Conversion therapy and social exile for being gay are the subjects of two award-winning independent films this season. The Happy Prince by Rupert Everett and Boy Erased by Joel Edgerton are based on real life stories of gay men treated as pariahs by their communities.
‘The Happy Prince’
In 1897, literary giant Oscar Wilde has fallen from grace for his openly romantic homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. After a two-year prison sentence, Wilde emerges, a human wreck, impoverished and ostracized from society.
Rupert Everett, an openly gay director, script writer and actor, directed and scripted the film and interprets Wilde. He says he wanted to show that in 19th century England, no man, not even a recognized figure such as Wilde, was impervious to social rejection for being homosexual.
WATCH: ‘The Happy Prince,’ ‘Boy Erased,’ Two films on Gay Exclusion
Everett told VOA that although the film harkens to a different era, it serves as a reminder that despite progress in the West, gays around the world still face discrimination and persecution. He points to the fact that even forward thinking England decriminalized homosexuality as late as 1975 and notes in the epilogue of his film that as late as last year, under what is known as Turing’s Law, England pardoned Wilde for “homosexual crimes.”
“Yes, it’s very shocking and also the fact that they decided to pardon as opposed to apologize because pardon obviously infers to a crime to start with and we agree that homosexuality is not a crime,” Everett said. “It’s a good reminder what can happen even in our countries with the waves of populism that are kind of rolling over us. So, I feel it really is a film for Trump’s America in a way, I hope.”
American gay author Garrard Conley, who wrote the memoir-turned-movie Boy Erased about being forced to undergo gay conversion therapy after coming out to his conservative Baptist family in Arkansas, echoes Everett’s warning. He tells VOA that many American communities have a very conservative view of the LGBTQ community.
“This rather insidious idea that was implanted in us from basically birth, which was that to be openly LGBTQ meant that you were either a predator or you were going to be beaten or you were going to end up dying of AIDS. And those were the stories that we were told,” he said.
The only child of a Baptist pastor father and a hairdresser mother, at the age of 19, Conley was sent to a sexual conversion facility in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2004. There, he had to surrender his personal belongings and cut off any communication with friends and family until he abandoned his gay identity. Conley describes the emotional harm he and others endured while attending the program.
Actor and filmmaker Joel Edgerton tells VOA he was captivated by Conley’s memoir and was deeply disturbed by Conley’s loss of freedom because of his sexual identity. He decided to direct the story for the large screen. Actors Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe interpret Conley’s parents, and Lucas Hedges interprets Conley’s character. Edgerton plays Victor Sykes, a conversion therapist, who uses pseudo science, shaming and torture to “treat” his patients.
Edgerton says he made Boy Erased to bring to light the mistreatment and dehumanization young people encounter in these conversion programs.
“I challenge people who are running these programs — and there are a large percentage of people who work as staff in these programs, who identify as ex-gay and knowing that the reason they are there is because they are trying to help repress their own sexuality — is to really tune in to the fact that, is it really working for themselves, and why if it is not inherently working for themselves, are they then trying to push these ideas onto kids?”
Despite the film showing Conley’s family as unaccepting and responsible for subjecting him to conversion therapy, it does not vilify the parents but rather presents them as victims of the mindset of a fundamentalist community and the trappings of charlatans.
“The film is about dismantling misconceptions and helping young gay people find their voice,” Conley tells VOA. “And this is why we play the long game, with not making easy villains because it’s a longer battle. These kids that are currently either in conversion therapy or going through it or some way about to go through it, are surrounded by family members, pastors, people in the community, who are deciding their faith for them.
“So, our jobs in many ways is to educate those people and maybe, they are not on the right side yet, but they can at least agree on one thing, which is: this is torture. So, if we get them to agree on that, we can save lives,” Conley said.
“At the day’s end,” the author added, “we got to choose how we love, when we love, what we do with our lives and no one gets to tell you how to do that.”