Kristine Stolakis’s feature documentary, “Pray Away” is the story of how so-called reparative therapy has originated in its prominent form within evangelical church groups. It is an attempt to cure one of homosexuality, whether by force of another, or voluntarily. The “ex-gay” graduates of the programs often say they have chosen a new life of normalcy. This is true somewhat, but it isn’t that they have made the choice of sexuality, but that of repression.
We see the supposedly cured “ex-gays” who lead these programs, trying to help others become like them, even if they themselves are still actively repressing their own desires. We hear from the former face of a group called Exodus in which Josh Paullk, who admits that even he never changed, and that he lied that he didn’t still have feelings for men. Since leaving the organization, he says he truly believed had the power of change.
We see voluntary conversion therapy as what it is: a form of self-harm. Whether it comes from societal pressure, religious conviction, or any other fear of one’s same-sex attraction, this is a process of lying to oneself and the world, and treating a part of the self as a form of evil that is incredibly damaging. For some, there is panic, and for others, there is a turn further inwards. Trained self-hatred leaves scars, and these Christian fundamentalist programs are exactly that.
There are four threads in the documentary and one of the most difficult to watch is that of Julie Rodgers, who was held up as the teen ex-lesbian face of the movement after being forced into a reparative program at sixteen. Some parts, like enforced adherence to gender roles (girls must wear makeup, sports are too masculine), come off as almost cartoonish for these programs. But reality sinks in: these are young teenagers are being trained to hate themselves. She says she’ll always remember being a teenager who was told she was a bad kid for having acknowledged who she was, and this is where we see just how much these teachings remain even when those who’ve gone through them have left and denounced them. When we see Julie in the present day after seeing her through archival footage, we watch her prepare for her marriage to a woman, and we see the happiness that comes with freedom and that the effect never quite leaves.
Instead of beating down the misery, the documentary shows that there has always been a future possible for the subjects who had tried to fix something they were told was wrong with them. We see them happily married, or living as themselves, years after what they had been through, and we can see that future instead of wondering if maybe it could have worked. When we are only shown the misery of conversion, we are led to believe that it is an ending, when it is very much so. We seea painful false path and that there’s always a way back.
In the 1970s, five Evangelical gay men decided to start a bible study dedicated to helping one another leave the homosexuality. Word quickly spread, over 25,000 letters were received, and soon these humble meetups became Exodus International, the largest conversion therapy organization on the planet. As it rose, so too did its leaders even as they slowly began to realize that what they were selling was simply homophobic snake oil. Even if they married the perfect woman and doted on their kids, those same-sex attractions never really went away. Finally, in 2013 they were told to dismantle the movement and close down the organization and apologize for all the damage it had caused to queer people everywhere. Nonetheless, Exodus International’s destruction has continued.
Director Stolakis brings together a tremendous amount of archival material with current interviews with the movement’s founders (including Randy Thomas, former vice-president of Exodus International (and now the husband of a former “ex-gay”), and John Paulk, who started Love Won Out, the conversion therapy wing of Focus on the Family. (He and his “ex-lesbian” wife Anne, Paulk made the daytime TV circuit until he got drunk at a gay bar in DC and was outed. This brought about an “ex-gay” crisis. He and his wife also divorced in 2013, though she is still a “ex-lesbian”).
Yvette Cantu Schneider, the onetime head of Exodus International’s women’s ministries and “ex-gay” spokesperson for the Evangelical nonprofit Family Research Council has kids and continues to be happily married to a man, now identifies as bisexual. The most shocking is Jeffrey McCall, who considers himself a “formerly transgender” who is the founder of Freedom March, the nationwide organization, which brings together people across the race and gender spectrum who’ve been divested their queerness. Today, he is often used by the Christian Right to introduce anti-LGBTQ legislation wherever it may pass. He is a new face with the same old self-hate.
The documentary is filled with horror stories and it is difficult to watch. It’s the true story of the many lives that were ruined (some needlessly ended) because of the homophobia of the religious far-right. Exodus used all means of mental torture and diabolically desperate acts to convince young people on the LGBTQ spectrum that they were sinners facing hell and worse.We hear stories of people who had been forced, usually by ultra-religious parents, to go along with this brain-washing. We see the brutality of what they were forced to do and the ignorance of the leaders of the methods they adopted that never had a chance of succeeding.