As an out-gay man, you may sense in advance that the new documentary Pray Away will probably be upsetting, but it still doesn’t prepare you for the sheer horror stories it uncovers. This is one of the most despicable things we have watched for sometime……not the actual (totally excellent) film by Kristine Stolakis but the subject matter itself. It’s the true story of the many lives which were ruined, and some needlessly ended, because of the unceasing rampant homophobia of the religious far-right.
Pray Away is about the birth and rapid spread of Christian ministries who falsely promised that they could turn gay people straight. It was the era of Exodus founded in 1978 and who used all means of mental torture and diabolically desperate acts to convince young people on the LGBTQ spectrum that they were sinners facing hell …. and even worse.
One of the charges that some people still level at the queer community is that we will use every method to ‘recruit’ young people to be gay, but that is in fact the exact methods the likes of Exodus were practicing. Listening to tales of people who had been forced, usually by ultra-religious parents, to go along with this brain-washing, you are struck by the sheer brutality of what they were forced to do. Plus it was also the sheer ignorance of the so-call leaders of the inane methods they adopted but in hindsight, they would see never had a chance of succeeding.
Stolakis documented the fall from grace of the ex-gay leaders over the next few decades: some of them declared they had been gay all the time, one had been caught red-handed in a gay by soliciting other men. But by the time Exodus was disbanded in 2013 it wasn’t the downfall of the fame-grabbing leaders we worried about but the number of gay men and women whose lives they had damaged for good.
Just when you are reeling from all that Stolakis shares another bombshell that there were even worse people preying on susceptible members of our community. Like Dr. Joseph Nicolosi who we see with a male patient and the psychoanalytic version of ex-gay therapy is far scarier and more insidious. Especially when he hasn’t God to blame for all of the man’s faults.
What makes Stolakis ‘investigation’ ring even more true is when she tells specific stories of how some people were personally affected by the ex-gay ministries. Such as Julie Rodgers, who we first see preparing for her wedding to another woman. As a young girl, Rodgers was brought to Living Hope Ministry by her parents who wanted her to be cured of her lesbianism. The leader, Ricky Chelette, spotting how articulate she was and so decided he could train her to be an effective speaker for the group. He didn’t just take advantage of her confidence, but he also eventually took advantage of her sexually, pressuring her to use a rape at college as a part of her story at speaking engagements.
By the time she managed to ‘escape’ his clutches she was in such a state, she began burning herself regularly. Even like this, she is considered a ‘lucky one’ because she survived and is alive.
As the documentary draws to the end Stolakis is quick to remind us that as the old ex-gay ministries start to fall apart, some have regrouped only as weakened versions of themselves. There are still very odd new attempts to re-hash the topic like the group started by Jeffrey McCall an ex-trans woman. He is trying to reach people by different methods like going on marches and chanting anti-gay slogans. McCall however has the same problems as those of the early leaders of the movement, misguidedly using his own confused personal issues as a rallying call for others. It’s the reason that he is doomed to eventually fail as well.
My anger failed to subside even when the final credits rolled. The anti-gay ministries are hopefully a thing of the past, but this is sadly far too late for so many of our community who never ever stood a chance against these false prophets.
Pray Away will be released on NETFLIX on August 3rd