Review: 'Pray Away' a Heartbreaking, Infuriating Look at the 'Ex-Gay' Movement

Tuesday August 3, 2021

'Pray Away'
'Pray Away'  (Source:Netflix)

Kristine Stolakis' Netflix documentary "Pray Away" brings a number of former leaders from "ex-gay" ministry Exodus and associated ministries before the camera to talk about how they got involved with so-called "conversion therapy" and the "ex-gay" movement, and why they finally broke away, becoming outspoken critics of the very ideas they once promulgated and defended.

Decades before a certain former president began spreading pernicious falsehoods about a supposedly stolen election, a certain strain of anti-LGBTQ+ Christianity was embracing and propagating a big lie of its own: The idea that being gay is a "disorder" that can be "cured." Along with this lie, they peddled an associated falsehood: That being LGBTQ+ is a "choice," because anyone who wished to change their fundamental nature could do so... and if they couldn't change who they really were, then they could at least act straight and cisgender because, the argument ran, being LGBTQ+ wasn't a matter of who you were, but rather what you did.

That premise sustained Exodus, an influential religious organization that helped promote the message from homophobic churches that to be gay was something sinful in and of itself. After telling LGBTQ+ people that they were wrong and broken, Exodus offered a solution: A program of counseling and peer support that could, they claimed, "convert" LGTBQ+ people into cisgender heterosexuals ready and eager to marry someone of the opposite gender and have children... in other words, to fit someone else's idea of who they should be.

That narrative was as virulently political as it was scarringly personal. It was also profitable since, we are told, Exodus and certain mental health practitioners were able to forge relationship in which Exodus gained credibility by association with purported experts, while the shrinks got clients funneled to them.

The problem with big lies, of course, is that no matter how big they might be, they are still lies. In the case of the former Exodus leaders interviewed here, the falsehoods they peddled proved to be just as toxic and soul-destroying to themselves as to the desperate people to whom they made empty promises rooted in harmful pseudoscience.

The psychology behind Exodus was as flawed as the idea that anyone needs to be straight or cisgender in order for God to love them. As explained here, the rationale the ministry relied on was an assumption of "brokenness" arising from either an inadequate or abusive relationship with one's parents. If you had a happy, loving, close relationship with your father and still turned out gay, well then, obviously you were abused in some way. And if you weren't abused? Of course you were: You were simply not remembering the abuse. It was that simple. You couldn't trust your own experience; "truth" was whatever served the message of the ministry.

In other words, facts mattered less than the group's official dogma. But facts have a habit of not simply vanishing when they are not welcome. They stick around, constant and unwavering. They are, in a way, what we used to think of as truth, before truth gained a certain elasticity dependent on the conveniences of the moment.

It was that constant and underlying truth that eventually led to John Paulk — at the time, by his own reckoning, the world's most prominent "ex-gay" — fetching up at a gay bar, where he was instantly recognized and soon photographed. The story swiftly led to his ouster from Exodus and the end of his marriage to a woman who claimed to be a former lesbian.

For others, the turning point arrived in some other way. For former Vice President of Exodus Randy Thomas, it was seeing how the group's focus on political power —†and the resulting denial of civil rights to sexual minorities — hurt people. When Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that yanked marriage rights away from the state's same-sex families, passed in 2008, it prompted massive demonstrations in the streets. Among the images on the news were sobbing people who offered America a different testimony from what churches across the country were peddling. Seeing these images on television, Thomas tells Stolakis' camera, "A voice inside me said, 'How could you do that to your own people?' " That was the moment when Thomas knew he could not continue with Exodus.

Julie Rodgers, once active with Exodus-affiliated ministry Living Hope, shares a story of exploitation by the group at a young age. Her internal conflicts were so severe she lapsed into depression. We see Julie planning a wedding with her same-sex fiancee throughout the documentary, but we also see her reading a passage from a book she's trying to write about her experiences; the pages she reads aloud detail how she resorted to self-harm in the form of burning herself with cigarettes and heated metal objects. Her fiancee weeps as Julie reads the story.

Another former "ex-gay" leader, Yvette Cantu Schneider, recalls how she was recruited — not by the LGBTQ+ community, but by the Family Research Council, the straight, white, male leadership of which cynically judged her to be an idea poster child because "you're young, you have a Hispanic last name, and you don't look gay." The talking points Yvette was expected to recite have a dismal familiarity and a triggering effect: She's seen in archival footage comparing committed same-sex couples to pedophiles, likening marriage equality to incest, and pointing to more than a dozen gay male friends lost to AIDS in support of her claim that being gay was "dangerous and destructive".

And yet, Prop 8 was also a turning point for Yvette; she "started having panic attacks," she recalls, and it was only when her therapist noted she was exhibiting symptoms of PTSD that the pieces started to fall into place. What was dangerous and destructive was the lie she was living ... and the lies she was telling to others.

Indeed, "lie" is the operative word here, for these former leaders of the "ex-gay" movement characterize what they were saying and doing in those very terms. "I didn't feel I could be honest about my feelings," Paulk recalls of his being married and a father and making that part of his own official story. Paulk adds that eventually, "I realized my dishonesty hurt people."

Some of the people who had been hurt let the Exodus leadership know it. When then-president of Exodus Alan Chambers sat down with dozens of former "ex gays" in a meeting organized by Exodus founder Michael Bussee (who himself had left Exodus in 1979, seeing the harm he was helping to cause), they told Chambers to his face about the suffering Exodus had inflicted. Chambers ended up acknowledging in 2013 that Exodus had "hurt people" rather than bringing the healing it had touted, and announcing that the ministry was disbanding.

And yet, the movement rose immediately from its own ashes, reincarnated as the Restored Hope Network. Its Executive Director is none other than Anne Paulk — the same woman who divorced John Paulk after his fateful visit to a gay bar. "As long as there is homophobia," we're told, organizations such as these will flourish. It's no surprise: As Yvette explains about her time with the Family Research Council, groups rooted in anti-LGBTQ+ political activism "always need something they can really get their constituents riled up about and willing to give money and willing to vote." In the '00s it was the issue of marriage equality. Today, it's medical care and equal access for transgender people, especially youth.

To be sure, while the entire LGTBQ+ community suffers, it's the youth, especially, who pay the price. "Approximately 700,000 people have gone through a form of conversion therapy in the U.S. alone," the documentary informs us. Among LGBTQ+ youth who have undergone the practice, there's more than double the risk of suicide.

Moreover, the harm that youth suffer today is sure to propagate into tomorrow. As Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee tells us near the film's beginning, "I had wanted to change since I was a kid and getting bullied" for being gay. Somehow, the actual traumas that children suffer get overlooked as the debunked rationalization of presumed abuse that "makes you gay" is reiterated time and again in the narrative that to be LGBTQ+ is a pathology, a choice, and a changeable state of being.

As the generational harm continues, the big lies echo on.

"Pray Away" streams on Netflix starting Aug. 3, 2021.