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Despite the growing list of states and jurisdictions with laws banning conversion therapy, the so-called ex-gay movement is very much alive and thriving. Whether fueled by religion, politics, or pseudo-psychology, the movement’s belief system — which teaches people that being gay, bi, trans, or gender-nonconforming is a sin or sickness, a faulty trait to be eradicated through piety and prayer, or by clinical intervention — persists, and persistently causes irrevocable harm in the lives of the most vulnerable.
“We know that nearly 700,000 people have gone through this in the U.S. alone,” says Kristine Stolakis, whose documentary Pray Away, just released on Netflix, examines the ex-LGBTQ movement from the perspectives of survivors and former leaders. “We know it happens on every major continent in the world. It’s really something that is present tense. And that’s something we wanted the film to show.”
Stolakis was drawn to the stories in Pray Away by a very personal connection. “My uncle went through conversion therapy when he came out as trans as a child,” she says. “This was back in the sixties, before the psychological and psychiatric community declassified being queer as a mental disorder. What happened to him, I now understand, is very common for people that go through some form of conversion therapy. He went through a tremendous number of mental health challenges.”
After her uncle unexpectedly passed away, Stolakis unearthed a stack of pamphlets in his belonging from an organization called NARTH — the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. “[It’s] a very notorious organization of licensed therapists who practice conversion therapy. Now most conversion therapy actually happens within religious institutions and organizations. There are still some licensed therapists that do this, but it’s changed a bit in nature from my uncle’s time. That organization has been rebranded as the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice. So that organization continues.”
As the powerful testimonies in the film attest, regardless of how these organizations rebrand themselves, their message of false hope remains the same: change is possible. “We know gender fluidity is real,” says Stolakis. “If you identify as trans today and cis tomorrow and trans the next day, fantastic. There is no problem there. The problem is when you say that to be trans is a sickness, psychologically speaking, or that if you are a religious person, to be trans is the reason you can’t or will never have a full experience of the higher power.”
Another part of the problem examined in Pray Away is the mainstream media’s bent towards lifting up ex-gay or detransitioner stories. But there are no two sides to this, Stolakis asserts. “All research shows that conversion therapy and all forms of it are harmful. All major medical and psychological associations have said this practice is harmful. The media needs to catch up to that fact and make sure they’re reporting on facts and on research, and not sucked in by a good dramatic story.”
Pray Away is available for streaming on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.
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