Kristine Stolakis on Her Netflix 'Ex-Gay' Doc 'Pray Away'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday August 3, 2021

"Pray Away" is a different take on the subject of "conversion therapy" in filmmaking, which usually centers on victims of the practice. Survivors talk about the experiences they endured in terms of torment and suffering; often, they went through the debunked "therapy" as teens, and the scars they carry strike sympathetic chords for anyone who has spent time in the closet, or who might have gone through some sort of pseudo-scientific themselves at being "cured" of being LGBTQ.

What documentary filmmaker Kristine Stolakis chose to do in making her feature-length film "Pray Away" was to train her camera on a few of the many former leaders in the "conversion therapy" movement who have now left the discredited practice behind and now speak out against the practice. Along the way she traces the formation of a small support group for Christians with "gay feelings," the linking of many such similar "ministries" into a single national organization, and the rise of Exodus International, a group that held out the promise of a "cure" to those who had bought into the teaching that they were "wrong," "sick," or — to borrow term — "intrinsically disordered."

The problem, of course, is that so-called "conversion therapy" doesn't work, and the pseudo psychology it espouses inevitably did more harm than good. Gay people didn't turn straight; they did, however, suffer all the more when they did not magically "convert" into straight or cisgender people, and sometimes shame and desperation drove them to self-harm. The story of such suffering is so potent that Exodus International dissolved after its leadership heard from a room full of former adherents — deeply wounded people who gave the group's leaders an earful during a fateful meeting in a church basement, leaving no room for doubt about the pain and suffering they endured, or about who they held accountable for it.

That wasn't the end of the story, of course. Exodus was reincarnated under a new name, and its successor organization continues to operate. But among those in that church basement that day was Julie Rodgers, a longtime leader in the "ex-gay" movement. We see Rodgers in the film with her fiancée (now wife), along with Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee (who, realizing the harm the group was causing, left in 1979 — long before any sort of mainstream awareness of the damage caused by "conversion therapy"). We also hear the recollections of Yvette Cantu Schneider, who for years declared herself to be an ex-lesbian, but who now acknowledges that she is bisexual, and who is happily married to a man. Even former Exodus Vice President John Paulk, a longtime "ex-gay" poster child, appears in the documentary, explaining how he was made into a "figurehead" for the entire movement and therefore felt deeply responsible to carry on with what he increasingly knew to be a lie. That lie came crashing down when Paulk went to gay bar, only to be immediately identified by the patrons and photographed running away from the establishment in a panic.

EDGE had a chance to chat with Kristin Stokalis and hear what she learned in making the documentary, how she responded to some of the enduring falsehoods still being promoted, and why she made the film in the first place.

EDGE: What drew you to this topic as a subject for a documentary?

Kristine Stolakis: My uncle went through conversion therapy himself after he came out as trans as a child. He went to therapy back in the '60s, or early '70s, and I experienced his life in the aftermath of that extremely traumatic experience. What came from that were really intense mental health struggles that included depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, suicidal ideations, and addiction issues. These are all things I've learned are quite common for people who go through conversion therapy.

It was devastating to watch him struggle like that. He actually passed away unexpectedly just a few weeks before I went to film school, so I decided that I wanted my first feature to be about the conversion therapy movement. I started doing research, and found something that really intrigued me and clarified my uncle's life for me: The vast majority of people who run conversion therapy organizations are actually LGBTQ Christians who believe that they themselves have changed, and are teaching others to do the same.

This is all based on, of course, proven pseudoscience. But that helped me understand why my uncle so desperately believed that change was just around the corner, and it also helped me understand his devastation and self-hatred when that change never came. He blamed himself; he thought he wasn't strong enough to change, instead of understanding that change in that way is not possible, and not only that, but pursuing change is quite traumatic. He spent his whole life thinking that being trans was sick and sinful.

And as I progressed in my research, I also found that the conversion therapy movement — and it really is a movement — continues into today. This is not something of the past. We know that nearly 700,000 people in the U.S. alone have gone through some version of this; we know that continues on every major continent. And those two things felt really right to capture in what has now become "Pray Away." We also wove in the story of a survivor, someone who, like my uncle experienced the movement as a participant, and largely not in a position of leadership, to underscore the fact that no matter how you enter this movement, or no matter your intentions, the ultimate result of the movement is pain and trauma.

EDGE: As I understand it, not all of the people who are proponents of so-called "conversion therapy" actually describe themselves as having changed. Sometimes they'll say it's more a matter of God giving them the strength to continue to struggle against their innate desires.

Kristine Stolakis: Yes, that's spot on. The spectrum of claims to change are broad. There are people who say, "I am gay, and I am going to stay celibate, and not act on these feelings." There are people who say, "I have changed, and I've fallen in love with an opposite-sex partner, and I'm going to get married." And there are all types of stories in between, but the underlying message is the same: To be LGBTQ is, in some way, a sickness and a sin. And it's that combination of beliefs that is very common, if not core, to this movement — that being queer is both a psychological illness and a spiritual sickness — that makes it so, so harmful for people, because your sense of a relationship to a higher power, something greater than yourself, gets twisted up with your fear of rejection from that higher power.

That gets all twisted up into the psychological teachings that lead into this, as well: That you can attempt to change, or you can attempt to reduce what are called same-sex attractions in the world — "unwanted same-sex attractions" is a phrase that you'll see a lot — and it's that combination of spiritual treatment and pseudo-psychology treatment, and the message underneath, that makes people really suffer. So I would say, regardless of where leaders claim to be on their path to change, the fact that they're pushing forward the idea that there is a path — that there is no other way to live in this world healthily than either trying to change or deciding to not fully express one's sexual orientation or gender identity — that is very damaging.

EDGE: One of your interviewees came out as bisexual basically in her comments in the film, which I guess if you're bisexual and you have a choice to focus on one gender or the other ,good for you. It's just not possible for a lot of people.

Kristine Stolakis: We do include the story of someone in the film who was in leadership, and eventually came out as bisexual, and remains married to her husband of many years. They are very in love, and that is a wonderful thing. The problem is that her marriage was propped up by conservative religious right organizations as proof that change is possible, and change is the right thing to do. And that is a problem. So, I'm very glad that she was willing to go on the record and state that she is bisexual; I would urge other leaders to consider that sort of identity, or not worry about what you call yourself, but stop pushing your personal story as evidence that change is possible, because we know, overwhelmingly, that conversion therapy does not work.

Something I say a lot is, we know gender fluidity is real. We know that sexual fluidity is real. We know that bisexuality and pansexuality are real. There are so many ways to conceive of the fact that you may consider yourself trans today and cis tomorrow, and then perhaps trans again the next day, and that's not a problem necessarily. It's that underlying message that the only way to be healthy is to be to be straight — that's the essential problem.

EDGE: The lie that being LGBTQ is a pathology, and that it can be so-called "cured," is hugely damaging politically and socially. It's been used to justify anti-gay laws. When we see the people in this film talking about their role in perpetuating this idea, some of them are tearfully remorseful... but do they really comprehend the depth and the breadth of the damage that this idea has done?

Kristine Stolakis: I'd love to take a step back and talk about that breadth and depth of damage. We know — and we include this in the film — that if LGBTQ youth go through conversion therapy, they're twice as likely to have attempted suicide. And that is alarming. Self-harm and suicide are a devastatingly common part of this world, and that's something we also explore in the film through the story of Julie Rodgers. She is someone that made it out of the movement after having experienced trauma and participating in self harm. I really urge people to watch the full film, because Julie does make it out, and I think that her story might provide a glimmer of hope for people who are in this movement that there truly is light on the other side.

I say all that because this is a reality that the former leaders in our film have to contend with and face. I won't speak on behalf of them in terms of their own personal journey of facing that reality. We capture in the film that it is a multiplicitous experience for all of them, and really hard. What I know is that this is not a movement of evil people with bad intentions. We know that a lot of people that go into this and enter into leadership often have good intentions, and often truly believe that they have started to change. They believe that change is possible, and they believe they are helping people. And I think that that clouds peoples' ability to observe the true pain that they are causing.

This film is really a study of internalized homophobia and transphobia directed outwards. These former leaders are often survivors of conversion therapy themselves, and that's not meant not to excuse their behavior, it's to understand it. Why would one cause so much pain, trauma, and, for some, death within their own community? That really is the essence of what the film tries to capture about the reality of the ex-LGBTQ movement in general. I thread the needle there because I really believe that it's this underlying culture of homophobia and transphobia that exists in not only in religious communities, but in our culture more broadly, that essentially is always training new leadership to take the places of these people when they defect and come out — when they realize that they're lying to themselves, when they admit that they're lying to others. That, to me, was a very important thing to shine a light on. I think if we don't understand that, then we don't have those tools as a culture as we start a dialogue about this [subject]. We really hope the film starts a national — an international — dialogue about how to end [conversion therapy].

EDGE: We are now in a situation where lawmakers in some states are legally defining medically appropriate care for transgender children as child abuse, and criminalizing doctors who try to care for their patients. Is there a direct line between this situation, and so-called "conversion therapy," which has also targeted children, and continues to do so?

Kristine Stolakis: That is such a great question, and there is absolutely a direct line between the conversion therapy or ex-LGBTQ movement, and this wave of anti-trans legislation and sentiment that we are seeing in our culture. I have a few things to say about that.

We follow the story of a current leader in the movement who considers himself to be "ex-trans." Another way to describe that experience might be that he considers himself to be a "de- transitioner." That type of story is one we are seeing lifted up by conservative communities and the political right as evidence that being trans is mentally unhealthy. This is not true. What we know is that we have to fight for the mental and physical safety of trans individuals — that transphobia is the problem, not trans people.

That is the ex-LGBTQ, or conversion therapy, movement in a nutshell: Denying people the right to real mental health and physical health care that completely affirms who people are. Part of the legislation that we're seeing these days is making it so children can't access mental health care that affirms who they are if they are trans. What happens to that child if their parents live in a locality or in a state where they are not allowed to see a therapist or a doctor that is going to help them receive gender-affirming care? They're going to seek out help from someone else. Well, who are they going to seek out help from? Enter therapists, licensed therapists who still practice some version of conversion therapy. From a therapeutic standpoint, again, it's disproven; we know not only that this doesn't work, but that it causes harm. But if someone is religious, or they live in religious communities, as so many people do across our country, they will seek out help through their church; through a pastor acting as a pseudo-counselor who will give "help" to the child in the form of conversion therapy, even if they don't see themselves as a conversion therapist. That is what they are doing. We see the fight against trans children [being able to] receive affirming care as resulting in, and being a part of, the continuation of the ex-LGBTQ movement. I'm actually very heartened that you're making that connection, somewhat, in the media. It's something my team is very passionate about, making that connection in our film.

EDGE: Let me ask about that leader you mentioned a moment ago, Jeffrey, the so called "de-transitioner." He gets plenty of screen time. Were you looking to make sure we hear both sides of the story?

Kristine Stolakis: Yeah, well, one thing I will say is I don't believe that there are both sides to this story, and I'm not trying to call out that phrasing for you, [but] I think it's something in the media that we often are asked to do. I think with conversion therapy or the ex-LGBTQ movement, that is a dangerous way to organize it. The conversion therapy movement, and the ex-LGBTQ movement more broadly, causes harm and pain. That's it; that's the truth, and we know that. There's no two sides to that.

EDGE: Having seen what happened with your uncle, was it a difficult thing to hear Jeffrey saying the things he says in the film?

Kristine Stolakis: Yes, it was very hard. It makes me feel emotional to think about, because I truly know that Jeffrey has very good intentions, and he thinks he is doing the right thing. And at the same time... there's a moment in the film where he is essentially counseling a mother of a trans child. And he tells her there's no way to accept your child and love your child as trans. And the thing I kept thinking during that time was, 'This is where it starts.' It gives me a stomachache thinking back to that, and just a feeling of overwhelming sadness, because now that mother is armed with encouragement [that tells her] love for her child is rejection, and that is so hard to process. If you have witnessed the pain of someone — and, in my case, the pain of someone who came out as trans as a child — you've experienced the deep, deep pain of that rejection. It will change you forever, and it will motivate you forever, as it has for me in my own work, to try to make sure that never happens to anyone else.

I do not agree about the consequences of his actions at all, and he knows where our team stands, and he continues to believe what he believes. I do respect that Jeffrey allowed us to film those things, and that he was willing to go on the record with his work and his belief, because so many people don't; so many people practice this in secret. I don't take his participation for granted. But was it hard? Absolutely. Absolutely! So many parts of making this film were hard, but I'm really proud of what we made, because I do think it is going to help add to the conversation about meaningfully ending this thing. That's all I can hope for in the wake of having made this film, and my uncle's death.

"Pray Away" is streaming now at Netflix.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.