I recently watched the documentary film “Pray Away” which came out last year and sparked a lot of conversation. In the church circles I frequent, many of my friends were encouraging churches to watch this movie and have a discussion afterward. With many harmful actions being taken by the church, this documentary offered the opportunity to show just how harmful the church has been. It was the hope of my friends that this documentary would open eyes and help people move beyond their prejudices.
This documentary followed several people who had been a part of pro-conversion therapy organizations (such as Exodus) that promoted the idea that sexual orientations could be changed. They were based on the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, homosexuality is a sin, and that homosexuality was a result of some deviation in a person’s life. It is largely an Evangelical movement, although it exists elsewhere. Someone states in the film that so long as homophobia exists, organizations like Exodus and other pro-conversation therapy groups will continue to exist alongside it.
Unfortunately, conversion therapy and the organizations that support it continue to this day.
Religious and spiritual life was depicted in multiple ways in the film, predominantly as a damaging thing. Religion and conservative beliefs blended into an entity that brought and brings harm to people who are attracted to the same sex/gender. (to learn more about how religion and conversative beliefs have morphed into one – I recommend reading Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez). The organizations featured were centered on religious beliefs that homosexuality was sinful and something to be corrected, rather than celebrated as a facet of God’s love. There was very much an “if/then” theological bent. “If I do this, then God will do this”. Toward the end, we did begin to see religion/spiritual life depicted as healing through affirming churches and organizations that hold as sacred all forms of sexual orientation, love, and gender.
It really goes to show what an affirming church can do for someone. Attending to the whole person without minimizing or shaming any part of them is key to encouraging flourishment.
The messages sent to the person experiencing same-sex attraction were depicted as if something was wrong with them. There must have been something in their past that caused them to experience the “wrong” type of attraction but if they worked hard enough, they could be “fixed”. It was suggested that for someone to be gay that must have experienced some kind of abuse or truama or their parents didn’t love them correctly. Which is wild and so out of left field! Homosexuality was phrased as a psychological illness that required reparative/conversion therapy with the overwhelming message being that the person was making a major mistake and needed to fix their life/attraction so that they could remain in God’s good graces. It was highly negative and made me wonder how anyone could exist, much less thrive, under such conditions.
Interpersonally, the film began with a woman discussing how she had lost seventeen friends to AIDS. People were watching HIV/AIDS claim the lives of those around them and theological reasons were hard to come by. “Everything happens for a reason” just doesn’t cut it. Other than that homosexuality was seen as a punishment for wrongly directed sexual attractions. This is also a part of the depiction of social health. It seemed to be the thought that reorienting people into “correct” attractions could help clear the AIDS epidemic. I wondered how people could create relationships with one another with the negative personal messages that lingered inside them? I also wondered how it felt to bear the burden of responsibility or at least have that as a societal narrative told about someone. What I mean is that I could imagine that being told that homosexuality caused AIDS or ruined the family structure or insert another negative message, would result in a pretty heavy sense of self that would not be positive. Being told you are responsible for these social “ills” seems excessive and cruel.
The whole film could be boiled down to embodied living as related to sex and/or sexuality since living and behaving in certain ways resulted in being accepted or not. Having the right embodied ways of living in terms of sexuality granted one access to the church community; wrong living meant rejection. There was an overwhelming need to perform to be accepted. Wear the right clothes, act the right way, and more. This film was full of embodied living and could result in a full paper all on its own. It is frustrating and sad how intense this movement is and how many people it has affected. I would bet that we all know at least one person who has been harmed by the conversion therapy movement, whether we realize it or not.
I think many churches are blissfully unaware of this type of work. They don’t take the time to look at how harmful their theology is or how they contribute to anti-LGBTQ+ movements.
That is the main point of this film that should be highlighted – how harmful these groups are and how much damage conversion therapy has done. Eyes need to be opened and discussions are far past due – and this documentary seems like a good place to start.