In the digital age of ambiguous queer icons and seemingly representative LGBTQ+ media, the validity and importance of our stories is constantly questioned or perceived as a threat to the never-ending production of heterosexual content and the dominance of capitalistic faux-feminism. Netflix’s new documentary, Pray Away, is here to remind us, and the rest of the world, exactly why the significance of our stories requires no debate.
Directed by Kristine Stolakis, Pray Away is more than just your run of the mill observational documentary. Produced by Ryan Murphy and Blumhouse Productions, the film follows the former leaders of America’s largest ex-gay movement and organisation, Exodus International. Founded in the 1970s by a group of Evangelical queer men, Exodus promoted conversion therapy and claimed they could provide reorientation on an individual’s same-sex attraction. Conversion therapy (also referred to as ‘cure’ therapy or reparative therapy) is based entirely on the notion that being LGBTQ+ is a mental illness that can be cured, often through religious practices. The “treatment” offered to queer people ranges from prayer to counselling and group therapy to electroconvulsive therapy and sexual abuse referred to as “corrective” rape. The aim of the practice is to remove homosexual desire and attraction, voluntarily or by force. Exodus then grew to become the largest conversion therapy organisation in the world, with its leaders becoming the face of America’s religious right wing anti-gay agenda.
Throughout the documentary we are introduced to several of Exodus’ leaders, all queer and all now out the closet, living openly and comfortably as their authentic selves. These leaders spent the majority of their young adulthood actively abusing the LGBTQ+ community and struggling with their own sexualities and identities. Yvette Cantu Schneider, an ex-lesbian and former head of Exodus’ women’s ministries, recalls her time spent as a spokesperson, in which she would claim her lesbianism was healed by God. This was merely one way in which Exodus indoctrinated queer people into their false and damaging ideology. Their arguments focused on childhood trauma, ambiguous gender roles, bad parenting and abuse as the reasoning for homosexuality, operating much (if not exactly) like a cult in their practices.
A multitude of perspectives are presented during the documentary whilst Stolakis simultaneously reinforces that anti-LGBTQ+ ideologies and practices are not just wrong, but directly damaging and harmful. The queer people responsible for creating Exodus have committed monstrous and irreversible crimes against their own people. As the audience, Stolakis tasks each of us with our own decision – are these people worthy of redemption? The answer is no doubt complicated and personal to every viewer, heterosexual or otherwise. Nevertheless, it is a question that must be asked. It shines light on more than just the wicked acts committed by Exodus in the past, as Pray Away unfolds into a deeply complex narrative that considers all sides of the queer experience, from victim to martyr to oppressor.
The most unsettling features by far are the opening and closing scenes, which follow Jeffrey McCall, an anti-queer preacher and founder of the Freedom March – a group for people who have left the LGBTQ+ community in the name of God. The insight granted in to Jeffrey is soul crushing, as scenes of him canvassing, preaching his so-called “freedom” from his old life as a transwoman in service and dedication to the Lord. One scene even shows him actively discouraging a person seeking his advice from accepting someone they love as trans. Jeffrey’s group still operates today, and although they claim they are not hateful, it is made clear in Pray Away that no good can come from the belief that being LGBTQ+ is anything other than natural.
Altogether, Pray Away leaves a lasting impression in more ways than one. As documentation of one of the most corrupt and unholy organisations, it transfers into a brutal yet fundamental viewing experience. This serves as a reminder of how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.
Pray Away is available to stream on Netflix from August 3rd
by Kelsie Dickinson