It was a coming-out story that turned into a nightmare. The film “Boy Erased,” released on March 27 in France, is based on the true story of the teenage son of a Baptist pastor from Arkansas. When he revealed his sexuality to his parents, they reacted by enrolling him in a “masculinisation” programme to “heal” him of his homosexuality. He found himself in group therapy in a detention centre where he felt he was “trapped in hell.” He did not emerge “cured.”
In the United States, it is estimated that 700,000 young people have been sent to this type of rehabilitation centre. But it might come as a surprise to learn that they also exist in Europe – particularly in France.
In France, these “sexual reorientations” are practiced by some Christian evangelical groups inspired by the American model and by some Muslim preachers. Young people undergo “internships” that combine prayers, readings, exorcism sessions and sometimes even complete isolation. “We had the case of a teenage Jehovah’s Witness whose homosexuality had been publicly disclosed in the community. His parents had then seized his phone and his computer, and he was forbidden from interacting with the outside world,” says Lesage.
At Le Refuge, it is estimated that 3.5% of LGBT calls are reactions to conversion therapies. This amounts to three calls every month.
“There was a distinctive change of attitude at the time of ‘La Manif pour tous’ (a collective formed in 2012 to protest against the legalisation of same-sex marriage), it was as if homophobic speech was suddenly liberated and it caused much abuse,” says Lesage. “Some churches at the time went so far as to organise prayer sessions to prevent the law from passing.” Anthony Favier, president of the Christian LGBT association David & Jonathan, agrees. He says that the phenomenon has grown with the explosion of the evangelical movement in France in recent years. “It is a modern movement in form but very conservative in substance,” says Favier. “And there is no interpretation of religious texts.”
French conversion therapies currently exist in a legal limbo. The practice of sexually redirecting or ‘curing’ homosexuals is legal but there have been European directives to change this. France may be dragging its feet, but things are progressing in the rest of Europe. A year ago, the European Parliament adopted a text calling on member states to ban conversion therapies. So far, only Malta and some autonomous regions of Spain have passed laws. But several countries are actively working on the issue, including Germany, Poland and the United Kingdom, who last year launched a major governmental initiative to ban the practice.