Morality play

Simon Harvey killed himself because he couldn't reconcile his homosexuality with his religion. David Benedict talks to the director of a new documentary on continuing prejudice in the Church

David Benedict
Thursday 20 July 1995 23:02 BST

T he volatile mix of religion, sex and death would make a perfect Jacobean revenge drama, but "Better Dead Than Gay" is a documentary.

The Reverend Robert Amiss describes Simon Harvey as "a man of great integrity, a man of colossal honesty". George, his father, says "no parent could have a better son". Yet almost eight years ago, shortly after his 26th birthday, Simon drove into the countryside near his home while listening to hymns on his car radio, took an overdose of sleeping pills, and wrote his final thoughts amidst gathering exhaust fumes. A devout and highly active member of his local Baptist Church, he was also gay. For him, the combination was irreconcilable.

Christopher O'Hare, the film's director and producer, says: "This is not an 'issue' film. It's the story of Simon and the gulf between what people think happened and what really happened." He knew that the truth lay in the details. This was not the tragedy of a simple man. In place of the more usual handwritten suicide note, Simon typed a chillingly well- argued three-page letter to his parents which began: "By the time you receive this letter I will be dead. Please don't be too upset. It's best for me that things turn out this way. I have suffered for so long from loneliness and depression that death seems like the only alternative."

O'Hare has eschewed using "experts" to argue and debate the issue of religion versus sexuality. "If you look hard enough you can find experts to prove anything on camera. I wanted to concentrate on Simon's story and tell it through those close to him." He also had the benefit of Simon's diary, discovered shortly after his death, which details the long, desperate struggle between his beliefs and his desires. O'Hare was certain that he didn't want to make either a purely "religious" programme or a "gay" programme. The result is a dignified and eloquent study of intolerance summed up by the inflammatory yet appropriate title.

The programme hinges on the Church's response to homosexuality. At best this is a case of "love the sinner not the sin", an idealistic, hopelessly impractical position which ignores the horror of a loveless life. How do you tell a Christian 17-year-old full of shame, guilt and self-loathing that they are a good person but can't ever have an intimate relationship? As Simon wrote, "Can anyone live without love?". He spent years in torment going from psychologist, to psychiatrist, to Christian healer, but nothing worked. The Church flatly forbade him his feelings. This central dilemma is brought sharply into focus in interviews with his therapist, friends both in and out of the Church - and not least, with his father.

Simon's father believes that "to discover my son was gay was as bad as losing him". He also tore up letters addressed to friends which he discovered shortly after receiving news of Simon's death, an action he now regrets. He says that at the time, he "didn't want his son's name ruined". Clearly, his frank discussions on film indicate a shift in his response - but since Simon's death he has devoted his life to U-turn Anglia, a Christian organisation he has founded which is dedicated to "curing" lesbians and gay men.

It was a reference to Harvey and U-turn Anglia on the BBC's Heart of the Matter which prompted O'Hare to investigate the story in the first place, but he's anxious to stress that it is too easy to paint Harvey as the villain of the piece. "I feel strongly that the father should not be vilified. He feels regret as to the man that he was. In an early discussion, he described himself as someone who used to be a gay-basher." Part of the programme's success is its careful attitude to blame, but it is hard to watch Harvey arguing that "homosexual people are driven by the need to make good, to feed upon the same sex, and that is transformed into a sexual thing, whereas the heterosexual has control over his desires".

O'Hare asked one of the positive Christian figures involved in the film what he would have said had Simon come out to him. The response was seemingly unequivocal. "I would have held out my hand and said I'm still your friend." This terrifyingly well-meaning response is not included in the final cut, but it remains at the heart of the film. "On the surface that's a very kind and understanding thing to say. What it actually means is 'I'm good enough to overlook it'. It shows how deep-seated the discrimination is."

Simon kept his diary in the hope that "it might help someone in a similar predicament to my own". "Better Dead Than Gay" takes the process one stage further, exposing the dangers of religious denial and intolerance. As the camera pulls back from Simon's unmarked grave, the feelings it arouses are less to do with sadness than anger.

'Witness: Better Dead Than Gay' is shown on Tuesday, 9pm C4

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