Theater: '14' examines violent therapy for gay Mormons in the 1970s

A Shocking Truth

The Daily Camera, Colorado/October 16, 2011

John Clarence Cameron doesn't view himself as a victim. But he wants the truth about what he endured to be told.

Cameron is not a victim, he says, because it was his choice to take part in so-called reparation therapy in 1974 while a student at Brigham Young University.

Cameron was one of 14 young men that year that volunteered for the therapy. Designed to "cure" them of their homosexual tendencies, the therapy consisted of hooking the men to electrodes and showing them pictures of other men. When the men were shown the images, they were administered electric shocks.

The theory was that giving electric shocks to the men when they viewed the images would create a negative response to the images.

Twenty-five years later, Cameron was interviewed about the events. That interview sparked something in the theater professor at the University of Iowa, and he decided to put what he went through into dramatic form.

His play, "14," named for the 14 men who volunteered for the controversial form of therapy, will be performed in CU's Loft Theatre Wednesday through Oct. 23.

In an email interview with the Camera, Cameron stressed the play isn't an attack on his alma mater or on the Church of Latter Day Saints.

"I'm not interested in ... blaming them for the personal struggles I faced after the therapy ended," Cameron said. "Some may say that the Church's oppressive attitudes against homosexuality drove me to my decision and so 'forced' me to do the therapy. I don't believe this to be true. You have to remember that in 1974, the whole world was pretty much anti-gay. You could lose your job, your home, even your life (for being part) of a sub-group that was considered prurient and deviant."

That doesn't mean Cameron wants to sugar coat what transpired.

"I would like everyone to tell the truth, admit the mistakes that took place, and stop trying to act like it didn't happen," he said.

Roe Green, a CU graduate who is sponsoring the CU production, showed CU theater chairman Bud Coleman the script of "14" last year. Coleman directs the CU show.

"It's a memory play," Coleman said.

The story features an adult Ron (the name given to Cameron's autobiographical character) and a younger version of himself.

"It's a wonderful premise, to think that you could go back and meet your young self and give them advice," said Eric van Baars, the Roe Green Visiting Guest Artist who plays the lead in "14."

Some of the action involves nightmares and the two versions of Ron in violent conflict with each other.

"It's a very violent act, going through electroshock therapy," van Baars said. "(Cameron) wanted the audience to experience the cathartic value of that violence because there is something about experiencing that together that is shocking."

Second time around

This is the second time van Baars is playing Ron. Two years ago, when the original actor cast in the role had to leave five days prior to opening, van Baars took on the character in a production that Cameron directed at Kent State University, where van Baars teaches theater. Getting another crack at the role has been enjoyable, van Baars said.

"I've been able to find many more layers to the character," he said. "I've discovered so many things about the play that I didn't realize were there the first time."

The CU production also features 14 student actors who play multiple roles. Some are comic. Bringing levity to a dark and difficult subject was important, Cameron said.

"First of all it's my voice. There is humor in everything I write," he said. "It's my support and defense, and it has gotten me through the most difficult times in my life."

Gay purge

Even the events depicted in the play took place more than 35 years ago, the issues it covers are still relevant, said Angela Hunt, who serves as dramaturg and assistant director on "14."

Hunt, a Ph.D. candidate in the CU theater department, attended BYU. So did her brother, who encountered what Hunt said was a semi-regular "gay purge" at the school.

Hunt said her brother, who is gay, and several of his friends in the BYU theater department in 2009 were called before the school's honor code committee because they were suspected as being gay.

"He was told that he could stay (at BYU) as long as he went through a process," said Hunt, who is a member of the LDS Church. "He would have to come weekly to be counseled, and he was asked to write papers about why being gay was wrong."

The LDS Church is aligned with an organization called Evergreen International, an organization that promotes different forms of reparative therapy (also commonly called conversion therapy).

Hunt said, however, the LDS Church has softened its stance on gay people in the past 35 years.

"There's an openly gay member of the bishopric in California," she said. "BYU has changed the honor code so that if I was there I could be a gay rights activist and still be a student."

Mainstream psychology doesn't recognize reparative therapy as legitimate these days, nor does it consider homosexuality as a mental disorder. But some psychologists, typically aligned with religious groups, still practice various forms of the therapy.

It even made political news this year when it was revealed GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's husband, Marcus, ran a clinic that practiced reparative therapy.

Cameron just wants the truth out there.

"I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me," he said. "I wrote the play for myself -- to work through the residue of emotional damage and self-loathing from the experiment that I had not really dealt with over the decades. It worked. I've moved on.

"In the play, I challenge the Mormon Church, and all religions, to reexamine their thinking about truth, sin, and homosexuality. Yes, there's anger in the play, and some may perceive that as an attack. But I think it's a shallow response and I hope they will look deeper."

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