A new film demonstrates the trauma and abuse inflicted upon the LGBTQ+ community by religious-right evangelical groups through so-called conversion therapy.
“Pray Away,” a new film from Multitude Films directed by Kristine Stolakis, shares stories of former members of the “ex-gay” movement and details the history of organizations seeking to “convert” LGBTQ+ persons.
Through first-hand accounts from former members and leaders of conversion therapy organizations, the emotional carnage of self-denial demonstrates the immense potential for harm when religious communities lose their humanity in a polluted faith of self-righteousness and so-called purity.
As detailed in the film, around 700,000 people have self-subjugated or been subjugated to conversion therapy in the United States, undergoing a process of non-scientific “treatment” where individuals are conditioned to reframe their sexual identity.
The urge of same-sex attraction is framed as a spiritual struggle between God and Satan and a symptom of a deeper wrong inside the individual preventing them from being worthy of God’s love.
The impact of this process is evident, with national surveys revealing that LGBTQ+ youth who’ve undergone conversion therapy are twice as likely to attempt suicide.
Speaking on this statistic in the film, Julie Rogers, a former member of Exodus International, a now-defunct conversion therapy organization that quickly rose to prominence in the 1970s, said: “For many people who don’t commit suicide, we’re killing ourselves internally by not embracing who God created us to be.”
After Rodger’s came out as a lesbian to her mother when she was a teenager, she underwent a decade of turmoil at the hand of religious groups instructing her to hate a part of herself.
This internal struggle, as well as her exploitation as a posterchild for the ex-gay movement, led her to the depths of depression and self-harm as she continued to feel as if something was wrong with her, something that made her sinful in the eyes of God.
“God forgive me for having such evil flesh,” she recounts thinking. It was not until she broke from the grip of the religious-right that she realized the impurity and farce of conversion therapy.
“I’ve really been struck by, in making this film, the persistence of homophobia in our world,” director Kristine Stolakis said. “I have seen the ways in which church life exists within this larger culture of homophobia and transphobia, and I have seen the dark power of pointing to God, to a Bible, and telling LGBTQ people to essentially hate themselves. I’ve seen the dark power of that manifest for LGBTQ people in every type of mental health challenge under the sun.”
Stolakis was partially inspired to create this film by the experience of her uncle who came out as transgender as a child and suffered at the hands of conversion therapy programs.
Above all, “Pray Away” highlights a contradiction that religious-right groups seem to have no interest in reconciling: a professed belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful God who loves all creation, coupled with a belief that this same God approves of the distress, self-hatred and self-harm they are inflicting upon the LGBTQ+ community.
Perhaps more bluntly, by what supposed divine right do religious leaders believe themselves worthy of altering the fabric of God’s creation?
What do they seek? To create a world fit for Christ’s return? Shall Jesus return with glee to a world where children would rather kill themselves than live as they were created?
From this comes the fundamental resonance of “Pray Away.”
“Pray Away” includes interviews with former members and leaders of Exodus International and of Living Hope, an organization based in Arlington, Texas, who have since left the organizations and condemned the practice of conversion therapy.
We see their disillusionment and recognize that they, too, are victims of conversion therapy, only the conditioning took a stronger hold in them.
“We have to face the fact that the vast majority of people running conversion therapy organizations are LGBTQ people themselves, who have been taught, in a larger culture of homophobia and transphobia, to hate themselves in some way,” Stolakis said. “Where do those leaders in the conversion therapy movement learn to hate themselves? They learn it in their churches.”
Exodus formed and grew alongside the AIDS epidemic, which decimated LGBTQ+ communities, as well as giving right-wing rabble rousers a trove of misinformation available to spawn false stigmas, labeling the community as sinful, disease-ridden and worthy of the virus killing them in droves.
In “Pray Away,” the spiritual angle of the AIDS epidemic is shown in stories of those who found their way to conversion therapy programs. They sought the church for healing and were met with hatred.
The hypocrisy of the conversion therapy movement is demonstrated in the film, which recounts survivors’ stories of seeking God, faith and the Spirit in the dark days of the epidemic, when death and loss were a ubiquitous feeling in the LGBTQ+ community.
They sought the healing grace of God, were led to the church, greeted by the evangelists and taught that they only had their own sin to blame for their torment.
“Something I’ve found very consistently in this world,” Stolakis said, “is that people view love from God as coming in the form of tough love – that to be loved by God is to suffer – and that only encourages the self-hatred, the shame, the self-harm, the existence of suicide and the continuation of harm. It is a very damaging message, and I have watched it get into the crevices and cracks of people’s souls in a way that does not leave people.”
At the end of the film, Rodger’s wedding ceremony is shown, with her marrying her girlfriend beneath the pristine white altar of a church. With the healed scars of her self-harm visible on her arm, she gripped the hand of her partner and sanctified in loving matrimony a truth that once tortured her.
“It’s been really important for me to sort of separate Jesus from the Christians who hurt me,” Rodgers says in the film, detailing how she found healing in faith free from hate and denial.
Exodus International may now be gone, but it’s impact on culture and the perception of LGBTQ+ individuals remains.
Children and adults still choose death over living in their truths, coaxed by religious dogma and bigotry-laced rhetoric to believe themselves unworthy of life, of God’s love, of the world’s acceptance.
The stigmas remain as well, with AIDS/HIV still being understood by some as a punishment for the gay community.
Conversion therapy still persists, tainting the message of God’s love with human-spawned notions of right and wrong.
“Pray Away” is available to stream on Netflix now. The film lists https://www.wannatalkaboutit.com/ as a resource for those suffering from mental illness and suicidal thoughts.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, brief strong language, some sexual references and brief partial nudity.
Director: Kristine Stolakis
The film’s website is here.