Content Warning: This review make references to conversion therapy, homophobia, transphobia, self harm, suicide, mental and psychological abuse, and sexual assault.
If you’ve never heard of Conversion Therapy I consider you a lucky person. Unfortunately, this dangerous, destructive, and even life ending practice is still allowed in many countries (including our own here in the UK) and is a big fear for members of the LGBTQ+ community. The new Netflix documentary Pray Away, directed by Kristine Stolakis, takes a look at this anti-queer movement by talking to several people who went through it themselves, as well as being leading voices in it.
Conversion Therapy is nothing new, and it’s been practised for decades, especially in many of the conservative Christian parts of the US. This documentary takes a look at the growth of this movement in the US by talking to a number of people who went through it themselves, some of whom were quite well known in the 80s and 90s for being ‘ex-gay’. Two of these people are John Paulk and Yvette Cantu Schneider, two people who shot to fame because of their ‘conversion’, and were instrumental in pushing it on others.
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Over the course of the film we see these two today, with Paulk living happily as an openly gay man, and Schneider as a happily married bisexual woman, but these moments are also interspersed with footage of them as ‘ex-gays’, and the difference is staggering. We see people who looked miserable. People who were trapped living a lie. Simply looking at their eyes during this old footage shows how much pain they must have been in, as they honestly looked dead inside.
This footage is often of them appearing on talk shows, in press conferences, and news programmes as they tried to sell others on the idea that being gay was a choice, that it was something that people made the decision to pursue in response to failed relationships with their parents, or as the result of some latent sexual abuse, and that through therapy, faith in Jesus, and the support of their fellow Christians they could leave this all behind and be ‘normal’ heterosexuals.
These moments are hard enough to watch, but it’s the personal testimonies of those who got out that are some of the hardest hitting parts of the movie. One of the people the documentary follows is Julie Rodgers, who we get to see planning her wedding to her future wife. Julie was a teen when she was first sent to be ‘corrected’ at Living Hope, an organisation for queer teens.
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Julie was essentially brainwashed into thinking that she was a straight woman thanks to a crank psychologist, and was eventually recruited into the organisation herself. It was during this time that she was even manipulated into talking about her sexual assault on stage, to use it as a blame for her homosexuality. Seeing her talk about the treatment she went through at the time is heartbreaking stuff, and not for the faint of heart. She talks openly about how the shame and fear she was made to feel for being gay led her to self harm; the scars of which are visible as she walks down the aisle in her wedding dress.
The most heartbreaking moment for myself though is when the film visits a man called Jeffrey, who we see several times during the film. Unlike the other people we see in this film Jeffrey hasn’t left the ex-gay movement, and is still a part of it. Jeffrey describes himself as ex-gay and ex-transgender. We see him talking about his former life, showing pictures of himself as a healthy and happy looking woman, telling people that what he was doing was evil, and how through Jesus he’s found his true path. It was genuinely crushing to see this, to see someone who’s been twisted into hating themselves so much, who’s fighting against who they are every day and living a miserable existence rather than just being given the support they need to be happy. I really hope that they’re able to join the others one day in being ex-ex-gay, and can live as their authentic self.
Pray Away doesn’t shy away from how destructive this movement was, and many of the former leaders of it left when confronted with the damage they caused, and you can see it still haunts them. One of them breaks down on camera, admitting that they’re ashamed, and that they have blood on their hands, and I’m glad they feel this way, because this action has harmed people. It has killed people. But these people now understand that what they did was wrong and are trying to do better. Sadly, it’s a long fight as more and more conversion therapy groups are appearing around the world.
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When people ask why we need Pride Month, why there should be parades for queer people, when they ask what rights we don’t have because they think now that places like the UK and US have same sex marriage the fight is over, this is what we need to be answering with. This is what’s still happening in the world. People are being broken down, forced into thinking that who they are as a person is wrong, and being made to change everything about themselves even if it leaves them miserable and suicidal.
This film might not be easy to watch, but it’s the kind of thing that needs to be shown. People need to realise how bad this issue is and how much needs to be done about it. So please, go give this film a watch, feel awful about it, feel like crying; but then get angry that it’s being allowed to happen, and help add your voice to the fight to stop this horrific act.
Pray Away is out on Netflix on 3rd August.