'Pray Away' Director Talks Pulling Back the Curtain on Conversion Therapy in Netflix Doc
By Stacy Lambe
Coming to Netflix is Pray Away, the powerful new documentary about the dangers of conversion therapy and the harmful, continued existence of the "ex-gay" movement in America. Ahead of its debut on the streaming platform, director Kristin Stolakis explains to ET why she wanted to make this film and shares an exclusive clip from the documentary.
The rise of conversion therapy started in the 1970s, when a group of men started a Bible study group to help prevent each other from living a "homosexual lifestyle." The promise of becoming straight led to the rise of religious-based conversion therapies -- which is different from methods led by professional therapists -- all around the country.
But, as the film reveals, those leaders who claimed to be saved never saw their “same-sex attractions” go away -- with many since coming out as LGBTQ and not only disavowing the movement, but also faith-based organizations like Exodus International, which are still active and recruiting new members today.
One example of someone who believed in the false promise that conversion therapy offered was Stolakis’ uncle, who came out as transgender as a child and believed change was possible. Instead, he was left with a traumatic aftermath of mental health challenges, including addiction, depression, anxiety, compulsive disorder and suicidal ideation -- which Stolakis says is common for people who experience conversion therapy.
"I discovered that the majority of people who run conversion therapy organizations are actually LGBTQ Christians themselves who claim that they have changed and that they know how to change. And then they work to teach others to do that," the director says, explaining how this revelation helped her understand just how deep her uncle’s hope ran. "This is something he believed his entire life."
She soon learned that her uncle was not alone. Nearly 700,000 people in the U.S. have gone through some version of conversion therapy, with many suffering traumatic results.
To help pull back the curtain on the "ex-gay" movement, which mostly persists within religious institutions and religious college campuses with study groups led by pastors or counselors, Stolakis was able to get former conversion therapy leaders, current members, and a survivor to all share their stories and experiences before, during and after going through conversion therapy.
"Every person who was involved in the film was willing to share their story… And I am grateful for that for because so much of conversion therapy is practiced in the dark and there’s so much shame involved in it," Stolakis says. "To bring it out of the dark and speak about it in public, I really do think, is part of the way we’re going to end this."
Among those interviewed is Julie Rodgers, author of Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story and a survivor of Exodus International, who "was willing to share the most traumatic parts of her life on camera," the director says.
In a clip from Pray Away, Rodgers shares how she was forced to open up about "this deep, intense sexual [and] emotional baggage." She says that felt like she had to tell her counselor everything, from any same-sex attraction she had or if she even encountered a lesbian or queer person in her daily life. "Everything where I felt like I was falling short of where I was supposed to be, I felt like I had to confess that and work through it," she says.
As for the former leaders, they saw the film as an opportunity to set the record straight about their involvement and willingness to "essentially harm their own communities," as well as their regrets and where they are in life today.
"I am grateful for them putting that into words," Stolakis says, "because the reality is, even with these numbers of leaders, the movement is not just a few bad apples. This is a movement of people who exist within a larger culture of homophobia and transphobia that continues to be quite persistent in Christianity, in particular, and other conservative religious communities across our country."
And when it comes to partnering with Netflix, and executive producer Ryan Murphy, who helped bring the documentary and other LGBTQ-themed films to the streaming platform, the director is grateful to have the chance to reach so many homes around the country as well as the rest of the world.
"Where we see our film having the most impact is through trying to change culture and trying to reach those places and start conversations in these communities where the laws cannot change these practices," she says. "Without a culture shift and without dialogue conversion therapy in this country, and in many countries with similar religious freedom protection, it won’t end."
Pray Away, directed by Kristine Stolakis; produced by Jessica Devaney, Anya Rous and Stolakis; and executive produced by Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum, is available to stream on Tuesday, Aug. 3 on Netflix.