Netflix’s Pray Away is a collaboration of stories and journeys of people whose voices need to be heard in today’s day and age.
Pray Away is a documentary that takes a turn towards the emotional and complex nature of the Ex-Gay movement. It brings forth the intimate stories behind the curtains of conversion therapy, restraining movements, and reveals the ugly and hurtful truth behind the struggles of thousands.
The new Netflix documentary focuses on the identity crisis of every person in the documentary and their constant battle with themselves and society to just fit in. It demasks Exodus International, the largest and the most controversial conversion therapy organization in the world, and its tumbling impact on today’s world.
Exodus International began as a Bible study in the 1970s, where five men came together to help each other leave behind their “homosexual lifestyle.” They received 25000 letters from people all over looking for some relief themselves and that led to the formation of Exodus international.
After that, the leaders of Exodus international started preaching for the ex-gay movement. They encouraged people to refrain from pursuing same-sex relationships and to eliminate their homosexual desires and transfer towards heterosexual desires. Usually, these changes led individuals to enter into heterosexual marriages or they abstained from acting on their desires and became celibate.
These conversion therapies attracted a myriad of people to their doors, where they popularized the idea that it was possible and preferable to change your sexual orientation.
“The movement provides this very dark but very appealing sense of hope to people who are suffering, and shining a light on that felt key to understand the movement.”
Said Kristine Stolakis (director) who has played a large role in the birth of this documentary Pray Away and has been inspired by hurtful truth herself. Losing her beloved Uncle who came out as a transgender child and was a subsequent survivor of conversion therapy, gave her the push to catalyze the much-needed change in society through her documentary.
What livens the documentary is her motivation to bring forth the truth to light.
“I went from someone who was in a lot of pain, trying to make sense of what has happened to a family member, to a filmmaker who felt very determined to make a film when I discovered that the vast majority of conversion therapy organizations are actually run by LGBTQ individuals themselves, who claim that they, themselves, have changed and that they know how to teach others how to do the same,”
Stolakis told NBC News.
Stolakis mentions the individuals from the LGBTQ community who acted against their sexuality and orientation and led others to believe that they can change, these individuals are the leaders of Exodus International who later disavowed the very movement they helped start. In Pray Away we get to know about these people and their stories as well.
When you take a closer look at them you notice that faith is the powerful thing that leads most of them to the doors of denial and hurt. Yvette Cantu Schneider who was a “practicing lesbian” for 6 years found the church at 27 and changed her lifestyle to become the leader of the ex-gay movement.
John Paulk, a well-known celebrity claimed to have left his life as a gay man and married a former lesbian.
Julia Rodgers who was one of the 70000 people in the United States to go under “conversion therapy”, treatments, counseling, and community pressures, was just a 16-year-old teen girl who came out to her mother looking for some explanations.
Stolakis explains their position and situation quite well:
“This complex amalgamation of old pseudo-psychology that’s disproven, the spiritual belief that you don’t have a place in God’s kingdom if you don’t change, and then this culture that surrounds you with these messages that are inescapable”, Stolakis
One of the most enlightening and humanizing parts of the documentary is the regret that runs through every one of these individuals as they talk about their stories. Each of these individuals understood their part in shouldering the ex-gay movement and regretted their involvement, as it destroyed a lot of lives. Their false claims of a successful change created some shameful circumstances, which made the documentary difficult to watch.
But it is also important to mention Julie Rodgers, John Paulk, Yvette Cantu Schneider, all were victims of society as well, as they thought their only way to gain some acceptance was to Pray it Away.
This same kind of journey was seen by Stolakis’s Uncle and that is what makes her direction almost flawless. She mentions how her Uncle also had to go through multiple therapy sessions to treat his “gender problems”, on the advice of professionals like doctors, guidance counselors, etc. Which makes her think that the problem lied in the belief of the people around him and we agree with that thought process.
“my uncle had spent so much time being told this lie — that being trans was a sickness and a sin — that he started to believe it himself. And it was very hard for him to accept himself, and he became celibate his entire life.”
“He wasn’t a weak person; he wasn’t a person that was meant to be sick. He was a strong, smart, really loving person who got a message said to him over and over again that something was deeply wrong with him, that he was sick. It had nothing to do with him, and I think that’s really given my family some healing.”
Conversion therapy has paved the path to a lot of misconceptions and confusion in the mind of individuals who struggle with finding and accepting their sexual orientation. A lot of times individuals don’t even recognize that they are a part of these conversion therapies. Electric shock is only a stereotype of conversion therapy what mostly goes behind the doors are talks. These talks either come from a licensed counselor, religious leader, or spiritual believer, which can be just as damaging and can also empower hate towards oneself.
“The vast majority of conversion therapy actually looks more like talk therapy and often happens with either a licensed counselor or more often with a spiritual or religious leader that acts as a pseudo-counselor, makes it so that people who are practicing conversion therapy don’t even realize that they’re practicing it.”
“Talk therapy might, on the surface, look less damaging, but in the end, however, you’re taught to hate yourself is going to have horrible mental health consequences.”
A report published last year in the American Journal of Public Health found that young people who have been part of conversion therapy are twice as likely to report having attempted suicide and having multiple suicide attempts, than those not subjected to conversion therapy.
The cycle of conversion therapy has still not ended, whether, through religious dogmas or political aggression, it has continued to sustain in society. This is represented in the documentary Pray Away, quite interestingly through Jeffrey McCall
A “de-transitioner”, who used to live as a trans woman but now has converted from his former “life of sin” to follow the lord. You can see him demonstrating the ex-gay movement ideology when he tells his story. Stolakis’s decision to include him in the documentary comes like a reality check. It shows that Exodus International even though dissolved in 2013, still lives with its beliefs globally, through international organizations, and social media influence.
“As long as a culture of homophobia and transphobia continues – in our churches, in our communities, in our country – you will see something like this. People will internalize these beliefs, they will be taught to hate themselves, they will be very compelled to believe that they can change.”
The filming of the movie has been done ethically and gives the impression that this time no words have been put into anyone’s mouth, whatever comes to us is directly from the horse’s mouth. You get to see both sides of the story and it is quite fascinating to hear Stolakis describe her documentary process.
“I was forthright about the fact that I had a family member that went through this, and that was something that was professed out loud in my interviews with former leaders and the survivor of conversion therapy in our film. I actually think, often, that’s when the most ethical filmmaking happens — when you and your team have a real stake in the community that you’re covering — and that was quite true for us.”
Especially with her depiction of McCall in Pray Away, a very interesting direction line is picked and executed in its rawest and honest form.
“We promised not to put words in his mouth, and that was easy to do, because I know that Jeffrey believes what he’s doing is right. I also know that gender fluidity is real, so the way that he identifies as previously trans and now cis is not actually the real crux of the problem of this movement.
In conclusion, this documentary is a must-watch, it doesn’t shy away from any aspect of the LGBTQ+ community. It represents an important change that we all should be part of.
Pray Away is now streaming, Do give it a chance.