"Pray Away" director on conversion therapy: "It's a movement of hurt people, hurting other people"

Netflix's new documentary on conversion therapy looks at the movement's former leaders and why they left

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 3, 2021 7:00PM (EDT)

Pray Away (Netflix)
Pray Away (Netflix)

For a documentary about a practice that has brought incalculable suffering to LGBTQ youth — conversion therapy — Netflix's "Pray Away" is a profoundly complex, compassionate story.

"I saw the deep fear that comes when you feel like you don't belong," says director Kristine Stolakis. In the intimate stories she shares from veterans of organizations like the notorious Exodus, that fear often turned inward before it became weaponized toward others. And as Stolakis learned in the years she spent working on the project, her initial ideas about "homophobic, transphobic, white, straight men, teaching people to hate themselves" soon gave way to something else. The film became instead a sincere testimony from once vulnerable individuals, who sincerely believed they could make God and everybody else happy if they could just "pray away" their own identities.

In recent years, much of the "ex-gay" movement has crumbled, thanks in large part to former leaders who didn't just turn their backs on it, but came out and began working to create a safer, more honest environment for LGBTQ youth. Yet as the film shows, the  industry still has a powerful hold in Christian communities, and countless young people are still seeking the approval of a God they believe cannot accept them as they are. But while "Pray Away" serves as a warning of an ongoing crisis, it is more than anything a testament to survival, and a celebration of sincere, unconditional love. Salon spoke recently to Stolakis about why she made the film, and its surprising message of forgiveness and hope.

This is a personal project for you. Tell me about the inspiration for this story and for this film.

I got into this topic because my uncle went through conversion therapy himself when he came out as trans as a child. What followed that experience was a lifetime of serious mental health issues that included depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, addiction, suicidality. He suffered greatly.

I knew him during a really special 10 years of really solid mental health and sobriety. He was my babysitter, and he was one of my favorite people on earth, who liked to tell me stories on his couch, who liked to play with me and who loved me. After I became older, his mental health became a big issue. It was only years later that it was explained to me that he had come out as trans when he was quite young, and that his experience of conversion therapy, and more broadly, just being bullied and ridiculed for being for who he was, had caused these issues. When he passed away unexpectedly about six weeks before I went to film school, I decided at that moment that I would make my first feature film about this movement.

When I discovered that the people who had claimed that they themselves had changed from gay to straight or from trans to cis, and that they had the tools for others to do the same were the people running the vast majority of conversion therapy organizations, it was like a light bulb went off in my head in terms of why my uncle had believed for his entire life that change was possible. Before that, I had viewed the movement as confusing. Why did he commit his whole life to thinking that this thing that is such a part of him is a sickness, is a sin? Finding those people made me understand why.

This is not us a small, selective population. This has affected a large number of individuals, spanning over decades. Can you talk about the impact of this movement?

I was also surprised to learn that not only does the movement continue into today, but that it has affected hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. alone. We know that nearly 700,000 people have gone through some form some form of conversion therapy in the U.S. I can also say that even if a church doesn't view themselves as an organization that practices conversion therapy, unless they explicitly affirm their LGBTQ parishioners, they will send a message — either directly or indirectly — that something is wrong with the people in their congregation who identify as LGBTQ. They will send those people to organizations like Exodus that continue into this day, that practice some form of conversion therapy. Or even if they don't directly send their parishioners to this kind of organization, their community members who are LGBTQ will seek it out in some way. A lot of people view this as something that is niche. My experience is that it's actually really wrapped up in mainstream religious culture in the U.S. and abroad in a way that I did not understand before I did before I made this film.

You also put conversion therapy in the context of the the junk psychiatry that went along with it. It was not exclusive to the evangelical movement. This was a thing that people were talking about on talk shows, that was on the covers of magazines.

There is this very problematic, traumatic relationship between the pseudo psychology that has been debunked that says, "Change is possible," that says, "There is some reason in your past that you are LGBTQ" and the larger "ex- LGBTQ" and change movement in general. The movement that says that one can change exists in religious communities, and draws on the remaining psychologists and psychiatrists who say that change is possible. These religious organizations get credibility by citing the small few that continue to practice what one might call like traditional conversion therapy — one-on-one conversion therapy in a doctor's office.

That is not the only way people experience conversion therapy. What I have seen is in religious communities, they actually think, "We're not doing conversion therapy. That happens in a  therapist's office." But their pastors, their youth pastors, are talking to the kids of their Sunday school. They're drawing on that pseudo psychology and saying, "Look, it's not just a religious belief. This therapist over here is saying that this is a sickness." It lends credibility to the bigotry. I don't think people view it that way. They often think they're doing the right thing, that they're helping kids, that they're helping the people in their church.

My experience in making this film — and the research does this back up — is that conversion therapy does largely happen within religious communities in our country. If you look at the Williams Institute study, around two-thirds of all conversion therapies seem to happen within religious organizations, be that a one-on-one conversation with a pastor acting as a pseudo counselor, be it within a peer-based group. It's an important part to understand of the movement, because even if we outlaw psychologists and psychiatrists from doing this, which is what the bans do, that's where conversion therapy happens most, it still will happen. Yes, it is not only a religious movement, but it is a very powerful part of religious culture in the U.S., and I see therapists' relationship to that as only fueling the movement more.

You do a very effective job of also bringing in the way in which the mainstream media has given credence to this pseudo psychiatry.

I think that we do a disservice to covering the movement when we create an "us versus them" narrative, or "There are two sides to this issue" one. So what happens in mainstream media is we see, "Here's a happy trans person. Here's someone that comes from the de-transition or community," and then they give them equal weight. We know from research, anecdotally, that even if one individual feels as though they have found their own gender identity from no longer being trans, that that is not evidence that being trans is a sickness, that being trans will cause mental health problems. It's quite the opposite. It's not being trans causing you pain, it's the world that doesn't accept you that causes you pain.

You start this film with Jeffrey, a young "formerly trans" Christian man. How did you find him, and why was he so important to the story?

We have seen the conversion therapy movement and the "ex-LGBTQ" movement be driven towards and become married with the anti-trans sentiment that we see across our culture more generally right now. Policing gender identity has always been a part of this movement. If you look at the treatments that people go through, it's often about essentializing gender into, "Women act this way, and men act this way. So women, wear more makeup, and then that's going to somehow, through this domino effect, affect your sexual orientation." What is in that belief system is there's one way to be a man, and there's one way to be a woman; God made you this way and that way, and biology says, you're this or that way.

We know that's not true, but that's part of the belief system. That is a hand in the glove of anti-trans legislation and sentiment that we see happening today. Jeffrey is someone who considers themselves "ex-trans." I'm not sure if he himself uses the phrase de-transitioner, but that is now becoming a phrase that's much more common in our culture to refer to this person that says that it is a sickness and a sin to be trans. "Look at me, I've changed, therefore, I'm proof that being trans is bad." That that story gets weaponized by religious right organizations to support anti-trans legislation.

We really wanted to show that a current leader in the movement, who's really been lifted up by their religious right, considers himself "ex-trans." It's a modern incarnation of the movement today, to have these stories of people who consider themselves to have quote, unquote, "left the trans lifestyle" become a part of the "ex-LGBTQ" movement, the conversion therapy movement more generally. It was very important to myself and my team to capture that.

Jeffrey's story is woven throughout the film. One thing about Jeffrey — I really do believe he has very good intentions. I think he is really acting from a place where he thinks he's doing the right thing. That is something I do think our film captures. Overall, the people in this movement have good intentions, especially in the beginning. This is not a movement of bad apples, of evil people. These are people who have internalized these messages of hate, of transphobia, of homophobia, and they're wielding it outwards. Because they think they're helping people, they often don't seem to see the pain that they're causing. And that's something we also hope the film captures.

This film is about identity in so in so many ways — not just about sexual orientation. The ways in which these these people arrive at their sense of self is really interesting, because there's still for many of them a real sense of identification with their Christian upbringing. There's so much longing for community.

That is at the heart of this, absolutely, that feeling of longing for community. I cannot tell you how much I felt that throughout the making of this film. I don't think I realized until I made this film, the danger of feeling like you don't belong, and what people do when they feel like they don't belong. That might sound trite or overly simplified, but I saw the deep fear that comes when you feel like you don't belong.

And to be fair to people, it's because there are real consequences. That fear exists within a very real culture of LGBTQ youth being kicked out of their homes, of people not being able to be part of their religious communities where they've learned to have a relationship to something greater. If you're told, "You can't belong to your family, you can't belong to your community," over and over and over and over again, the deep fear that soaks in you — beyond the physical consequences and the lack of safety — that you aren't worthy of love, drives people to very, very dark places. I think that's a part of the reason that self-harm and suicide are extraordinarily common in this world. We know that youth who go through this [conversion therapy] are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide.

In the film, there's also a story of self-harm. It's common. I saw this in my own uncle, that belief system that you don't belong, which is such a basic human need. When you believe that, that sticks with you, so far beyond an individual moment of a conversation with a pastor acting as a counselor. It just lives with you, in your most intimate of moments. It's devastating.

This is not an embittered film. These figures are coming from a place of self-forgiveness, self-compassion and love. And that's really important, to be able to see people who can look at things that have been done to them, things that they have done themselves, and are able to to say, "I have to live in forgiveness. I believe in self-forgiveness, I believe in forgiveness of others." I wonder if that revealed itself to you along the way, or changed as you were telling the story?

When my uncle passed away, my mom and I went to the home where he'd been living to clean it out. I found in his closet a stack of brochures from NARTH, which is the organization that a very famous conversion therapist named Joseph Nicolosi ran. This was the leading organization that promoted the idea of conversion therapy from the point of view of of licensed therapists. This has now been rebranded as organization called the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice, so it continues today.

I was livid at reading all of this. I thought, I am going to make my first feature film about this. I had an exposé in mind, like, I'm going to find my way into these groups and record the crap that people are teaching others that makes them hate themselves. In my mind, I had these homophobic, transphobic, white, straight men teaching people to hate themselves. But when I found out and really understood that the vast majority of conversion therapy organizations are run by LGBTQ folks, that madness for me transformed into a deep sadness.

I think it's the job of a director to do their best to translate their own lived experience of being essentially their film's first audience member to the film people then experience. That's what I tried to do in the film. That also was not done alone. I did it with a team, and my team is filled with gay and trans conversion therapy survivors and was produced by a company called Multitude Films, which is one of the only — if not the only — LGBTQ led production companies. We had a really special impact producer on our film that started as a consulting producer, who is a survivor of conversion therapy, who's done a lot of organizing work around bringing LGBTQ rights and dignity to evangelical and religious communities.

I say all that because I have a core creative team that I've worked with for years to make this film, who shared a sense of wanting to do our best to show the movement for what it is without sensationalizing it, of giving audiences members space to feel how they are going to feel and giving them space to react how they want to react, and to acknowledge that this really is a movement where internalized hatred, internalized homophobia and transphobia is wielded outwards. It's a movement of hurt people, hurting other people. And it's not so simple as, "Here's five maniacal bad apples, bad actors. Get rid of them, and the whole movement topples." That's not that film. That's not this movement. The reality is that as long as the world continues to be homophobic and transphobic, you're essentially going to be training new potential leadership to fill defectors' places. It was so important for us to capture that. This is not a finger-wagging film. We said this a lot in the edit room, we're not putting religion on trial. We are just trying to show the harm of the movement.

I'm very moved by what you took from that in terms of the idea of forgiveness. I know that's not how everyone reacts to the film. Having talked to a lot of people, there are survivors who feel very angry, and I understand that. I do not think it is my place to tell people how to feel after watching this film, but I hope we gave people space to feel something authentically and something that feels like theirs, versus it feeling as though we shoved one feeling down your throat. And that was not our goal. That wasn't our intention. I think when you speak the truth plainly, there is power to that.  

Was there anything that happened while you were making the film that you really felt moved and inspired by?

The part I felt felt most moved by during the filming was the wedding that's featured in the film. It's because it was one of the only times our team was present in a space where the overwhelming feeling was love and acceptance for people exactly as they were. For me, it's not about the happy ending of a wedding. It's about capturing a moment where people just love each other, for exactly where they are.

"Pray Away" is now streaming on Netflix.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Conversion Therapy Documentary Ex-gay Movement Interview Kristine Stolakis Lgbtq Netflix Pray Away