Disclaimer: Pray Away is a documentary film on the harm caused by the ex-gay movement that promotes changing one’s sexual orientation through reparative (conversion) therapy. Please be aware that the film can be very difficult to watch, especially if you have been hurt by the movement. The Pray Away website offers “tips and resources to prioritize your mental health before, during, and after viewing the film.” If you think it may trigger trauma, you do not have to watch it. If you have already watched it and need support, please reach out to a safe person. For those who have not suffered at the hands of this movement, please watch it. We need you to listen to these stories. Pray Away released August 3 on Netflix.
Below the trailer for the film is the second in a series of reflections inspired by the film. You can read the first post here.
“What’s Wrong With Me?”
“The first time I burned myself, I was sitting on a curb outside of the church after a Living Hope meeting… As the cigarette burned low, without giving it much thought, I shoved the burning end of it into my shoulder and listened as the skin on my left arm sizzled… Shortly after that night, I sat alone in my room, lost in a whirlwind of fear, agony, and self-loathing. That’s when I remembered the cigarette burn and the wave of detachment that flowed through my body the moment the fire seared my skin… In the years that followed, when the anguish became unbearable, I would return to this routine: burning straight lines into my shoulders and tending to the wounds to self-soothe.”
In the midst of this experience, she says she was severely depressed and didn’t know why she was overwhelmed or sad. “I always felt like such a freak. Like, oh, ‘What’s wrong with me? I’m a total maniac – burning up and hurting my own body.'”
The ex-gay narrative that provided an interpretive lens for her life led her to believe she was the problem. As she details in her book, she came “to see how my story functioned to serve a particular agenda.” It was “rearranged and interpreted to serve [the ex-gay] narrative.” Her “testimony” was meticulously shaped by the leader of the ex-gay ministry she was involved in, and she had no other interpretive options for the experiences of her life. She blamed herself – What’s wrong with me?
It took being confronted by other survivors of the ex-gay movement to expose the ex-gay narrative as false. Hearing the stories of those who had escaped the ex-gay narrative and come to understand themselves and their experiences outside such an oppressive paradigm, was critical in Julie’s journey of shifting her own understanding of her story. “It was absolutely devastating, and I think for me, it was the first time that I identified more with the survivors sharing their story than I did with anybody from Exodus. These stories of deep, deep pain shook me down to my core. Feeling like they were in many ways sharing my story. I remember feeling like I was sitting on the wrong side of the circle.”
She and so many others, myself included, when confronted with the trauma experienced within the ex-gay movement, saw its toxicity. As Randy Thomas says in the film, “When the Lisa Ling show came out, I knew then that Exodus was death, and it was destruction. Because those survivors were looking at us right in the face. And we could no longer excuse it away. We could no longer deny it. And that Exodus could no longer promote the idea of change, because that was a lie.” The Lisa Ling episode referenced, God & Gays, aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2013 and is available for viewing on Amazon Prime Video, but you can watch the trailer here.
As I’ve reflected on the guiding story that animated the ex-gay movement, I cannot help but see how that narrative was created, reinforced and given legitimacy by Evangelicalism’s telling of the “gospel.” Within Evangelicalism’s worldview, the question “Who are we?” or “Who am I?” sets the stage for the drama of salvation within which “the gospel” is “the answer” to the problem of humanity. I can remember unfolding the sections of the Romans Road tract as part of my evangelistic efforts to “lead people to Jesus,” so they could “get saved.” Step one of that road is a sort of opening chapter for the story that shaped my life from the moment it was taught to me as a teenager. Who are we? We are sinners.
I want to let you on the inside of how this story shaped my young understanding of myself, God and life. Over the last couple of years I have been going through my old journals and doing some narrative analysis for a future writing project. Below is a narration of a few early parts of my life in the voice I’ve reconstructed from those journals and memories.
9 years old: We are moving to a new town and this weekend I get to sell anything I don’t want anymore in a garage sale. This is my chance to get rid of all my Barbie stuff. I don’t know why my parents keep giving me these toys. I don’t like them. I don’t play with them. Who wants to dress Barbie up in frilly outfits? Not me! Maybe I’ll earn enough money to buy a few more Micro Machines. Or Legos. Now those are my favorites. Of course, only when I’m tired from playing outside – climbing trees, riding my bike. We’re moving to the country. I hope that means we will get to go hiking and fishing and camping more often. Getting dirty and swimming in rivers – what could be better than that?!? Maybe Mom would let me get rid of some of those girly clothes I hate too. Every time we go clothes shopping, she tries to pick out something dumb with flowers on it. Yuck. I hate that stuff. And dresses? No thank you! I’m so uncomfortable in that stuff. Why is it such a big deal to her? So what if people call me a tomboy? I know she doesn’t like it. Maybe she doesn’t really like me.
13 years old: Katie* slept over last night. We laid outside and watched the stars and talked. I’ve been having these feelings. I really wanted to touch her, to hold her hand. I just wanted to be close. I felt kinda nervous even thinking about that. She’s my best friend. I always tell her everything, but I’m too scared to tell her this. She’d probably freak out, maybe hate me and stop being my friend. I mean, it’s weird. Why do I feel this way? Last week at school I kept looking over at her in Math class, and I got totally distracted because the thought of kissing her kept popping up in my mind. Picturing it made me feel butterflies in my stomach. But then I was afraid that someone might know what I was daydreaming about and I forced myself to stop looking at her. There’s something wrong with me. Why am I like this? If my parents find out, I’m dead. They’ll hate me too. I’m already a failure of a girl. Now this? I’m disgusting.
15 years old: We’ve been going to church for a few months now. When my mom found out about my feelings for Katie, she flipped out and now I’m forced to be here every Sunday. I even have to go to youth group every week. I mean, people are nice enough, but I know why I’m here. “Satan has a hold of you!” That’s what my mom said. I don’t know, maybe it’s true. The pastor keeps preaching about how sinful we are. How we don’t have hope without Jesus. I’ve always tried to be good. I get straight A’s. I follow the rules. I do my chores. But there’s this thing inside of me. They say it’s an abomination. It’s against God’s will. So, I guess that’s my sin. That’s proof that I’m separated from God, that I deserve hell. I’ve been trying to forget about Katie. About my feelings. I’m not allowed to see her anymore anyway. Maybe this will go away. Maybe if I can get rid of it, my parents won’t be so mad at me. Maybe I won’t be so messed up. I think I need to accept Christ. This is too terrible. I’m too sinful. I need God’s forgiveness. We’re singing now. The pastor is asking if anyone wants to come to the front to pray for Jesus to enter their life and save them from their sin. My heart is racing. I feel sick. I have to do this. There’s no other way that I’m going to be ok, that anyone will love me.
The “gospel” I encountered in that small Southern Baptist church gave me a story through which I learned to see everything. My young mind was anxiously asking – What is wrong with me? How do I fix it? The story began with: You are a sinner – unclean, broken, unworthy of love and belonging. The shame I carried as a teenager trying to make sense of my feelings and desire to love and be loved was reinforced by the Christian story I received. It told me that pretty much nothing about my body could be trusted – my feelings, desires and thoughts were part of my evil flesh. During adolescence, as I was trying to understand my changing body, I was taught that what it was revealing was the worst of the worst.
Even after responding to that altar call and begging God to forgive me, I was terrified that the corruption within me would disqualify me from God’s love. Throughout high school I tried with all my might to resist temptation, suppressing every thought and feeling for girls. I committed to being obedient. I excelled at bible study and memorizing scripture. I volunteered at church. I evangelized my friends at school. I started and led our campus’ first Christian club. I took the True Loves Waits purity pledge. I publicly declared my faith by praying early in the morning at See You At The Pole. I fasted during the 30 Hour Famine. I ended up going to a Christian college. Remember, I am an enneagram 1. I spent every ounce of energy I had trying to be perfect so that somehow God would not change his mind about loving me, that he would not revoke my salvation.
It was on the foundation of Evangelicalism’s story that the ex-gay narrative seemed to offer hope. The following passage is highlighted in yellow in the Bible I voraciously read as a teenager: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, NIV). Exodus International proclaimed, “Freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.” The ex-gay promise fused with the gospel and “overcoming homosexuality” became synonymous with “being saved.” My parents gave me ex-gay books and newsletters to read as part of their attempt to help heal me. The ex-gay narrative offered an easy to understand explanation for why I was “same-sex attracted” and how I could change. My next blog post will focus on that narrative and how it held me hostage for 15 years.
Faced with the damage done by the ex-gay movement, it is important to see how its harm is one manifestation of a dangerous theology that defines humanity primarily as sinful and separated from God. The ex-gay enterprise is legitimated by Evangelicalism’s anthropology. The shame generated by such a self-concept sets us up to, as shame researcher Brene Brown says, “stand outside of our story and hustle for our worthiness.” Exodus claimed a way out from the shame of homosexuality. However, as explored in Pray Away, it deeply traumatized people, partly because it sent us further into shame. The narrative we tried to live from abused us, killed many, and continues to inflict harm through the ministries still claiming it as “good news.” Pray Away uncovers the toxicity of the ex-gay movement, and I think we also need to interrogate the larger narrative within which it gained traction.
In Pray Away, Julie, once trapped by the self-blaming answer to the question “What’s wrong with me?” recognizes what her teenage self did not: self-harm was “a result of the system and the culture around me that made me hate myself.” She writes in her book: “I’ve heard depression described as anger turned inward. Perhaps that’s what I was doing in my room all those years ago: I took the rage I felt about living in a body that couldn’t be submitted into the kind of body it was supposed to be – a straight body, a feminine body, a good Christian body – and I lit it on fire.”
* Name changed