Queer Christian coming-of-age stories are becoming more visible with the recent release of films depicting queerness within a religious framework. Two of the most recent films, Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, follow similar stories of young queer teens’ endurance of Christian conversion therapy camps. In a dark and more violent narrative, Boy Erased exposes Jared’s experience at Love In Action, a conversion camp in Arkansas. In a similar story possibly aimed at a younger audience, Cameron Post follows the story of Cameron, a young lesbian woman, and her experience at God’s Promise, a similar type of camp in Montana. Boy Erased focuses more on the relationships between Jared and his parents, while Cameron Post focuses more on the protagonist’s journey through self-identification. Released in 2018, these two films brought major attention to existing conversion camps and the general repression of queerness by conservative Christian communities.
While one criticism of mine is the lack of overall racial diversity in mainstream media queer stories, I completely support the beginning strides Boy Erased and Cameron Post are making. These stories need to have a place in mainstream media in order to make space and create opportunities for the many other unspoken stories we are unknowingly surrounded by to rise into existence. Many film critics have reviewed these films in praise or dissatisfaction, but this is not the aim of my post. With those caveats in place, I would like to discuss the ripple effects that this kind of mass media representation has on people who identity in both queer and Christian communities, and what that might mean for FJVs working towards a better understanding of allyship within the church.
While there is continuing work in the Catholic Church towards affirming queerness and sexuality, like Fr. James Martin’s Building a Bridge or even a new scholarship for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholic students, all of us in the universal Christian church (Catholics included) are affected by heteronormative Christian culture from more evangelical/conservative churches and leaders in white America and the West. Catholics and other Christians share many cultural norms, like the general admiration of marriage, the belief that family has a very specific nuclear construction, or the belief in the power of prayer. Both Boy Erased and Cameron Post allude to marriage and family being exclusively for male-female couples, with little consideration of other lifestyles, religious vocations, and ideas of family. The heteronormative weight of “Don’t you want a family?” lingers as Cameron tries to call her aunt for comfort from the emotional abuse of God’s Promise. In the midst of Jared coming out to his parents, his father remarks, “You know, Jared, as far as I can tell, we’ve only got one God-given right, that is when a man and a woman come together, they may create life. You think how much God must love mankind to give us that awesome responsibility.” While this statement may be in accordance with Scripture, it is deeply weaponized to force the heterosexual, patriarchal agenda on to a young gay teen struggling to feel loved and accepted. This small example of dialogue gives a sweeping view of how Christian thought erases the possibility of trust and acceptance through daily anti-queer remarks, deeply wounding and damaging young queer teens. Boy Erased and Cameron Post are only two of many devastatingly uncommon tales that depict the immense pain queer people are constantly having to face. This not only comes from the emotional abuse of conversion camps, but from the daily struggle in facing tense familial relationships, traditional church teachings, and cultural homophobia. Films like these send a catch-22 message: if you are a Christian, queerness is not accepted, and if you are queer, Christianity excludes you. Existing happily in both seems impossible because they must be held as mutually exclusive components of identity.
However, I don’t think it’s that simple.
Comedian, actor, and Boston College graduate Cameron Esposito sheds light on these differences in a recent episode of her podcast Queery, where she invited rapper Micah James to discuss his growing up in a strict Jehovah’s Witness household. She comments, “I think Catholics believe gay people are real … because I think there are a lot of Christian denominations that don’t.” She goes on to explain, “Catholics are kinda taught separate the sinner from the sin … I only realized … much later … that must posit that gay people … are real. ‘If you have these urges don’t act on them’ versus there are other people that are like ‘these urges are fake.’” Cameron’s casual explanation of deep theological differences offers an accessible perspective on why Catholic culture may provide some saving grace from the types of queer erasure portrayed in Boy Erased and Cameron Post.
Let’s expand on this.
These two films work from a 90s evangelical Christian framework with a theology declaring that the sinner (“homosexual” person) cannot be separated from the sin (same-sex attraction) because God did not make them that way. Rather, the emphasis is placed on trauma, abuse, or developmental issues that might have led to “homosexuality.” Alternatively, the theology of Catholicism acknowledges queer sexuality in that it does not separate the sinner from the sin. Catholics believe that people may be born gay, but doctrine states they cannot act on it. The Catechism refers to the “genesis” of homosexuality as “largely unexplained” and falls back on teachings of marriage and family within Scripture to deduce: “homosexual persons are called to chastity.” The Catechism recognizes people’s queer identities as part of their personhood, instead of assuming that every person, by default, is born heterosexual and homosexuality is then a sinful act that can be reconciled. In this official church document the person is identified, instead of erasing their identity altogether. While I recognize that these simple theological breakdowns are actually much more complex than what I’m making them out to be, I think these overarching themes help me to navigate my Catholic upbringing in Christian contexts. Instead of being taught to “pray the gay away,” Esposito remarks, “In the Catholic church … it’s not about change or conversion, it’s about suppression.” Instead of erasing identity to fit a heterosexual marriage, Queer Catholics are given the “option” of a life of celibacy. The Catholic Church upholds chaste singleness as a valid and rightful vocational choice, which, in my opinion, is a step ahead of other Christian perceptions of marriage and vocation. However, this is not and should not be the end of the conversation.
Everyone must show up to the queer-affirming theologies available to us and question mainstream Christian culture. Alternatively, we must uphold our queer identities in the face of suppression and oppression. As FJVs we are called to challenge the systems of oppression and our own beliefs, Catholicism included. Can true allyship exist between both communities? I think so. But it isn’t as simple as listening and dialogue. Films like Boy Erased and Cameron Post remind us that we must actively work to destroy homophobic Christian teachings and belief systems and continue to affirm queerness and queer sexuality.
Note: I acknowledge that “queer” typically refers to gender and sexuality. However, for the purpose of this post, “queer” is aimed to be inclusive of just sexual orientation.