Film Review: ‘Pray Away’ cements itself as a definitive documentary on conversion therapy
Films about conversion therapy and its survivors have been popular in recent years: 2018 brought both Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, where a group of teens escapes a conversion therapy camp, and Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of conversion therapy in Arkansas. Conversion therapy has also been the focus of many documentaries, often with an eye toward the experiences of (former) Christian fundamentalists. Pray Away, as the title indicates, explores the ministry, faith-based social principles, and “spiritual intervention” of Exodus International, a now-defunct Protestant conversion therapy program. But it also dissects its advertising campaigns, its political lobbying affiliations, and its tenuous ties to the psychology community. By exposing the future of these therapy programs within the framework of modern Christianity—those denominations and movements that accept LGBTQ congregants, and those that actively exclude them—Pray Away cements itself as a definitive documentary on conversion therapy that will be an exemplary text for years to come.
Kristine Solakis’ film catalogues the lives of former conversion therapy success stories who have since broken away from the movement—the “ex-ex-gay,” as Michael Bussee, who co-founded Exodus in 1976, describes survivors. There’s Yvette Cantu Schneider, a woman who lived as an out lesbian for six years before working for the Family Research Council, a far-right lobbying group that told her she’d be a successful spokeswoman because she had a Hispanic last name and didn’t “look gay”; John Paulk, a former president of Exodus who was “the most famous ex-gay person in the world” for starring in news ad campaigns with his wife, an ex-lesbian; and Julie Rodgers, who went through the program of Living Hope Ministries for years before working for Exodus, where a pastor coerced her into divulging a rape story to a captive audience at an international conference. To give us the sense that these stories end happy, Rodgers paints the image of her teenage and young adult life while planning her Christian wedding to a woman in the present day.
Interspersed with the survivors’ testimonies is that of Jeffrey McCall, a born-again Christian who lived first as a gay man and then as a trans woman before turning to evangelism. McCall now runs Freedom March, an ex-gay group that targets “younger generations” in a more down to earth, not-your-mother’s-conversion-therapy approach. Like the early leaders of Exodus, McCall does not appear to have any training in counseling or psychology; nevertheless, he fields a phone call mid-documentary from a woman who is struggling to accept her trans child, and advises her to bring her child back to Christ and, subsequently, their designated sex.
Exodus eventually realized the benefits of aligning their mission with something a layperson, perhaps one only educated in insular Christian communities, might call psychology. They didn’t just preach that LGBTQ people were deviant or inferior because the Bible said so—something that could be so easily refuted by the argument that God created everyone and loves everyone equally. In fact, Exodus proclaimed that God does love LGBTQ people, a radical notion to preach openly in some of the communities they targeted. It’s just that God would love you more if you did what he said to do in the Bible: have a heterosexual marriage and children.
To prop up their guiding ethos, Exodus embraced a basic understanding of Freudian psychology. As Ricky Chelette, a Baptist pastor who serves as the executive director of Living Hope, explained to a teenage Rodgers, gay identity stems from a turbulent relationship with your same-sex parent, and a subconscious rejection of your masculine or feminine identity formation. What if you had a good relationship with your mother, Rodgers thought, and Chelette told her that lesbianism could also develop from being sexually abused by a woman; when Rodgers said she hadn’t been abused, Chelette insisted she’d repressed the memory, a creed that recalls the evangelical Satanic Panic. Another proponent of this theory was Joseph Nicolosi, a psychology Ph.D. who co-founded the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (now the ambiguous mouthful Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, which claims that the term “conversion therapy” is “pejorative”) and died under mysterious circumstances in 2017. (The only confirmation of his death from the flu comes from the Catholic-associated psychology clinic he founded) The ingenuity of Exodus’ approach, and one of the reasons its influence has lived on, is that they did not limit themselves to “praying away” someone’s sexuality—not only were you a bad Christian for not being straight, you were failing your introductory psychology and philosophy classes, too.
As many of us already know, this logic often leads to not only the internalization of guilt and shame, but their uglier consequences: self-harm, drug abuse, destructive behaviors, and suicidal ideation. Rodgers, who is writing a memoir on her time with Living Hope and Exodus, reads to her fiancée, Amanda, an excerpt about how Chelette’s abuse led her to burn herself for years: “I took the rage I felt about living in a body that couldn’t be submitted into the kind of body that it was supposed to be—a straight body, a feminine body, a good Christian body—and I lit it on fire.”
Exodus believed that their dual religious and psychological approach to what they call “reparative” therapy was innovative, that it would course-correct an unruly generation’s views on sexuality. A practice that’s been banned for minors in 20 states can hardly be described as innovative, but Pray Away does indeed redefine the conversion therapy documentary: its brilliance lies in its calculated but caring approach of its subjects. Stolakis does not demonize religion, instead exploring how Rodgers uses faith to teach about LGBTQ acceptance now and how she “separate[d] Jesus from the Christians who hurt me.” The film does not begrudge anyone’s personal life choices, as Schneider reveals that she now identifies as bisexual and is still married to her husband, who has also grown away from the bigotry of Exodus. Stolakis makes the difficult choice of asking interviewees to acknowledge their past transgressions, but it is clear that their shame comes from years of frustration and anger, not from the camera crew forcing confrontation. Randy Thomas, a former vice president of Exodus, reveals that after he came out on his blog, someone asked him what he makes of the blood on his hands. “I’m afraid to look down at my hands,” Thomas says, as one of his friends died by suicide after undergoing conversion therapy. Pray Away ends with the reminder that, despite advances we’ve achieved in popular culture and at the ballot box, LGBTQ youth who have been through conversion therapy are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as their peers.
The message of Pray Away is less about the palatable hope, change, and resilience of surviving conversion therapy, and more a warning about its future. The Family Research Council still thrives, and dips its toe into everything from lobbying against LGTBQ anti-discrimination legislation to promoting scientific misinformation about abortion as fact; its current president, Tony Perkins, was named to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2018. McCall posted on social media recently that he hopes the national attention surrounding Pray Away’s premiere will bring more people to his ministry. And before Exodus International folded in 2013, its old guard leaders had already created Restored Hope Network to continue its mission—their executive director is Paulk’s now ex-wife Anne, who continues to identify as ex-gay.
The film ends on a shot of McCall, who opened Pray Away with offers to pray with strangers outside a strip mall. Perhaps some will see this closing shot as feeding the fire of McCall’s rhetoric, strengthening his base and inadvertently encouraging his ranks. This image did not inspire me with righteous anger. I felt instead a deep sense of sadness, a sadness acutely described by Rodgers as she fought against Chelette, by Paulk as he was outed at a gay bar, by Thomas and Schneider when they discovered that their lobbying against Proposition 8 had actually succeeded. But it is this sadness, I believe, that reinforces the humanity of someone we may see as an enemy. It would be all too easy to rage against McCall as he attempts to lead more ex-gays to ministry. It is much harder to reach out a hand to someone so clearly struggling—but it is that hand that can lead us into healing.