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Last night saw Dr Christian Jessen of Embarrassing Bodies fame take on the world of gay cure therapy in Undercover Doctor: Cure Me, I’m Gay. Following in a rich vein of recent documentaries that have sought to actively address the many manifestations of homophobia around the world, namely Stephen Fry’s Out There and Dispatches‘ Hunted, Dr Christian’s exploration held much promise in further exposing the underlying hypocrisy that upholds these beliefs. Unfortunately, much in line with the adverts for the programme that saw Dr Christian vomit uncontrollably, what followed was a mushy, undirected splurge that left you quite empty, and with a questionable lingering after-taste.
Whilst the show was undoubtedly well-intentioned in its efforts to expose these worrying overlaps of quack science and homophobia, the surface-level criticism provided by Dr Christian tended more towards mockery and disbelief rather than truly addressing the issues at stake. By playing to the extremes of anti-gay activism, such as a substantial feature on a psychotherapist who believed that the colours you chose to shade a picture of a brain with were valid indications of your sexuality, focus was shifted away from the very pressing issue of real, lived homophobia. Instead, the programme pursued an almost mythologised and tired conception of Mid-West regression.
While Dr Christian met many along his journey who did truly conform to these extreme views and models, the tendency towards ridicule rather than debate skewed the show’s impact. Whereas Out There and Hunted served to burst our collectively constructed bubble of security when it came to expressing our sexual identity free from persecution, Undercover Doctor served to bolster it, removing the immediacy of homophobia to the far-flung extremes of quack doctors and over-zealous preachers.
It is of course arguable that the world of gay cure therapy deserves nothing less than scorn, mockery and scepticism, as it often seeks to progress its social agenda through unjustified quasi-scientific means. However, the lack of objectivity offered by the show, alongside its quite disparate use of case studies in both the UK and US, meant that the underlying issues and pressures that brought people to believe in and seek support from such extreme therapies were not adequately addressed and debunked.
Therapies were questioned in voice-overs, with glaring medical inconsistencies pointed out, but there was little direct confrontation in the face of what are quite abhorrent and dangerous practices. It left this viewer with a distinct lacking, frustrated by the #wankdiary, #colourblind, #toplessdoctor and #gaysloveadele twitter friendly scenarios that were seemingly constructed to foster catty asides and witty comebacks at the cost of any critical clout. It was an opportunity missed, or perhaps I was wanting a different programme entirely.
However, despite the often questionable perspective and the intensely worrying white-washing of sexuality through Dr Christian proclaiming that tests showed him to be “100% gay”, there were moments of relevance amongst the mire, mainly his vomit. Cure Me, I’m Gay opened by situating itself within a medical history that saw a variant of gay cure therapy commissioned on the NHS up until the 1980s. In taking part in this treatment, Dr Christian ingested medicine that provoked uncontrollable vomiting, all whilst being confronted with homosexual pornographic images.
The connection between enforced physical pain and sexual desires spoke to a harrowing history that not too long ago saw homosexuality as a remediable mental disorder. By talking to a clinician who practised this treatment on the NHS at the start of their career, their clear regret spoke to a journey of medical enlightenment and redemption that has done away with such dangerous instances of institutionalised ignorance. We should not forget this transition and the physical and psychological suffering previously supported by medical science. Had this journey been the subject of the programme, this review would be of a very different tone.
Roll on 30 years and Dr Christian’s attention shifted to campaigners who were seeking to have gay cure therapy delivered on the NHS. Whilst subject to the usual bouts of discrediting through mockery, the aim of the group remained worryingly unaddressed. Personally, working in support of the Policy Directorate in the NHS for the day job, I can categorically state that hell will freeze over before such a commissioning decision would even be entertained. Equally, the psychotherapist with his diagnosis through crayons approach would be hounded out of every single Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) across the country.
Cure Me, I’m Gay shied away from clarifying the absolutely abstract non-threat that such treatments, policies and campaigns pose to our lives in terms of accessing healthcare. It is of course arguable that this is self-evident, yet given the ambivalent level of criticism maintained throughout the programme, a greater assertion of the current state of play in the UK and the wide-ranging advances that have come to change the service since those dark days would have been a worthy note of redemption.
Whilst Dr Christian’s focus on the issue of gay cure therapy was a valid one, the show’s tone and perspective sadly missed the mark. The Theroux mould of self-conscious reporting served to the detriment of Undercover Doctor and glossed over serious and pressing issues. We can all admire the glory of Dr Christian’s arms, but should he want to redeem himself for this limp foray into LGBT politics, an exploration of the healthcare service’s chequered historic connection with sexuality, from mental aberration to the present day, would be a welcome addition to documentary predecessors, albeit less Twitter friendly.