Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story which premieres on Lifetime this Saturday 28th September at 8pm ET/PT 7pm C, is based on the harrowing true story of what happened when 15-year-old Alex Cooper (played by Addison Holley) came out to her devout Mormon parents. Throwing her out of their Southern California home they forced her to live in a conversion therapy house in Utah. Trapped for eight months with strangers, Alex faced punishments and beatings intended to ‘cure her’. Realizing that she would have to submit to the rules of the house in order to survive, Alex was eventually allowed to attend school, where she became friends with the president of the gay-straight alliance. Her new friend helped Alex get in touch with an attorney (played by Wilson Cruz), who later orchestrated her escape.
Ahead of the film’s premiere on Lifetime this Saturday The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively to Alex Cooper about her conversion therapy ordeal being adapted for the screen, reconciling with her parents who forced her into it, what LGBTQ life is like in Portland Orgean where she now lives and why Queer Eye is her favourite LGBTQ show.
James Kleinmann: Before this screen adaption you wrote a book, Saving Alex: When I Was Fifteen I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That’s When My Nightmare Began – why did you initially want to share your story?
Alex Cooper: “I think the audience that I most wanted to reach with the book was parents of LGBTQ youth, so that they could take a second thought about their reaction and their choices when their kid came out.”
What was your reaction when the idea of this screen adaptation was suggested?
“I was really excited to do it. I just wanted it to reach as many people as possible, so that more people would be educated about conversion therapy and know that it’s not just something that happened fifty years ago, it’s still happening right now and I just want people to give it a second thought.”
What reassured you that your story was in safe hands with this filmmaking team in the way that it was going to be told?
“I had a co-writer on my book and she was in contact with a screenwriter, she actually knew her from years ago, they were good friends, so that’s how I got connected with the screenwriter and director.”
Did they have a any relatable experiences to your story, the screenwriter and director?
“Both of them grew up Mormon, so that was a plus. I didn’t want them to just shame the church because obviously I grew up in the church, my parents are still in the church and I have other family who are still in the church. I don’t want to bash on anyone’s religion, but I do think these things are important. That people need to know about it. So it was nice to have people with a similar backgrounds to share my story.”
Your parents did eventually accept you as you are without leaving the church didn’t they?
“Yes, I think that it took time for them to really accept me and feel like they weren’t turning their backs on their religion. But now I feel like we have a great relationship. They still practice their religion, but at the same time they want to see me happy and they don’t want me to be out of their lives. They actually just spent their first pride with me, in Portland this year which was really cool! We do a different theme every year for pride, and this year me and my friends decided to do a wedding theme, so my dad was in a bowtie, a cute little flower, a white shirt and glitter toes! My mom had a veil on. It was really sweet and they had a really good time. They went to their first drag show too, which was amazing!”
That really is quite a turnaround isn’t it, to not only to accept you for who you are, but to really embrace it that fully is pretty incredible.
“Yes, I think so.”
We often underestimate people’s capacity to change I think. Would you say that their journey has given you even more impetus to get your story out there?
“Yeah, definitely. You know, when I first started telling my story, even before I started thinking about a book, I met a lot of people who said things like ‘I never thought my parents would change in a million years and now they ride the PFLAG float at Pride, they’re huge advocates’. You hear that a lot and just never think that it’s possible. Especially for me, I never thought that was a thing that was going to happen, but it did and it was really shocking, but amazing and I’m grateful for it.”
What was it like watching this film based on your story?
“I saw the film last Friday, watching it was definitely a weird experience! There are things that were taken directly from the book, like quotes that I’d heard every day in conversion therapy and things that I had almost forgotten about that were put into the movie and it was shocking and weird to see, but I’m really happy all that detail is in there.”
What did you think of Addison Holley playing you when you were watching the film?
“I thought she was great! She was very sweet. I thought she did a great job. I got to FaceTime with her a little bit before they started filming. She really did a great job.”
Currently 33 states in the US allow forced conversion therapy on minors. Given your personal experience of it, why do you think conversion therapy is such a damaging thing?
“Conversion therapy is nothing but harmful, it doesn’t change anything about who you are. It’s physical sometimes, but it’s always emotional and mental abuse and it’s something that you carry with you forever. Its extremely unhealthy, it’s not good for you, no medical professional thinks it is. It should be outlawed everywhere.”
Wilson Cruz plays the lawyer who helped you to escape conversion therapy doesn’t he?
“Yes, it was a lawyer for the NCLR, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a lawyer called Paul Burke in Salt Lake, he took my case pro bono.”
As with the book, I think the film being made is extremely important for visibility, particularly because it’s going to be seen on such a mainstream channel, it’s not just going to be seen at one or two film festivals and play to audiences who are already on board with the message, I think it’s very important that Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story is going to be on Lifetime. What other work have you done as a spokesperson on the dangers of conversion therapy?
“Well, I was lucky enough to be a youth ambassador for the Human Rights Campaign, so I’ve got to work with the Human Rights Campaign a lot. I get to speak with and for them a few times a year. I’ve also been able to do panels with the NCLR and the Poverty Law Center as well as ACLU. I just try to do as many interviews as I can and get broadcast to as many places as I can because the more people who know about conversion therapy the better.”
Have you met other survivors?
“Yes, I’ve been able to meet so many conversion therapy survivors, so many. Not just through different organisations that I’ve been lucky enough to work with but in every day life as well. Like my favourite bartender at my favourite bar just told me that he’s a survivor of conversion therapy, so it’s everywhere.”
You live in Portland, Oregon now. I haven’t been yet, but I’d love to visit. What’s it like there for LGBTQ people, is there a sense of safety and of an LGBTQ community?
“Definitely, it’s very, very LGBTQ friendly. It’s amazing, I love Portland, it’s very open, very liberal, and there’s very good food! It’s great”
Do you have a favourite LGBTQ movie or TV show?
“Well, I love Queer Eye, but I think everyone loves Queer Eye don’t they! I love everything about it, it’s just such an amazing show. I want Johnathan to come into my house! I’m so proud of Johnathan for coming out recently. I think he’s just amazing. All the guys are great, but Jonathan’s my favourite.”
Yes, he’s such a great combination of being so fun and effervescent on the surface, but there’s such intelligence, soul and depth to him isn’t there. It’s quite a combination.
And just finally, going back to the film, what would you like people to take away from watching it?
“I think a lot of times, I mean I know from my parents’ perspective, it was done out of love. I mean it was the wrong thing to do, but it was done because they didn’t want my soul to be lost, in their religious view. So I think a lot of parents think ‘oh, I’m not sending my kid to be tortured, I’m sending them to get help, but every time you’re sending someone to conversion therapy, even if it is to help them in your eyes it’s torture, it doesn’t matter if there’s physical abuse or not, it’s always torture. But I think parents do it out of love.”
Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story premieres on Lifetime this Saturday 28th September at 8pm ET/PT /7pm C.