When director Kristine Stolakis went to film school, she knew exactly what her first documentary would be about. It’s a move that one estimate has impacted the lives of nearly 700,000 people in the United States with disastrous results.
“Conversion therapy” is the discredited practice that aims to convert a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity to heterosexual or cisgender. It is often religious in nature, with groups claiming that sexual orientation and gender identity can be changed through prayer.
Major American medical groups have condemned this practice. More than 20 states have banned it on minors.
For Stolakis, this subject was personal.
“My dear uncle went to conversion therapy when he became trans as a child,” Stolakis told NPR’s Sarah McCammon on Morning edition. “He never fully accepted himself. He was single his entire life. He also suffered from tremendous mental health issues, ranging from depression, anxiety, addiction to obsessive-compulsive disorder to suicidal ideation. . “
Stolakis’ uncle passed away suddenly as she was about to start film school. And while doing research, she found that many of the negative effects her uncle suffered also happened to many other people who went through the conversion therapy process.
Researchers at San Francisco State University found in 2018 that rates of suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth more than doubled when parents tried to change their sexual orientation, and increased even more when therapists and religious leaders were also trying to change the sexual orientation of young people.
So for his Netflix documentary Pray far away, Stolakis interviewed some of the biggest faces of the conversion therapy movement, which she says has been primarily led by LGBTQ + Christians.
“I really expected to be mad at the people who had led this movement,” Stolakis said. “But the overwhelming feeling I had was sadness, actually. I think it was because of the good intentions of most people. I don’t think it was a move of a few bad apples. is a movement that was born out of a greater culture of homophobia and transphobia which still persists today in the majority of Christian churches. “
Pray far away focuses on the former leaders of Exodus International, which was one of the largest conversion therapy networks in the country before its disbandment in 2013.
One of the main subjects of the film is Exodus’ former executive vice president Randy Thomas. He rose through the ranks of the organization, starting as a local leader and moving on to lobbying on behalf of the organization for anti-LGBTQ + legislation nationwide.
It was not until the suicide of his friend, who was also part of the “ex-gay” movement, that he reassessed everything.
“It overwhelmed me to know that the ideology that we had both attributed to ourselves, that we both lived through, that I had promoted, killed my friend,” Thomas told NPR. . “This ideology was something that I promoted and spread around the world was actually destructive and deadly. It is a regret that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
Thomas and Stolakis spoke to Sarah McCammon of NPR on Morning edition what the current conversion therapy movement looks like.
Interview highlights include extended web-only responses and have been edited for length and clarity.
Thomas on how he joined the ex-gay movement and Exodus International
I was out of the closet in the 1980s. I was kicked out of the house and was not a very healthy person. And in 1992, I was looking for answers. I believe that I had a real conversion experience to become a Christian. I found a church that was cool. It was full of artists. They had great worship. They also had a gay group, and under all that composure there was this toxic theology that said homosexuality had to be beaten. They had an Exodus group in this church, and I walked in very skeptical. But this particular group was very subtle. I went to a few meetings and it got me hooked.
It was the first time I had experienced a community, honestly, sober. So this is where I finally felt safe, even though it was toxic. This is one of the dangers of conversion therapy. He attracts very hurt people like me to his world, and he keeps us there. It’s almost worship in the way you are roped up in the work, and how you think, and how you are rewarded with attention and love. And the limelight. It was intoxicating getting on stage and doing interviews and all that stuff. It turns into this roundabout with no exit.
Stolakis on what the ex-gay and conversion therapy movement looks like today
Conversion therapy and ex-LGBTQ movement have always been practiced locally. What we are seeing is that current ex-LGBTQ organizations are rebranding in some ways and describing their work in language that can sound very confusing, which can in fact sound a little assertive. [These organizations] adopt the language of various types of civil rights discourse and even the LGBTQ rights movement. There are a lot of rainbow flags on Instagrams from people you might see who are actually ministries that still practice and profess the same system that being LGBTQ is a disease and a sin and that you should change.
It has become very millennial driven because there are young people who grew up in homophobic and transphobic environments who are ready and willing to take the place of people like Randy. It’s the same movement, it just continues in new forms.
Thomas to Church Leaders Still Pushing Conversion Therapy on Their LGBTQ + Parishioners
Please watch this movie. A lot of people don’t realize that God accepts his LGBTQ + children. All the leaders in this film have been tested. We were trusted. We understood these issues and did not change our mind lightly.
Look inside your heart. I think most religious leaders want permission to love and affirm God’s LGBTQ + children. They know that the way we have been treated in church culture is not fair. It’s not good. It is in fact abusive.
I say with the most loving heart, no shame, no condemnation: please, pastor, stop the abuse. Please allow yourself to love and affirm the LGBTQ + children in your congregation. It’s good. Just let yourself be.
Danny Hajek edited this interview for broadcast.