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Makings of a tragedy

Boy Erased depicts only the worst of reactions to LGBT individuals 

Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe, and Nicole Kidman Kyle Kaplan / Focus Features

Makings of a tragedy
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American Christians have long wrestled over how to respond to LGBT members of their communities. Some Christians have responded graciously, with a healthy mix of truth and love. Others, sadly, have responded poorly, either ignoring truth or treating LGBT persons with anything but love.

Boy Erased, based on the memoir by Garrard Conley, depicts an abusive Christian ministry to same-sex attracted individuals, but presents only the poor side of the Christian response.

The film, directed and written by Joel Edgerton, follows Jared (Lucas Hedges), the son of a Baptist minister. When a male college friend rapes Jared and then accuses him of being gay, he confesses to his parents that he’s had homosexual thoughts for a long time. Jared’s parents (played by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) threaten to kick him out of their home unless he enrolls in a gay conversion therapy program. Jared spirals into anger and depression as he interacts with a physically and emotionally abusive teacher named Victor Sykes (Edgerton plays the role), who tells his patients that their leanings are the result of family sin and can be resolved through outwardly masculine behavior, public confession, and willpower. The film, rated R, contains obscenities, frank discussions of sexual behavior, violence, and a depiction of rape.

Jared’s story is in many places heartbreaking. The film’s conversion therapy leaders push an unloving and works-based program, saying homosexuals can save themselves. Christ’s forgiveness and grace get little mention behind the compound’s chain-link fences and locked doors.

In another scene, program staffers quite literally Bible-bash a young gay man, hitting him with a Bible. “God will not love you the way that you are right now,” Sykes tells him.

Boy Erased manages to be boring and disconcerting at the same time. Boring because the script lacks nuanced character development: The Christian characters are for the most part hypocritical and narrow-minded, while a kind doctor and a gay friend question faith. Jared doesn’t demonstrate much personal agency, spending most of the film listening to other characters’ advice and contemplating his past.

The film is disconcerting because those who watch it may come to believe that all Christian therapy that explores sexuality through a Biblical lens is as abusive as what is depicted here.

Conley, who was involved in the film from the beginning, hopes it will end conversion therapy and encourage lawmakers to pass laws against the practice. “We really wanted this film to be a great piece of activism,” he said.

The abusive practices the film depicts, whether portrayed accurately or not, are by no means universal, though. A new generation of Christian individuals and ministries, such as the UK-based Living Out, are seeking to embrace LGBT individuals wherever they are and lead them to wholeness in Christ through prayer and community-building.

During the political battle over AB 2943, the California bill that would have banned any therapy meant to help people change their sexual orientation, dozens of formerly LGBT individuals told of how compassionate Christian counselors helped them overcome emotional pain and even avoid suicide. (The author of AB 2943 shelved the bill in August.)

Near the beginning of Boy Erased, when Jared confesses to his parents that he has homosexual desires, his words hang in the air for a few moments. Viewers hope that Jared’s Christian parents will embrace him and promise to walk alongside him as he pursues answers. Instead, a crushed Jared meets only his parents’ shock, anger, and condemnation.

That, in the end, is the real tragedy of Boy Erased.

Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette Rikki is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD contributor.


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