Pray Away: The fears of the queer Christian community

Lauren Hoekstra— Guest Writer 

I’m not a big crier during movies, but this documentary had me crying in my apartment, alone, several times. My tears for the season finale of The Good Place, or Hachi, or Les Misérables, have all been shed for reasonable, plot-related reasons. Pray Away impacted me in a different way.

Kristine Stolakis’s documentary follows survivors and previous leaders of the “ex-gay” movement. The film opens with a man named Jeffrey McCall holding a sign reading “Trans 2 Christ” and asking to pray with people outside a grocery store. 

He tells people he “lived transgender before, and left everything to follow Jesus Christ.” McCall is a current leader in the conversion therapy movement, believing someone can “pray away” an unwanted sexual orientation or gender identity. He created the Freedom March, which gives voice to people who, like him, have become straight through the power of prayer.

In one scene, McCall receives a phone call from a woman. She tells him Freedom March is inspirational to her and gives her hope for her 20-year-old son, a transgender girl. She says when her child came out, she told him he was a boy and he left.

McCall tells the woman, “It’s a strong spirit that wants to force you to call him a woman and he’s not.” He tells her to “stand in faith with this” and continue to love her “son” as a male.

Despite the feeling of “ick” that I get while watching McCall do exactly what my non-affirming parents would love to see me do, I feel an intense sadness as I watch him go about his life, almost as if he’s trying to convince himself of something he isn’t quite sure is true.

The film goes on to follow Yvette Cantu Schneider, Michael Bussee, John Paulk, and Julie Rodgers as they journey towards self-acceptance. Many of them also spent years trying to convince themselves of something they weren’t sure about.

In the seventies, Michael Bussee helped start what is now known as Exodus International, a leader in conversion or reparative therapy and “curing” homosexuality. Exodus is the foundation of the film, and all four featured individuals rest on their experiences with Exodus.

John Paulk, former Board President of Exodus, was once the most visible ex-gay in the United States.

Paulk testified how, after attending restorative therapy, he was no longer gay. In the film, however, he notes that he based being gay on behavior, not feelings. He married a woman and remained loyal to her, signifying that he was no longer gay.

In another segment of the film, two women take engagement pictures in a museum in Washington, D.C. The film cuts to a woman scrolling through a website with “Amanda and Julie” plastered across it, with countless images of the couple.

Julie Rodgers, one half of the future couple, explained how she learned that “Gays are really, really bad. Dirty and scary and bad” at a very young age. She came out at 16, and her frantic mom sent her to meet with a man named Ricky Chelette at Exodus-affiliated Living Hope.

From 16 to 25, Rodgers stayed with Living Hope. Every week, she met with Chelette to discuss deep emotional and sexual baggage in a way similar to therapy, but with a confessional element. She felt compelled to tell Chelette everything. She wrote in her diary, “God forgive me for having such evil flesh,” a sentiment that echoes the thoughts of many queer people raised in the church, including myself.

Near the film’s end of the film, we see a gay man crying to an interviewer who likely holds a similar role to Chelette.

The interviewer asks the man, “How does it feel to be broken as I look at you?”

The is unable to answer for a while. Then, through tears, he chokes out, “I just feel like a really bad person.” My own eyes filled with tears watching this scene, too close to my own heart. 

These thoughts echo what I’ve thought countless times. As a queer individual raised in the church, this feeling of dirtiness and “bad”-ness is all too familiar.

The focus shifts back to McCall at the second annual Freedom March. Several people stand on stage and praise the name of Jesus, saying things like, “Have you ever laid on the floor and said ‘Jesus take this away from me because I want to follow you, Jesus. I want to be your son or daughter.’”

Because of the pain I felt hearing these words, mirroring those of the people who’ve hurt me, I could not watch rest of the film. I couldn’t bring myself out of the pit they sent me to.

Although I couldn’t see, I could hear. Michael Bussee ended the film poetically, saying, “As long as homophobia exists in this world, some form of Exodus will emerge. Because it’s not the organization and it’s not even the methods that they use. It’s the underlying belief that there is something intrinsically disordered and change-worthy about being gay.”

The documentary is heartbreaking, cathartic, riveting, and devastating. The people hurt by the ex-gay movement both inspired me and reminded me of the pain I have been through. But Bussee’s quote holds true: as long as there is homophobia, there will always be organizations like Exodus.

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