Film Corner: They/Them (Part 1)

I have a new favorite movie and I very much want to spoil it for all of you because it's about queer trauma and I know that not everyone will be able to watch this movie, but I want everyone to be *aware* of it, if that makes sense.

Way back in the foggy past, I remember seeing a tweet about They/Them when it was first announced and my first impression was *oh no*. It looked like Friday the 13th but with queer kids, and my gut reaction was that this was part of the new trend where cishet people remake everything with queer kids as the powerful bullies (like that godawful Heathers reboot) without understanding that the idea of queer and trans kids as the new "popular" school caste is just a transphobic myth designed to "explain" why children come out as trans. (Supposedly to "fit in" and "gain popularity", which anyone actually trans knows is...not how coming out usually goes.) So I was expecting They/Them to be a trainwreck.

But I watched the trailer anyway, to determine how bothered I needed to be, and immediately noticed that it wasn't queer kids getting killed at this camp. It was the adults. And it wasn't just a summer camp with queer kids. It was a *gay conversion camp*, you know, the place where queer children are sent to be tortured into becoming cishet. Then I read an interview with the director, Kevin Bacon, in a queer publication (Pink News) about how very important it was to him that the movie be respectful to queer kids and realistic in telling the horrific ugly truth about gay conversion camps being places where torture happens. How they didn't want to make the camp seem in any way okay or candy-coated.

Now They/Them had both my interest and my attention.

The movie has been streaming on the service Peacock for months. I signed up for a free trial specifically to watch the movie, but have been steeling myself. I watched But I'm A Cheerleader last year without realizing that it was set in a gay conversion camp and that movie fucked me up really badly. Kissmate came home to find me crying on the couch and had to put me back together. I know the movie is important and influential gay cinema, and I don't want to imply that it was bad or shouldn't be watched, but it was hard for me. So I wanted to be in the right space for They/Them, and waited until we felt ready to tackle the material.

And...I loved it. This is legitimately my new favorite movie. I seriously considered just urging everyone to go and watch it, but I know that not everyone is going to be able to handle the material (just like I struggled with But I'm A Cheerleader) and may prefer a summary from a safe distance. Or there may be folks who want to watch the movie but want to read the summary first so they know what to expect!

Spoilers therefore abound below.

I'm going to give a body count first: No queer kids die in this movie. The only deaths are camp counselors, a "queer kid" who is actually an adult predator working with the counselors, and a dog. Regarding trigger warnings: sexual harassment, sexual predation, animal death, a LOT of queerphobia, and electroshock torture. Your mileage may vary, but I felt like all these topics were handled as respectfully as they could. I feel silly saying that a slasher movie that is trying to pay tribute to the campy Friday the 13th is "respectful" in its handling of queer torture, but the scenes are carefully staged and framed to make them easier for queer people to watch. It's hard for me to explain exactly, but to me it's the difference between a rape scene that's been staged to arouse the audience (ugh) vs. one that has been staged to be as brutal as possible for Trauma Porn (double ugh) vs. one that has been staged with the awareness that survivors will be in the audience and perhaps there's a way to show this horrible thing while at least *trying* not to trigger us.

On to the summary.

The movie starts in a dark forest. An unnamed person drives through the dark forest while listening to a scary podcast. Her car suffers a tire blowout and she gets out to see that there are spike strips on the road. A trap. Tension builds very nicely for a bit (I'm reminded by my friend Scott that Kevin Bacon was actually in the original Friday the 13th and knows how suspense works) and our unnamed person is killed by an axe murderer wearing a mask. Hmm.

Daytime. A camp sign proclaims the motto "Respect, Renew, Rejoice" which is initially somewhat heartening to me, then immediately sinister when you remember that this is a gay conversion camp and they almost certainly don't use those words the way I do. It's nicely Orwellian, the threat under the peaceful words. A bus-load of queer young adults are dropped off in front of a beautiful wooden cabin. The first thing I notice is that these actors are actually really queer. The main character, Jordan, is played by Theo Germaine (they/them) and looks amazing. We also have a trans actress playing a trans girl (Alexandra, played by Quei Tann). These aren't cishet folks playing dress-up with our identities, which is just such a breath of fresh air.

Kevin Bacon is superbly adept, as an actor, at pretending to be an affable guy before turning out to be a heinous villain. He steps out of the cabin and gives a great speech to the gathered kids, telling them that he can't "make anyone straight" and that he doesn't want to. God loves them as they are and anyone who tells them otherwise is a bigot not worth listening to. No, he's not there to convert or change them, and in fact he hopes they're happy the way they are. What he believes they can get out of this week at camp is a few new useful life skills and maybe some increased self-love after working with their therapist.

My face, like the queer kids' faces, is a picture of suspicion and wariness. It's a good speech, an excellent pitch. Without coming right out and saying so, he's acting like this gay conversion camp is a sham, a fraud. He seems to be implying that he's milking their bigoted parents of their money while creating a safe space to protect these kids. If their parents are bound and determined to send them to a torture camp, then what better way to protect these kids than by *pretending* to be a torture camp so the kids are sent there rather than somewhere worser. But how can he be telling the truth? Wouldn't the parents figure out that this camp is a sham and stop sending their kids there? The queer kids are wary and so am I.

We're introduced to the adults. Kevin Bacon is the camp leader and his wife is a sweet, smiling therapist who just wants to help the youngsters learn to love themselves. The nurse, Molly, is a new hire who is still settling in. There's a burly beefcake man who is a "former student" of the camp, and a blonde woman who is the activities director and a self-described "Homemaker Barbie". They all smile warmly at the kids before the kids are told to turn in their electronics and medications, and then to divvy up into Boy and Girl dorms.

Jordan speaks up: they're nonbinary and use they/them pronouns ("As in, 'They can't believe they're at this fucking camp'."). Kevin affably apologizes that they don't have an all-gender dorm, but asks that Jordan settle into the boy cabin and see if they feel comfortable there. Once again, Kevin says the right words in exactly the right ways: he says "I acknowledge and respect your transition" but that he doesn't want any of the students to sleep alone or be isolated from the others. Yet there's still that little...eddy of wrongness under the right words and the kind tone, because you notice that Kevin never actually calls Jordan they/them. He's talking to them directly right now, of course, but there will be opportunities later and Kevin lets each one pass by. When you're trans, you notice the people who very carefully never use your pronouns.

We meet the other kids. Camp Gay is here in exchange for Moulin Rogue tickets from his parents. Red Undercut claims to be a self-hating bisexual (we later learn that she's an undercover student writing a paper about conversion camps and how terrible they are). Blonde Suburbia is straight out of But I'm A Cheerleader; she can't understand why she can't just be straight for her parents. Jerk Jock wants to be straight so he can satisfy his dad's dreams of athletic scholarship and frat life. There's a pretty Goth Guy (spoilers: he is a honeypot working for the counselors) and a fierce Black Lesbian who is here so her parents don't make her homeless. Kevin nods his way through the introductions, his Therapist takes notes, and they let the kids go back to their cabins for the night. I notice that the "self-love" portion of the promised camp experience hasn't manifested; that sharing session desperately needed aftercare and it didn't happen. Wariness increases.

Early in the morning, our Black Lesbian (Alexandra) heads to shower privately on her own before everyone else awakes. A camp counselor, Homemaker Barbie, barges in on her and rakes her eyes aggressively over Alexandra's naked body. Alexandra, we learn, is trans. The mask on this "kinder, gentler" conversion camp immediately slips; Kevin Bacon's character berates her for supposedly lying to him, and tries to use Jordan against her as a Good Trans who was "honest". Furious at not having complete control over the situation, and the student, he forces Alexandra into the Boy Dorm and orders her to "dress appropriately" from now on, i.e., as a boy. Alexandra is frustrated, sad, and furious: she wasn't lying, she wasn't hiding, she's a GIRL, and she doesn't even have any boy clothes. Her dress *is* appropriate for her.

I just want to note that this is exactly how to portray bigotry on-screen, in my opinion. I am often challenged when I criticize bigotry in movies and books, and asked if I want everyone to behave perfectly. Of course not! Kevin Bacon's character is a bigot, and I'm not upset at seeing bigotry portrayed when it's portrayed as wrong. When it's *challenged* by the other characters. Alexandra is given time and space by the script to defend herself, and we see that she is being unfairly treated.

The kids in the Boy Cabin rally around Alexandra, donating clothes for her to wear (which she still wears like a girl because she IS a girl), while Jordan dons Alexandra's dress to make a point to Kevin Bacon. Kevs accepts this challenge to his authority with a cold smile, then deadnames and misgenders Alexandra while the other kids look very uncomfortable at this mistreatment of their peer. We get a montage of the kids being broken up into groups; the girls bond over a bracelet-weaving class while the "boys" (boys + one nonbinary kid + one trans girl = I'm going to need a new name for this group!) are put through a physical obstacle course. Jordan helps the others over the climbing wall, but then just straddles the top, a beautiful metaphor for nonbinaryness if I ever saw one. They can stay in the middle, dammit, and bless them.

Alexandra sneaks into the main cabin looking for her estradiol pills. (Remember, they took everyone's prescriptions on the first day.) The Nurse, a new hire that we haven't seen much of yet, is hesitant because pills are technically against the rules and Kevs would very definitely not approve of hormone pills. At last she gives Alexandra the pills and urges her to keep this a secret so neither of them get into trouble.

Lights click on in the cabin in the middle of the night. Kevs marches all the students out into the woods and handcuffs them into pairs. He tells them to walk out into the forest, sit down, get comfortable, and he'll "see you in the morning". The kids protest that it's unethical and tortuous to deny them their sleep and dump them in the woods and Kevs is flippant about it. This is a ploy to search the kids' belongings while they're out of the cabins, as well as to just generally torment them. The kids pair off and spend the night chatting about how creepy this place is and their fears. Camp Gay and Jerk Jock bond, Red Undercut and Blonde Suburbia talk, and Jordan and Alexandra fret--more so when they see a looming ominous masked figure watching them in the woods. Jordan challenges the figure and it melts into the darkness.

The next day Jordan is called in for one-on-one with the Therapist. She searched their bags the night before and figured out that Jordan is from a military family that goes in hard on Bible stuff. Sitting Jordan down in the most impersonal office I have ever seen, she spins a questionable story about how she was a Navy brat and acted out for attention from her parents. That if she had been of Jordan's generation, she would have declared herself nonbinary or trans in an attempt to get her parents to notice her. Jordan is silent throughout this, even as the "therapy" descends into cheerful verbal abuse and slurs, then quietly leaves. This is such a powerful scene. This therapist is clearly abusive and sociopathic, to the point where it's hard to even imagine that she could be telling the truth about herself; the entire story feels like a fake background she spun up for herself in the hopes that it would hit close to Jordan's own experiences and force a bond between them. The audience is left furious with her (rightfully) and proud of Jordan for resiliently staying silent and fleeing when allowed.

Everyone is back at the Boy Cabin for free time, and Alexandra notices that Jordan is affected by "Lady Macbitch" and the mandatory therapy sessions. Jordan talks with her about being trans, about how they're tired of fighting and just want to be left alone. Alexandra says that Jordan needs to talk more kindly about themself, and begins singing "Fuckin' Perfect" by Pink. The other queer kids join in, belting out the lyrics, and it's beautiful and wonderful. (Even the Jerk Jock is starting to accept himself!)

Outside the cabin, Kevs watches their queer joy with a blank face, an unhappy face. I have to wonder, since he's been running this camp for a long time: is he used to this level of defiance or is this new? I wonder if he's used to the students coming in with self-hate, like Jerk Jock and Blonde Suburbia, and not coming in with a fierce background of having already had to fight and overcome assholes like him. There's a thread here I like, where it is the trans kids who are lending strength to the other queer kids. Several of the articles I've seen about this movie have referenced the Stonewall riots, so I don't think this thread is a coincidence.

Jordan has had enough of this camp, after the abusive therapy session, and wants to know what they're up against. They break into the main cabin after everyone is asleep and they Horrible pictures of years of abuse. Kids with bruises, kids with restraints, the ugly reality under all the lies. This isn't a place of acceptance, it's a place of torment and abuse.

I want to talk about this for a minute because it's really important to me. One of the things that I really hated about But I'm A Cheerleader is that the camp leadership there seemed (to me) to be portrayed as misguided rather than outright hateful and evil. The woman was clearly desperate for an actual, genuine, real way to turn gay kids into straight ones, not least because her own son was gay and she wanted to "fix" him. It felt like she was portrayed almost sympathetically at times; factually wrong in the sense that it's impossible to change someone's sexuality, but *understandably* wrong as a panicked mother.

The thing is, the people who run gay conversion camps aren't decent people following a wrong path. The kind of people who make it their life's work to do this year after year, decade after decade, who dedicate themselves to tormenting queer kids? Those people are doing cruel, sadistic, futile work where cruelty is ultimately the point: the ultimate goal of queer "conversion" is to break queer kids' spirit so thoroughly that they are too weakened to fight back when the adults forcibly stuff them into the closet and send them home.

With that in mind, I *appreciate* that Kevs and his crew are slowly revealed to be cruel sadists. Kevs is a control freak who breaks his folksy character any time one of the children challenge him. His wife, the therapist, is a sociopath who tries to forge false bonds with them so she can maximally damage them. We will later see that the grounds-keeper likes to watch hidden shower cams (right before the killer strikes) and the "former student" Beefcake and Homemaker Barbie are sexual predators who can only have sex with each other by staring at stolen selfies of the students and rubbing their clothed bodies together. They're all sadists who were attracted to this job so they could hurt kids in a socially acceptable way. (Kevs brags to the Nurse, when she objects to his methods, that he's a respected member of the local chamber of the commerce and that country cops don't care about "pervert kids".)

Jordan is horrified, but not surprised, by the terrible photographs they find. When the Nurse finds Jordan alone and asks what they're doing, Jordan demands to know whether she knew about the abuse. She insists that she didn't, and Jordan declares that she had better help protect the kids. Nurse promises that she'll "do what I can" and warns Jordan to be careful: Kevs doesn't like them, and "this could get a lot worse".

Somewhere in a very creepy cabin, the grounds-keeper looks at shower cam footage from the girls' showers. (Is that how they knew so quickly that Alexandra was up early and showering, and that she was trans?) The masked killer swiftly bashes his head into the computer monitor for a nicely retro killing. You can't really get the same effect with modern LCD screens.

I have to pause here, for reasons, but I'm going to pick this up in another post.


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