I never felt quite a uncomfortable entering a show as I did for the performance of Savage Umbrella’s Ex-Gays. Of course, it’s meant to be uncomfortable. Held at Uptown’s Springhouse Ministry Center, overly cheerful “pastors” greet audience members and bless you, directing you where to check in for a “five week” camp to rid yourself of sin and find your way to heterosexuality. Not expecting this interactive aspect, I was pleasantly surprised and hurtled back to my own Sunday bible school sessions at a Catholic Church. Even the program ( a Camp Str8-N-Arrow welcome packet) brought me uneasily back to my childhood with coloring book images that were cheerful but haunting (one of a kitten staring at its reflection really got to me. I’ll save the psychoanalysis of why for another post).
The show itself follows a group of camp pastors teaching campers how to “admit we are powerless over our unnatural attraction to same-sex persons” and to “turn our lives over to the care of God’s heterosexual touch.” The cast, including Eli Purdom, Katherine Skoretz, Amber Davis, Alyssa Davis, Nick Wolf, Shannon McCarville, Meagan Kedrowski, Nissa Nordland, Matthew Englund, and Courtney Stirn, presents these issues with hilarious, over-the-top campy cheer (yes, that’s a pun on campy) which ultimately makes the serious subject matter of the show all the more powerful. We see how many of the characters are pretending to be happy and straight, trying to lead double lives, and doing harm to themselves in order to do what they believe God requires of them.
To understand the full affect this play had on me, you need to know some parts of my personal life. I grew up Roman Catholic. I came out as bisexual just over a year ago. I recently read a book about the Westboro Baptist Church and, having seeing this show during Bisexual Awareness Week, this show certainly packed a wallop. I was uncomfortable, I was entertained, I was horrified, I was heartbroken. But most of all the importance of discussing these issues was brought to mind,
Director Laura Leffler says in her notes that she feels a new apprehension during the remount of the show. I felt this same apprehension. With a sense that the current political climate cares nothing about marginalized people, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+, and those in the White House already working to undo progress that has been made (be it the military ban on trans individuals or overturning Title 9) there’s a reason for the uneasiness and fear. The thoughts of extremists who believe in conversion therapy and that people need to change to fit into their God’s (increasingly narrow) idea of good humans are not just outlier voices but voices that are being given recognition and power. This play is so important because it hears those voices but shows how wrong they are. This show broke my heart but also revealed how important it is to show others – especially young LGBTQ+ community members – that they deserve respect and to be loved who they are. After seeing this, I’ll never look at a bundt cake the same way again (and it’s all for the best) and I feel stronger in resisting forces that wish to harm others. I always feel a little like I’m making up some sort of Stephen King-esque monster when I talk about the threats to the LGBTQ+ to people I’d like to make allies. Maybe I do a poor job of it, still navigating my ways through my identity. Or maybe I feel like people assume I exaggerate the threat because, “it can’t be that bad” or “this isn’t Chechnya.” But I’ve heard the horrific things that people say and heard the horrible acts people commit because someone else’s sexuality makes them uncomfortable. There is a need to speak up and be heard right now, and I’m grateful that this play is not only doing that but encouraging others to do the same.