Kristine Stolakis said she was “ready to be angry” when she began working on her new documentary, “Pray Away.” Instead, she found deep empathy for its subjects.
“Pray Away,” which premiered on Netflix last week, charts the rise and fall of
Exodus International, a Florida-based Christian organization that for nearly 40 years claimed to offer participants a “cure” for their same-sex attraction or gender identity. The group, which at one point was comprised of 400 ministries in 17 countries, disbanded in 2013.
Produced by Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum for Blumhouse Television, the documentary is a striking mix of archival footage and present-day interviews. Featured prominently are former “ex-gay” figures like John Paulk and Julie Rodgers, who explain how they came to embrace reparative ― or “gay conversion” ― therapy, only to denounce the practice and acknowledge their true LGBTQ selves later.
Still, the film dispels the notion that the movement has diminished in scope even as the LGBTQ community has experienced major social and political strides. As one interviewee suggests, as long as “the underlying belief that there is something intrinsically disordered and change-worthy” about being LGBTQ exists, so will some form of conversion therapy.
(Catch the film’s trailer above.)
Speaking to HuffPost, Stolakis said she first learned about conversion therapy from an uncle who was transgender.
“He passed away a few weeks before I went to film school, and that was after a lifetime of deep mental health challenges ― addiction, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations, all things I’ve learned are very common to people who go through this movement,” she said.
The New Jersey-based filmmaker expected to encounter “people teaching LGBTQ people to hate themselves, essentially” when she met with former members of Exodus and other conversion therapy groups. The reality, she said, was “an example of hurt people hurting other people. These are victims of homophobia and transphobia, who are also perpetrators of homophobia and transphobia.”
At present, 21 U.S. states have legislation in place banning licensed professionals from subjecting minors to conversion therapy. The American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have all discredited the practice.
The “ex-gay” movement inspired two Hollywood films, “Boy Erased” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” Though both received critical praise, there was a prevailing sense that conversion therapy was a thing of the past. The practice, however, continues to be promoted in conservative religious communities. In 2019, the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law estimated that 698,000 LGBTQ Americans between the ages of 18 and 59 had undergone conversion therapy at some point in their lives.
To that end, “Pray Away” features extensive interviews with activist Jeffrey McCall, who once presented as a transgender woman but claims to have renounced his trans identity and devoted himself to Christianity. Though grateful for McCall’s presence and testimony in the film, Stolakis stressed, “It’s undeniable that this movement causes harm. There’s no two sides to that.”
Looking ahead, Stolakis expects mental health to be a recurring theme in her work.
“I’m very interested in power, politics and prejudice, and the way they manifest in people’s lives,” she said.
It’s that mindset that drew her to her next documentary feature, which is about young women with eating disorders.
“We live in a world where we’re constantly sent messages that who we are is wrong in some way,” Stolakis said. “What happens when you internalize that? What effect does that have on your mind and body?”