Pray Away: A Documentary For Gays Who Haven’t Yet Been Personally Victimized by Ryan Murphy

Yesterday, when I was trying, for the third time, to finish Pray Away, Netflix’s new Ryan Murphy-produced documentary about “the dangers of conversion therapy,” I read the news that my former Baptist pastor — the man I handed my sister’s ring to as he preformed her wedding ceremony, the man who called me into his office repeatedly to suggest that I should just marry one of the guys my age at church, the man who stopped me often on our church campus to casually share slurs and misinformation about gay people — had joined Donald Trump’s post-presidency legal team. I know him as Pastor Doug, the man whose politics and faith(?) shaped my late teens and early adulthood. You know him as former Georgia Congressman Doug Collins, the man whose antics during Trump’s impeachment had him constantly trending on Twitter. (Or as the man who siphoned off enough votes from Kelly Loeffler to pave the way for Georgia voters to elect Raphael Warnock in the run-off Senate election in 2021.)

I laughed when I saw the news because one of the reasons I was seething watching Pray Away is that it fails to even mention the conversion therapy to Donald Trump pipeline, and all the people, like Pastor Doug, who were validated by one to empower the other. It doesn’t even touch on the decision in the mid-90s, by pastors in the Southern Baptist convention, to create the “family values” sham that would scapegoat gay people to advance the power of the Republican party. In fact, the documentary doesn’t even really ask the former conversion therapy experts to grapple with the personal trauma they inflicted on countless gay people around the world. Pray Away settles instead for telling the stories of former prominent members of conversion therapy groups like Exodus International, the world’s most notorious “ex-gay” “ministry,” against maudlin music, while asking the audience for compassion for their suffering and self-loathing.

Which is fine, but it leaves a huge hole in the viewing experience because in an hour and forty minutes, Pray Away never answers the questions: Who is this documentary even for? What is it actually trying to accomplish? It is absolutely not for gays who grew up in evangelical communities and were completely victimized by just the existence of Exodus International’s “ex-gay” propaganda. Gays like me who were barricaded in the closet until their late 20s by the fear of losing everything: family, friends, faith, the foundations onto which we had built our entire young adult lives. But Pray Away is also not for the people who believe conversion therapy is soul-saving self-help psychology. Which, of course, brings me back to Donald Trump.

The message of conversion therapy will sound very familiar to you, regardless of your experience with Baptist teachings: It doesn’t matter how you feel, it doesn’t matter what science says, it doesn’t matter what popular culture is pushing, and it doesn’t even really matter what you read in the Bible. You have felt gay feelings as long as you can remember, and every new study that comes out says that lots of people are just born gay and also that being gay doesn’t harm your life in any way, and you know a lot of happy gay people who also seem like good people, and Paul says we’ll know by good people by their fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and gentleness), and we’ll know bad people by their fruit (hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, envy), and you know a lot more gay people with good fruit and a lot more straight people (Republicans!) with bad fruit. But none of that matters! You cannot trust your feelings, you cannot trust your mind, you cannot even trust your own eyes and ears. The only thing you can trust is your spiritual leaders, even if what they’re saying contradicts everything you’re seeing and hearing.

And that sounds familiar because we are living in an anti-reality hellscape where sickness and death have caused society as we’ve always known it to cease functioning, yet there are millions of people who still won’t adhere to basic scientific advice for the good of even themselves or their families. Because Donald Trump — the man evangelicals call their Spiritual Leader — told them not to. If literal death won’t cause these people to see reason, a Netflix documentary certainly won’t.

There is no emotional catharsis in Pray Away, no promised paths to victory for those who were abused by the teachings of the people featured in the documentary, no accountability, no looks at the exponential global repercussions of conversion therapy. It is, at best, picking at a scab — and, at worst, poking a dirty finger into a gaping wound. Which I suppose makes us all Thomas the Apostle, which makes a hilarious kind of sense. Christians call him Doubting Thomas; my lesbian friend Jeanna, who is writing the literal book on it, calls him Thomas the Gaslit.

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe,” Thomas said.

Jesus said, “Stop doubting.”

I say, “Good for you, man.”

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Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior writer who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1200 articles for us.

19 Comments

  1. Thank you!! I could not figure out who this documentary was for at all – the way they cut in with the couple planning their wedding felt very 2012, and they truly didn’t reveal anything about Exodus that I hadn’t inferred even without being a part of the Christian or Evangelical communities. We all lived through 2008 and the years before, and I really wish they’d dig deeper. Haha I didn’t realize it was Ryan Murphy!

  2. Also something about these enlightened ex-ex-gays being humanized and reflecting all intelligently while the ex-trans person is show being the clueless believer rubbed me the wrong way right off the bat, especially given, as we know, Ryan Murphy.

    Also, is there an actual organized “ex-trans” movement? The only organized de-transitioners I’m aware of are associated with TERFs not Christians.

  3. Have been thinking about Ryan Murphy a lot lately and trying to pinpoint what about him is so awful, and as usual Heather nailed it: he only makes queer content for straight people, and he doesn’t care how many queers get hurt in the process. What a fucking undead gremlin am i right

  4. Absolutely nailed. There was so much potential for story to tell, lives to impact and it was wasted on what – trying to make ex ex gays feel redemption for all the trouble they caused by sharing their story? I found the whole thing slow moving, dreadfully disappointing and uninformed, and without purpose or aim. I don’t recommend it – why waste nearly two hours of your life when you can get more out of this great review!

  5. To me it was more of the same type of “omg the big bad Christians are trying to stop the gays”! With little else and it was painfully cursory. Most people know about Exodus. There was no interest in trying to see in depth various viewpoints or anything else. No discussion of well these are adults making these particular choices. I’m against things being pushed on kids from any side whatsoever, dont get me wrong but adults can just walk away if they want. If you want to be part of that it is your business. The reality is most places are quite gay accepting. I’m waiting for Ryan Murphy to do something that no one wants to touch- a documentary on the muslim world and gays. Yeah lets see if he can. Oh wait.. Crickets.

    Ryan always goes for the lowest fruit and easiest story and tries to make it “sensational” and it ends up being a yawn fest.

  6. I loved the review….AND, Jesus told Thomas to put his hands in his wound, to have evidence! He wasn’t just dismissed. I just wanted to make that point, because I’ve always actually loved that story, because I think it’s a very honest depiction of doubt, and wanting to have tangible proof….and being shown compassion in the face of that doubt.

    • Yay, so glad you commented this! I was thinking the EXACT same thing, but you articulated it in a much better way than I could’ve, haha. Thomas’ story resonates with me too for that reason <3. Very glad I had an LGBTQ-affirming pastor teach me his story in such a positive and comforting light. Wish I could remember more of her interpretation!

  7. I’m sorry, but I found it so beautifully poetic that this Autostraddle article ends with the story of Thomas the Apostle sticking his fingers in Jesus’ wound because Jesus’ side vagina is quite literally the queerest thing I have ever seen depicted in historical church art. Seriously, there’s so much Jesus vagina art. Jesus is THE genderqueer icon, conservative Christians can stay mad, but these are the facts😂

  8. As a queer Christian, I absolutely love that this Autostraddle article ends with the story of Thomas the Apostle sticking his fingers in Jesus’ wound because Jesus’ side vagina is the absolute queerest thing I have ever seen depicted in historical church art. Seriously, there are SO many Jesus vagina paintings. He was a genderqueer icon and conservative Christians can stay mad, but these are the facts

    • Not me accidentally leaving the same comment twice! Sorry y’all, guess I just felt so passionately about Jesus’ vagina that I couldn’t wait for the first comment to fully load, haha.

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