Pray Away is a hard-hitting documentary that grapples with the reality of conversion therapy and its survivors. It interviews not only those who suffered through the process, but ex-leaders, on the ideology behind this traumatic experience. Co-produced by Glee’s Ryan Murphy, it earned a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Read on to find out what our writers made of it.
Signing into Netflix to watch this documentary I felt oddly anxious.
I’m not entirely sure why, perhaps it is because as a queer individual, I have spent most of my life trying to come to terms with my own identity in a way that seems ‘acceptable’ to the outside world. In my younger years I would flit from label to label because none of them felt like ones I could tell anyone and be proud of. That, and the fact that the idea of conversion therapy was one I came across at a very young age while researching ‘am I gay’ on the Internet. It’s something that has been living in the back of my head for years and sitting through a documentary about it was, well, hard.
I won’t sugar coat my experience with Pray Away. It was a lot. I had to pause several times to breathe through my rage, or my genuine heartbreak as I watched individuals battle with religion and identity as if they were mutually exclusive concepts that could never exist in harmony.
But at the same time this documentary is an experience I would recommend to everyone, because there is education to be had for everyone.
Throughout I was of the solid mindset that no one would surely choose this path for themselves but I was wrong. There are individuals who were ladened down with such internalised hate that they felt the need to change themselves, who even with love and support may still feel that they were somehow wrong. It was, with this memory of finding it online as a preteen, something I had maybe been storing away in my subconscious without even realising. In and of itself, that is a painful thought to process but one that Pray Away does not shy away from, in a painfully truthful way they want you to think these thoughts. To look inside yourself and ask – why?
The documentary does an incredible job of highlighting all sides of the story. Those that eventually broke free of a stigma put in place by society and accepted who they were, and found joy in their lives. And on the flip side, it explores the roots of why this movement came into existence with very little sugar coating.
I think the most poignant thing for me about the whole piece is the heavy reminder that this is not a forgotten movement. Conversion therapy is not in our pasts, but still a rather disturbing element of our present that often goes overlooked because the more accepting factions of our society have learnt to shout louder.
Which is the pinnacle of why Pray Away needs to exist, and why I think it is something everybody should sit through, no matter what their age, identity or orientation. Because if you asked people on the street I imagine most of them would think that conversion therapy isn’t a thing that still happens in this day and age. Sadly, it is, and it will continue to be until society has reached a point of true acceptance.
It may be becoming clear in the varied posts I’ve written so far at Rrramble that I’m not all that fussy in the media I consume. Comedy series, video podcasts, art galleries, I’ve enjoyed them all. It should come as no great surprise, then, that I can admit I’ve been quite the fan of Glee in my time. Seeing infamous Glee writer and creator, Ryan Murphy, being attached to what promised to be a poignant documentary about the controversial practice of Christian-based gay conversion therapy left me a touch intrigued about exactly how I might feel after watching Pray Away, which came to Netflix earlier this month.
Shocker, I also love a hard-hitting documentary. Given its status as premiering at the Tribeca film festival, and its impressively high ratings on Rotten Tomatoes by critics and audiences alike, I armed myself with the knowledge that Murphy was merely one producer and not solely responsible for the final product.
I had anticipated Pray Away being a predictably uncomfortable and emotional watch, which certainly lived up to be true. As we meet the ex-leaders of the Exodus conversion movement, the survivors of that movement, and those (often young) people who have picked up the gay conversion baton for this generation, I was surprised at the reactions it provoked in me. The concept of gay conversion therapy is a black and white issue for me; it is abhorrently wrong. The concept of organised religion is a different matter; though I’m uncomfortable with lots of the ideas of organised religions, it is not up to me to dictate to people what they wish to believe. It is also not up to me to question the core happiness of those embedded in the movement, though listening to the testimony of survivors, the overwhelmingly shared experience of debilitating mental health difficulties each individual suffered as they chose to lie to themselves every single day, makes me question the authenticity of their words.
It is deeply saddening to see the extent to which queer people have been manipulated into denying themselves their true identity and it is worrying that this trend continues.
Overwhelmingly, I felt so angry. Being confronted with the depths of the fear and hatred fuelling the Exodus movement of the last thirty years, alongside the stories of those who endured its torment, made very clear the inhumanity of it all.
The majority of the individuals featured in the documentary are ex-leaders of the officially disbanded Exodus movement, though it also follows Jeffrey, one of the emerging young voices of present conversion movements. Aside from the obvious concerns this presents, I was surprised to hear him describe how mainstream media doesn’t share his kind of story (the gay to ex-gay story). Never have I heard the damnation of mainstream media so fiercely as in this new Covid world and we’ve seen that when individuals dislike what they see in the ‘mainstream’, they seek hidden, underground sources from which to build their world view. I fear for these young queer people who are pushed underground in the name of finding news cycles confirming to them that they can be ‘cured’ of their queerness.
Maybe I’m too hung up on the very publicised attachment of Ryan Murphy to this project; under Kristine Stolakis’ direction, Pray Away provides intimate and raw insights into the very different but very universal experiences of those previously embedded within the US gay conversion movement. There are nuances in the documentary I haven’t even scratched the surface of, and stories featured that deserve to be heard by as many people as possible.
I know I am very lucky when I say that before now conversion therapy never seemed like that big of a deal. Even hearing the basic description of what it entails never allowed me to fully understand the horrors that young queer people all over the globe are subjected to. My thought process was once that ‘as long as we aren’t being beaten and murdered, then that’s fine’ (which is a problem in and of itself). Pray Away takes the viewer right into the heart of the issue, providing a truly eye-opening experience for people like myself who did not realise the severity of the situation.
Featuring former and current leaders of the ‘ex-gay’ movement, Pray Away provides accurate retellings of ‘treatments’ and ‘therapies’ young queer people are often forced in one way or another to undergo, and the trauma they are then subsequently left to deal with. Now when I say forced, I don’t mean they are dragged kicking and screaming from their beds.
While that is the case for some, Pray Away emphasises the much more insidious ways in which organisations such as Exodus recruit LGBTQIA youth to attend their conferences and camps. It’s not as overt as ‘Gay is wrong’ and ‘God hates you’, it is so much more subtle than that. It’s all in the wording they use; gay is a lifestyle and an obstacle that God has presented you with for you to overcome to prove your love for Him, and He has done so because He loves you so much. It’s nothing short of brainwashing. Former Exodus leaders recount their experience providing us with an insight into how they truly believed at the time that their homosexual thoughts could and should be changed and that this was something they needed to do to prove their love for God. By integrating actual footage of these former leaders speaking publicly about the ‘work’ they were doing with present day interviews, the viewer is able to really understand the emotional toll this experience has had on these individuals.
While it may seem that Exodus and other similar organisations are spearheaded and kept alive by religious extremists, Pray Away makes sure to highlight that these organisations were backed by hundreds of psychologists and licensed therapists who used a sort of pseudo-psychology to ‘explain’ what ‘causes’ homosexuality. Many of the leaders believed in this ‘science’ and used it as a way to justify their ‘work’, thus making it clear that they too are victims in their own way.
In a moment of high emotion in the documentary we see leaders at Exodus, including the founder and president themselves, confronted by survivors of the programme in a group therapy session. It is the testimony of those survivors that forces the hierarchy to realise that the programme that they actively supported was doing more harm than good. In this pivotal scene we as the viewer are forced to recognise the leaders and founders as survivors of this horrific system, while also holding them accountable for the part they played in inflicting this torture upon others.
Pray Away does a phenomenal job of educating people on the psychological torture inflicted on survivors of conversion therapy and how most carry that trauma with them for the rest of their lives. Evoking palpable emotions, it delivers a cathartic experience while also reminding the viewer that as long as society enables the self-hatred within LGBTQIA youth, the opportunity for these organisations to prey on them is still prevalent.
I am struggling for words. Most of us don’t need a documentary to make it clear that conversion therapy is bad; those that do likely don’t have access to Netflix. So what we’re presented with is obviously and inevitably painful. It’s a direct look at living trauma and it’s difficult to stomach; I had to stop and take a break several times. I wouldn’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to watch Pray Away, because at times it’s simply too much to bear to show you what’s obvious from the beginning.
None of this is to say Pray Away is bad. Even though I needed to occasionally stop and spend a few minutes away from my computer, I wasn’t forcing myself to persevere through the film: I wanted to keep watching. As disturbing as it was, it was also eye-opening in ways I didn’t expect. Instead of lingering on the basic fact that conversion therapy doesn’t work and is frequently traumatic, Pray Away pays attention to individual stories that helped me understand a lot more about where these organisations came from, why people became involved in them, why they stayed, and why they left. The documentary is definitely an emotional piece, focusing on lived experiences and individual journeys, rather than a deep dive into history and statistics; but that format gave me a far more nuanced understanding of what it actually means for someone to live through these conversion organisations.
Having real people, often leaders, from these organisations shared this story was far more resonant and insightful than an article detailing the function and failings of conversion therapy. The documentary was respectful of the people it interviewed as well as the subject matter, giving glimpses into their lives to fully humanise them as they talked about their experiences. It wasn’t detached, and didn’t glamourise suffering, but provided an empathetic look into how the desire to be loved, accepted, and understood lead LGBTQ people into these groups. How for many survivors these groups were the only avenue to connect with other LGBTQ people. The ways that, even when the leaders aren’t malicious, the entire system is built on lies and trauma in order to perpetuate cultish exploitation. I don’t think that’s a story that can be told from a distance or without emotion.
But that emotional core is also why this was so hard to watch. I couldn’t stop thinking of all the harm caused; and how for every person who got out there are scores, maybe hundreds who stayed behind, as well as the unknown number who didn’t survive.
I don’t have a neat way to sum this review up. I don’t even know how to go about recommending the film: the quality is great and it is really interesting, but who benefits from watching something so obviously depressing?
Conversion therapy remains legal for most people living in the world, including in the UK. Pledges to bring the practice to an end have sputtered and stagnated as complacency has taken hold. When we talk about these issues we are not talking about the past, nor alien places. Should you choose to watch Pray Away, bear in mind that we’re talking about real people, alive today, who need our respect, love, and support.