Released: 3rd August
Seen: 3rd August
If you want to get on the express ticket to my bad side, be on the side of Conversion Therapy. Conversion Therapy, otherwise known as Pray Away The Gay, is the idea that people can be turned straight via some form of extreme therapy. In reality, it’s a way to force queer people into suppressing their true selves in order to be accepted by a group made up of bigots who have only read one book and decided that the part of that book that said gays were bad was a rule they had to follow forever but the part about mixed fabrics was up for debate. Over the years there have been a lot of documentaries regarding this movement but the recent documentary Pray Away might be one of the best of the bunch.
Pray Away tells the story of Exodus International, a group started in 1976 which spread the word about conversion therapy throughout America. Using interviews with several former leaders in the organisation, the film charts the growth of the conversion therapy movement from the 80s until the mid-2010’s up until Exodus International’s eventual disbanding in 2013. It explores not only how this movement got as big as it did, but the damage that was done not only to the lives of those who were involved but the damage that group did to the wider queer community.
Pray Away’s trick, for lack of a better term, is how it doesn’t pass judgement on anyone involved in the film. Not only does it feature a large number of interviews between former members of Exodus, a recurring character in the film is a former trans-woman who detransitioned and now goes around preaching conversion therapy to others. The film never judges this person but uses them to show how genuine and earnest these people can seem while they believe that conversion is possible… which makes it much more intense when we start hearing the stories of those who left the ex-gay movement.
At several points in the film, Pray Away will stop to just have one of the main people spell out the harm that repressing their feelings ended up causing them. The pain is real and it’s intense, from dissolution of family units to self-harm and beyond, we are shown the true cost of this movement in no uncertain terms. Every chance we get it’s made very clear that not only is conversion impossible but that it causes real harm, some people are literally permanently scarred because of it and the film doesn’t really touch on the numbers of people who died from the conversion therapy movement.
Pray Away’s almost complete focus on Exodus International might be the films biggest problem because conversion therapy in general goes way beyond that one group and some parts of that movement are still going today and need that disinfecting light shone upon them. The stories we hear are harrowing, but it would’ve helped to hear a lot more of them just in order to really hammer the point home.
Pray Away is confronting, filling in the audience on the history of an organisation that did so much more than just try to convert people. Learning about where they put their money (surprise, it was to support a ton of horrific anti-gay legislation) was shocking to learn and seeing the reach they had was incredible. Honestly the one thing they don’t seem to talk about that I wish they did was that Exodus International played in Uganda’s infamous Kill the Gays bill, but I’m guessing that would’ve just made it too depressing.
Pray Away is a fascinating look into a group that did lasting damage, not only to its members but to a wider society. Its impact is still being felt today and while we might currently be working on a wave of laws to ban this sick practice of conversion therapy, one viewing of this film will have you ready to do what’s needed to make sure that no more gay or trans kids feel like they need to hide who they are. Just let people be who they are, if they aren’t hurting anyone then it shouldn’t bother you.