New from A Reel of One’s Own by Andrea Thompson: Former leaders of the “ex-gay” movement try to find redemption in chilling Netflix doc ‘Pray Away’

Turns out, much of the mainstream conception of conversion therapy is wrong, because the Bible isn’t the most potent weapon behind it. It’s sincerity.

To watch “Pray Away” is a kind of continuation and rebranding of executive producer Ryan Murphy’s own particular kind of horror, with Blumhouse even taking on some of the production duties. It’s also a kind of prequel to much of the LGBTQ content I’ve seen, from one of the guys on “Queer Eye” refusing to set foot in a church, and the final season of “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” revealing the big bad to be a cult like leader with all the trappings of organized religion being a few examples.

Time and again, many of the former leaders behind the “pray the gay away” movement in the chilling Netflix documentary “Pray Away” use the same phrase or a close variation when discussing their past actions: we really believed. And they did, every single one of them. They all truly believed being gay meant something was fundamentally wrong, and they were hell bent (pun actually not intended) on finding out what that was so people could live out the only life they believed was an option: a heterosexual marriage that produced children. 

To do that, they provided “help” in the form of conversion therapy, a process many of them underwent themselves in a desperate effort to conform to what the church wanted them to be, leading them to found the organization Exodus in the 1970s. “Pray Away” contains little footage or sordid details of what that kind of help actually involved, preferring to focus on its subjects, but it gets its point across well enough, with many of them sharing stories of their own struggles, which of course never ceased after they were deemed “cured.” Each details the exhausting daily struggle of constantly attempting to make themselves straight, the desires that never went away, and the lies they told to maintain it.

For the various talking heads, “Pray Away” is a kind of penance, an attempt to achieve a kind of forgiveness and redemption for past harm. The doc doesn’t downplay their actions or the harm they caused, nor does it sneer at the religion that drove them, with many continuing to be involved, albeit in more progressive churches. For many, it was only when their own lives were in danger that brought them to acknowledge how far they were from the truth. 

And each had a breaking point. One of the younger ones, Julie Rodgers, described burning her own flesh, John Paulk, at one point the most famous “ex-gay” in America, speaks of his suicidal urges, and another, Yvette Cantu, began having panic attacks and PTSD symptoms while living in a body which refused to let her continue her actions. Another, Randy Thomas, when confronted about the blood on his hands could only respond, “Right now, all I know is I’m afraid to look down at my hands.”

Multitude Films

Multitude Films

It’s heavy stuff for a feature debut, and director Kristine Stolakis doesn’t pretend that a topic that’s already been the subject of more than a few films such as “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” “Boy Erased,” and “But I’m a Cheerleader,” to name a few, is going away. If conversion therapy has been widely denounced, there are still plenty willing to take the torch and run with it, even among the so-called progressive youth, as represented by Jeffrey McCall, who describes himself as “ex-trans,” and is the founder of Freedom March, an organization dedicated to “celebrating freedom from homosexual/transgender lifestyles by the grace and power of Jesus Christ!”

It’s why the doc also doubles as a kind of warning, refusing to leave us with an uplifting message of progress made. Sure, “Pray Away” may end on a note of hope, as a former Exodus leader marries the love of her life and celebrates her love for her wife and herself, but it is McCall the camera lingers on at the end. There may be plenty of hope for the future, but the fact is it remains unwritten.

Grade: A-

from A Reel Of One’s Own

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