Queer Representation

Since the (leaked!) announcement of the film adaptation of Boy Erased 4 days ago, I've received so much support from the LGBTQ community and our allies. I'm so grateful for this moment, and for Anonymous Content, Joel Edgerton, and the entire production team for choosing to honor my story. 

A few well-intentioned and important criticisms have also emerged re: queer representation. I'll list them below and offer my thoughts. The goal of this is to open up an honest dialogue about a complicated issue, and to offer up what I believe (after months of working closely w the film's creative team) is the film's stance.

This criticism comes from a great place: people trying to protect my story and the stories of other conversion therapy survivors. These are the kinds of questions we need to be asking when Hollywood wants to take on one of our stories. We have been burned. For every Brokeback Mountain (straight actors, director, writer but great representation IMO), there is a Stonewall (representation was bad, but bad not because of a lack of queer involvement, rather a lack of diversity in casting, etc.). Representation matters, and when I was growing up closeted in Arkansas, it was a matter of life and death. I remember seeing stereotyped versions of queer people on the screen, and turning away out of shame. None of us wants to be portrayed in the same hackneyed manner as some of the worst examples (I started to make a list, but the list is endless). 

Boy Erased, from what I have read in the script and what I have learned through countless hours with the director and production team, will not be one of those bad examples. I have worked with many people to ensure that my story and the story of other queer folks who suffered through conversion therapy would not be stereotypical or threadbare. I was asked to write the script, and I declined, knowing that my story would be better told by someone with an eye for film (the director), yet I cannot stress enough just how involved I have been with the scriptwriting process. Every draft has been sent to me in the first round, and though the draft may change, I believe it will only change for the better. The team is working hard to get this story right.

Let me be clear: As of this moment, my story is not being "straightwashed." This is my story, and I have been involved in every step of the process. Others involved in my story have been consulted. The director and others have visited husband and my family, traveled to my family home and eaten dinner with my parents. It has been one of the greatest honors of my life to have this story taken so seriously, and to have it be told by some very talented people. The future is unpredictable, but if I were making bets, I'd say this is going to be a great film.

In addition, and perhaps most important, this was not the case of a major studio finding the film and then choosing a director. Joel Edgerton found my book and wanted to adapt it. He just happens to be straight. He is not passing up other directors who wanted to do this film. There were no other directors who were approaching Anonymous Content.

Another excellent issue to be raised. This is 2017 (what does that even mean anymore?!), and it is still difficult for an openly queer actor to escape typecasting. If this were a perfect world (ha!), we would have movement both ways: straight actors clamoring for queer parts and queer actors taking on straight parts and queer actors taking on queer parts. But we are justifiably weary of 'queer' films that do not hire queer actors. 

Boy Erased is not one of these films. I cannot release the full cast (the announcement was an unofficial leak), but I can say that the team is working hard to populate the world of Love in Action (the conversion therapy camp I attended) with predominantly queer actors, many of whom will presumably see their first major role in film as a queer character. As a consultant, I am very committed to ensuring that the sensibility of the film and much of the cast is queer.  

I can also say that, when the director approached me about hiring Lucas Hedges to play me, I did not consider the status of his sexuality before shouting "Yes please!" (he MADE Manchester by the Sea IMO). Perhaps some would say I should have. But I can tell you why I didn't: When I was outed at 19 by my rapist, I was thrust into a world that was wholly aggressive towards me, a world I was not equipped to handle. If I had been equipped to handle it, I would never have attended conversion therapy or wanted to kill myself because of my sexuality. I did not want to directly ask Lucas about his sexuality, and as a former high school instructor (6 years), it is not my policy to do so. I believe you should trust what people say about themselves, and thus far Lucas has not "come out" as straight or gay. He isn't even on Facebook or Twitter (a rarity for sure) and has mentioned in interviews that he does not want to be on social media. Aside from gossip, I can find no statements on his sexuality, and I'm only guessing when I say he prefers it that way. I have found questions about my relationships and my current understanding of sexuality to be very invasive at times, and I have often balked at the general public's desire to know every single detail about my family life. All human lives deserve to be treated with dignity, and I believe leaving these questions to Lucas is the best way to handle it. 

Does that mean there weren't qualified queer actors who would have done a fine job playing me? Certainly not. And without naming any of them here, I can assure you that I have a running list of wonderful queer actors I'm ready to suggest for other parts in the film. I think this debate will churn on, and I'm happy for it. How much does a subjective sense of talent weigh into a decision for any part, and how do we leverage that sense of talent against what many believe are Hollywood's biases against queer people? Does having "gay voice" disqualify you? Does having "flamboyant" mannerisms unjustly typecast you? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I know they need to continue being asked in earnest. 

What I do know is that, in talking with Lucas for many hours, I have a clear sense that he is meant to play this role. He understands my story, and I have a gut reaction to what I sense will be a fantastic performance. Is my gut reaction biased? Am I reacting this way because I'm flattered by the "straight-acting" boy playing me? Do I have a bad case of internalized homophobia? Am I erasing myself (cue Alanis). I do not believe so. I believe that my gut reaction is the same thing that guided the writing of my memoir. I think I can sense the direction that this film needs to go, and while I wasn't the one making final decisions (thank baby Jesu!), my opinion counted a great deal and continues to count a great deal.

I totally understand this sentiment. We SHOULD have happy queer stories, yes. I applaud any efforts to do so. This does not elide the fact that we must continue to speak the truth about our experiences. Our current Vice President, Mike Pence, has supported conversion therapy, and only a handful of states have passed legislation banning it for minors. We still live in a world where an overwhelming majority of homeless youth identify as queer. We are still facing an HIV epidemic in the queer community, most notably in trans and other minority groups. Our stories can be happy, yes, but they can also still be incredibly tragic. 

My good friend (and great writer) Garth Greenwell puts it best, in an interview w the LA Review of Books, in reference to criticism of his novel What Belongs to You (about a love affair with a Bulgarian sex worker) offering a dangerous model to readers who might choose to stereotype queer people because of its narrative:  

There’s this sense that the mainstreaming of queer life is coming at the expense of talking about spaces like these — that it’s a part of history we don’t have to deal with now that we’re all about marriage and kids. But any project of liberation has to be about multiplying the legitimate models of life — not narrowing them.

I love this idea of multiplication. I hope that the publishing industry and Hollywood will continue to multiply a variety of queer stories, that we won't end up with only "palatable" queer stories involving masc-leaning buff white men. I hope we will continue to have these discussions, and I hope Boy Erased will be able to function as a catalyst for such discussions. I also believe that its production team will try to address issues of representation, and that they and the film will be better for it.