The LGBT community is filled with trials and tribulations that are not uniquely or solely tied to the community; however, there are times that social issues do affect one community more than others. Because of some of these moments, there is a lot of healing that needs to happen in order to move on. One of this year’s must-watch documentaries is Pray Away (2021), which tackles one issue that the community still struggles with, though less now than in other years, the “pray the gay away” movement. This multi-perspective film has speakers from the entire spectrum confronting and discussing their views.
Directed by the accomplished Kristine Stolakis, the film wrestles with culture, injustice, and healing. Stolakis has received an MFA in documentary film from Stanford University and uses this to develop Pray Away into a sophisticated and fair portrayal of how diverse the perspectives are on the “pray the gay away” or “ex-gay” movement. The movement had and to some degree still has gays who wish to no longer be a part of the community. This documentary ventures into multiple realms of this issue. The acclaimed new Netflix original documentary is executively produced by Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum and produced by Jessica Devaney and Anya Rous.
The film interviews former leaders of the “pray the gay away” or “ex-gay” movement and has them speaking on their past influence on a generation of people. The documentary is straightforward as it retells how they gained power, the authority that is still endured today, and the injuries that it inflicted on countless lives. While most of the film showcases the harm that was unleashed onto the members of the community who wished to change, there are parts of the film that show a branch of people who still want to change.
As the film discusses, the start of the Exodus movement began in a Bible study session in the 1970s in an evangelical church. Their hope was to stop/cure being a homosexual. Once they started to reach out, they quickly received over 25,000 letters from people asking for help with their own homosexuality. From that, the Exodus International movement gained momentum and became one of the largest conversion therapy organizations in the world. The ability to cure homosexuality by pseudoscientific methods started to seem like a real possibility. But leaders struggled with a secret: their own same-sex attractions never went away.
The opening of the film starts with a definition of the movement: “Reparative or ‘conversion’ therapy is the attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity by religious leaders, licensed counselors, or in peer support groups.” It goes on further to say, “All major medical and mental health associations have denounced the practice as harmful.” One of the more popular films in recent history is Boy Erased, which also highlighted the harmful effects of these camps.
Yvette Cantu Schneider is one of the people who is interviewed in the film. In recovered archived clips, she is being interviewed and talking about being a practicing lesbian or being in the “lifestyle.” She is confronted with her past statements, and the film chronicles her experiences in a heartbreaking manner. Michael Busses is another speaking head and co-founder of Exodus. In an interview, he talks about his desire to not be different or not be gay anymore. Busses had reached out to others and felt a sense of relief that others also didn’t want to feel this way. In a way, this is what many who have joined the movement hoped for — a sense of community and acceptance.
There are two stories that really show the spectrum and the conflict of the movement. One is from a survivor of the movement and the other is from an ex-trans person. Survivor Julie Rodgers’s story is one of the most painful anecdotes in the documentary. Her experience is one of psychological trauma and self-harm. Another is from Jeffrey McCall who is an ex-trans person and a member of the FreedomMarch movement. This movement shows a diverse group of former LGBTQ individuals sharing their testimonies and celebrating freedom in Christ.
A component of the film that is the most controversial is the idea that there were, and perhaps still are, gays who don’t wish to be gay. The idea of permanently changing their sexuality and emotions is a complex subject, one that this film attempts to unravel. Unfortunately, it does not go much further than that into the subject. The film forces those involved in the ex-gay movement to rethink and re-examine their roles. This revisiting of the issue allows them, and perhaps others, to see parts of our history and learn from those who came before. There is so much to unpack in the hour and thirty-minute documentary. The film not only gives those who have perpetrated the harm a chance to speak on what they have learned, but it also allows those in the LGBT community who want to change their future a chance to see what is out there.
One thing this documentary does well is that it doesn’t hero anything or anyone. It doesn’t rely on tactics of persuasion or cinematic themes to convince its audience. It shines a light on lived experiences and repentance for future audiences. In order to heal, we must understand the past.
Pray Away is now available on Netflix.
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Donnie Lopez is a gay Latino/Hispanic social and political commentator, writer, entertainment journalist, and professor. He writes on topics that affect Hispanic/Latino culture. With his novel insight, veracity, and sense of humor, he entertains as well as educates the world.