional, conservative theology that homosexuality is “sin” and God’s intention is one man and one woman! He gently and persistently enforces those beliefs on the kids in his care, seeking to superimpose THE Truth over anything they might think, feel or their individual experience.
He’s right, because (as he holds up a Bible), the Bible says so! Period. No discussion.
He's God's benevolent Ambassador—the unassailable Voice of the divine.
- Deliberate Terminology.
At one point, the doctor compares James’ feelings for Charlie (his boyfriend before coming to the facility) with drug addiction. “Once he’s out of your system, I promise…you’re going to feel so much better. And then you’re going to wonder why you ever had him in your life.”
These groups are carefully with their words, not allowing homosexuality to be perceived as an Orientation. It's not part of who we are, it's only what we do. (i.e., behavior) Even if they concede the outside possibility we are "born that way," that part of us must be rejected as a weakness...like the Apostle Paul's "thorn in the flesh"...given as a test of our faith and loyalty to God; it must be resisted and overcome. Therefore, there’s substitution of words to cast our feelings/desire in a negative light, such as “temptation,” “unnatural desires,” “sins of the flesh,” or “sinful lifestyle.” What we're feeling must be accepted as “detrimental," even demonic.
- A Theology Based in Fear, Guilt and Shame.
Dr. Gallagher suggests that James’s sexual orientation could be the reason his mother died; God was trying get James' attention. Such horrible theology is not designed to comfort, or strengthen or free a person; it serves to frighten and ultimately control victims. It’s why they will hammer on the idea of “abomination” and eternal damnation.
- Need for a “Cause.”
In one session, Gallagher questions James about the possibility of past physical, emotional or sexual abuse. When James maintains there was none, the doctor suggests it might be “forgotten,” insisting that “something knocked you off course along the way.” For these people and their theology, there must be an explanation…a reason someone is gay. Otherwise, how can it be changed?
- Manipulation and Indoctrination.
The primary danger of such therapy is in the messages they present. It’s sometimes extremely subtle, such as Dr. Gallagher asking leading questions, then interjecting presumed (correct) answers.
Gallagher: “How did (sexual intimacy) make you feel?”
James: “Good, I guess.”
Gallagher: “Sin makes us feel good while we’re committing it…but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. It can really mess us up inside….when we’re done, we feel bad about it.”
- Inflexible Assertions.
When it come to sexuality...and theology...these folks are convinced they (alone) are right, with no possibility of being wrong. So we find Gallagher making definitive statement like “Your body wants you to be attracted to the opposite sex.” He makes broad, dismissive statements that aren’t based in science, but rely solely on his theological presuppositions:“What you felt for your boyfriend was not love; it was lust…You cannot fall in love with a man. It’s impossible.”
- Vague, Unsubstantiated Promises of Change.
Gallagher talks to James about the need to “transition back to healthy, heterosexual desires,” and assures James he can overcome his feelings. When James asks about desiring women, Gallagher tells him “It won’t be easy, You have to work at it…push yourself toward healthy behavior. Try not avoid temptation. Everyone is different. You may have tremendous success and walk out of here a totally heterosexual young man. Or you many always struggle with these feelings.”
These people...these groups...like to talk about change, but they hedge or backtrack when it comes to exactly what that means. And in the end, all the "success" will depend on the person, not the program. If they don't change, it's their own fault; they didn't "want it" badly enough, they didn't try hard enough, etc.
In addition, I thought the movie captured the range of emotions those who go to these “ex-gay” program experience. We see anger, scorn, resistance, defiance, defensiveness, contrition, and finally, resignation. I think that’s what we hear in James’ exit interview, just prior to leaving the program. He parrots the polite, expected words the doctor wanted to hear.
Thankfully James survives, and moves past the lies and deception. (Spoiler alert?) That's not always the case for everyone. Many will continue trying to change, investing...wasting...years. Those who abandon the process often require extensive help recovering from the mental, emotional and spiritual damage. Some opt for self-destructive medicating (drugs, alcohol, sex) to cover the pain.
Sadly, too many don't survive, choosing death over the disappointment of failure.
Fair Haven is multi-layered, emotional and ultimately uplifting.
Along the way, the movie gives us a fair representation of the dangers of “ex-gay” treatments.
Which is appropriate, I guess, considering the title.