What is conversion therapy? Sometimes called “reparative therapy”, it is technically defined as “the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual, using psychological or spiritual interventions.” The “pseudo” in “pseudoscientific” is key– because despite some religious leaders, politicians, and rogue therapists who strongly advocate for the practice, there is virtually no reliable evidence that sexual orientation can be changed. Overall, it has been widely established that conversion therapy practices are not only ineffective but can be potentially harmful. In addition, there’s the issue of consent. For as long as the practice has been in existence, many individual medical practitioners and health organizations as a whole have declared that changing someone’s sexual orientation against their will is unethical under any circumstances. Various jurisdictions in the United States, Canada, South America, Europe, and Australia have passed laws against conversion therapy.
With recent attention in the news and as the subject of some recent high-profile movies, conversion therapy may seem like the something of a “topic du jour”. In actuality, the effects of someone who has undergone the experience can last for a lifetime. Award-winning author Peter Gajdics
(pronounced “guy-ditch”) knows about conversion therapy and its lasting effects. Gajdics was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, to immigrant parents from Eastern Europe. He knew from an early age that he was gay, but was not ready to accept it at the time. In his early 20’s, Gajdics turned to a local psychiatrist for help– and within months, he found himself embroiled in a bizarre, extreme sort of conversion therapy that attempted to “cure” him of his homosexuality. Gajdic’s 2017 memoir The Inheritance of Shame
documents the author’s six-year journey through, and eventually out of, this renegade form of “therapy”. In addition to the stories of genuine horrors from the “treatment” itself, the book also tells of his subsequent legal battle with his former psychiatrist, his complicated family history, and his attempts to reclaim his life and true identity after the ordeal. The Inheritance of Shame
, which is Gajdics’ first book, went on to gather many positive reviews and was praised in various LGBTQ+ literary circles: The memoir won the Silver Medal in LGBT Nonfiction
at the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards
, was a Nominee for The Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction
from The Publishing Triangle
, and a Finalist for Sixth Annual Saints and Sinners Emerging Writer Award
With its universal themes of survival and self-discovery, Peter Gajdics’ story seems ripe for the stage. Joseph W. Rodriguez, actor and Producing Artistic Director at New York City’s Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company, is Executive Producer of a staged public reading of Gajdics’ own stage adaptation of The Inheritance of Shame, on Monday, March 11, 7 PM., at New York City’s The Wild Project. Rodriguez tells me, “Playhouse Creatures is honored to bring this important story to the stage. I am reminded of ancient Greece; they subsidized their citizens to attend theatre. There, in drama, people saw the failings of themselves, in sharp relief, and were given the chance to reflect. Today, we live in a world devoid of reflection and empathy. This work is all about that– learning to see, hear, and feel, to understand that we ALL have demons, but can escape them. But… only if we try and accept each for who we are. That is why our mission (the Past, The Present, and the Future) is truly essential in 2019. Peter’s great work is just what we need on stage– right now!”
The staged reading is directed by New York City based producer and director Scott F. Davis, who is Manager and an Artistic Associate of Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company. Davis took the time to speak to me about his affinity for this project… and why this is an important story that needs to be told in 2019:
JR: Hi, Scott. Thank you for speaking with me. Congratulations about the upcoming reading.
SD: Thank you!
JR: I have read a lot about Peter Gajdics’ book The Inheritance of Shame, which the play is based upon. Peter’s story, it seems, is ultimately a positive one in that the author eventually found mental health and happiness. However, it was anything but an easy path. His revelations about six years of conversion therapy are really a collection of horrors. It’s a challenging book for the reader, and I imagine that a stage version would be as equally challenging for the audience. What attracted you to this project?
SD: Most of my work is centered around queer narratives or queer stories. The issue of conversion therapy was something that I wanted to explore for a while before even reading The Inheritance of Shame. I found the book last summer at Strand Book Store, and I instantly connected with it– just in terms of the textual style and how Peter reiterates the story. So, I read it and thought that there was a lot of potential for an adaptation of it to be on stage. I thought it was a really important story to be told on stage since, to my knowledge, it hasn’t been done yet. In our current climate, conversion therapy is still an issue. Although it may seem outdated, or seem like something from an earlier generation to a lot of people, conversion therapy is still going on. There are only 15 states right now that have legalized the ban of it. So has Canada. Canada is really on the forefront of legalizing a ban throughout the entire country. And now, Germany just came out this past month legalizing the ban of conversion therapy. So, it’s an issue that’s only starting to really gain traction. I think that the theatrical community, as well as other people who don’t know about this issue, need it to be seen in a way that was visceral and raw and had a bit of danger to it– as this story does.
JR: Right! So many times, we like to think of our country as the most progressive in the world– but history has taught us that, sadly, that’s not necessarily the case. So… the subject of conversion therapy has been a really controversial one, especially cause it’s tied to all these religious and political factors– which it should have never have been in the first place. It’s a safe bet that much of mainstream America probably doesn’t even know anything about this subject. As you mentioned before, it’s finally starting to get some attention. In your opinion, are many people still “in the dark” about conversion therapy? Are we still ignorant about this subject?
SD: I think it depends on locality and where you are in the nation. Only recently, there was the movie The Imitation Game about Alan Turing, with Benedict Cumberbatch. It was the first mention of the idea of utilizing therapy in way of converting someone’s sexuality. There had been capturings of that subject in earlier movies, but it wasn’t as descriptive as it was in The Imitation Game. More recently, there was Boy Erased. That book also became a movie and became our first long-term focused narrative on the journey of conversion therapy. So, those are the first larger strides into a more mainstream conversation and a more popularized conversation. Through weeding out a lot of the issues surrounding the issue of violence towards the LGBTQ+ community, this is one form of violence that I think people have just now really been taking action on– especially with people like Peter really spearheading advocacy groups, especially in Canada. Now, it’s starting to become more present in the States. But yes, we’re really only in the early stages of creating full legality around it as well.
JR: The author has said that on at least one occasion, when speaking about his book, he has encountered someone who will respond that it’s an adult’s right if they want to change their sexual orientation. How would you respond to a statement like that?
SD: In the case of Peter, I think the greater theme of his story is about inherited trauma and residual inherited shame, and the fact that we walk through this life with a great deal of this inherited shame from our generations before us, because of external circumstances that we could not control. They are part of our nature and our general genetic makeup of who we are. In his story, Peter was pushed to a point in his life because of trauma that was mixed in with a greater amount of trauma from his family and his upbringing. It led him to the point of seeking out this form of therapy as the only resort. Today, I think greater strides have been made in the mental health community, especially in terms of its relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. Centers have been established all across the nation– obviously, in more metropolitan areas– to provide outlets for support. There’s The Trevor Project and all these great kinds of institutions that have really stepped in in terms of helping LGBTQ+ people with mental health. So, I think that seeking out this form of therapy was of a certain time. What’s interesting is that, in terms of Peter’s life, the story was in the 90’s: it was a fairly recent time. Going back to what first attracted me to the story: It was still semi-current, even though it was 20 plus years ago. It’s still in our general vicinity of time. So, it’s interesting that this form of conversion therapy was still being practiced– however so hidden it may have been– in Vancouver, British Columbia at the time.
JR: The real question seems to be: Why do you WANT to change? Is that what you really want, or are you motivated by other factors– such as religious, cultural, or political pressure? Is it motivated, as the title of the book and the play suggests, by shame? In that case, maybe shame is the real issue, not the desire to change your sexual orientation.
JR: So without giving too much away: What was, in your opinion, the most provocative moment of the play adoption?
SD: There were two moments that stick out at me. One is the first time that Peter Receives ketamine in the play. It takes the play to a very new height. There had been prescription drug usage prior to that moment. It goes into a gradual buildup and an acceleration throughout the first act of the play, during his first years of the therapy and his stay at this institution. Once the ketamine is introduced into that cycle of drugs, it really takes Peter to a new height– mentally, emotionally and psychologically– that he wasn’t ready for. That impacted his following years in the institute itself. It takes the doctor’s actions to a point that takes his maliciousness into something that’s more volatile or violent in a way. That’s a moment that really strikes out at me as something really intense and visceral and raw. The second is when he meets Shane, which is towards the end of the second act. Shane is the first source of hope for Peter of making a connection with another man outside of this institute and this experience. He comes in as someone who is really reluctant to the therapy, and really showing the earlier stages of where Peter was at: someone who was more comfortable with their homosexuality, or at least more sure of the fact that they ARE a homosexual. In this final moments, it gives Peter a whole different perspective that opens him up in a way that he wasn’t expecting, emotionally and mentally.
JR: Peter’s book was very vast and covered a lot of territory: It’s something of a transgenerational story, because he tells the parallel story of his own family’s hardships and shame alongside his own. There’s a lot of rich material in there. What was it like to streamline the story into a staged adaption?
SD: It’s been quite a journey. We started going through drafts since the end of December. That started off with almost a full transcription of the original book– so it was like 300 pages and change, which was insane. It was an epic story, so that made sense. From there on, we were prioritizing events of the play and characters of the play, and utilizing Peter as our full-on protagonist narrator… or at least someone who’s guiding us through the play. We were really centralizing it within the therapy itself as our like main arena or container for the play. What we’re looking at for this first reading is two acts of a greater three act play. The third act is something that we’re still exploring. We’re looking at the years after the conversion therapy: the remainder of the action that took place after Peter filing the lawsuit and going through all that legal action; and reconnecting with his family; and going on this very emotional, spiritual trip to Europe; and a lot of great other events. We’re wanting to leave for a later act. So, these first two acts, though still dense and with a lot of dynamic events, are focused on Peter’s six years at Styx, the conversion center.
JR: Thank you for speaking with me, Scott! I look forward to the reading!
This one night only staged public reading of the play adaptation of Peter Gajdics’ The Inheritance of Shame
will be held on Monday, March 11, 7PM at The Wild Project
, 195 E. 3rd Street, New York City. The reading is directed by Scott F. Davis
and produced by Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company.
The cast includes Annie Hagg, Ashton Muniz, Charlie Franklin, Jacob Perkins, Juan Carlos Hernandez, Kea Trevett, Polly Lee,
and Riley Galt.
for more information. Also visit www.inheritanceofshame.com