The release of Pray Away, a documentary on the ex-gay movement that promotes changing one’s sexual orientation through reparative (conversion) therapy, has been on my calendar since its August 3 date was announced. So, Tuesday morning I woke up, turned on my television, opened Netflix and pressed play. Because of my previous involvement within the ex-gay world, I knew watching would be difficult. The Pray Away website offers “tips and resources to prioritize your mental health before, during, and after viewing the film.” To label this film (or this post) with a “trigger warning” seems obvious, and, doesn’t come close to matching the gravity of the experience of watching this film. Please, please, please care for yourself if you choose to watch this film. If you have already watched it and need support, please reach out to a safe person. Though this is an incredibly important film, if you think it may trigger trauma, you do not have to watch it. For those who have not suffered at the hands of this movement, please watch it. We need you to listen to these stories.
Below this sneak peak from the film is the first post in a series I will share over the next several weeks of reflections inspired by this film and from my own experiences as a survivor.
“How Did I Believe That?”
Days after graduating from college, I boarded a plane from California to Orlando, FL. Alan Chambers, Executive Director of Exodus International, invited me to join the Exodus team and I accepted, believing that God was calling me to use my story to help others find “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.” My job as Publications Manager was essentially to be the ex-gay storyteller. I worked to help others share their testimonies of “freedom” and crafted communications that promoted the message of “change.” I was 22 years old. I had been shaped by the ex-gay narrative since my parents found out about my same-sex attractions when I was 15. They turned to Exodus’ message to “save” me. It was like a dream come true to join this ministry as my first job out of college. I thought, This is what faithfulness to God looked like. This was a place I could belong. I could make a difference here. Though I left the staff 10 months later, the narrative shaped my life for another 10 years.
Yesterday I sat across the table from a pastor who asked me, “Did they really believe it?” From some perspectives, it may seem unbelievable that those leading the ex-gay movement really believed their own message. In the film, Yvette Cantu Schneider reflects on her time as a leader in the movement: “I spent a lot of time thinking – How did I believe that? And how was I involved in it for so long?” She answers her own question later in the film when she comments on the new wave of leadership and testimonies moving the current ex-gay movement forward. “It’s such indoctrination. All of the lingo that they use, and the pattern of the testimony and even the pattern of their lives.”
For most of my life, I’ve been drawn to the way story functions in human experience and meaning making. For a while now, I have specifically been thinking about the way that the ex-gay narrative shaped reality for so many of us, keeping us holding on to it as a guiding vision for our lives long after it even seemed plausible anymore. Yes, we believed it. We devoted our lives to it. We learned to understand our lives and our identities within its boundaries. It became the script for absolutely everything.
One of the reasons this narrative was so powerful is because it was completely at home with the larger narrative so many of us already embraced: that of conservative Evangelicalism. Confessing “Jesus is Lord” meant obediently resisting the temptation of same-sex attractions, and “salvation” meant “freedom from homosexuality.” In a story where a holy God cannot look upon the dirty sinner, and in a culture where “homosexuality” evokes such disgust, of course we believed that the forgiveness we needed is forgiveness for such abhorrent feelings, and of course the salvation we needed is deliverance from such darkness. Yes, as Yvette said, the pattern of the testimony serves as a powerful tool of indoctrination. But it is not just the pattern of the ex-gay testimony. The ex-gay testimony is a product of the larger story that provides its worldview and stamps it with divine legitimacy. “Every society needs a narrative that justifies why it is how it is and does what it does. Such a narrative is the realm of religion, the rituals and stories that connect individuals into a sense of being ‘a people,'” writes Wes Howard-Brook in his book, Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected, 2nd-5th Centuries. “The first step in establishing… legitimacy was an increased association between the [authority figures] and divine authority.” There is immense power-influencing belief when spiritual leaders are teaching “God’s will” from “God’s word,” and are providing evidence through testimonies. I’ll unpack this more in this series of reflections.
In the film, Julie Rodgers mentions writing a book to “make sense of my experience.” Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story released June 22 and I highly recommend it. Julie beautifully examines the experiences of her life within the ex-gay world, inviting her readers along her journey of weaving together new meaning for her life. As she says in the film, “I suffered trauma, and it definitely resulted in extreme forms of self-hatred, but I survived. I’m really happy and I found somebody that I love so much. And we’re doing well, but not everybody is.” She survived. But not everybody does.
Randy Thomas, former Vice President of Exodus International, acknowledges in the film those whose lives have been stolen: “As a leader, I had been trained to acknowledge the loss, but to rationalize it away, to go into denial. And I hate that I did that. And for many people who don’t commit suicide, we’re killing ourselves internally by not embracing who God created us to be.” In the months I worked with Randy, I knew him as someone who was committed to helping others. His motivation for submitting his own life to and leading others along the ex-gay path was to help alleviate suffering and offer hope. Yet, when asked, as he describes, “What do you think about the blood on your hands?” he says, “Right now, all I know is that I am afraid to look at down my hands.”
Regardless of our intentions, every single one of us who provided leadership within the ex-gay movement contributed to the pain and suffering of those impacted by it. Though we were also trapped by its narrative, though we suffered our own pain and losses, though we were manipulated and used, our investment in it did so much damage. The ex-gay movement stole years from me. And it killed so many others. My complicity in the movement is part of what fuels my passion to work for LGBTQ inclusion in Christian spaces now. I am not doing penance, as if good work now will somehow pay for damage done. Nothing can make right what was done. As I said in my post a few weeks ago, as someone who wants to invest in justice and flourishing, this work is part of embracing and offering my full and truest self. This work brings me to life, and my hope is that it will also be life-giving to others.
Pray Away is available to watch on Netflix. In the next post of this series, I will share more about how the ex-gay narrative, as it was situated within the larger Evangelical narrative, functioned in my own life as I tried to make sense of my experiences and faith. In other words, I’ll explore how I came to believe this story and internalize it as my own.