Pray Away, the Netflix documentary directed by Kristine Stolakis, takes us behind the curtain and pulpit of conversion therapy detailing how the practice started and then grew to dangerous heights before being denounced as abusive and ineffective.
Pray Away, as in “pray the gay away,” highlights the former leaders of the movement who were the faces of Living Hope Ministries and Exodus International. The documentary also follows a person who claims to have detransitioned after finding faith and God. He is now on a mission to convert and “save” other queer people. Pray Away was laughable at times (not because of the content, but because of how hard people were working to fool themselves and others) but heartbreaking from start to end. The hurt was palpable, and the pain opened old wounds in me I thought had healed.
Finding Jesus Does Not Mean Finding Acceptance
Conversion therapy grew out of church basements. Gay congregation members found community with others struggling with their sexuality. The struggle existed because their church and people they loved told them they were living in sin and needed to change. They didn’t have the internal and external resources needed to look around and say, Hey, how about we accept each other and ourselves because clearly we’re not alone. Instead they resigned themselves to a truth and a lie they were telling themselves. I was ostracized and rejected too. We can help each other ‘get better’ through prayer and Jesus Christ.
The saddest and most frustrating piece of Pray Away, and by extension conversion therapy, was the exploitation of people’s basic desire to be accepted and loved. The fear of Christ, of being alone, and then finding community through the church so you wouldn’t be alone even though it meant you’d still be still closeted and in pain is the awful cycle that so many people experienced and are still being subjected to through conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy isn’t just believing God can and will make you straight and cisgender. It’s based on the idea that someone who identifies as queer or transgender has a mental illness that can be cured. Neither is true. Conversion therapy doesn’t work, but it does cause harm. A peer-reviewed study published in the American Journal of Public Health and reported by The Trevor Project found that queer youth who were subjected to conversion were two times as likely to attempt suicide and 2.5 times as likely to attempt suicide multiple times over the last year.
This is what finally caused Exodus to close its doors. In 2013, leaders of the group apologized to the LGBTQ community — a community that they were a part of. In what should be a shock to no one, many of the leaders of the group were queer and eventually came out (for a second time, in most cases) and have tried to make amends for perpetuating a myth that has killed too many people.
It was difficult to watch the former leaders tell their stories in Pray Away; they were victims too, but their tears felt too little, too late.
Unresolved Rage Issues
I was visiting my mother and her live-in boyfriend the summer between my junior and senior year of college. She and I were on the front porch, and her boyfriend and the girl I was dating at the time were inside. My mother used the opportunity to harass me about my need for a boyfriend and her hopes for me to find a good Christian man. She wanted me to find a better man than my father was to her, and hoped I knew there were better relationship models than the one I witnessed between herself and my father. She badgered and pushed until I told her I was gay. I didn’t want or need a man or husband. I liked (and still do like) women. “I know. Bobby knew. He used to be gay too and told me you’re gay.”
Bobby. The newest boyfriend. The one who I thought was a woman when I first spoke to him on the phone. The one who I knew was queer the moment I met him. The one who was rejected when he came out to his parents. The one who found God in order to find his place in his family again. Our gaydars were very much in working order and he was going to use his to convert me. If he couldn’t live an out life, then neither could I.
My mother supported this thinking because of her Christianity and her need to be loved by a man she believed was straight. “Allowing” me to be gay meant so much more than me going to hell. It also meant her life on Earth would be hell if she lost the man she was in love with to homosexuality.
I was not forced into a program or therapy for my queerness, but my mother and her boyfriend (who she married, then divorced because he was in fact gay) prayed for me and asked me to pray for myself so I could live a straight life. My mother didn’t want to go to Heaven without me; Bobby told me I could be saved. My mother rejected my relationship and refused to go to my Civil Union several years later. Homosexuality was against her religion; she didn’t want to tempt Bobby either. My queerness was an addiction he couldn’t be exposed to.
After my partner and I watched the film, we got into a discussion about religion. This quickly turned into me deflecting my baggage and trauma onto her which looked a lot like me being an asshole. Not a complete asshole, but one who was scared and backed into a corner by old ghosts. We talked it out. I apologized. She loved me through it, but rightfully declared her boundaries. I still had lingering anger (not at her) the next day and couldn’t shake a throbbing sense of anxiety. While dodging people in Costco and growing more agitated with other shoppers I texted her, “I think I have unresolved anger issues.”
“You have rage, love.”
I knew from a very early age that being gay was “wrong.” I heard it from my church and family before I came out. And when I was dragged out of the closet, the people who were supposed to love me the most rejected me in the name of Christianity and an unseen figure in the sky.
My partner is right; I have managed it well, but I have a lot of anger that needs to be let out or converted to something else.
Take Care Of Yourself
Before I watched the documentary, I had seen other queer folks and LGBTQIA+ advocates express both frustration and warnings to community members and the people who love them. I naïvely believed I wouldn’t be too bothered. I was bothered. But thankfully I’m years separated from the people and place where the bulk of my injuries occurred. I have years of therapy, an army of support, and am sober. I relied on each pillar to protect and soothe myself.
Please use all of your resources during and after watching Pray Away if it causes you to feel off, triggered, or hopeless. Stop watching if it’s too much. It’s okay not to forgive people in our own community for the damage they caused. Don’t watch it at all if you aren’t ready or don’t want to. No one is under any obligation to view this film.
Reach out to a mental health professional or organizations like The Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386) and The Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) if you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviors.
One of the bright spots that came out of the movie is exposure to Julie Rodgers. She was placed in conversion therapy as a teenager and became a spokesperson for the movement.
She was manipulated and victimized. She came out on the other side, wrote a book called Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story, and has started the Outlove Project, a campaign to help at-risk queer youth.
She is the change and good that can come out of horrible things. You are also good and wonderful. Your survival gives me hope and stands in the face of the horrible people and ideas that have tried to tear us down.
Keep loving and living the authentic life you deserve.