Hopefully you are lucky enough never to have encountered conversion therapy in real life. However you might have seen it depicted on screen as it’s been the subject of several queer films over the years. Jamie Babbit’s late nineties rom-com But I’m a Cheerleader takes a more humorous approach to the subject, highlighting the ridiculousness of the practice, whereas more recently Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased have tackled the subject in more serious and dramatic ways. Kristine Stolakis’ new Netflix documentary Pray Away, also produced by Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum, is the latest film to approach the topic. The film specifically puts the ex-leaders of Exodus International, an ex-gay Christian organisation that practiced conversion therapy, under the spotlight as well as one survivor and one activist still encouraging queer people to leave the LGBTQ+ community and turn to god.
Pray Away is undeniably an incredibly relevant documentary as conversion therapy remains legal in many countries around the world today, and the film wastes no time in stating its ineffectiveness and the dangers to those exposed to it. Pray Away opens with a definition of the so-called therapy, followed by a statement about how all major medical and mental health organisations have concluded that it’s harmful. This preempts the subsequent exploration of Exodus International’s history and methods over the years, supported by the testimony of the ex-leaders. This insight from the very people who led this organisation is invaluable and offers a very detailed documentation of the group, their motivations and why these individuals felt compelled to deny their true sexual identity and actively encourage others to do so too.
So whilst there’s no doubting the validity or usefulness of these revelations, the documentary is still somewhat unbalanced, albeit not for a lack of trying but it does feel like there needs to be more testimony from survivors. The one survivor we do hear from, Julie Rodgers, was subjected to this therapy for a number of years and actually went on to speak for the organisation at their conferences. Her story is the most powerful featured in the documentary and it showcases how the leaders would manipulate queer people’s trauma in order to further the movement. So whilst Rodgers’ testimony is used brilliantly here, further examples of this are needed, to balance out the numerous interviews with the ex-leaders that are present. What about those survivors who weren’t so involved in the movement? Pray Away would have definitely benefited and offered a more well-rounded view of its subject, if testimony had been collected from more individuals similar to Rodgers who could have shared their perspectives and experiences too.
In addition to this, the film also features Jeffery McCall, CEO and founder of Freedom March, a group who encourage LGBTQ+ people to leave their queer identities behind and follow Jesus. McCall claims that they are very different from Exodus International and don’t use their methods. He also briefly mentions that he previously lived as a transgender woman but transitioned back to living as a man after finding Jesus. Pray Away is all the better for including McCall and gives audiences one example of how conversion therapy still exists today, however his story is never really explored in any substantial depth and the lack of detail given about his organisation and their methods once again leaves the film feeling incomplete. Interviews with some of its members as well as McCall could have helped to create less of an uneven discussion and enlightened the conversation as a whole. The film does state that interview requests were declined from other prominent activists still involved in conversion therapy, so it’s not solely down to a lack of effort that makes Pray Away feel unbalanced, yet more still could have been done to create a fuller picture of the issue.
Despite this less than even representation of the full discussion, what Pray Away does successfully achieve is the necessary exposure of the toxic methods and behaviour Exodus International used in exploiting gay people, and specifically gay youth. Why this is so important is that it highlights that conversion therapy, even in what some would call its lesser forms (not physical, i.e. corrective rape, shock therapy or violence), is still very much harmful to the individual experiencing it. Manipulation of trauma, coercive preaching and corrective prayer are only some of the examples that are mentioned here and preaching and prayer are often the kinds of practices that those opposed to banning conversion therapy in all of its forms so strongly defend. So in this respect Pray Away excellently showcases the true dangers and wide range of approaches that come with conversion therapy and how the individual is never the priority. Instead those who carry out this harmful practice are only concerned with business opportunities, furthering movements or protecting faith.
Ultimately Pray Away does well to document the confessions of the ex-leaders of the conversion therapy movement, detailing the many ways in which their organisation exploited queer people and their trauma for their own gain. However, at times it feels that the spotlight is on the wrong people. Rodger’s testimony stands out above the rest and her story is an example of what this documentary needed more of. In addition to this, its failure to really delve deep into the opinions and experience of the opposing side to this issue means that the documentary can’t give the full picture of its subject, nor confront those still actively causing harm to the queer community today. So whilst it excellently highlights the how and why of the ex-leaders’ journey into leading this movement and then their departure from it, the lack of a variety and greater quantity of testimonies from survivors is too great to go unnoticed. Overall this leaves the film admirable in its exposure of Exodus International’s despicable history, but its uncertainty about how to present these findings alongside the other elements to this conversation leave it uneven and in need of further development. Playing out like only the first few chapters of a book, rather than the whole volume, Pray Away is a compelling yet incomplete study of conversion therapy that doesn’t quite give the victims or survivors of this horrible practice the full justice they so deserve.
Pray Away is available globally on Netflix from 3 August, 2021