Filmmaker Heather Corkhill was 15 when she came out to her mother. The decision was not made lightly. Raised in a religious household and a student at a single-sex Christian school, Corkhill was sure her same-sex attraction meant leaving church and family behind.
But her experience was positive. Her mother supported her sexuality, and though she clashed with her religious school teachers, Corkhill considers herself lucky. She wasn’t forced to change, she didn’t become suicidal, and she now considers lesbianism a proud aspect of her identity.
Yet Corkhill says her experience is vastly different from that of many other Christian homosexuals. Some are shunned by their families and churches while others are obliged to hide their true identity. But Corkhill believes one of the most damaging practices affecting same-sex attracted believers has to do with programs endorsed by faith-groups.
“They’re called reparative or ex-gay programs,” she says of the religious ministries at the heart of her new documentary The Cure. Though strongly associated with the Christian Evangelical movement in the United States, these operations also exist in Australian. Some are affiliated with established churches of varying denominations. Others are independent organisations set up in the mould of America’s ‘community outreach’ centres.
And ‘cure’ methods vary. Though all are alike in the mission to help people with “unwanted same-sex attraction” or “broken sexuality”, “treatments” range from heavy prayer sessions and conversational therapy to extreme retraining exercises and public exorcisms. For the film, Corkhill spoke with ex-gay program participants, some of whom had led their own reparative movements, including one current minister who believes curing homosexuality is possible.
“What I found once I started the research is a link between ex-gay programs and mental health problems,” Corkhill says. “I started to read survivor stories online of people who came out of the program and suffered a mental health issue; it’s important to bring these issues to light because LGBT people from faith communities are certainly at risk of mental health issues, and I’m not sure that’s something that’s well understood in the wider community.”
She raises the case of Ben Gresham, a young Sydney man from a family of fierce Evangelicals, who wrestled long and hard with the idea he may be gay. In The Cure, Gresham shares his experience of gay-cure ministries, including an exorcism, and the profound, sometimes suicidal feelings of hopelessness suffered in relation to his “failure to change”.
“He didn’t believe he could reconcile his faith and sexuality and was particularly concerned about what his church community and his parents would think about it,” she says. “But he’s come a very long way now and he feels that he’s completely reconciled his faith and sexuality, and feels he can walk both paths.”
Experiences such as these prompted Corkhill to reconsider her own views about religion and homosexuality. From her initial curiosity about whether the ministries existed in Australia, to a desire to raise awareness about mental health issues related to the programs, Corkhill says she hopes the documentary will help share this message too.
“When I decided I was going to come out, and at quite a young age, I decided that I would have to leave faith behind; that there was absolutely no way you could reconcile faith and sexuality, and it was absolutely a choice one way or the other,” she says.
“I suppose I became angry about religion and quite militant about my atheism in a way. But when I started hearing some of the stores coming out of The Cure, I guess I’ve really shifted my view a bit about the idea that you can reconcile your faith and sexuality.
“I want the stories to speak for themselves because they are strong stories, and I want people to make up their own minds, I want people to be educated, and if people do want to try and change their sexuality, that they do seriously consider whether there is any chance of success and what can actually result from it.”
The Cure will screen as part of the Brisbane Queer Film Festival currently at the Brisbane Powerhouse from April 13 to 22. Program and ticket information available via the website.