Synopsis: Documentary exploring “gay conversion therapy” in America, featuring numerous interviews. (Streaming on Netflix.)
Meet Jeffrey. Jeffrey proselytizes on sidewalks outside of big box stores. He asks passersby to pray with him. He confesses that he was gay and wanted to become a woman. As if to atone for his “sins” he carries a poster board with photos of himself as a transwoman. He lets people know that, with the help of Jesus, he is no longer gay. We’ll get back to Jeffrey later.
I see a commercial opportunity for the companies that make little statuettes of Jesus playing sports with modern day kids. I picture Jesus leading a man away from the threshold of a gay bar. Of course Christ would be in a robe and sandals, as per usual. The deluxe version statuary would be electrified, where beyond the crafted facade of a mini gay bar, there would be thrumping music punctuated by multi-colored lights emanating from the little doorway when you press an on switch. The artwork could be gifted to Christian men with gay inclinations to commemorate, say, a year of avoiding the bars. Or it could be appreciated ironically by men who enjoy the scene.
Pray Away is a documentary about gay conversion therapy in the United States which claims to change one’s sexual and/or gender identity. The evolution of the movement is chronicled and the testimony of numerous “ex gay” people is included.
Evangelicals in the 1970’s began pulling together support groups for Christians who were homosexual and wanted to become heterosexual. The idea was to “pray away the gay.”
Counselors did not have graduate degrees in psychology/counseling from secular institutions. Big Surprise. I’d bet that you’d be hard pressed to find any counselors with even one course in human sexuality under their belt. Ah, yes, under–or rather– below the belt action was their raison d’etre. Well the regulating of it anyway. In fact, one counselee recalled how she was encouraged to confess her gay fantasies (good fodder for erotic fiction, perhaps). The goal being to stay away from a practicing homosexual “lifestyle.”
Pray Away covers the beginnings of Exodus, the premier gay conversion group of its time. In 1976 some white evangelical men came together to form support groups with the purpose of converting gays to heterosexuality and ultimately, opposite sex marriage and child-making. Their doctrine promotes Adam and Eve as the ne plus ultra couple.
Exodus wanted to reach more Christians who were into same sex couplings so they produced a nice commercial with footage of a man purposefully striding across a nature-y area, far, far away from gaydom. Let’s meet some of the people who got involved…
Julie , a thirty-ish woman, lives in the Washington, D.C. area, but grew up in a rural area with her Christian fundamentalist parents. She was taught that homosexuals were bad and disgusting. Much to her dismay, as a teen, she found herself attracted to girls. Julie told her mom who brought her to a pastor with whom she had weekly un-gaying meetings. She’d confess her struggles to the pastor including reporting on other people she encountered who she thought might be gay at the restaurant where she waitressed. And the pastor and her mom decided that Julie needed to drop out of softball because it was too gay-making. Julie says her whole life was structured around not being gay.
Julie went to the Exodus annual conferences. She says there were indoctrination classes during the day. The men were instructed to embrace their masculinity by doing mannish things like playing touch football. The women were encouraged to rejoice in their femininity by wearing makeup. But not too much makeup–then you’d look like a Sodom & Gomorrah whore.
Julie was a little confused by the explanations for how people turned gay: either the person had a poor relationship with their same sex parent or they were molested as a child. Julie got along great with her mom and hadn’t been molested. A pastor helpfully told her that people oftentimes didn’t remember the molestation.
Julie said that the nights (after the leaders went to sleep) were great because she got to be with her peers, and they could just joke around and be their queer selves. Less fun though, that they couldn’t act on what I’m sure were lots of same sex crushes.
We move onto a man named John who is an ex ex-gay. Apparently he was somewhat of a celebrity in the 1990’s when he was chairman of the board of Exodus. He appeared on talk shows with his wife who was also an ex homosexual. He said he overcame being gay and didn’t even have gay thoughts. He later admitted that he was dishonest about that. But, no matter, because he defined gay by behavior (sexual activity) and not by what attractions one actually felt.
Another interviewee, Yvette was particularly interesting because she didn’t join a church until she was twenty-seven, after six years of being a “practicing” lesbian. I guess it shows that prevailing secular societal attitudes can cause self-loathing too. It really makes me wonder… I mean there are people who whack their kids around and don’t feel badly about it and yet, there are so many people who hate themselves when they are not even hurting anyone.
Yvette said that she had lived through a lot of gay male friends who had died of AIDS and this brought her to the conclusion that those who preached against homosexuality were correct. A clip of televangelist Jerry Falwell is shown wherein he says that AIDS is the price people pay when “they violate the laws of God.” Ok, so why aren’t war mongers getting sick? I mean I see thou shalt not murder in the Ten Commandments, but not thou shalt not pass thy time with gay sex.
Anyway, Yvette embarks on a career of not just support groups for gays trying to become ungay, but for a fundamentalist Christian group that lobbies against laws designed to prevent discrimination to persons who identify as LGBTQ. In 2008, Proposition 8 was on the ballot in California. It defined marriage as between a man and a woman which would, in effect, ban gay marriage. Supporters used sophisticated slippery slope arguments like, If we let men marry men & women marry women, what’s next? People marrying trucks?!
Voters passed Prop 8 7,001,084 to 6,401,482. I’m not sure how denying civil rights to a group you don’t like because they are different from you should be legal, but there you go. (In 2010 it was ruled unconstitutional, violating the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment and because it removed rights from a disfavored class without rational basis.)
The people who share their stories have been on long journeys of shame, guilt and trying to do the right thing. One man who helped to promote the passage of Prop 8 said he started to question what he was doing when he watched the news after its passage and saw footage of gay people gathered together in tears, because their dreams of equal rights in marriage had just been shot down by their fellow citizens. He choked up as he told the documentarian that he recognized that he had done this to what he knew in his heart was his community.
Remember Jeffrey? He’s the ex-gay, ex-transwoman we met at the beginning of Pray Away. Jeffrey is very sincere in both his repentance and his wish to help others away from gaydom. He is a guest speaker at parishes and recounts how he was encouraged into homosexuality by tv shows featuring gay best friends, with Will & Grace being a big offender. Jeffrey reports that schools really push the homosexual agenda. I’m not sure how they sneak that in since much of the “health” message seems to be Don’t have sex with anyone, you horny teens!
Jeffrey organizes a Freedom March online where ex-gays can come together before the public. We see adherents gather at Jeffrey’s townhome where they stomp and chant in unison “I’m a warrior!” Bet the neighbors love it. Before the actual march there are speakers who enjoin the marchers to take pride in being “overcomers.” Uh, huh…
So some, but not all of the people in Pray Away are happier being ex ex-gay than ex gay. Ultimately, the movie is about more than gay conversion– which seems pretty futile. It seems to have a lot to say about loving your neighbor. And, yes, minding your own business when it comes to what your neighbor is doing in bed or the hallway or where ever. So long as it’s consenting adults, sports fans. Sports fans? Where did that come from. Ah, yes, that poor girl who was banned from playing softball. Let’s let all the girls and boys and non binary kids do all the sports they want. I feel like Jesus would approve.
PS. 20 of 50 states in the USA prohibit gay conversion therapy for minors as of Aug. 2021: NJ, CA, OR, IL, VT, NM, CT, RI, NV, WA,HI, DE, MD, NH, NY, MA, CO, ME, NC, UT
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut
Cut to the Chase: Interesting look at the social and political elements of gay conversion and the people effected.
Humor Highlight: Uh, when somebody is outed going to a gay bar.