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‘Pray Away’ and the harms of the conversion therapy movement

This week, “Pray Away” — a documentary detailing the history and harms of conversion therapy — released on Netflix. It chronicles the rise and fall of Exodus International, whose primary mission was to make people “struggling with” homosexuality straight.

During its height, Exodus reportedly had more than 400 local groups spanning 17 countries. But after 30-plus years of “ministry,” Exodus closed its doors in 2013, admitting that its attempts at changing people didn’t work and, in fact, caused a great deal of harm.

But even after the closing of Exodus, conversion therapy continued and is still very much alive in America. In fact, conversion therapy is still legal for minors in 30 states. The 20 states that do have laws banning conversion therapy only go so far as to restrict licensed mental health practitioners from using the “practice” on minors. The ban does not restrict practice among religious providers, which is where the majority of conversion therapy takes place.

In the film’s opening, it describes conversion therapy as “the attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity by a religious leader, licensed counselor or in peer support groups.” However, I would take it a step further. I would argue that conversion therapy doesn’t just exist behind the closed doors of programs like Exodus and Living Hope. Rather, conversion therapy exists in people’s homes, around dinner tables, and in the pulpits.

“Conversion therapy isn’t just a practice, it’s a system of belief.”

Conversion therapy isn’t just a practice, it’s a system of belief — a theology that implies that being gay is so utterly abhorrent and sinful in the eyes of God that one must suppress who they are, convert (change or fix) their sexual orientation, and become straight in order to become acceptable in the eyes of God, and therefore the eyes of their fellow Christian family, friends and peers.

Through this unattainable ideal, LGBTQ people who are subjected to conversion therapy (which in some instances goes as far as including shock therapy) are being programmed to hate themselves and brainwashed into believing they must change in order to be loved by God and escape eternal torment in hell.

This is exactly why Julie Rodgers details self-harm when reading from her memoir OutLove in one of the film’s clips. Put on a pedestal, she, among others like Yvette Cantu and John Paulk, were expected to be spokespeople for the movement — success stories proving it was possible to change.

Grappling with an incredible amount of shame and the desire to be accepted by their community, they did what was expected of them. They followed the rules, they spoke up, and they advocated for others to do the same. The pressure put on them to conform worked in Exodus’ favor, providing evidence that not only were straight people telling gay people they needed to change, but people who previously identified as gay (or same-sex attracted) were telling them it was possible.

“The former leaders featured in this film admit that ex-gay therapy didn’t truly help anyone become ‘ex-gay.’”

However, the former leaders featured in this film admit that ex-gay therapy didn’t truly help anyone become “ex-gay.” It was merely successful at behavior modification (shame and shunning have a way of doing that), but it was not at all successful in actually “fixing” or “converting” people from gay to straight. The feelings, desires and attractions remained — they simply continued to ignore, suppress and deny them.

This theory of being “fixed” also does not account for people who are bisexual. People like Yvette Cantu, who at the time claimed she was a lesbian who became straight, now admits that she is actually bisexual and attracted to both sexes, although she has been happily married to a man for many years.

The effects of this movement have done great harm to the LGBTQ community, especially those from conservative Christian or evangelical backgrounds. The film states that more than 700,000 people have gone through some form of conversion therapy in the U.S. alone. While that tally may reflect the number of actual participants, I believe the reach and impact the conversion therapy movement has had on LGBTQ people is far greater than that, likely in the millions.

As previously mentioned, one does not have to be formally enrolled in a conversion therapy program to be affected by its harmful messages. While I personally never enrolled in a conversion therapy program like Exodus or Love Won Out, I can guarantee you the same concepts taught in conversion therapy were very active in my home, my church and my family upbringing. I self-harmed for years trying to suppress and fix who I was, all-the-while completely convinced I was unlovable because I was gay and that God could never use me because of it, rendering me disposable.”

The shame I felt ran so deep in me that I almost took my life. When I came out, my family disowned me and I was shunned by almost everyone I knew. “Embracing the lifestyle” was seen as the ultimate rebellion against God, and they refused to even be associated with me as a result. Because of my experience, I consider myself just as much a survivor of the reparative therapy movement as those who actually participated in the programs.

While there are many survivors, not all survived. The statistics for suicide rates among LGBTQ youth are staggering, and conversion therapy is greatly contributing to that. A national survey found that LGBTQ youth who experienced conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide. If that isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.

“You may not personally have been affected by this movement, but chances are that someone you love has been.”

For those of you who do not identify as LGBTQ, I implore you to watch the film “Pray Away” to learn about the harm conversion therapy has done and is doing to LGBTQ people, and then to help stop the harm from continuing by educating others. Countless lives have been lost at the hand of the conversion therapy movement.

Raising awareness with this documentary could start conversations that are needed for change. You may not personally have been affected by this movement, but chances are that someone you love has been. This practice is psychologically damaging, and is very hard to recover from. Taking time to learn and share could save the life of someone you know or love.

To to learn more:

  1. Join Amber Cantorna and the Unashamed Love Collective on Aug. 12 for a live online interview and Q&A with Yvette Cantu Schneider, a leader and now survivor of the ex-gay movement. For more info, visit: This column was originally posted in Baptist News Global.

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