If you were a young woman living in a rural area back in the early '90s, it probably wasn't the best time to get caught making out with the prom queen on the way home from a school dance. in The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, after the title character's caught doing just that, she's sent to a gay conversion camp by her God-fearing, conservative aunt. Ironically, in a pre-internet age, it's there that Cameron first encounters other kids just like her, all being told there's no such thing as homosexuality, just "Same Sex Attraction" they have to get over. But is The Miseducation of Cameron Post a true story, or just one example of what a generation of queer youth were made to go through?
emily danforth (lowercase spelling preferred), author of the book the movie's based on, has been clear that while the book and film use elements of her own experience, the story is not directly autobiographical. In an interview with Jason Bovberg danforth noted, "A better way to think of [Cameron] is as a character built from pieces of my experience growing up gay in Eastern Montana in the early 1990s. However, Jamie (her good male friend in the novel) is also a character built from some of my own experiences, and so is Lindsey (her activist in-training friend from Seattle), and so are many other characters in the book, actually."
Speaking with NPR, danforth noted that, herself raised Lutheran, she surrounded herself with evangelical friends as a shield; if these were her peers, she thought, there's no way she could possibly be gay. But the concern of what would happen if anyone suspected loomed large. "I didn't go to conversion therapy, but there was this sense of it as a threat that if I spoke up more, if I came out — I knew I was gay, I was closeted — that certainly my friends, really my peer group would suggest this for me," said danforth.
The film's director Desiree Akhavan, meanwhile, has been out for some time now; her debut feature Appropriate Behavior was a semi-autobiographical take on living as a bisexual Iranian woman in New York City. But when it came to working on The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Akhavan tapped into a different personal experience. Speaking to Emanuel Levy, Akhavan spoke about digging into her experience at a rehabilitation center for eating disorders, where she spent her mid-20s. "I love stories that take place in rehabilitation centers and I’ve always wanted to do a project that talked about what it felt like to be in those rooms,” the filmmaker said. “I was looking at the book again and it hit me: what is ‘better’ when you can’t ‘pray away the gay?’ That was the kernel of an idea that [co-author] Cecilia and I started with in writing the screenplay.”
While Cameron Post isn't real, there are sadly many teens who've been sent to gay conversion camps; conversion therapy is, after all, still legal in the majority of U.S. states. Take the story of Zach Stark, a young man whose MySpace posts about being forced to go to a de-gaying camp run by Love In Action in Tennessee and his experiences there caught fire with activists, who campaigned to have the camp shut down. Speaking to Slate, danforth said that Stark's story landed in her inbox and caught her interest. "I did have a very brief MySpace exchange with Zach Stark...but he eventually shut down his MySpace page and did not want that sort of role anymore," danforth explained. "But it was that story that made me think, ..."now I know that I want to explore conversion therapy and see how that’s going to become part of Cameron’s story.”
For far too many queer youth, isolation, the threat of rejection, and forced conversion therapy has made coming out a frightening or seemingly impossible prospect. By depicting a similar group of kids, Cameron Post highlights a disturbing practice and opens audiences' eyes in a powerful, necessary way.