Pray Away, a documentary recently released on Netflix, opens with Jeffrey McCall, a large and gentle man who drives through the rain to a strip mall where he stands under the portico and offers to pray for passersby while wielding a poster board with the words “TRANS 2 CHRIST” emblazoned across it in sticker letters. He shows interested people his before-and-after pictures glued below: “I lived transgendered before,” he explains, “and I left everything to follow Jesus Christ.”
While these attempts at street evangelism seem clumsy and relatively narrow in their reach, as the film progresses we learn that Jeffrey has started a movement with close to 4,000 social media followers. “The Freedom March,” with its sleek rainbow-coloured logo, is the opposite of a Pride Parade, an event which gathers Christians who “left LGBT lifestyles” to rally around lively worship services, charismatic prayer circles, and inspirational speakers who yell about being free and being changed. In the few prayer services leading up to the Freedom March and at the event itself, we see how Jeffrey is lauded for his courage and strength by his faith community, how people come together with hugs, support and tearful prayers as they seek to take their stories to the streets. These segments about Jeffrey and his energetic community are interspersed with interviews with former leaders of the ex-gay movement, founders and spokespeople of the now defunct Exodus International, the leading conversion therapy ministry in North America until its abrupt demise in 2013. Through a compassionate lens, the film shares the stories of some of Exodus International’s most prominent voices and how they eventually determined that conversion therapy was not only ineffective in yielding the sexual reorientation it proclaimed, but was actually deeply damaging both to its proponents and its patients.
Interviews focus largely on five former ex-gay speakers and advocates – including Exodus International co-founder Michael Bussee and former board president John Paulk – who have since come to embrace their queer orientation. These personal testimonies are juxtaposed with original footage from conversion therapy sessions and conferences as well as condemnatory language spoken by evangelical leaders such as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell. The testimonies create an over-arching narrative of stigmatized LGBTQ+ Christians who found hope and belonging in the ex-gay community and, despite feeling a deep disconnect with who they truly were, rallied behind this political and religious cause because it seemed the only way to find acceptance.
These figures trace conversion therapy’s roots to pseudoscientific psychologists, homophobic churches, cultural pressures and a political agenda which needed to pathologize queerness in attempt to maintain a heteronormative society. They explain how organizations groomed and coached them to be the faces of their movement, but how over time, the growing sense of internal disconnect grew and grew, in some cases leading to self-harm or suicidal thinking.
The film humanizes its subjects through footage of them in their homes, baking with their children, walking with their partners, posing for engagement photos. As we get glimpses into the current day-to-day lives of these five figures, we see that at least two of them still find themselves in the church, though now in faith communities which affirm their sexual identities. Julie Rodgers, who was pushed to start speaking at ex-gay conferences at a young age, is shown in real time at a church gathering, speaking to a group of people about Christ’s love for LGBTQ+ people: “We’ve talked about how Christian communities are where we’ve experienced so much pain and trauma in our lives. At the same time, this faith has also been a huge source of our healing. It’s been really important to me to sort of separate Jesus from the Christians who hurt me.”
Pray Away provides a painful and sensitive window into the journeys of several people who had been the faces of the ex-gay movement. While major programs like Exodus International and New Beginnings in Canada have in the last decade shut down or completely revised their mandate, conversion therapy is far from over. Many Christians still maintain the position that any sexual orientation or identity other than cis-gendered heterosexuality is a psychological disorder or the result of trauma.
This documentary is an important film for Christians. It concludes by sharing some facts with viewers, specifically that victims of conversion therapy are two times more likely to take their lives than the rest of society. We need to grapple with the pain and suffering caused by conversion therapy and homophobia. We need to continue to ask what it means to repent for the injustices the church has committed against LGBTQ+ people, and to break down the stigmatization and exclusion which continues to pervade faith-based communities.
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