Pray Away (2021) ☆☆1/2 (2.5/4): How they damaged others out there

Netflix documentary film “Pray Away”, which is released on this Tuesday, mainly focuses on several survivors and former leaders of gay conversion therapy groups in US. Although it does not go that deep into many horrors and tragedies of gay conversion therapy, the documentary gives us a fairly good presentation of the deeply toxic aspects of gay conversion therapy, and it is often chilling to see how persistent gay conversion therapy is even at present.

During the early part of the documentary, several interviewees including Randy Thomas, who was one of the board members of a prominent American Christian gay conversion therapy group named Exodus, tell us about the early years of Exodus in the late 1970s. During that time, homosexuality was still regarded as a mental illness by many people including those influential Christian evangelists. Many LGBTQ people in churches naturally felt quite conflicted between their sexuality and faith, and their growing problem eventually led to the foundation of Exodus, which confidently promised many of them the salvation via being converted to heterosexuality.

As religiously devoted people, the leaders of Exodus did not have much doubt on whether they were actually doing right things, but they were seriously under-qualified as ‘therapists’. For example, most of them did not have any professional therapy qualification, and their so-called psychological theories on homosexuality were silly and ludicrous to say the least. They usually blamed bad parenting or relationship problems with parents, and that only made those therapy recipients feel all the worse about themselves.

Nevertheless, Exodus kept increasing its influence during next several decades as drawing more people willing to be converted, and, as some of you know, it even had a number of representatives who proudly presented themselves as “ex-gays” in public. In case of John Paulk, he was the shining emblem of gay conversion therapy as an ex-gay man who was not only saved by his Christian belief but also married an ex-lesbian woman, and it did not take much time for him to become the top spokesperson of Exodus.

Paulk, who is now living with his male partner at present, shows lots of regret and guilt during his interview, and the same thing can be said about Yvette Cantu Schneider, a bisexual woman who was another key figure of Exodus as an “ex-lesbian”. At that time when she came to join Exodus, she simply wanted some emotional comfort and support after watching many deaths caused by AIDS in the 1980s, but then she let herself live the life of lie and denial, and, just like many of her Exodus colleagues, she also caused more unhappiness and misery out there.

In case of Julia Rogers, her story is a heartbreaking tale of the cycle of emotional abuse. She came out to her conservative Christian mother when she was 16, but, not so surprisingly, she was quickly sent to a gay conversion therapy group associated with Exodus. After she was eventually “converted” by its leader, she subsequently found herself giving speeches for many other gay conversion therapy groups, and she remembers one particularly painful moment when she was persuaded to talk about a painful experience of sexual assault just for more emotional appeal in her speech.

Around the 2000s, Exodus and its numerous affiliates expanded its social influence further as being closely associated with many powerful conservative politicians including President George W. Bush, and its annual conference continued to draw more people as usual. Although homosexuality was not regarded as a mental illness anymore around that time, there were many opportunistic therapists eager to capitalize on gay conversion therapy, and Exodus and its affiliates did not mind using those scoundrels’ pseudo-psychology theories on homosexuality just because they would make gay conversion therapy look much more justified than before.

However, as the protests for the civil rights of LGBTQ people were continued on the opposite end, the American society and its people came to accept homosexuality more than before, and Thomas and many other figures of Exodus belatedly opened their eyes to the sins they had committed for years. After attending a group meeting of gay conversion therapy survivors, Thomas quit Exodus due to his growing guilt and regret, and Exodus was eventually shut down as more and more survivors came forward with their deep emotional scars and pains.

Nevertheless, as shown at the end of the documentary, gay conversion therapy has not been stopped at all in US even at this point, and this alarming status is mainly reflected via one ex-LGBTQ Christian group led by an ex-transgender guy named Jeffrey McCall, who seems to believe quite firmly that he was really converted by his religious faith. As one of the interviewees in the documentary points out, gay conversion therapy will never go away as long as there is hate toward LGBTQ people, and it is alternatively depressing and alarming to watch people like McCall continue to spread more misery and unhappiness in the name of faith and conformity.

On the whole, “Pray Away”, which is directed and co-produced by Kristine Stolakis, is rather uneven and unfocused as juggling too many different narratives within its 101-minute running time, but it is not entirely without merit. To be frank with you, it will probably not enlighten you that much if you have ever seen “Boy Erased” (2018) or “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” (2018), but I sincerely hope that its Netflix release will lead to more conversation on its relevant main subject.

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