This story contains spoilers.
I never expected a slasher flick on gay and transgender oppression to have an uplifting Hallmark message.
They/Them, which hit Peacock on Aug. 5, has many ingredients of a legit horror film: an opening scene with a masked assassin, a sleep-away camp in the woods stocked with torture devices, a group of teens poised to engage in forbidden (read: queer) sex.
But despite centering on the terror of LGBTQ "conversion therapy" -- a topic deserving of cinematic complexity -- They/Them (pronounced they-slash-them) isn't the stuff of nightmares. Instead, it delivers a feel-good folktale wrapped in a tidy happily-ever-after bow. The aim of the film's writer and director, John Logan, wasn't to focus on psychological abuse or gay victimhood, but "to celebrate queerness."
For well over a century, LGBTQ people have been told they're sinful, diseased or suffering from a mental condition, and that they can change their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression through psychological, behavioral or spiritual "conversion" efforts. According to Casey Pick of The Trevor Project, 17% of LGBTQ youth report being threatened with or subjected to conversion therapy.
Recent movies have put a spotlight on the damaging effects of "reparative therapy," including The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the 2018 drama about a young woman attending a Christian "ex-gay" camp; and Boy Erased, based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, the son of a Baptist pastor who went through the infamous Love in Action program. The 2021 Netflix documentary Pray Away profiled former leaders of Exodus International, once the biggest conversion therapy organization worldwide, who now regret the suffering they caused.
They/Them is the first to tackle the theme of gay and trans conversion therapy as a slasher film. With a cast of LGBTQ actors, Logan (who's openly gay) consulted with executive producer Scott Turner Schofield to make sure the characters were represented in an inclusive way.
But the movie is still a shallow dive into LGBTQ oppression. Few filmmakers have effectively pulled off the social thriller genre, one that exposes how the real evil is society itself. It requires a willingness to be divisive -- to reveal biases and unlock audience fears through deep political underpinnings and subtext. My expectations were high for They/Them to be a trailblazer, much the way Jordan Peele's Get Out masterfully used horror tropes to unpack the daily perils for Black people in America.
Logan's film doesn't follow the fright playbook: There's no edge-of-your-seat tension or dread. (The oppressed aren't even the ones being hunted by a killer, contrary to the movie's trailer.) Nor does it deconstruct the trauma that comes with anti-gay and anti-trans bigotry the way Peele does with racism. Instead, it relies on inoffensive and overly simplified themes of personal empowerment.
Mixed messages of fear and cheer
In the film, Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon) runs a weeklong conversion program for LGBTQ youth, most of whom have been sent by their families to be "cured." Whistler deceptively tells the campers, "If you're happy with the way you are, then more power to you," adding that God doesn't hate them. Jordan (Theo Germaine), the film's central protagonist, who's trans and nonbinary, is suspicious of the lack of overt Bible-thumping bigotry. So was I.
But the brutal tactics of Whistler camp are soon revealed -- which do, in fact, reflect real life. The campers are separated by gender, with Jordan pushed into the boys' cabin and Alexandra (Quei Tann) forced to move out of the girls' cabin when it's discovered she hasn't fully transitioned. The two trans storylines in the film echo the heated controversy over gender identity in public bathrooms, sports teams and schools. In fact, many of the figures leading conversion programs in the US today are also behind anti-transgender policies and legislation, pushing kids to only be labeled by the gender they were assigned at birth.
In their separate groups, the campers participate in traditionally gendered activities, from knitting and baking cakes to shooting guns -- and Whistler roars at one of the campers to "be a fucking man" and kill Duke, the camp's infirm dog. Such behavioral "training" is premised on the notion that gender or sexual nonconformity is a pathological disorder.
Before seeing the movie, I spoke to Mathew Shurka, co-founder of Born Perfect (a global campaign to end conversion therapy), who experienced his own kind of bullying into "manhood" when undergoing the practice as a teenager. A licensed psychologist claimed that Shurka could become straight under the guidance of men. To avoid adopting "effeminate behaviors," Shurka was prevented from having any meaningful interaction with women. He couldn't engage with his mother and sisters for a full three years.
Today, conversion practices lurk in the corners of religious youth camps, addiction treatment facilities and online groups, but Shurka told me that they mostly occur during one-on-one talk therapy. That means that instead of providing tools for overcoming anxiety and depression, a psychotherapist manipulates an LGBTQ patient's trust by poking at their shame and intensifying their self-hatred.
The one truly chilling scene of They/Them is a therapy session with Jordan. Cora Whistler (Carrie Preston) exploits Jordan's innermost doubts about their parents' rejection, saying, "You're nothing to them, you're not even a freak." In the robotic creep of a Stepford wife, she crushes her prey: "They're never going to love you... unless you drop this nonsense and admit what you are. A scared, lonely, ugly little dyke." Jordan returns to their cabin disarmed, believing they're a fake.
But in a bizarre about-face a few minutes later, Jordan and the other campers appear to be in a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, proudly singing and dancing to Pink's 2010 song Fuckin' Perfect. The filmmaker's message in this impromptu performance is supposed to be that the campers are united as a tribe, but the gleeful celebration is a tonal misfiring that underplays the burden of psychological abuse.
Conversion therapy: the real-life horror
In another scene, star athlete Stu (Cooper Koch) is subjected to electric shock therapy as punishment for sex with another camper, Gabriel (Darwin del Fabro)... who turns out to be an undercover agent for the sadistic counselors. With electrodes attached to his chest, Stu is shocked with each image flash of a burly man, in an attempt to associate gay desire with pain and torture. Whistler tells Stu to look on the bright side: "In my grandfather's day, you'd be on the lobotomy table."
Not long ago, the US government deemed LGBTQ people abnormal and criminal, barred them from employment or committed them to psychiatric institutions. In the 1950s, homosexuality was officially characterized by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental illness. For decades prior, doctors and medical professionals had already been "treating" gay and gender-nonconforming people through "corrective" violence and surgery, medication and electroconvulsive shock treatment, among other types of aversion therapy and pseudoscientific techniques.
The characterization of homosexuality as a mental illness wasn't officially removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until the early 1970s, as depicted in the 2020 documentary Cured. And that's when new forms of conversion therapy came onto the scene, particularly among religious leaders dedicated to "praying the gay away."
Conversion therapy today has been rejected by virtually every major medical and mental health organization in the US and outlawed in multiple states, counties and cities. But according to Pick, it's still legal for licensed professionals to practice conversion therapy on minors in 30 states. Shurka told me that Born Perfect has tracked at least 5,500 conversion therapists nationwide in the last two years.
One survivor of conversion therapy I spoke with, Matt Davis, contacted a "prayer hotline" in a Christian magazine when he realized he was gay as a young teen. Growing up with a fundamentalist family in conservative Kansas in the early 2000s, Davis was terrified of going to hell and struggled with obsessive thoughts of being a failure. A pastor encouraged him to take a 60-day online class called the Door of Hope on the website Setting Captives Free.
Through the program, Davis was assigned a mentor to whom he confessed his sexual thoughts about men. He was forced to read testimonials of men who had committed sex crimes, which evoked tremendous shame by putting Davis in the same category. Davis told me that the program taught him that being gay "would lead to a sad, lonely and unhealthy life." He became so angry that he resorted to self-injury and considered suicide. "I still have lingering depression and anxiety that continues to this day," he said.
Like Davis, LGBTQ youth who are under pressure to change their sexual orientation or gender identity suffer from extreme despair and alienation, not to mention homelessness and drug use. Gay and trans youth who experience high levels of family rejection -- including by having to undergo conversion therapy -- are eight times more likely to report having attempted suicide.
While the Door of Hope no longer exists (it's been replaced with a program called Purity Bootcamp), multiple outfits like these continue to operate, some openly so. Others fly under the radar, rebranded through "rainbow-washing" -- that is, falsely positioning themselves as friends of gay and trans people by co-opting new language to emphasize healing and freedom.
On heroes and villains
Though moviegoers are led to believe that the LGBTQ youth are being hunted by a bloodthirsty maniac, the actual targets of They/Them are the bigoted Whistler Camp staff. In the last scenes, the masked assassin is revealed -- a former camper named Angie (Anna Chlumsky) driven mad by her abuse. Disguised as Molly, the camp nurse, Angie was able to carry out her kills from the inside.
In Angie's final confrontation with Whistler, she says what motivates her revenge: the long-lasting damage and trauma that plagued her into adulthood. Her plot is to expose and shut down all gay conversion therapy camps that "hollow out" their child victims.
For a brief moment, I thought this tame storyline would suddenly be packaged as a revenge fantasy, and I was ready to embrace an antihero. Though a brave avenger's actions are often futile and nihilistic, at least they're based on a desire to take down the criminals and institutions that destroy innocent lives. That sense of righteous rage and resistance is what makes other narratives -- like Django Unchained or Promising Young Woman -- so satisfying.
But the filmmaker chose to depict Angie as a lonely, weak and unhinged villain. Before impaling Whistler with a mounted rhino head, Angie encourages Jordan to shoot him, but they refuse. "I'm strong enough to not do this," Jordan says. For a film that avoids much mention of religion, the final message seems to be that neither God nor the devil can save us. It also goes out of its way to coddle all the LGBTQ characters, making sure they come off as unsullied angels.
Logan's movie intended to emphasize a collective solidarity in queer culture, yet it sells the idea that emancipation is an entirely personal, not societal, act. And this, perhaps, is the most unsettling. Conversion therapy tells us that if we're not "cured" of being gay, it's our fault -- but is it also our fault if we don't overcome the trauma of conversion therapy via our own internal strength?
They/Them might bring a sense of catharsis to certain viewers, but it suffers from romantic simplicity. And that means it won't educate its audience on a cruel practice that continues to terrorize LGBTQ youth to this day.