WATERVILLE — In the film “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” audiences watch as the titular character is plucked from her life and banished to a Christian conversion therapy camp in the ’90s after she is caught in an intimate moment with another girl at a school dance.

Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) and the other gay teens who have been sent to the camp, God’s Promise, by their parents — mostly without a choice — undergo the “therapy” and are told by teachers and counselors that their same-sex attraction is both sinful and a result of trauma. Some of the kids are pushed to the brink of self-hatred and depression during their time there. Cameron, during a moment of defeat in which she reluctantly and momentarily gives in to the treatment, says “I’m tired of feeling disgusted with myself.”

The conversion practice depicted in the film is the same one Maine lawmakers attempted to ban during the last legislative session with bill L.D. 912. The bill ultimately could not surmount Gov. Paul LePage’s veto.

From left, Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville; Oamshri Amarasingham, policy director at the ACLU of Maine; Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford; Rep. Matthew Moonen, D-Portland and director of Equality Maine, speak during a panel discussion Tuesday at Railroad Square Cinemas in Waterville after a screening of the film “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” at the Maine International Film Festival. The film addresses conversion therapy, a practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, a licensed clinical social worker; Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford; Oamshri Amarasingham, the policy director at the ACLU of Maine; and Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, who is also the executive director of Equality Maine, conducted a panel discussion Tuesday evening about their experience in trying to pass this legislation and why they believe it is important after a screening of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” at the Maine International Film Festival.

LePage vetoed the legislation earlier this month, calling it “bad public policy” with too broad a definition.

The bill would have allowed the state to deny a professional license to, or revoke a license of, medical or mental health professionals who engage in conversion therapy of minors. The bill defines conversion therapy as “any practice or course of treatment that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including, but not limited to, any effort to change gender expression or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender.”

“The bill this session is dead,” Fecteau told a packed theater at Railroad Square Cinema.

Fecteau, who sponsored the legislation, said it was important to note that LePage was the first governor in the nation to veto a bill on conversion therapy.

Oamshri Amarasingham, policy director at the ACLU of Maine, speaks during a panel discussion Tuesday after a screening of the film “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville. The film addresses conversion therapy, a practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

While panelists told the audience that they were not aware of a camp such as one depicted in the film operating in Maine, they said that type of therapy is carried out generally in a subtle way using coded language.

“To be clear, (opponents) never suggested in the testimony that they did this. So it’s very crafty, right?” Fecteau said. “They’d say, ‘I oppose this bill for all of these reasons, but none of which admit the fact that I do this.'” Some licensed therapists, Fecteau said, wouldn’t answer in their written testimony questions about whether they practiced conversion therapy.

Moonen said some tried to rebrand conversion therapy under a new name in an attempt to carry out the practice.

“The Christian Civic League and other opponents tried to make a distinction between conversion therapy and what they called reparative therapy. Ryan would ask if they practiced conversion therapy and they would say, ‘Oh, no, but reparative therapy is very different from that,'” Moonen said. “They would try to draw these lines, and for us it just came down to LGBTQ people don’t need to be converted and they don’t need to be repaired. Whatever you call it, we don’t care. You can’t offer this kind of service.”

Religious freedom and parental rights were two arguments opponents of the bill used in their testimony, which the panelists said did not hold up for them.

“We wanted to be absolutely clear that speaking in confidence with someone from your faith was protected activity. The bill really walked a really clear line,” said Amarasingham, of the ACLU.

“That the parents have the right to subject their kids to whatever they want, which was also hard to take … it became really clear that when the bill was moving through the veto process and the override process … we actually had parental rights issues going on at the border, where children were being separated from their parents,” Amarasingham said. “There was no concern for the rights of those parents who are being detained and deported while their children are still in the country, and there is deafening silence from people who oppose this bill about those parental rights.”

Although the bill exempted religious counseling, Fecteau said that type of interaction still has an effect and can be harmful.

Fecteau told the story of being pushed toward conversion therapy himself by a university priest whom he respected and trusted while in college. He said he had been proud to be openly gay, but that the suggestion that something was wrong with him triggered suicidal thoughts for the first time in his life.

The other panelists said this spoke to the coercive nature of the therapy.

“What we’re really talking about here is the coercive element, and I think you saw that in the film. Many of the young people said, ‘I didn’t have a choice to be here,'” Moonen said. Guardians and parents issuing an ultimatum to children to either attend these camps or accept this therapy or leave home has resulted in a large homeless population of LGBTQ young people, he said.

Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland and director of Equality Maine, speaks during a panel discussion Tuesday after a screening of the film “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville. The film addresses conversion therapy, a practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

“Nationally, 40 percent of all minors who are homeless identify as LGBTQ,” he said. “It’s because of all of those things, that they don’t have support at home or at school. It’s forcing minors to go to this kind of treatment is really what this bill is about.”

Madigan said the coercive element of the therapy is a betrayal of a clinician’s training and mission.

“A big part of being trained to be a therapist is recognizing the differential in power that occurs when someone is before you as a client,” Madigan said. “To try and change who they are, and make them believe that part of what makes them who they are is somehow harmful or bad, seems to me a total misuse of the power I have when I’m sitting in that chair.”

An audience member asked the panelists what they should do now that the bill has been killed during this session.

“Well, it is an election year,” Moonen said. Equality Maine will be endorsing a pro-equality candidate for governor who will sign the legislation when Fecteau reintroduces it in the next session, he said, and the organization will put out a list of candidates running for the state House and Senate who would vote for the legislation as well.

Fecteau said he wished more Republicans would have voted with Democrats on this issue, as he does not believe that it is as polarizing or controversial as it might have been in past decades. He said fewer Republican lawmakers voted in support of the conversion therapy ban than the marriage equality bill 10 years ago.

“Many politicians are getting worse on this issue as voters get better,” he said, adding the legislation would be his No. 1 priority in the next session. “Anyone who voted against this bill shouldn’t be back in Augusta.”

“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” will be shown again at 9:15 p.m. Thursday at Railroad Square Cinemas in Waterville.

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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