I grew up in a predominantly Christian community in rural West Virginia. Not a day went by that I wasn’t told I was going to burn in hell for all of eternity. I devoured the preacher’s sermon on Sunday morning, attentively completed sailor’s logs for the Patch the Pirate Club, and spent my weeks obsessed with contemporary Christian bands like Mercy Me and Newsboys. I had been indoctrinated against my will and never knew it.
I was so radicalized that I became addicted with end-times prophecy, cowering in fear that I would make one wrong move and be cast into the lake of fire. I poured over the Left Behind book series and envisioned myself a missionary one day, traveling around the world spreading the gospel. In high school, I took a Halloween trip with my youth group to Liberty University’s Scaremare, a haunted maze aimed at striking fear about sin and eternal damnation. The room centered around suicide still haunts me most. A young girl had slit her wrists and blood smothered the walls and linoleum floor. It was mortifying. I didn’t want to end up like her, or any of the other characters littered throughout the attraction’s morbid halls. There was also a room dedicated to drunk driving. Broken glass, billowing smoke, a mangled body.
Depicting real pain, those startling images remain the hallmark of modern-day evangelical Christianity. A high body count is just another reason to believe in God 一 or so I was taught. Deep in my heart, I knew better. I knew the fire and brimstone ideology was a sure path to self-loathing and regret.
I also knew how different I was. I may not have had the vocabulary to properly contextualize my identity, but I always fell outside the binary. A child of the ‘90s, non-binary representation was non-existent in media, and society had yet to concretely define the term. We’d only had the hyper-charged “transsexual” and “transvestite,” as popularized by The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which I adore), and so we were left with feeling discarded at the side of the highway.
I struggled with my faith and who I knew I was. Frightened that I would be punished for simply existing, I suppressed my entire self and fought, perhaps unsuccessfully, to uphold heteronormative standards. I pretended to enjoy playing baseball and hunting with my father, and I even had a girlfriend in fourth grade after a group of boys teased me for hanging out with her too much during recess. I dressed in oversized sweatshirts and baggy JNCO jeans. Any photos from my teenage years, I’m standing awkwardly to the side. I’m almost slumped over, my shoulders buckling beneath the weight of carrying this deranged notion that I was somehow wrong for living.
Looking back now, it’s a wonder how I survived. But I’m sure glad I did. The art I’ve witnessed and learned from has been, hyperbolically-speaking, life-changing. I’m so thankful I’m standing here to experience John Logan’s expectedly-divisive and wonderfully-empowering They/Them (“they-slash-them”), a conversion camp-themed slasher depicting the horrors of Christian thought. I have long since discarded the Bible thumpers’ manifesto and traded in for a richer connection to spirituality. When I first laid eyes on the film, I was enraged and moved and energized and reminded exactly how far I’ve come in my journey. I was also injected with sheer terror and reminded that these conversion camps and similar therapies do exist.
A peer-reviewed study released early 2022 revealed that conversion therapy costs in the U.S. total $9.32 billion. Yes, billion. Billions of dollars funneled into programs directly harming LGBTQ+ youth in the name of God. They/Them is real-world horror set within my favorite hack ‘n slash blood feast, random Glee-approved musical number included.
Casey Pick, Senior Fellow for Advocacy and Government Affairs with Trevor Project, had this to say about that startling number: “We knew that there was a financial component to this. We’re hopeful that for policymakers and others, really being able to look into what that kind of cost looks like would be another way to emphasize just how harmful and detrimental to society this practice really is.”
Conversion therapy, as we know it, dates back to 1899 when a German psychiatrist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing claimed he turned a gay man straight. It took 45 hypnosis sessions, as well as frequent trips to a brothel, for the therapy to “work.” Deplorable doesn’t begin to describe such actions, and this so-called research has led to over 100 years of the physical and psychological trauma of LGBTQ+ people. In the coming decades, equally-reprehensible procedures would be implemented to “cure” gay men and women, from lobotomies to castration and electroconvulsive therapy.
Psychiatrist Robert Galbraith Heath infamously used pleasure conditioning to “turn” gay men through hooking electro-shocks to the brain and using sex workers and straight porn. In 1970, a young gay man, known only as B-19, was physically tortured. Medical personnel “implanted stainless steel, Teflon-coated electrodes into nine separate regions of B-19’s brain.” It gets even more horrific: “Once he had recovered from the operation, a control box was attached which enabled him, under his doctors’ supervision, to provide a one-second jolt to the brain area of his choice.”
Does that sound familiar? One of the most disturbing moments in They/Them arrives when a teen named Stu (Cooper Koch) has wires from a car battery attached to his chest. He’s shown provocative images of men and women, and how his body responds to each dictates the severity of the shocks injected into his body. “You’ll be the man you wanted to be,” spits camp owner Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon). Much like Heath’s grotesque treatments, which also included sexual coercion, Whistler Camp wields questionable pseudoscience techniques and “genetic programming,” as Owen describes, to brutalize queer youth.
Leading into this truly uncomfortable sequence, Stu finds himself gravitating toward Gabriel (Darwin del Fabro), an androgynous gay teen, and the two have sex. Moments later, Gabriel reveals that he actually works for the camp and baits other teens into committing perceived “sins,” for which Owen and the counselors torture them in the name of a “cure.” The revelation doesn’t sit particularly well with many in the LGBTQ+ community, but I would counter and say that Gabriel represents those cis white gay men that have and continue to be the problem (alongside cis white women).
Since the 2016 election, the number of cis white gay men I’ve had to cut out of my life is astounding. But it’s not surprising. Cis white gay men benefit the most from white supremacy and often are far too blinded by their own privilege, as if the same system for which they die doesn’t cut them down the first chance they get. Gabriel is not unlike Helena (Madeleine Adams) in 2019’s Black Christmas, in which she conspires with the fraternity to target those women who don’t adhere to misogynistic principles. Both are cis and white and unafraid of propping up the powers that be.
While Helena wields her whiteness to crush the female spirit, Gabriel weaponizes his queerness as a villain in hiding. He’s a perfect match with Stu, truth be told, as Stu displays explicitly transphobic behavior, from scoffing at Jordan’s pronouns and calling Alexandra a “freakshow.” The LGBTQ+ community so often touts itself as inclusive and welcoming 一 but so often, the calls are coming from inside the house. There is a prevalent hostility that peeks through the online static, from members of the community to previously assumed “allies” like J.K. Rowling, who expresses no qualms about targeting trans people in the name of protecting womanhood.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s reality. There is much work to be done, and a film like They/Them aims to tear down those bricks, light the rafters on fire, and rebuild from the ground up. It is through telling a simple, straightforward slasher around different queer experiences that the film manages to offer up a thoughtful, yet sometimes chaotic and messy, analysis of the dangers of evangelical Christianity and how insidious and unassuming it can be.
The moment campers set foot on Whistler Camp soil, Owen dons the mask of a warm and compassionate ally, spouting performative talking points. “I don’t want to make you straight. Gay people are a-okay with me,” he pledges, before calling out “homophobic bullshit” and claiming “that’s not what we’re about here.” He hopes they find a “new kind of peace” in their week-long stay. His smile is too bright, too perfect, too magnetic. Such virtue signaling and coded language aims to disarm the campers into a state of complacency, so when the viper strikes their guards are down and they are unable to fight back. “It’s a safe space… for everyone,” Owen adds.
The “safe space” immediately shatters when Owen instructs everyone to branch off to the only two cabins: one for the boys and one for the girls. Jordan (Theo Germaine) stops in their tracks. As a trans, non-binary person, they have never felt as though they belonged, even within the LGBTQ+ community. They’ve dangled somewhere else entirely. In this subtle moment of aggression, Jordan’s entire existence is swiftly invalidated and stripped away. Later, they confide to Alexandra (Quei Tann), a trans lesbian, how “all my life, I’ve been different,” Jordan says, nearly in tears. “Not this. Not that. Just this other… thing.”
Thing. That word burns like gulping hot tar. I recall my days of attending 4-H camp every summer, from fourth to 10th grade. I was excited for what the week had in store, yet I never felt comfortable or included in the boys cabin. I longed to hang out with my girl friends in their cabins, quite a distance away. But I still felt out of place in the mix. Never this. Never that. Just this other thing. Even now, when online discourse surrounds hiring LGBTQ+ writers, for example, there’s a striking lack of conversation about enlisting trans and non-binary writers. Alas.
Earlier, Jordan met with resident therapist Dr. Cora Whistler (Carrie Preston) for their first one-on-one session. Cora can’t seem to understand why they are “choosing to live this way,” she says with a malicious smirk. She then equates growing up as a Navy brat and feeling displaced as the only child not following in her father’s footsteps to being a trans, non-binary teen. “I was just so different,” notes Cora, her entire character indicative of many cis white women in the real world. There’s evident suffering from which she is pulling, and paired with her extremist beliefs, it’s the perfect, most volatile storm.
“You’ll never be good enough. It’s like you’re nothing to them,” she hisses in an almost hushed whisper. Stunned into disbelief, Jordan’s veneer cracks around the edges 一 their lip quivers and a flood of tears builds up behind the eyes. From the previous night’s hike in the woods to these similarly intimate scenes, the emotional chipping away is perhaps the most frightening in the film. The outright detonation of self comes much later, yet the build-up has the most impact. Seeds planted in their head, Jordan now questions whether they are choosing this existence.
“You’re still you,” Alexandra comforts Jordan, who now breaks into tears. “I’ve been fighting to be me for so long. I’m tired of fighting. I just want to be,” Jordan sighs in utter exhaustion. It’s a quiet conversation that captures a collective desperation and hopelessness around the current state of the world. 2022 has marked one of the worst years for trans youth, and with the Supreme Court undoing Roe v Wade, claiming to reinstate “states rights,” the future looks darker than ever.
Alexandra’s story is the story so many LGBTQ+ youth face in this moment, particularly Black trans kids. Upon arriving, one of the conditions with which campers must live is handing over all their electronic devices and any medications. Among those items, Alexandra surrenders a bottle of estrogen hormone. She initially plays off the real reason she is forced to attend camp and later confronts camp nurse Molly Erickson (Anna Chlumsky), who reluctantly allows Alexandra to retain the pills. Alexandra reveals that her parents threatened her and that if she didn’t come to Whistler Camp she would never see her younger brother again. “Maybe you should believe in dignity,” she leaves Molly obviously shaken.
Alexandra has also been shamed in front of the entire camp. The night before, she sneaks off to the girls’ bathhouse to take a shower, and activities director Sarah (Hayley Griffith) catches her and snitches to Owen that Alexandra has not yet undergone gender-affirming surgery. This revolting attack on Alexandra brings up the myth that all transgender people medically transition; that’s simply unfounded. Alexandra is as trans as she has defined on her own terms. Now banished from the girls cabin, she is forced to the boys across the field and must change out of her dress and into boys clothes. Jordan consoles her, and Toby offers some of his “not vintage” clothes to wear for the time being. In a wonderful switcheroo, Alexandra and Jordan swap clothes for the morning roll call. “Not entirely sure that suits you, Jordan,” Owen side-eyes, then quickly misgenders Alexandra “with love.”
Alexandra and Jordan are dynamic together. There is a natural chemistry and camaraderie that spills onto the screen. Their friendship is legendary. Back to their late-evening conversation, following Jordan’s emotional therapy session, Alexandra alleviates the heaviness of the scene with lyrics from P!nk’s 2010 hit “Perfect.” It’s a real Glee moment that restores hope. Hope that one day down the line, living unapologetically and authentically won’t be such a big deal.
As much as the Ryan Murphy series went off the rails in later seasons, you could always count on the musical numbers to be passionate and infectious. But…does Gen Z really listen to P!nk?! That’s the millionaire dollar question. Now, I do wish any of these songs from actual, current LGBTQ+ artists had been used instead: “Be Me” by VINCINT, “Nobody to Love” by Alex Newell, “This Hell” by Rina Sawayama, mashup of “It’s Okay to Cry” and “Immaterial” by SOPHIE, “Middle of Love” by Jake Wesley Rogers, “Girlfriend” by Rebecca Black, “Daydream” by The Aces, or “God is a Freak” by Peach PRC.
But I digress.
“Perfect” is cheesy but heartfelt. Jordan and Alexandra discover community with the other campers, and it’s enough to slither deeper beneath Owen’s fingernails and into his bloodstream. The following morning, Owen splits the campers into two groups based solely on traditional gender roles. Sarah guides her troupe through cooking and baking tasks, while her fiancé, former camper, and the athletics director Zane (Boone Platt) assists Owen in demonstrating how to use a gun at target practice. Even on paper, these classes worm their way into the campers’ heads, further underscoring the frequently stealthy nature of conversion therapy.
While on the shooting range, Owen tightens the psychological screws when he emotionally-pulverizes gay teen Toby (Austin Crute). He gives Toby an ultimatum: he can shoot Owen’s old dog Duke or Zane will start breaking the dog’s legs. Toby crumbles to the ground in panic. A shot abruptly pierces through the air 一 a single clear bullet from Jordan’s gun. They stand resolute, jaw clenched and stare down Owen. “There’s my killer,” Owen says under icy breath. Jordan then levels their gun squarely at Owen’s chest and takes a beat, digging their heels into the dirt. The camera lingers. Exhaling, Jordan cocks the gun and then tosses the barrel over their shoulder, the metallic vessel skittering through the grass.
Jordan exudes such strength of character throughout the rest of the film. Jordan is the one to discover graphic images of the camp’s past transgressions, photographs of children being tortured and bruised in the most humiliating ways. And it’s Jordan who corrals the other campers when a masked killer bumps off many of the counselors and directs them to sneak off through the woods to a potentially safer location. And it’s Jordan who comes face-to-face with both the murderer and Owen in the third act. Jordan is a force of nature, someone you’d want in your corner when facing a world filled with hate and violence. Jordan possesses a soft presence but it’s nonetheless commanding and demanding our attention. They’re the definition of a fierce protector.
Even when confronting systemic bigotry, and given a choice to kill, end cycles of abuse, and perhaps transform into a monster OR not, Jordan remains firm in their convictions. That leads us to the controversial finale 一 in which Molly reveals herself to be the killer when attacking Owen. And her name isn’t Molly. It’s Angie Phelps, a former camper who endured reprehensible pain and trauma from her experiences, leading her to become increasingly suicidal and turn to pills. “I woke up one morning and realized my soul was just hollow,” Molly remembers. “That’s what you do to people…to children. You hollow them out.”
Jordan has been tucked away in a closet and bore witness to this revelation, stepping out of the shadows with a handgun pointed at Owen. “You know what to do, Jordan,” pleads a wild-eyed Molly. “End this now. You’re strong enough to do this, Jordan…”
But Jordan lowers the gun this time 一 even with Owen purposely misgendering them. “I’m strong enough to not do this,” they determine. Molly takes matters in her own hands, pouring all her anger and resentment and hopelessness into grabbing Owen and shoving him onto the head of a taxidermied rhinoceros. Its horn punctures him in the heart, and he gurgles blood, life draining from his body. Molly turns, a wild gleam in her eye, and reveals her plans to cleanse conversion camps all across the country and begs Jordan to join her.
Cop sirens cry in the distance, and light bars cast a swirling glow around the cabin. “No more lies…” Jordan replies. It’s as though they’ve unloaded the weight of the world from their shoulders. Having barely survived underneath tradition’s tyrannical thumb, Jordan’s decision not to kill brings up a moral quandary presented through Molly, who is completely swallowed by her trauma and in turn consumed by revenge. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy these bigots meeting a grisly, well-deserved end; I do. While many have called into question this finale, especially as Jordan turns and leaves Molly behind with the cops closing in, I find it empowering that Jordan made their own decision that felt right for them. Where Molly is emblematic of LGBTQ+ trail blazers like Marsha P. Johnson, James Baldwin, and Elizaeth Birch, Jordan represents a new wave of queer voices, such as TikTok stars Dylan Mulvaney and Chrissy Chlapecka. Our predecessors fought for our rights and shed literal blood in the process, making way for a generation that didn’t have to fight in the same ways. Neither invalidates the other. They simply fuel and inspire one another.
Molly’s pain clearly still runs red and hot, and her thirst for vengeance is more than justified. That doesn’t mean Jordan needs to, or even should, embrace the same mission. They/Them suggests that blood-soaked revenge never ultimately heals you. It only forges deep wounds in your soul. Her retaliation leads to a refreshing level of catharsis to be transmitted to the viewer; seeing bigots killed is a guaranteed good time.
In response to many criticisms: being queer is not a monolith. Each person’s experiences are inherently their own and no one else’s. For Molly to dump that weight upon Jordan is a dangerous move. Conversely, Jordan is not allowed to project their own personal traumas and story on Molly, and they don’t. “I’m strong enough to not do this” is a declaration for their self-preservation. It’s the cutting of hate and hurt from their stomach so it doesn’t metastasize and swallow them. That is power.
They/Them engages, and it provokes. While it may not be most LGBTQ+ viewers’ cup of tea, it presents a much-needed conversation about past trauma, how revenge is not a conduit for justice, and rediscovering strength through community. Writer/director John Logan peers through the camp slasher lens to tell a story that rings incredibly personal to him, and that should be commended above anything else. They/Them is an undeniably significant milemarker in queer-led horror, alongside many other films released this year, including So Vam and Children of Sin. We can confront aspects of these stories which don’t work and still recognize them as the rare achievements they are. It’s been a long journey to this moment, and we should celebrate how far we’ve come.
Conversion Therapy, NBC (2022): https://www.nbcnews.com/nbc-out/out-news/conversion-therapy-costs-us-9-billion-year-study-finds-rcna19040
Gay Conversion Therapy, History: https://www.history.com/news/gay-conversion-therapy-origins-19th-century
German Psychiatrist Psychiatrist: https://mosaicscience.com/story/gay-cure-experiments/
Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislation: https://www.aclu.org/legislation-affecting-lgbtq-rights-across-country
Robert Heath, Pleasure Conditioning: https://www.newsweek.com/who-robert-galbraith-heath-jk-rowling-1532701