Christian programmes that pledge to ‘help with unwanted same-sex attraction’ and ‘sexual brokenness’ still exist in Australia, and mainstream churches are sending unhappy gay people there. Film director Heather Corkhill found a dozen such programmes while she was researching her documentary ‘The Cure’. As her film is screened at Brisbane Queer Film Festival this weekend, she talks to Gay Star News.
Where did you get the idea for this documentary?
It’s an idea that I’ve had for some time, because I’d heard about ex-gay programmes a number of years ago but I associated them more with evangelical Christianity in the US. I started investigating whether there are any of these programmes in Australia. So the internet research started and I started to read survivor stories by people who had been through the programmes and suffered a range of different mental health issues. Once I found the link between the mental health ramifications of participating in these programmes and reparative therapy I thought this was something that hasn’t really been covered in a documentary before in Australia, so that’s when I made the decision to start the film.
So you discovered that there were still 'gay cure ministries' operating in Australia?
Yeah absolutely, I would say there were about a dozen that we found. The problem is that there definitely is a shroud of secrecy. They’re not in Australia like they are in the US, where they’ve got a lot of publicity. In Australia it’s quite the opposite. They’re really trying to hide what they are doing I think. So it was hard to even find the programmes.
It was also about shifting the language because we found they no longer called themselves ex-gay programmes. Something like Exodus International which is the most famous I suppose of these programmes in the world, no longer really calls themselves an ex-gay programme. What they’ll say is language like ‘we’ll help with unwanted same-sex attraction’ or ‘we can help you sexual brokenness’.
So there’s certainly been a shift in the terminology, which I think is to distance themselves from the failures in the ex-gay movement, because of course, it’s impossible to change. So this is the reincarnation of these programmes.
Do mainstream churches still refer people to these places?
Yes absolutely, the Anglican church and the Catholic church both have programmes specific for them. So that was a bit of a surprise for us that two such mainstream churches were referring people. A lot of the other programmes are non-denominational. Often the situation is that a pastor or minister will have someone come to them and say ‘I have this same-sex attractions and I want to get rid of them’. And then they’ll do their research and find the places to refer people to. But we’re saying that, rather than giving people a referral to a supposed service that says it can change someone, if it’s going to end in failure, cannot you not provide an alternative? This could be a support group for gay Christians who want to reconcile their faith and sexuality.
Over the course of making the film, did you form an opinion about whether you can be gay and Christian?
There’s a lot more support for that view here in Australia now. There’s a young guy in the documentary Ben Gresham and he’s around 23 now. But when he was 16 he put himself through ex-gay programmes on the advice of his minister.
He eventually came out and decided this wasn’t working for him after he unfortunately tried to commit suicide a number of times, because he had such a feeling of shame and failure, that the church didn’t love him and God didn’t love him.
Finally he decided to come out to his parents who were fundamentalist Christians but fully accepted him and then they marched altogether in the Mardi Gras last year, and we got to film that. For him, he says he’s completely reconciled his faith and sexuality. I think it’s becoming easier because now there are more liberal views of the scriptures.
What was the most shocking thing you heard during your interviews with people who had been through these programmes?
I was surprised that exorcisms still happen in today’s society. In young Ben’s case one of the more extreme they did to try and change him was to put him through an exorcism where they prayed on him and said there were demons of homosexuality in him. That was certainly a much more radical thing than I thought was going on.
Did you meet anyone who said they had successfully changed their sexuality? Did you believe them?
There’s one person in the documentary, his name is Ron Brookman and in his words he has been ‘transformed from homosexuality’ and he actually has a wife and children and is the leader of Living Waters one of the most prominent reparative or ex-gay programmes now in Australia. And he believes that through his relationship with God he has been ‘set free from homosexuality’ in his words.
The idea of change in these programmes is about behavioural change, it’s not about inherent change in any way. He admitted to us that he still feels attraction to men. So he’ll be walking down the street and think ‘oh that guy has nice legs’ but in his words, as long as he doesn’t check out his arse, and as long as he confesses that he’s done it, then he’s ok. So he’s still got the attractions but he’s choosing not to act on them in any way.
So that’s only degree of ‘success’ that we’ve seen and some people would say that it’s not consistent with the self really, putting sexuality towards the bottom of the list and that faith and family come first to these people.
How has the film been received so far?
We’ve had some great reactions so far. We’ve been quite overwhelmed actually. The mainstream media here, not just the queer media, is very interested. And yesterday we hit in the front page of a couple of major newspapers, so that was very overwhelming for us. We’ve only had a couple of screenings in Melbourne and Sydney, which have sold out and we’ve coming up to our Brisbane screening which is where I’m based, this weekend.
Just because we’ve only played at queer film festivals so far the audiences haven’t been huge and we really hope to get it out to a wider audience because we think this message is really important. I don’t know how aware mainstream audiences are about being of faith but also having the usual issues with coming out, and the mental health issues than can arise out of that situation.
Watch the trailer for The Cure here: