Undaunted by drizzle, a friendly young man in a black T-shirt with ‘Love’ written across it in bold white letters approaches strangers outside the stores occupying anywhere-USA strip mall. Would they like to pray with him? He is Jeffrey McCall, the founder of a movement called Freedom March, seen in the opening scenes of Kristine Stolakis’ debut feature documentary, Pray Away, which is now streaming on Netflix.
At first glance, McCall and the members of his group might be mistaken for a welcoming, millennial-friendly Christian movement, with a Facebook page that features rainbow iconography and allusions to anti-racism. The truth is darker. Freedom March is a modern manifestation of “conversion therapy,” defined on the film’s opening screen as ‘"the attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity by a religious leader, licensed counsellor, or in peer support groups.”
Long before making the film, Stolakis witnessed the effects of this so-called therapy first hand. Growing up in upstate New York, she was close to an uncle who came out as trans in childhood and was subjected to conversion therapy in the sixties and early-seventies — “at a time when every therapist was a conversion therapist,” she explains, on a video call from her home in New Jersey. “What resulted was extremely poor mental health.”
Stolakis’ uncle passed away shortly before she started film school; while clearing out his home with her mother, she found a collection of material from a pro-conversion organisation, evidence that her uncle had continued to be affected by the conversion movement into his adulthood. “When I found that stack of brochures I was livid, and I really was determined to make a film that uncovered this movement that had ruined his life,” she says.
Pray Away is that film. In it, Stolakis and her team cover the movement through the stories of some of its most prominent former leaders and survivors in the U.S., men and women who promoted the idea that embracing a specific form of Christianity allows people to reject LGBTQ identities and become cisgender and heterosexual. The film’s title references the phrase “pray away the gay,” a pithy saying that belies the extreme pain and harm caused by the movement.
“[Conversion therapy] was a part of mainstream culture when I was growing up,” Stolakis says, “and that is part of the power and problem of these personal stories getting lifted up — [they say] that change is possible. They’re compelling. Even though they’re very misleading, they’re very compelling.” Throughout the film, archival footage of people claiming to have “converted” their sexuality is cut with tight shots of the faces of credulous onlookers. It’s an intentional motif. “It’s really a part of where this starts,” Stolakis says of these scenes, “where this belief system becoming a little normalized, a little mainstream, starts.”
One clip from The Phil Donahue Show features an “ex-gay” couple appearing on a panel to have an ostensible debate. Another shows the veteran CBS journalist Lesley Stahl nodding while the “ex-gay” husband, John Paulk, details his supposed conversion journey (one that ended some years later when he was spotted in a gay bar). “These people were positioned as ‘one side of an issue,’” Stolakis says, “when in fact, there's no two sides to this issue. Conversion therapy is not only ineffective. It's extremely harmful and we know this is a fact.”
The film reveals that many of the people from the movement came to understand that, too. “The vast majority of conversion therapy organisations are actually run by LGTBQ people themselves who claim that they themselves have changed,” Stolakis explains. She was surprised to find them more sympathetic than she expected. “I was so prepared to feel angry,” Stolakis says, when she started making the film. “But so many people do have good intentions; this really is a world where hurt people are hurting other people.” But, she notes, in the film “[we] really also made sure to never shy away from the fact that despite those good intentions, this movement causes serious pain.”
The pain was felt at the very top. For many of the leaders, maintaining the facade proved to be difficult and eventually impossible — several once-powerful conversion organisations have shut down when leaders ultimately admitted that they did not really believe in conversion. Many have turned to working to uplift the LGBTQ community and trying to help those they may have harmed. Paulk is shown living happily with his male partner. Despite this, it’s also clear that a sense of responsibility lingers. Randy Thomas, once a key spokesperson and lobbyist for Exodus International, which ran conversion ministries for almost four decades, now identifies as an LGTBQ advocate. Towards the end of the film he admits that he is plagued by guilt. “A gay person said very bluntly and directly [to me] that I had blood on my hands,” he says, seeming on the verge of tears. “...I said, right now, all I know is that I’m afraid to look down at my hands.”
“In a lot of ways this movement is internalized transphobia and homophobia turned outwards,” Stolakis says — and as long as transphobia and homophobia exist, so will people who believe in and promote conversion, as in the case of Freedom March. McCall identifies as a former trans woman (the film shows him recounting his “testimony” of detransition). Stolakis’ ability to portray multiple facets of her subjects’ selves is one of the film’s great strengths, and in Jeffrey, she says, she does see good intentions. “Jeffrey, to his credit, was very quick to agree to be in the film,” she says. “We were straightforward about the fact that we were going to include critical voices…but we also did make a promise to him that we would not put words in his mouth. I do think he thinks he’s helping people.”
But thinking it doesn’t make it true. With Pray Away’s release on Netflix’s huge platform, Stolakis hopes that it will reach a broad audience — even those who continue to believe in conversion. “I really hope that people who are in the movement would consider watching the film,” she says, “and consider opening their minds and hearts to the fact that despite those good intentions they are really causing a lot of harm.”
Pray Away is streaming now, on Netflix.