In the 2016 film “Fair Haven,” a young man named James returns home after spending time in ex-gay conversion therapy, and faces obstacles when he must navigate the expectations of his father and his own desires when a former lover returns into his life.
“Fair Haven” was directed by Kerstin Karlhuber and written by Jack Bryant, assistant professor in the department of media arts, sciences, and studies at Ithaca College. The film has received recognition at several LGBT film festivals, such as the Palm Springs LGBTQ Film Festival and Out at the Movies International Film Festival. A special screening of the film will take place in the Park Auditorium at 5 p.m. Nov. 4, at which Bryant will be a guest.
Opinion Editor Celisa Calacal spoke to Bryant about the controversy surrounding conversion therapy, its effects and ways to combat the practice.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Celisa Calacal: How did you first get involved with this film?
Jack Bryant: I wrote an early draft of this maybe 10 years ago or so. I was interested in the topic of conversion therapy, which is what the film is about, because I’ve had a couple of friends who’ve gone through the process and had attempted to change their sexuality. And I had a family member, actually back in Kentucky where I’m from, who … had come out as gay and his parents had talked about sending him to one of these places. And I started to think to myself, what would I do if he were sent to one of these quote unquote “therapy organizations.” And so I got interested in the topic and researched it and wrote a script that dealt with the issue and tried to get it made for a few years and nothing really came of it. But then … the director of the film Kerstin Karlhuber approached me looking for a project to work on and so I said, “Well I’ve got this script that might be interesting to you.” And she liked it and we moved forward.
CC: How do you think conversion therapy perpetuates homophobia?
JB: I think a belief in conversion therapy is inherently tied to a belief that a lot of people have: that sexuality is mutable and that it is a choice that people make. Or at least that was certainly a belief for a long time in society: that people decide to be gay, and that when you add religion, it’s seen as a negative choice, right? There’s a negative connotation to that. And so conversion therapy, for a long time, reinforced the belief that a person could change their sexuality by becoming more masculine, or trying to change their way of thinking or their behaviors, or the way that they speak or walk or things like that, which is not only silly, but it also ties into a lot of the things that people frequently make fun of gay people for or anyone in the LGBT community who is different from them, you know? They draw attention to those things. … But now you actually see a lot of these places that admit that they don’t think that people can change their sexuality, but that they still want people to change their behavior and that they acknowledge that a person may leave the program as still homosexual or bisexual and may still have desires for member of the same sex, but that the goal of the program is to keep them from acting on it. … It’s offensive, but it also degrades the feelings and the desires in one class of people and says that those are inferior to the desires and feelings of another class of people.
CC: Watching in the film and in your own experiences people go through conversion therapy, what have you seen is the impact of that kind of therapy?
JB: Well it ends a lot of friendships, first of all, is one thing that happens. It can end family relationships. Often when people come back from conversion therapy, if it’s been, you know, quote–unquote “successful” in what it was trying to do — which is change a person’s mindset — then the people who return from it often feel like they need to remove all negative influences from their lives, or they need to cut off communication from people who were friends with him before, or they need to cut off communication from friends who were gay, or friends who were bisexual, or people who they view as celebrated their previous lifestyle. What happens then, usually, is that the people who have gone through the program, by and large, know that deep down they still have these feelings, and maybe not even that deep down, they still are a member of the LGBT community — they still have those same desires. But they have to resist them and so that can add in a lot of unnecessary turmoil in a person’s life when they have to constantly fight against their own impulses because they think they’re bad. And if they can’t do that or if they continue to have thoughts and desires, then it creates a feeling of failure in them. They think that they’re broken or they think that there’s something wrong with them. And so you can see a lot of instances of depression occurring because of this. And it can lead to substance abuse. It can lead to self–harm. It can lead to lots of different things — suicide in some cases because the person is wrestling with this issue now that they have with themselves that they didn’t have before.
CC: How do you think we can move away from conversion therapy and instead promote more acceptance of people in the LGBT community?
JB: Well I think that education is a huge factor in that. And a lot of schools, for instance in the last several years, have started to include LGBT figures in their history lessons … and to talk about LGBT rights for a time. And health classes can start talking about how … bisexuality, other issues or homosexuality … are just as normal as heterosexuality. And so I think if you can show people that when they’re growing up, then it becomes ingrained in their mind. They learn these things. They don’t have to challenge their assumptions later on in life. I also think that closing down these clinics is a good thing and many, not a huge number, but a handful of states have already outlawed conversion therapy for minors which I think is good. Some countries have outlawed conversion therapy. So opinions start to change over time about this. And also I think representation in the media is really important too. … If a young person in rural America or somewhere else in the world doesn’t have contact with members of the LGBT community, and they can’t see what people are like in person and form their own opinions, sometimes seeing a gay character on television or in a movie that is not a caricature, is not a bad person or is not something that needs to be fixed can be really beneficial for them too.
CC: What role do you think religion plays in conversion therapy?
JB: I don’t want to be the person that says that all religion is a negative thing or is bad or anything like that. I think that religion, in general, can be a positive thing for people in their lives, and I think it’s an individual choice what that person wants to believe. And if that helps them in some way, then that’s great. I think that, historically speaking and in many instances today, religious teachings do often coincide with homophobia and with a belief in inferiority of members of the LGBT community. And that’s not just the Christian religion … many different religions believe that and teach people to not only reject homosexuality but repress it and to either try to change it or to react violently toward it. And religion is, you know, it’s different than if someone watches a television program and there’s propaganda telling them to be mean to somebody or to mistreat homosexuals or members of the LGBT community. Religion is a much larger part in people’s lives than something that they might watch or read — it often goes hand in hand with their traditions in their family and their values. And so it’s like a large component of their belief system in general is saying, “You need to reject these people. You need to treat them this way. You need to get them to do this thing.” And so I think that’s why homophobia in religion is kind of insidious.