It’s bizarre to think about the vast cultural shift that has occurred in a comparatively short amount of time around gay rights. Sure, there are fundamentalist groups perpetually pushing back against the fact that the LGBTQ community is generally accepted by wider swathes of Americans than ever before, but there used to be an entire cottage industry around the idea that you could simply stop being gay if you prayed hard enough. Pray Away is an empathetic documentary that explores the origins of the gay conversion movement, some of its now remorseful leaders, and the immense trauma it inflicted on young gay people growing up in the church.
There are multiple facets of the “pray the gay away” movement, and they all work in conjunction with each other to send the message that being gay is a sin, and to be a good Christian, you need to suppress your homosexuality to such an extent that you can deny it exists even to yourself. In some of the early groups, there was a focus on community, finding other people who were going through the same struggles at a time when gay Christians weren’t exactly advertising the fact. But no matter how outwardly accepting and supportive these homegrown youth groups appeared, a powerful undercurrent of shame and self-hatred was present from the very beginning.
These emotions would be taken advantage of as the movement expanded into an empire during the 1980s and 1990s. Suddenly, we see figures on mainstream daytime television exhorting themselves as “ex-gay,” supposedly to encourage gay Christians that they too can change. But ultimately, the message is that you are not worthy of God’s love as you are, and you need to change something fundamental to your very identity to have any hope of salvation.
Pray Away makes the bold decision to include several former leaders and spokespeople for the movement, almost all of whom have since gone on to become ex-ex-gay (or just gay, if you like.) Their commentary is damning, as they acknowledge all of the damage their lies did for a generation of young Christians grappling with their sexuality. Some are deeply remorseful, while others come across as regretful but strangely detached from the far-reaching ramifications of the emotional abuse they peddled. They all seem to recognize that when they pretended that they had magically become straight through the power of prayer, they were condemning countless individuals to a lifetime of shame and inadequacy, believing that the thing that would supposedly make them worthy in the eyes of God was out there, but they weren’t pious enough to achieve it. Pray Away attains a sort of catharsis by forcing them to confront the profound devastation of their past actions.
However, the most powerful testimony of Pray Away comes from one of the victims of the movement. Julie was a teen girl questioning her sexuality when her mother took her to a presentation held by one of its leaders, who convinced her that she could become straight if she committed herself to a grueling, prayer-filled program. With the clarity of hindsight, she recalls how much of her youth she devoted to their organizations, how restrictive a life she was forced to lead at the time, and how regularly the leaders pushed past her boundaries to take ownership of her most personal stories for their ministry. It’s comforting to see her in the present: older, wiser, happier, and in a fulfilling relationship.
But the pain is all too clear, lingering beneath the surface, as she remembers the past. For all of the members of the ex-gay community who have since embraced their queerness, it’s almost shocking to see their physical transformations: every single one of them looks as though a tremendous weight has been lifted off their shoulders. This is in stark contrast with the allegedly ex-trans individual featured in the film, spending his time asking strangers if he can pray for them and encouraging parents to cut their trans children out of their lives, who seems so full of shame and fear and anger.
Pray Away is a worthwhile watch for the average viewer, who will likely find its subject matter fascinating and emotionally resonant. But if there was some way for it to reach the Evangelical community, that’s who really needs to be watching it so that they can see the devastating impact of their faith-based “cure” for homosexuality. In an America where over half the states have no laws banning gay conversion therapy, it’s more important than ever to shine a light on these abusive practices that plague religious communities around the country.