'Pray Away' details trauma of LGBTQ conversion therapy – and new leaders are still emerging
You may think you know everything about LGBTQ conversion therapy because you read disturbing headlines and cringed at movies like "Boy Erased." But you don't even know the half of it.
Netflix's newest documentary, "Pray Away" (now streaming), offers viewers a deep dive into the conversion therapy movement, featuring interviews with former leaders as well as a survivor – plus a peek at what it looks like today. Yes, conversion therapy is very much alive.
For the uninitiated: Conversion therapy, or reparative therapy, is when a religious leader, licensed counselor or peer support group tries to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity. All major medical and mental health organizations vilify the practice and consider it harmful.
The documentary explores the popularization of conversion therapy with a focus on Exodus International, a group begun by five men struggling with their sexuality in the 1970s. They started a Bible study to try to become straight, and ultimately formed what became the biggest conversion therapy organization worldwide and spawned the movement; it was disbanded in 2013 only after a group of survivors spoke out andshook the conscience of Exodus leadership.
In their teaching, Exodus leaders blamed queerness on childhood trauma – believing either you were abused by your parents physically, or they were otherwise inadequate parents. Fix those? You'll overcome your homosexuality. As explored in the documentary, barely any leaders had any kind of training in psychology, counseling or human sexuality.
Behind the scenes, the film shows a symbiotic financial relationship formed between select psychologists and the conversion therapy movement: Exodus required credibility, and psychologists required patients.
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In researching "Pray Away," director Kristine Stolakis discovered "the vast majority of conversion therapy organizations are actually run by LGBTQ folks who claim that they have changed themselves," she tells USA TODAY.
And that makes it that much harder for people to leave.
"So much of what is hard about this world (of conversion therapy) is that it tells people that to belong, they have to give up or change themselves," Stolakis says.
Ryan Murphy produced the documentary as part of his overall deal with Netflix, which has included LGBTQ stories including "The Prom"; "The Boys in the Band"; and another documentary "A Secret Love," which focused on a 70-yearlong hidden lesbian romance.
Jason Blum executive produced both "Pray Away" and "A Secret Love" – a far cry from his Blumhouse Productions' typical horror fare like "The Purge" franchise.
"There are horrible things that go on in 'Pray Away,' but it's certainly not a horror movie," Blum says.
The statistics paint a horror story nonetheless: Nearly 700,000 people have gone through some kind of conversion therapy in the U.S. alone, and the damaging practice exists on every major continent, Stolakis says.
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The misconceptions about conversion therapy
Stolakis says misconceptions abound about conversion therapy, whether you're progressive or conservative. "I don't think this is a political issue," she says. "This is an issue about reducing harm and abuse, especially for children."
After Julie Rodgers, a millennial conversion therapy survivor, came out at 16, her mother took her to Exodus affiliate ministry Living Hope to try to help her. This indoctrinated Rodgers into the movement: She quit softball and attended a Christian college to avoid embracing herself as a lesbian, and was subject to pseudo-psychology sessions where she had to confess any hint of queerness.
Watching the documentary was surprisingly emotional for Rodgers, who talks about burning herself with a cigarette, and later searing lines into her shoulder with a quarter as a reaction to the pain she experienced while undergoing conversion therapy.
You can see the burn marks on her shoulders later when she walks down the aisle with her wife on their wedding day.
"The scars are a good example of being able to be like, 'that was me,'" Rodgers tells USA TODAY over a Zoom call, clutching her arms. "This is the same body that was in such anguish, and feeling such deep despair, and it highlights and underscores the resilience I have."
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About two-thirds of conversion therapy occurs within religious organizations such as religious colleges, churches, and Christian ministries (i.e., religious nonprofits), Stolakis says. It makes a key fact land with a thud: Though 20 states, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., have passed laws or regulations banning conversion therapy for minors, according to the Human Rights Campaign, only licensed therapists are regulated, not religious entities.
That means tens of thousands of kids will still go through it. According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, 16,000 13 to 17-year-olds will face conversion therapy by a licensed professional before turning 18 in states that do not ban the practice. In the same demographic, an estimated 57,000 youths will face conversion therapy from a religious adviser or pastoral figure.
The film also features a current leader of the conversion therapy movement, Jeffrey McCall, who founded Freedom March, a millennial--driven "ex-gay" group. Mccall identifies as "ex-trans," also known as someone who has "de-transitioned," after finding newfound faith in Jesus.
Stolakis acknowledges gender fluidity, but calls it problematic "when you send a message through your own personal story, through your work with other political organizations, that the only way to be healthy, spiritually or psychologically, is to be cis and straight."
An ending point in the film strikes like lightning: As long as homophobia and transphobia exist more generally, conversion therapy won't vanish.
"It doesn't matter if individual leaders defect, unfortunately, at this point, because we have a larger culture of homophobia and transphobia that's essentially training new potential leaders to take their place," Stolakis says. "This is not a world of a few bad apples."
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