Monday, February 4, 2013

This is what Love in Action Looks Like

WARNING: This review might be triggering for someone who has had bad experiences with ex-gay therapy.  Proceed with caution and be safe.

Damn that's a mouthful of a movie title.  But the movie itself, at just a little over an hour, is a good documentary that doesn't overstay its welcome.  The synopsis of the movie is this: In 2005, a teen was told by his parents that he was being sent to a camp that seeks to use "reparative therapy" to help people overcome their homosexuality.  He posted a bulletin on his Myspace page (remember Myspace?) telling his friends he was apprehensive about this experience, and his friends did some research, found the location of the camp, and then stood outside every day with protest signs and bullhorns for his entire 8 week stay, shouting messages of support to all the teens inside the camp who might not exactly want to be there.

I have a hard time being objective on this issue, where objectivity is defined as not having an opinion (at least that's how most people seem to define it when they leave me snotty comments telling me that I'm not objective) because of my own experiences with reparative therapy.  When I was seventeen, I was pretty messed up, and due to a lot of various situations, I ended up in a residential treatment program that focused on "reparative therapy" using "aversion therapy" techniques to help teens recognize the sins in their lives and avoid these sins in the future by controlling their sinful urges and behavior.  Homosexuality, or rather same sex attractions, were included on the list of sinful behaviors that this program sought to treat, along with drug and alcohol addiction.  What followed after I entered the program were some of the most harrowing months of my life, as I went through the program once, got released, and then totally lost it and wound up back in the program again.  Technically, I wasn't "forced" to go into the program, I chose to go in, but the issue of "choice" is muddled when you are in foster care and you're told that if you don't complete this program, you will be released from foster care and have to find your own place to live.  Have you ever lived on the street?  It's cold out there.

My concept of these "reparative therapy" programs doesn't seem to be the same as anyone else's, especially since there are so many different types of these programs, and I'm told that a lot of them aren't as bad as the one I attended.  The aspect of my particular program that sets it apart is its focus on "aversion therapy," which is therapy that serves to make an activity so unpleasant that it triggers a fearful response that makes a person avoid that behavior in the future.  In other words, trying to make someone associate behavior with bad things so they'll avoid the behavior.  For alcoholics, "aversion therapy" can include taking drugs that make it so that they vomit whenever they consume alcohol, so in the future they will choose to avoid alcohol because they associate it with getting sick.

For the program that I was in, without getting too graphic, "aversion therapy" for same sex attractions included forcing us to sit with our hands folded as if in prayer while we watched slideshows of photos with same sex couples together, and squeezing our hands together tighter with each image shown, so that our hands ached by the end of the exercise, with the result that we associated seeing such pictures with feeling pain.  We were also forced to split up into opposite sex pairs and the girls were forced to lie on the floor and the boys were forced to lie on top of us and we had to make eye contact and lie there for a predetermined amount of time until they let us get up.  If we broke eye contact, we had to start over.  The guy on top of me kept crying, and every time he'd blink and I'd start crying too, since I'm a sympathetic crier, and we'd have to start over every time.  I have no idea how long it took for us to pass this exercise.  It seemed like hours.  I learned to have a poker face and not show emotion.  It helped me get by.

I'm not telling you any of this to shock you, I'm simply trying to explain why it irritates me when people say that I'm not "objective" about this issue.  Of course I'm not "objective" about a practice that has caused such harm in my life.  I think these therapy programs are harmful, and that this harm can last long after the program ends.  I know for myself, it's been thirteen years since I went through this program, and I still have a hard time making eye contact with people, especially during intimate situations like kissing or sex.  I still can't hold hands with someone (even someone of the opposite sex) with our fingers entwined because it makes me freak out.  Even when these programs aren't as scary as the one I attended (and I haven't told you half of what went on in there, believe me) I believe that telling a teenager that feelings of love are sinful can be harmful.  The last thing I'd ever want my kid to feel is ashamed, and I don't get why someone would want to make their kid feel ashamed of having romantic feelings for someone.  That can really mess with someone's head and have far-reaching repercussions.

I'm telling you all this because I want you to understand the background I carry with me whenever I watch a movie like this.  I don't really like the term "baggage" because it implies something that a person is willingly carrying that could be discarded at any moment if the person choose to let go of it.  This is my background, it happened to me, and it's a part of me just like all the good experiences that have happened in my life are a part of me as well.  It has shaped my life and my opinions, and that's the way it is.  Yes, I'm predisposed to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the idea of parents sending their kid to a therapy program to try and cure the kid of being gay.  This doesn't mean I don't understand why a parent might do such a thing.  Parents who genuinely think that homosexuality is a set of sinful behaviors that can condemn a person to hell might be terrified that this could happen to their child.  They don't want their kid to go to hell, so they try to fix the problem and help their kids.  I get that.  Just because I don't agree doesn't mean that I can't empathize and understand why a parent would send their kid to a therapy program like this.

This movie takes the view that this kind of therapy is wrong and harmful, but it doesn't blast everyone who believes in such therapy as evil.  It might be a little more one-sided than other movies, but it has a short running time, and it doesn't present as much information on either side as it could.  The (fictional) movie "Save Me" presents more of both sides, though it, too, comes to the conclusion that these "ex-gay therapy" programs aren't the best idea.  This movie gives a lot of interviews with a lot of interactive elements, such as having the blog entries typed onscreen as we watch.  That was enjoyable and helped engage me in the story. I liked this movie overall, thought it ended on a positive note, and wouldn't mind watching it again.

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