Pray Away 2021 Movie Review
Kristine Stolakis’ new documentary, “Pray Away,” is a fascinating, well-crafted and very necessary piece of filmmaking.
It is also a harrowing exploration of gay conversion therapy and the deep trauma the “ex-gay” movement continues to cause.
The documentary, premiering on Netflix on Tuesday, Aug. 3, looks at the legacy of Exodus International, an evangelical Christian program founded in the 1970s that claimed it could rid people of same-sex attraction through a combination of prayer, group counseling and talk therapy that reinforced the message that their LGBTQ identities were a sin.
But the group’s leaders, who identified as formerly gay, had a secret: Conversion therapy did not and does not work.
Testimonies about the lengths people went to convince themselves that they were changed, stories of the guilt and depression many of them continue to grapple with, and statistics showing that young people who go through conversion therapy are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide than other queer youths gave me a viscerally painful reaction as a gay man.
“I know this film is a hard watch, especially for people who have been directly impacted by this movement in some way,” says Stolakis, who has taught film at Stanford University and the University of San Francisco. “I know firsthand that spending time with this topic is difficult.”
Review: ‘Pray Away’ goes deep into the painful history of the church’s anti-gay conversion therapy
Stolakis herself is not queer; she identifies as an ally and intentionally included numerous LGBTQ colleagues in the film production for their perspectives. But for her, the subject is deeply personal. She traces the genesis of “Pray Away” to her late uncle, who was subjected to conversion therapy by his parents.
When I ask Stolakis about him, her voice breaks at first. When he was a child, her uncle told his family that he had same-sex attractions and identified as female. Stolakis says her relatives viewed the disclosure as his “gender problem.”
“He came out during a time (the 1960s) when all therapists were essentially conversion therapists,” says Stolakis, noting that this was before the American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. Doctors “were pushing now disproven, outdated, very harmful beliefs.”
For the rest of his life, Stolakis’ uncle presented as male (and used male pronouns) and remained celibate. He also struggled with his mental health as a result of his conversion therapy in the ’60s and ’70s. But when he was well, he was a favorite babysitter of Stolakis and her best friend.
He died shortly before Stolakis started film school.
With her uncle in mind, “Pray Away” — taken from the phrase “pray away the gay” — feels at times like the filmmaker is trying to make sense of her family situation through the stories of the film’s subjects.
But the practice is not a thing of the past. Only 20 states, including California, have outright banned conversion therapy for minors, and in some religious communities it continues unchecked. And even though Exodus International closed in 2013, the ex-gay movement continues.
Though most of the documentary is centered on former leaders in the movement who have since renounced conversion therapy, one therapy subject and practitioner, Jeffrey, still fervently embraces the ideology and identifies as ex-gay and ex-transgender.
Jeffrey’s resolute belief that he was able to change himself was one of the most difficult aspects of the film for me, especially as he proselytized to others. My sympathy was mixed with anger for those he may have impacted by his message, but as I talked to Stolakis, Jeffrey’s parallels to her uncle became clear.
“This is a movement of hurt people hurting other people,” Stolakis explains.
At the end of “Pray Away,” these words appear onscreen: “This film is dedicated to those who survived conversion therapy and especially those who didn’t.”
I thought about Stolakis’ uncle, and then I thought again about Jeffrey. If you pray, keep them in your prayers.