Former 'Ex-Gay' Leaders Denounce 'Conversion Therapy' In A New Documentary

Aug 2, 2021
Originally published on August 2, 2021 2:06 pm

When director Kristine Stolakis went to film school, she knew precisely what her first documentary would be about. It's a movement that according to one estimate has affected the lives of nearly 700,000 people in the U.S. 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 sexual orientation and gender identity can be changed through prayer.

Major U.S. medical groups have condemned the practice. More than 20 states have banned it from being done on minors.

For Stolakis, this subject was personal.

"My uncle, who was very dear to me, went through conversion therapy when he came out as trans as a child," Stolakis told NPR's Sarah McCammon on Morning Edition. "He never fully accepted himself. He was celibate his entire life. He also suffered from tremendous mental health challenges, from depression, anxiety, addiction, to obsessive-compulsive disorder, to suicidal ideations."

I don't think this is a movement of a few bad apples. It's a movement that's born out of a larger culture of homophobia and transphobia that still persists in the majority of Christian churches today. - Kristine Stolakis, director of the Netflix documentary "Pray Away"

Stolakis' uncle died unexpectedly when she was about to start film school. And while doing research, she realized that many of the negative effects that her uncle experienced also happened to others who went through the conversion therapy process.

Researchers at San Francisco State University found in 2018 that rates of attempted suicide among LGBTQ youth more than double when parents try to change their sexual orientation, and increase even more when therapists and religious leaders also attempt to change young people's sexual orientation.

So for her Netflix documentary, Pray Away, Stolakis interviewed some of the biggest faces in the conversion therapy movement, which she says has been led primarily by LGBTQ+ Christians.

"I really expected to be furious at people who had led this movement," Stolakis said. "But the overwhelming feeling that I had was sadness actually. I think it was because of most of the people's good intentions. I don't think this is a movement of a few bad apples. It's a movement that's born out of a larger culture of homophobia and transphobia that still persists in the majority of Christian churches today."

Netflix via / YouTube

Pray Away focuses on former leaders of Exodus International, which was one of the nation's largest conversion therapy networks before it disbanded in 2013.

One of the main subjects in the film is Randy Thomas, former Exodus executive vice president. He rose through the ranks of the organization, starting as a local leader and moving up to lobbying on behalf of the group for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation nationwide.

It crushed me to know that the ideology that we had both ascribed to, that we both lived by, that I had been promoting, had killed my friend. - Randy Thomas, former executive vice president of Exodus International

It wasn't until the suicide of his friend, who was also part of the "ex-gay" movement, that he reevaluated everything.

"It crushed me to know that the ideology that we had both ascribed to, that we had both lived by, that I had been promoting, had killed my friend," Thomas told NPR. "This ideology was something that I promoted and was spreading around the world was actually destructive and deadly. It's a regret that I will carry with me for the rest of my life."

Thomas and Stolakis spoke to McCammon on Morning Edition about what the current conversion therapy movement looks like today.

Interview highlights include extended web-only answers and have been edited for length and clarity:

Interview Highlights

Thomas on how he joined the "ex-gay" movement and Exodus International

I was out of the closet in the '80s. I got thrown out of the house, and I was not a very healthy person. And in 1992 I was looking for answers. I do believe that I had a genuine 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 group for the gays, and underneath all of that coolness there was this toxic theology that said that you needed to overcome homosexuality. They had an Exodus group at that church, and I went in very skeptical. But this particular group was very subtle. I went to a couple of meetings, and it hooked me.

It was the first time I ever actually experienced community, honestly, sober. So it was in this place that I finally felt safe, even though it was toxic. That's one of the dangers of conversion therapy. It lures very wounded people, like I was, into its world, and it keeps us there. It's almost cultish in the way that you're roped into works, and how you think, and how you're rewarded with attention and love. And the limelight. It was intoxicating to be put on stages and do interviews and all this other 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 the ex-LGBTQ movement has always been practiced locally. What we're seeing is that the current ex-LGBTQ organizations are actually rebranding in some ways and describing their work in language that might look very confusing, that might actually look a little affirming. [These organizations] adopt language from various types of civil rights discourse and even the LGBTQ rights movement. There are a lot of rainbow flags on people's Instagrams that you might see that are actually ministries that still practice and profess the same system that to be LGBTQ is a sickness and a sin and that you should change.

It's become very millennial-driven because there are younger people who've grown 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 who are still pushing conversion therapy onto their LGBTQ+ parishioners

Please watch this film. A lot of people don't realize that God does accept his LGBTQ+ children. All of the leaders in this film were tested. We were trusted. We understood these issues, and we didn't change our minds lightly.

Look in your heart. I think most religious leaders want permission to love and affirm God's LGBTQ+ children. They know that how we've been treated in the church culture is not fair. It's not good. It's actually abusive.

I'm saying with the most loving heart, no shame, no condemnation: Please, pastor, stop the abuse. Please allow yourself permission to love and affirm the LGBTQ+ children in your congregation. It's OK. Just let yourself do it.

Danny Hajek edited this interview for broadcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

When director Kristine Stolakis went to film school, she knew exactly what her first feature documentary would be about - conversion therapy, the practice of church groups that claimed sexual orientation or gender identity could be changed through prayer. For Stolakis, the topic was always personal.

KRISTINE STOLAKIS: My uncle, who was very, very dear to me, went through conversion therapy when he came out as trans as a child, and he never fully accepted himself. He was celibate his entire life, and he also suffered from tremendous mental health challenges, from depression, anxiety to addiction to obsessive compulsive disorder to suicidal ideations. And these are things I've learned are very common for people who go through this movement in some way.

MCCAMMON: A movement that's affected an estimated 700,000 people in the U.S., according to the UCLA Williams Institute. In her Netflix documentary called "Pray Away," Stolakis explores the so-called ex-gay movement led primarily by LGBTQ Christians. And she talks to former religious leaders who have since denounced the widely discredited practice of conversion therapy.

STOLAKIS: You know, when I started making this film, I really expected to be furious at people who had led this movement because I had seen in my family just how hard this movement is on people. But the overwhelming feeling that I had was sadness, actually. And I think it was because of people's, especially in the beginning of their leadership, of their good intentions.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PRAY AWAY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We were the leaders of the ex-gay movement. We believed that there was something desperately wrong, that there was something pathological about it, that it was not your normal state, wasn't what God intended, that something must have happened to make you gay.

RANDY THOMAS: We really believed that gay people could be saved.

MCCAMMON: That last voice there is Randy Thomas, one of the main subjects in the film. He was executive vice president of Exodus International, one of the nation's largest conversion therapy networks, before it disbanded in 2013. And when Thomas' friend died by suicide, he re-evaluated everything.

THOMAS: It crushed me to know that the ideology that we had both ascribed to, that we have both lived by, that I had been promoting, had killed my friend. That this ideology was something that I promoted and was spreading around the world was actually destructive and deadly, it's a regret that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

MCCAMMON: Randy Thomas' story begins in the '80s when he came out to his family and was thrown out of the house. Desperate to find a belonging, he found a Christian church that welcomed him in.

THOMAS: I found a church that was cool. It was full of artists. They had great worship, and they also had a group for the gays. And underneath all of that coolness, there was this toxic theology that said that you needed to overcome homosexuality. And I went in very skeptical, but I went to a couple of meetings, and it hooked me.

MCCAMMON: He quickly rose through the ranks of Exodus International, from local leadership to speaking engagements.

What kept you there and why did you stay as the criticism began to rise against the group?

THOMAS: There's a number of reasons why. I - it was the first time I ever actually experienced community, honestly, sober. And so it was in this place that I finally felt safe, even though it was toxic. I don't know if that makes sense, but it lures very wounded people like I was. And it's almost cultish in the way that you're roped into works and how you think and how you're rewarded with attention and love and the limelight. It was intoxicating to be put on stages and do interviews. And it turns into this roundabout with no exit.

MCCAMMON: What does the movement look like today? I mean, Exodus International was the most high-profile example, I think, of the conversion therapy ex-gay movement. But it's gone, as we've said. What's happening now?

STOLAKIS: What we're seeing is that current ex-LGBTQ organizations are actually rebranding in some ways and describing their work in language that might look very confusing, that might actually look a little affirming, that adopts language from various types of civil rights discourse and even the LGBTQ rights movement. There are a lot of rainbow flags on people's Instagrams that you might see that are actually ministries that still practice the same belief system, that to be LGBTQ is a sickness and a sin and that you should change. It's become very millennial driven because there are younger people who've grown up in homophobic and transphobic environments who are ready and willing to take the place of people like Randy. But again, it's the same movement. It just continues in new forms.

MCCAMMON: Randy, what would you want to say to church leaders who are still pushing for LGBTQ people to, quote-unquote, "pray away" part of their identity?

THOMAS: Well, first of all, I would say to those churches, God does accept his LGBTQ-plus children. Look in your heart. They know that how we've been treated in the church culture is not fair. It's actually abusive. And all of the resources and materials that are in the the church library from former Exodus leaders, all of that is based in toxic theology and cultural stigma against LGBTQ-plus children. I'm saying with the most loving heart, no shame, no condemnation, please, Pastor, stop the abuse. Just stop it. Seven hundred (crying) - sorry - 700,000 people as of that film have been abused in this country. We do not want one single more to have to go through this abuse. We don't want them to have to go through this terrible incongruence of thinking that God doesn't like who they are for how he created them to be. So please allow yourself permission to love and affirm the LGBTQ-plus people as children of God in your congregation. It's OK. Just let yourself do it.

MCCAMMON: That's Randy Thomas, a former Exodus International vice president, and Kristine Stolakis, director of the Netflix documentary "Pray Away." Thank you both so much for your time.

STOLAKIS: Thank you so much for having us.

THOMAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANNAR SILLARD'S "OBSERVATIONS FROM A FARAWAY PLACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.