What Kristen Stolakis’s Pray Away does so well, and powerfully so, is listen.
Netflix documentary Pray Away was released on the streaming service on August 3, 2021.
The very first scene in Pray Away is incredibly powerful, even if viewed through an intolerable Christian lens. A young man, who cannot be older than his late 20s or early 30s, begins to walk around a grocery store parking lot kindly asking if he can pray for you. Hey, it can’t hurt. He tells his story and seems at utter peace with the world. An older couple actively listens, with smiles on their faces. Beaming, in fact, so proud of a young man in their community who found the Lord and found a way to forgive his sins.
It’s a heartwarming moment. That’s until you see the sign he is holding, and you take in his words. “Trans to God,” it says, including pictures of himself before he was pulled to safety. He was living a life of sin, in his words, until a conversion camp saved his trans life. If viewed through that intolerable lens, I mentioned above, one could walk away feeling how the teachings of the Lord saved a sinner. Imagine that. If you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community, you’re a sinner. Why? Because it is written in this book. Thousands of gay and transgender Christians searched for hope, and they found it with a conversion therapy group called Exodus.
There are dozens of stories like this in Kristine Stolakis’s powerful documentary Pray Away. Produced by Ryan Murphy, Stolakis explores the rise of conversion camps across the country, from the deep to the south to the “liberal” state of California. You have stories from the “ex-gay” movement from former conversion leaders, current members, and survivors. Many of the leaders had been former members. Others had been devout Christians who ran these classes without a degree in any mental health field, counseling, social work, and/or psychiatry. It didn’t matter. They had a certification from the Lord, and they didn’t charge a state license fee.
It may seem like a different world for some, but this was only a few decades ago. The mental health bible, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (no pun intended), classified gay as a mental health disorder until it finally came off the books in 1973. The term “gender identity disorder” to address transgender individuals did not appear until 1980. Only in 2013 did the Manual make only a cosmetic change. What was written was “is now known as gender dysphoria” to help weaken the stigma.
I’m not here to offer you a history lesson, even if I may be doing that very thing. This country has gone through a profound change this past decade, yet we are still as intolerant as ever. You’ll notice so many stories of wanting to be a part of something, being accepted, find a place in life. By the time you heard the comment when a former member had said she was “…offered a path to be good,” you’ll know what that means; they are searching for a lifeline.
Many of these members talk about being depressed, living life without a purpose or hope. What they are telling you is they lacked an identity. They have been bullied and persecuted for being LGBTQ+. From family rejections, being victims of hate crimes and physical/sexual assaults, and living within a stigma that forced them to internalize and conceal feelings led to avoidance, they all were at the end of their ropes, and programs like Exodus hung onto the other end. And on that other side was gift-wrapped false identity.
What Stolakis’ documentary film does so well, and powerfully so, is listen. By allowing her subjects to fill the screen with their stories substantially, the reaction gives way to powerful emotions that can come over you. She even shows clips of the teachings of religious leaders that leave a stinging effect. “I believe God does not judge people, God judges sin… we pay the price when we violate the laws of God,” is a line from Jerry Fallwell. It remains disdainful yet widely accepted, even if the world has shifted gears since then. Even Denmark recently, in 2017, became the first country to outlaw the classification of being transgender as a disorder. When will the United States?
Does Pray Away offer a one-sided agenda? Of course. Because it’s on the right side of it, however, she allows opponents to have their voices heard. You’ll notice they are unvarnished, uncut, and unfiltered. You’ll end up on one side of the issue, depending on what lens you use.
Otherwise, you may want to pray on it.
What did you think of Netflix documentary Pray Away? Comment below.