fb-pixel Skip to main content
Critic's Notebook

‘They/Them’: Can a conversion-therapy slasher movie be uplifting?

Kevin Bacon plays an LGBTQ+ conversion camp leader who unleashes the real horrors in this Peacock film, which stars nonbinary actor Theo Germaine

"They/Them" stars Theo Germaine as Jordan, one of a group of campers sent to an LGBTQ+ conversion therapy camp in the new Peacock horror movie.Josh Stringer/Blumhouse

Less than halfway into “They/Them,” I start to doubt whether I am actually nonbinary.

The new Peacock film follows a group of young queer campers sent to a conversion therapy program stalked by a masked killer.

In one of its key scenes, the nonbinary protagonist, Jordan (played by nonbinary actor Theo Germaine), rests against a duffel bag after a conversion-therapy session. Jordan (who uses “they,” not “he” or “she” pronouns) takes a stifled breath, their body stiff, as if a full exhale would demand too much energy.

“Do you ever wonder,” they ask, “how we are, how we present ourselves . . . how true that all is?”

Advertisement



I thought back to the times I’ve asked myself that same question.

Since I came out as nonbinary — meaning that I’m not a man/woman, but somewhere in between — I have felt at peace with myself in a way I never thought possible. So why do I still have moments of doubt?

“They/Them” helped me answer that question. Written and directed by openly gay, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter John Logan (”Gladiator,” “The Aviator”), the film, his feature directorial debut, is set at a conversion camp in the woods where program leader, Owen (Kevin Bacon), promises to “help” the young queer kids trapped in his care.

Owen doesn’t believe in magical transformations. “I can’t make you straight,” he tells the campers early on. He and his fellow three counselors are more keen on breaking these kids down — leading them through a series of “camp activities” that amount to escalating emotional and physical abuse.

In the background, the movie’s also got a mysterious killer chopping up bodies — but the true horror is the success of the counselors in breaking the campers’ spirits and self-confidence.

Kevin Bacon plays LGBTQ+ conversion therapy camp leader Owen Whistler in the new Peacock horror movie "They/Them."Josh Stringer/Blumhouse

I know what it’s like to have your sense of self shaken in the way that campers experience in “They/Them.” I grew up in an extreme evangelical community in Pennsylvania where I was surrounded by people who doubted me; who punished me for being myself and told me that I was either confused or going to hell.

Advertisement



In 2020, I also attended a virtual program experts have called “soft conversion therapy” in order to write a story for my college paper about its dangers. I listened as speakers told participants how to make “mixed-orientation marriages” work and why queer relationships and identities would always lead to unhappiness.

So when I heard the counselors in “They/Them” make those same arguments — you’re trying to “make yourself special,” one tells Jordan; “nonbinary” is a “thing you made up” — I felt doubt resurface. Reality can buckle under enough pressure from the people around you.

Thankfully, “They/Them” doesn’t abandon Jordan, or viewers.

After the conversion therapy session that had prompted Jordan to wonder “how true” their identity was, they find an antidote to their paralysis. They share their uncertainty with trans woman and fellow camper Alexandra (Quei Tann) — and she understands how they feel.

Alexandra’s character reminds Jordan that they’re not the only person who feels at odds with their assigned gender: that this experience is real for many other people, too. She shows them that there is strength, beauty, and power in trusting yourself, and that self-doubt doesn’t make you any less trans or nonbinary.

Advertisement



I wasn’t expecting a scene in a slasher movie to make me cry.

“They/Them” can, at times, be earnest to a fault. It’s hard to stay scary when you’re kind to your characters and committed to empowerment.

Tonally, it’s the messier, more in-your-face grandchild of my favorite conversion-therapy movie (something of a micro genre), queer cult classic “But I’m a Cheerleader” (1999), starring Clea DuVall and Natasha Lyonne. (That film centers on a girl who believes she can’t be gay, because, as you may have guessed, she’s a cheerleader.) Both movies try to mix the horrors of conversion-therapy programs with a campy, uplifting tone, which isn’t easy to pull off.

Though “They/Them” stumbles at times, the scenes where it manages to balance horror and agency deliver a catharsis refreshingly devoid of “trauma porn” or voyeurism.

Jack Caron, Cooper Koch, Juan De Jesus, Darwin del Fabro, Austin Crute, Quei Tann, Theo Germaine, and Monique Kim in the new Peacock horror movie "They/Them."Josh Stringer/Blumhouse

A key ingredient to those moments of success is the film’s cast. Most of the young actors who play the campers are openly queer. They bring a deeper level of understanding to their performances, and strike a just-right balance between doubt and certainty.

Germaine’s Jordan starts off with an authority and fearlessness I’d never seen in a nonbinary character onscreen. It‘s from that unapologetic place — in their first scene, Jordan firmly corrects someone who uses the wrong pronouns for them — that we then see them bear the effects of conversion therapy.

Germaine’s performance makes clear that outside manipulation has threatened their sense of self, not any real confusion over who they are.

Advertisement



I quiet the fears of others, and reality comes back into focus. I remember the jolt of unbidden happiness I feel when friends use “they/them” pronouns for me; the way my shoulders rest differently when I dress outside the box of “woman”; the solidness of relationships newly rich with the closeness of finally being seen.

It‘s not easy to admit to self-doubt in a world that has so little trust in trans and nonbinary people. I’m grateful “They/Them” did so anyway, and helped me remember the clarity buried underneath indoctrination.

The doubts of others may continue to linger — but I still know who I am.


Joy Ashford can be reached at joy.ashford@globe.com. Follow them on Twitter @joy_ashford.