Oh, conversion therapy, how can we miss you if you won’t go away? Having witnessed to the ex-gay movement for a quarter century and counting, Whosoever has seen conversion therapy’s major institutions become hobbled, its principles discredited, and most of its founders now living out gay lives following apology tours. But is the spiritually violent anti-LGBTQ+ “pray-it-away” movement fully in the rearview? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, the upcoming Netflix film “Pray Away,” debuting on August 3, promises to take us on a disturbing trip down memory lane with some of the ex-gay movement’s notorious leaders, as well as some current members and survivors.
The film’s main subject is Exodus International, once described by Soulforce as “the market leader in reparative/ex-gay/sexual orientation change therapy,” whose leaders were revealed to have struggled intensely with their own same-sex attractions, and which closed its doors in 2013 after issuing an apology to the LGBTQ+ community.
One of the movement’s acolytes, Darlene Bogle, wrote movingly for Whosoever in “Leaving Exodus” of the moment she realized, in the middle of addressing attendees at an ex-gay conference, that she was indeed a lesbian and needed to live her truth.
It should be familiar thematic territory for anyone who’s seen “Boy Erased,” the 2018 adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir of surviving a spiritually violent Love in Action program, which in the movie occurred in Memphis, Tenn. — the same city where Whosoever contributor Brent Walsh escaped from a Love in Action program in 2000. In “Waking Up in Memphis,” Walsh wrote:
It didn’t take long to discover that the “experts” were just as clueless as everyone else. The emotional hoops they put me through were far more traumatic than helpful.
Former Love in Action director John Smid consulted on “Boy Erased,” and he served as the inspiration for Joel Edgerton’s character in the film. Smid resigned from Love in Action in 2008 and started an LGBT-affirming ministry not long after it became public that Love in Action co-founder John Evans had written him a letter saying conversion therapy “shattered lives.”
Shortly thereafter, the American Psychological Association officially disavowed conversion therapy.
The “Pray Away” trailer reveals that John Paulk is also heavily featured; as the founder of Focus on the Family’s ex-gay ministry Love Won Out, he has since come out, disavowed conversion therapy and apologized for his role in the ex-gay movement. In “Fear and Loathing at the Ex-Gay Conference,” Darrell Grizzle provided Whosoever a first-hand account of attending a Love Won Out conference and a prevailing mood there that he could only describe as… paranoia.
That conference was in the year 2000. Twenty-one years later, can the affirming church afford to let its own guard down? Consider this from James Finn, in “Pope Francis Takes the Gay Gloves Off“:
In 2018, Francis instructed Catholic parents to send gay children to therapy, implying that before the age of 20, conversion therapy might be effective. Prior to that pronouncement, the Church had a reputation for opposing conversion therapy, known to be ineffective and dangerous. Since then, Catholic dioceses all over the U.S. have partnered with conversion therapy providers, and the practice is increasing.
Watch this space — and mark your calendar for August 3.
An adult convert to Christianity who somehow managed to grow up largely unchurched in the South but was always a spiritual seeker, Lance Helms (he/him) was baptized at age 28 and since 2006 has been a member of Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta.