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Pray the Gay Away

Stills from the movies Boy Erased (L) and the miseducation of Cameron Post (R)
Stills from the movies Boy Erased (L) and the miseducation of Cameron Post (R).

Last night I watched the movie, "the miseducation of Cameron Post." The movie's plot was about a teenager forced to go to conversion therapy, a place called God's promise. All one feels while watching this movie is that these kids never had a choice. They were forced into these institutions as their identity was considered a weakness by their families. The place seems like a regular boarding school from outside, but walking through the doors, one is brainwashed that they are sick and need some change. Who gave humans so much power to decide what's right and wrong for others? Who allowed humans to manipulate people into believing that they were dirty and not good enough for society?

Organized religion has been so oppressive over the years. We know colonization, suppression, eradication, all those "good" things that came out of religion. We have Westboro Baptist church holding ridiculous signs proclaiming their hate for gays. We have picnic organizer Brian Tamaki blaming homosexuals for the earthquakes or Israel Folau blaming the Aussie forest fires on homosexuals. Religion almost gives you a free pass to be a d*** to others.

The bill to ban conversion therapy in Aotearoa received over 100,000 signatures from the public. I navigated my way to read the submissions made by the public about the bill. Some of them were pretty horrific. Some felt like the bill would take away religious freedom. Some called homosexuality an "unwanted behavior" that needs to be checked. Some said that the government shouldn't be involved in private discussions between parents and children who are confused. While it was made clear that the bill won't criminalize parents advising their kids, many church and political leaders have opposed it, saying it was curbing religious freedom.

Conversion therapy or CT has been recorded in over 70 countries and masquerades as a legitimate practice. Communities and families are involved in making this happen. They primarily target minors who cannot make decisions for themselves and cause imminent damage to many. Conversion therapy is toxic, cruel, inhumane, torturous, and disgusting. For the longest time, American Psychological Association (APA) considered homosexuality a pathology and a mental illness. In 1973, APA removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Churches, on the other hand, opposed homosexuality as the Bible advocates against it. Conversion therapy is nothing but the patriarchal society using its means to oppress people in the name of God. The word God and the Almighty naturally create fear in people who have been in this system for a long time. Families pushed their children to get rid of this illness where church pastors and church elders carried "programs" to improve them. CT was not only practiced by church pastors but also by therapists, medical practitioners, and counselors. It is now a discredited practice that falsely claims to change a person's sexual identity. A task force from APA in 2007 found that there were no methodologically sound studies to support that there has been a change in individuals.

Religion has always been oppressive towards women. Women were always considered inferior to men and had specific roles to play in society. Lesbianism was classified as a mental illness that could be medically treated. These victims were lab rats where psychologists could test different methods to get rid of the gay. Multiple treatments were experimented with; hypnosis, electroshock therapy, lobotomy, and various behavioral treatments, such as abstinence and aversion therapy. Other techniques like past life regression, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) were used on women in the UK. Medical practitioners would even go to the extremes of saying that lesbians had more male hormones and would inject them with corrective hormones.

In an article titled "The shocking treatment to make lesbians straight," Helen Spandler and Sarah Carr discuss how the records of treatments on women were far less preserved and archived. The article discusses how lesbians in CT were assumed to have the same attractions as straight men. The writer discusses that "while gay men were encouraged to be attracted to 'soft porn' images of naked women and given electric shocks when viewing pictures of naked men, women were given shocks if they lingered over-sexualized images of women." Psychologists made assumptions about homosexuality and female sexuality. Sarah Carr recalls the use of hypnosis on her to unveil the repressed heterosexuality in her. Corrective rape was another method used in these centers to treat homosexuality. Women in Ecuador have reported that corrective rape was carried out by staff and other patients with an aim to change one's sexuality.

An ethical study was carried out to see if the psychologists performing these CT treatments followed the APA code of ethics. Unethical practices by psychologists include not informing the clients about the side effects of these treatments. During their conversion process, the survivors recall some common themes: "homosexuality is in itself a psychological disorder or is a symptom of another disorder; homosexuality does not exist, and that gay people are inherently unhappy in their marriages and social lives." The psychologists told the clients that this behavior would result in contracting diseases like aids and HIV. One only wonders if these practices were ever consented by the individual on the hot seat.

The church and its followers are also a part of this cruel practice. While they preached to pray the gay away, group members carried out dangerous practices to suppress the identities of homosexuals. Being homosexual was like having your little demon walking around with you at all times, and you had the power to get rid of it at any time. It did convince many people as they devoted their lives to a rigorous period of self-hate and self-destruction to get rid of this demon. Women in Christian centers were made to believe that their current condition was due to past traumas, rape, abuse, and neglect. Many women belonged in a church community, which was more challenging as they were isolated, rejected, and frowned upon. Feminine roles and duties were forced on them. They were taught to be more feminine, dress up better, wear makeup, do the housework, do manicures, while men were taught to be more masculine. They were encouraged to pray and consider themselves dirty and unclean till they left this lifestyle. One woman records her experience as "one class was about "re-parenting" and something called "holding therapy." The idea was that maybe you could reconstruct your birth experience and be forced from the womb again whole, with someone holding you and speaking the affirming, gender-appropriate words God wanted to say to you."

Personal righteousness methods were standard in church settings, and one study concludes that these methods were more likely to continue for extended periods. Some common personal righteousness methods mentioned included prayer, fasting, scripture study, focus on improving relationship with Jesus Christ, and temple attendance. The Netflix documentary "Pray Away" show the real pain people endured being in these centers. While they believed they could change themselves and change people, many eventually left and regretted going to these places. The documentary is based on the Exodus movement in America. They branded themselves as providing support to people seeking help overcoming their same-sex attraction through prayer and using the Bible as a guide. These centers always had 'former homosexuals' who gave up this lifestyle through introspection and a willingness to change. This gave the centers more legitimacy. The documentary showed a profound interrogative culture within these camps. The woman in the documentary named Julie talks about how the pastor would make her talk about her trauma and rape even though she wasn't comfortable. They were made to believe that they were sick and needed healing. The system was toxic. The director of the film, Kristine Stolakis, says that "As long as a culture of homophobia and transphobia continues – in our churches, in our communities, in our country – you will see something like this. People will internalize these beliefs; they will be taught to hate themselves, they will be very compelled to believe that they can change."

Poster of the documentary "Pray Away."
Poster of the documentary "Pray Away."

CT camps were branded as places to seek help, places where you'll meet others like you. Victims in the documentary said that they were discouraged from meeting these members in the outside world. The sad part about this is that people went to these conferences and camps to change themselves. Feeling guilty that you couldn't change led to an overdose or attempted suicide. Families forced their kids to visit these places at a hefty price—the price of their sanity and safety. CT has caused multiple suicides, mental illnesses, depression, anxieties, PTSD, emotional and social issues, and suppression of one's true identity.

Boy Erased is another true story turned into a movie. The young protagonist who was forced to go to this conversion facility sees no escape from this hell on earth. The therapy center focused on being gay as behavior that resulted from a bad familial history with either rape, abuse, drugs, alcoholism, or promiscuity. I was so uncomfortable watching this movie and cringed at everything the facility said and believed. Why would you put someone through that? Why do we put a veil over something so evil?

This is not an easy conversation, but we don't talk about this often. An article in the Spinoff talks to a woman in Aotearoa as she describes her experience of CT. She describes the experience as "soul-destroying" as more and more people in the church community kept sending her bible verses and prayers on a daily basis. She was also guilt-tripped into watching videos of former homosexuals like Sy Rogers. The article mentions her journey where she lost so many friends as they found her disgusting and unreliable. People went to these camps either because they were pressured or felt lonely in a heterosexual-dominated world. The new bill needs to be passed in Aotearoa for the safety of our LGBTQ+ community. We also need to be careful of the rebranding of this therapy. What could conversion therapy look like in non-western societies? It's something to think about how the West's influences spread in smaller countries, leading to cruel conversion therapy practices. As a museum of lesbian history and identity, we need to be more vocal about banning these practices in our society, so no one has to ever go through them again.

The Greens party in Aotearoa advocating for the ban of conversion therapy.
The Greens party in Aotearoa advocating for the ban of conversion therapy.


Annaida Varghese is a student at the University of Auckland and is currently working at the Charlotte Museum as part of our internship programme through the Museum and Cultural Heritage course.

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