For those unfamiliar with conversion therapy, Netflix documentary Pray Away, executive produced by Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum, wastes no time filling you in. The opening text describes it as “the attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity” via religious leader, licensed counselor, or peer support group. It is a practice that is universally seen as harmful, but that didn’t stop it from growing to horrifying prominence. Boy Erased, an excellent 2018 drama, showed what life was like being shamed inside one of these conversion programs. Pray Away conversely focuses on the birth of Exodus, one of the biggest players in the ex-gay movement, and the former leaders and public figures involved.
Gay marriage is legal in all of the United States now, but back in 1976, that was the furthest thing from reality. It was seen as a violation of God’s laws, a crime, a sickness… it was a sin to be gay. So the only solution was that God could change you and “convert” you back into normalcy, right? Alan Chambers, the founder of Exodus who was at one time the most prominent ex-gay man ever, argued that if you kept repeating it, God would change you! He selfishly wanted children and a wife, and so, he made it happen with an ex-lesbian. He didn’t care who he hurt in the process, but he certainly played the part well enough to make them think true conversion was entirely possible. All you had to do was pray the gay away.
Alan’s dishonesty hurt many others as he lied about being tempted. He brought together various groups to form Exodus and spread their hateful message all over the United States. He justified this by proposing that gayness is based on behavior and not thoughts alone, which is an outlandishly backwards way of thinking. The documentary examines every flawed angle of the various figures involved in Exodus, including chairman John Paulk being scandalously photographed outside a gay bar. Even after trying to make up a story about how he only went in to use a bathroom not knowing it was a gay bar, John pleaded “I hope I didn’t hurt the movement.”
A movement is literally what this became, however. Unsuccessful converts were killing themselves in droves. As things became more political, Exodus knew gay rights were inevitable, so they fought hard for Prop 8 (an awful bill that took away so many rights from the community). A staggering number of people in the LGBT+ circle commit suicide, and conversion therapy is still very much thriving, especially in the conservative Christian landscape. Firsthand accounts are particularly effective, including a phone call where an ex-trans converter urges a parent not to accept their child’s chosen gender and to stand by God, making me cringe in anger. A woman’s story about the inside of working for Exodus is haunting as well. They were only allowed to talk when supervised, unable to share last names amidst fears of congregation, forced to give up masturbation entirely, and participated in workshops where men would embrace their masculinity and females their femininity.
All of these people who worked so long for Exodus really do have blood on their hands, but can there be forgiveness for their self-hate? Pray Away made me angry, upset, baffled, and captivated all at once. It doesn’t resort to low blows like blaming religion, nor does it tear down or spit in the face of its troubled subjects. The film closes out on a somber note, reminding us that people are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide after conversion. The dedication to survivors and especially “those who didn’t” rings out with a pang of sadness that emotionally crushed me.
Pray Away screened at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival June 16th, and comes to Netflix in August.