This past weekend I had the chance to take in the movie Boy Erased with some of the students from my research team. It wasn’t quite what I expected. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but it was an engaging movie–sad in many ways and potentially triggering for people who have experienced religious trauma. I also thought it could lead to better discussions about faith and sexuality if we can find a way to press into the challenges we face in entering into difficult dialogues.
The movie is based on a true story, but I suppose I may have expected an ‘over-the-top’ portrayal of Christianity, a caricature that would be unrecognizable to me, as so often happens in movies that attempt to portray the Christian faith. A caricature can be readily dismissed.
But that didn’t happen. I’ve seen many clients over 20 years of practice who have had really difficult experiences with fundamentalist church settings and associated ministries. Some have been blamed for their same-sex sexuality; they were told it was “willful disobedience” to have the attractions they have had since puberty. Others have been told they don’t have enough faith or haven’t put in enough effort to truly change. So while people may disagree about how representative the experiences in the movie are of different families, churches and ministries they know, I don’t think there is any doubt that what was portrayed reflects some people’s experiences with those who represent Christ, as heartbreaking as that is.
Here are a few things that came to mind as I watched the movie. Think of these as related to FAQs Christians often have about same-sex sexuality and faith:
- Just as straight people find themselves attracted to the opposite sex, a percentage of people will find themselves attracted to the same sex; they do not choose to have same-sex attractions. When Christian leaders or others discuss having same-sex attractions as “willful disobedience,” we are already so off course in our care that we are likely to do great harm to someone navigating this terrain.
- It is unusual for same-sex sexuality to go away through ministry interventions. I was co-principal investigator on a 7-year longitudinal study of attempted change through such ministries. I don’t think any of the ministries we approached practiced what was portrayed in the movie; rather, the participants in our study indicated that the ministries generally provided small group discussion, Bible study, prayer, corporate worship, and so on. In any case, while many people did report diminished same-sex behavior and the decision to dis-identify with a gay identity, fewer experienced diminished same-sex attractions, and categorical change from gay to straight was even less likely.
- On a related point, a person can take practical steps to foster their relationship with God and grow in Christlikeness and not report a corresponding change in their sexual orientation. These two things should not be treated as though there is a necessary relationship between them.
- There is potential for great harm from those who are in spiritual authority as they wield that authority with a person who is vulnerable and navigating same-sex sexuality and faith. Those in authority ought to glean an important lesson in walking with greater humility and gentleness as they shepherd people in their spiritual journey.
- Parents count on spiritual leaders to provide them guidance. All the more reason to guide with humility about what we know and don’t know about same-sex sexuality.
- Also, the parent-child relationship is one of the best predictors of a loved one’s well-being over time. It is important to foster that relationship if at all possible. One way to help with that (among many) is to be precise when we discuss what is volitional.
- In the research we have been conducting on a data set of 200 Christian parents whose loved one came out to them as gay or transgender, we have found that many parents do not change their belief about whether same-sex behavior is morally permissible (although some question that belief and still others do change their belief), but they are struggling with how to love their child and also be faithful to what they believe Scripture teaches. Greater sensitivity to the challenges they face would be another take-away.
- A friend of mine who runs a ministry for Christian parents whose child has come out once said, “When a loved one comes out of the closet, the parents go into the closet.” It would be helpful to remove the shame associated with navigating same-sex sexuality and faith, for the loved one and for the parents.
- Parents can also become polarized when they face such stressors. One parent can become a caricature of positive emotions (e.g., love, protection) for their loved one, while the other can become a caricature of negative emotions (e.g., confusion, anger). It has been helpful for both parents to feel, express, and work through a range of emotions so that they do not experience a restricted range of emotions that limits how they relate to their loved one.
What I think was missing as I left the movie was a path forward for Christians who have reached the conclusion that same-sex behavior is morally impermissible. It’s unclear what their options are, and it’s unclear how the movie would move them toward a place of resolution. There was a zero/sum quality about the ending that left the viewer, I think, wanting more of a discussion about different pathways. I think that left some people reacting against the movie and missing some of the better parts of it, some of the lessons that can be gleaned from it.