Adults trying to change their sexuality via “therapy” is one thing. Adults forcing such “therapy” on their children is something else entirely…
Dir. Morgan Jon Fox, 2011, 74 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
I’ve previously taken a look at Christian “ex-gay” conversion therapy with One Nation Under God, but this documentary tackles a far more sinister side of that phenomenon: how some people, alarmed by their children’s coming out, force them to undergo the process. Kids get shipped off to “straight camp” the same way they might have to go to “brat camp” or “fat camp” or what have you. This is What Love in Action Looks Like follows a few of these unfortunate souls, and what they’ve gone through.
The title has a triple meaning: “Love in Action” is the name of the ex-gay ministry that the film focuses on, so on that level, the name is literal. It’s also ironic, of course, but there’s a straight (pardon the term) meaning to it as well: while this is a movie about people doing terrible things to kids out of ignorance and prejudice, it also showcases some quite moving examples of true Christian love. It’s just as heartwarming as it is upsetting.
While multiple “graduates” of LIA are on display, the main character is Zach Stark, who drew significant media attention to the group back in 2005 when he blogged about his parents sending him there. He admitted his homosexuality to them, and they responded by freaking out in a fit of religious fervor and signing him up for the camp, hilariously monikered “Refuge.” Six years later, he’s still gay. Great job, guys.
It would have been amazing if some enterprising young documentarian had managed to sneak a camera into LIA and captured their weird methods of “therapy” on tape, but alas, such opportunity has passed, since Refuge folded several years ago. We have to settle for listening as Zach and the other survivors relate about their experiences. Since, in the minds of the people running this program, homosexuality is just a matter of “maladjusted behavior,” the obvious solution is to fix gays behavior. They accomplish this by enforcing “masculinity checks” and paying anal (sorry) attention to the smallest details of each subjects appearance and demeanor. Forbidden accoutrement includes sandals without socks. So, in forbidding characteristics associated with the literal meaning of “gay,” Refuge encourages guys to make themselves look like the bro definition of “gay.”
Okay, yes it’s kind of funny, but it’s not really funny. The psychological wear and tear on these kids is no joke. This stuff is the reason that gay teens are so much more likely to commit suicide. What’s even more frustrating is how, when confronted with their heinous practices by their critics, the people behind LIA suddenly default to claiming that they aren’t really forcing anything on their clients. They offer up a “better way,” but no one’s being made to do anything, no way, no sir. It’s that kind of simpering doublespeak that’s really maddening about this, and it extends to pretty much all of the vehemently homophobic segment of Christianity.
The genuine love part of the movie comes from a group that, spurred on by Zach’s email, went to protest in front of LIA for weeks. I’m always amused by people who claim that these kinds of demonstrations don’t work (generally, they’re trying to come up with something that sounds smarter than “I don’t agree with them,” or “All protesting intimidates me because it’s confrontational and I just want to shut my ears to the world”). The counter-proof is here, in a rather stunning example. The actions of the people who came to assure the unwilling participants in Refuge that they were loved not only helped those kids endure the experience; they were a large part in the conversion of the man who ran the program. John Smid, the director of the program when Zach was there, realized the harm he was doing, and has since apologized for his actions as part of LIA.
The movie has a rather odd aesthetic. The graphics are dressed up to look like social media posts. It’s nice-looking, but only tangentially related to the subject at hand. But that’s just a bit of stylistic wonkiness. This is What Love in Action Looks Like is a potent piece of work. It’s a great contrast between fake “love the sinner, hate the sin” Christian love, and, well, what the real stuff looks like. In action. So to speak.