I always feel like I need to start blogs like this with a caveat: I’m not telling someone they can’t write something. I will never tell someone they can’t write something. Much like my latest “Why You?” post over at SpAN, or previous discussions over Pseudonym vs Identity or Gay-For-You, I want to be super clear on this point, again, just in case: I’m not suggesting a limitation who can write what. At all.
What I am suggesting is there are topics that need a tonne of forethought, and that some topics are definitely going to get critical feedback. This? This is critical feedback.
So. A book crossed over to my radar yesterday which had multiple plot threads that gave me pause. I only ended up talking about one of them because I had spoons enough for one go, but I’ll touch on more today likely.
Now, this book hit my radar because of a review, and between the review and the blurb, I knew enough to know this was not a book I was going to read. The set-up is this: a gay man who is the sun of a reverend who runs a conversion therapy camp is outed viciously by another gay man who will stop at nothing to bring down the conversion therapy camp, so he films them having sex and releases it to the public. Years pass, and the man who released the video is now a war veteran returning to the same town, the conversion therapy camp is still running, and the man who was outed speaks at the camp in support, while dating a woman and trying to defeat his gay demons. Oh, and then they fall in love, forgive each other, and the religious fellow finds balance in his faith and his queerness.
And, deep breath.
Now, where I got frustrated yesterday was with the framing of the conversion therapy camp. The review made it clear that while the camp isn’t successful, and the story in no way says “it works, you can be cured!” and even touches upon how damaging it is, the father is presented as not-a-monster, someone who is misguided, who really does love the kids in his care, and that’s a really big problem, and is the first part of my criticism.
With respect: there is no loving way to support conversion therapy, and presenting a scenario any other way humanizes a dehumanizing, violently homophobic practice that kills queer people. I get this is fictional, and the character(s) of the father and son (who, again, works/speaks at this camp) might be written as otherwise amazing and compassionate, but no. One of them owns/runs a conversion therapy place, the other works there.
Conversion therapy kills queer people.
This strikes me as similar to the “redemption of the homophobic parent who kicks out the queer kid” plot I struggle with, but—frankly—all the worse. The review read very much like the character is perhaps “meaning well.” Like, somehow the father believes these children will truly be cured of their queerness and that would be better for their souls. Certainly, there are religious elements out there who feel that way. But framing it as coming from a loving place? That’s not loving, not at all. It’s somewhere in the Venn diagram of bigotry, gas-lighting, and brainwashing, just done super politely and with an “amen.”
It’s an imperfect analogy, but maybe compare this plot set up to any story where children die because the parents believe faith means they should use maple syrup rather than any form of medicine. The important thing isn’t whether or not those parents meant well otherwise, or aren’t outwardly abusive, no? It’s that the kid needs the medicine and if the child dies, that’s neglect/abuse/murder. You don’t see empathy levelled at parents who let their children die, nor would a redemption arc be welcomed.
Now, within the book review were mentions of suicide attempts, and mention was also made that this may have been a turning point for the reverend character. A person running a conversion camp is literally, actively, completely responsible for that. Deconstructing their motive as loving/not-so-bad/not-intentionally-awful?
That’s a poor choice. There’s no mention of whether or not the camp is shut down in the review, or whether or not the reverend goes to jail, or whether or not the rest of the children in his care are rescued and removed from their parents or, or, or… But the review did make it clear that care was taken to paint the reverend as a complex man who truly does, gosh darn it, love and care for his son.
No. No he doesn’t. He can’t. Not if he’s involved with conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy is abuse. Supporters of conversion therapy are abusers. They are not loving, misguided parents who just need a NOH8 face sticker and our empathy so they see their institutions are bad. Those places need to be fought to a standstill, outlawed, and torn apart. They still exist. Today. They run. They’re not fictional. They’re awful and evil and kill queer people.
But, like I said, maybe the book does all these things to make it clear the man is evil, the organization is evil, and the queer kids are rescued and the institution is burned to the ground and the reverend ends up in jail. Maybe I’m misreading the review and the blurb, but it sure sounds like these characters are presented as “bad, but y’know, they do love them in their own way.”
And, again: no. All the no.
Conversion therapy kills, maims, tortures and destroys queer folk. Even if it’s wrapped in some “we love you, but pray hard to be different!” snuggie, it’s still all of the above.
So. I said all of that yesterday, and then stopped because I didn’t have more in me, but I also want to talk about the other character, too.
He videotaped himself having sex with the reverend’s son and then released it to the world to out the son. That’s… reprehensible. And, like conversion therapy camps, this is a scenario with a similar occurrence in reality. A young gay man, Tyler Clementi, was outed via a web-cam as a victim of homophobic cyberbullying. He committed suicide. His tormentors were charged, though one got community service.
I imagine the intention was to spin motivation as a key factor. The gay man in question is trying to destroy the conversion therapy camp, which is a solid goal. But to do so by violating and assaulting the closeted gay man is abhorrent (and let’s be clear, he did not gain permission for this act—this is assault). Revenge porn—even to bring down a hateful conversion therapy camp—is abhorrent.
And this character is a romantic lead.
Because, yes, this is marketed as a romance. A happy-ever-after (or -for-now) is in the cards for these two men.
And this is the second part of my criticism. I’ve mentioned this before with the whole “redemption of the gay basher who turns out to be gay” thing, but I struggle to imagine a romance scenario where a man would violate and assault a woman in the same way—film his taking of a woman’s virginity for any reason, without her consent, and air it to the world—and would still be considered redeemable as a hero for a romance novel.
And that’s just considering him a worthy romantic lead. Going one step further and pairing a man with the very person he violated and assaulted publicly? Putting the abused with the abuser as a romantic happy-ever-after or happy-for-now narrative under the umbrella of “forgiveness” is worrisome. Surviving (and thriving) after violence, or assault, or any form of traumatic victimization is in and of itself a lifelong effort. Pairing the survivor of trauma up with the person who traumatized them?
That’s a choice. And framing it as romantic is another choice. If those who’ve survived trauma criticize this choice was abhorrent, and dismissive, and adding to the struggle and stigma that already exists around surviving trauma and the pressure of “forgiveness” from others, I don’t think “it’s a romance” or “it’s just fiction” will really cut it. It’s similar to the whole “gay-bashers-aren’t-hot” discussion I had recently.
Anyway. This is already too long.
Conversion therapy is hateful, violent, and kills queer people; people involved in it cannot be allies or claim to love queer people.
Revenge porn is abhorrent and a violation and an assault; no one has to forgive someone who violates and assaults them.
It’s unfortunate that has to be critical feedback.