Films sometimes have odd origins. When Kristine Stolakis found a strange packet in her uncle’s home, little did she know that, years later, she’d make her feature film debut as director because of it.
The packet itself promoted conversion therapy, the practice promoted by notorious Christian organizations like Exodus International that claimed to “cure” parishioners of their homosexual or transgender identities. Exodus rose to prominence in the 1980s and 90s for its claims, which met with wide ridicule from the medical and psychological communities…not to mention queer activists.
Exodus International finally shuttered after a series of scandals in 2013. Now Stolakis has reassembled key members of the movement, including co-founder Michael Bussee, former vice president Randy Thomas, spokespersons John Paulk (who appeared on the cover of Newsweek alongside his wife Anne, claiming to be cured), Yvette Cantu Schneider, and Julie Rogers. The group shares their motivations, their contradictions and their experiences as part of Exodus, as well as what finally prompted them to leave. The film also includes the story of Jeffery McCall, a self-identified ex-gay/ex-transgender man making a bid to revive the ex-gay movement.
We were not prepared for the gut-punch power of Pray Away, or for the questions it raises. Naturally, we had to get time with Stolakis to discuss the film, her motivations, and the ethical questions her movie raises. Pray Away was slated to debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, and is currently seeking distribution.
This is your first feature. So when did you first become aware of Exodus International?
Wonderful question. I was inspired to make Pray Away because of my uncle. I was very close to [him]. He was like a second father and my babysitter growing up. He, unbeknownst to me as a child, had undergone conversion therapy for quite a long time. This was back in the days when every therapist was a conversion therapist, in the 60s and 70s. But in a way, I’ve now seen true for people who have experienced the ex-gay movement and conversion therapy more generally, that logic and belief system stuck with him his whole life.
He remained celibate his whole life. He struggled with drugs and alcohol and depression and suicidality. I never understood why; it was kind of a family secret. I, as a young person, knew him at a bright time in his life when he was one of my caretakers. It wasn’t until he passed away very unexpectedly when I was in my 20s that I went to clean out his home and found a stack of ex-gay material, specifically NARTH [National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality] material. That’s the organization Joseph Nicolosi [a notorious therapist who claimed to cure homosexuality] started. It continues today, run by his son as The Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity.
Integrity my foot. Go on.
I also found ex-gay testimony, books by people who said they’d changed. I became obsessed, trying to figure out who these people are that say change is possible. Why does someone believe that? It captured me. So I started to do research and expected to find people leading the ex-gay movement to be straight, white, cis, homophobic, transphobic people. What I found overwhelmingly was LGBTQ individuals who claimed to have changed. I was surprised, but recognized an internalized hatred that I saw in my uncle.
It turned into a film when I found an apology letter from another former leader, Michael Bussee who’s in the film. He said on his website that when he started Exodus International he did not intend for the movement or the organization to become what it is. It was his insight into the psychology and the power structure of the movement that made me say “This is a film.”
Exodus was the heartbeat of the ex-gay movement. They helped disseminate materials that ended up in my uncle’s closet. Then I started to connect with former leaders and fleshed out the film to include a current leader in the movement, Jeffery, who refers to himself as ex-trans.
I want to get to him in a moment.
I’m sure we will. I want to add, that research was done with a member of our team who is trans, our consulting producer. He’s also a conversion therapy survivor and was integral to researching the current movement and finding the heartbeat of the Millennial-driven digital movement. Our production company, Multitude Films, is an LGBTQ-led company. We have survivors on our team. We have a trans person in seminary right now on our production team. Our editor, Carla Gutierrez, also cut RBG. I mention her and my team to say that every decision we made was made as a team together to show the harm of this movement. All of that was intentional. I’m very proud of that.
And [in our research] we also found another survivor, Julie Rogers, who’s in the film, who also spent time as a leader.
That was important to me because the more I read about the movement, the more I saw the grayness between leader and victim. A lot of people who feel they’ve changed or that change is right around the corner go home and start their own ministries. It’s a very typical part of this world, so it was important to me that a survivor speak to that power structure where people are being used.
Absolutely. You allude to something really interesting there: the power structure of the movement.
There’s something very provocative in putting it that way. Obviously people like Julie Rogers talk about how, at a certain point, they became witting pawns for the movement, and that was a group of wealthy or upper-middle-class men in charge of things, and how the group tried to hide that.
So what is the nature of that power structure? Is that—for lack of a better term—a slave/master relationship?
You’ve just zoned in on what I think is the most complicated part of the movement.
I see my role as a filmmaker not to be able to perfectly answer that question. It is probably the question of this whole thing. It gets at the ethics of responsibility, of your words, your actions, what you represent harming people at the same time that you are being harmed. It is the centerpiece of the trauma and the furor of the movement. I try to capture that so we can have a dialogue about it. I don’t know if I could sum it up in a sentence. There are a few dynamics that come to mind.
One is that Yvette was a crucial part of the film for me personally. Very crucial. Her story hits a few notes. One is that she was seen as a comforting voice, a sanitized voice to voice the homophobic and transphobic point of view of the Family Research Council. It was run, as she says in the film, by straight, white men. So you feel the way that she is used. Also, and she says this in the film, “It’s really hard to look back, but I also did these things. I can’t forget that was part of my life.” To the former leaders’ credit, they never speak of themselves purely as pawns.
No, that’s true.
They were adults. They made choices. But what is choice in this world when you’ve been taught to hate yourself, or you’ve gone through something traumatic like Yvette did? That’s very common in this movement: people go through some sort of trauma within the LGBTQ world. They have addiction. They go to church after the passing of a friend, as in Yvette’s case, during the AIDS crisis. They find comfort in Christianity, but that comes at a price. That price is that they are in this mix of adults in charge of their own actions, but managing their own trauma and internalized hate. That’s what’s interesting and really hard about this. I don’t know that I have a succinct answer. I don’t think it’s slave/master, and I also don’t think these leaders were autonomous and fully empowered beings at all. It’s somewhere in between.
The conclusion I came to studying all the people in this movement is whatever vantage point you experience the movement from, when you leave, there is trauma. That is how we try to edit the film: how each person, individually, honed in on their trauma. In Yvette’s case, she’s bisexual and genuinely in love with her husband. That kept her believing in a sincere way for a long time that she really had changed. It was her body, literally, physically that broke down. She had a breakdown, and that brought her to therapy. Julie has self-trauma. And John acts out in a way. He couldn’t live that way anymore.
The way the power structure works it gets into the most intimate cracks of their psychology and emotional experience. It is with them all the time and leaves scars on everyone. I will also say that continues in the current movement. The movement today looks a little different in a world of social media, and yet this power dynamic remains the same. The majority of people running ex-gay ministries today are ex-LGBTQ individuals who say they have changed. This is why it continues to thrive despite this trauma.
That’s powerful stuff.
I also want to say, as in my uncle’s case, not every person in this movement is a leader. At all. The leaders for me manifested the complicated existence of what internalized oppression looks like. That’s what we brought the camera to in hopes that the leaders of this movement would reconsider their actions. I really hope they do.
There’s a lot in what you’ve just said there. The notion that there’s trauma on the way in and on the way out…
That’s pretty remarkable. You’ve already mentioned Jeffery McCall, the self-proclaimed ex-gay, ex-trans man who now has his own ministry. It’s almost like he needs to exert control over others because he can’t control this part of himself. Like that’s a comfort.
It’s kind of amazing he agreed to be in the film at all. Was he reluctant?
Great questions. In a way that I’m ultimately thankful for, Jeffery agreed to make his work visible. Many people did not. Anne Paulk and Ricky Chelette denied our requests for interviews. So did others who now run ex-gay ministries.
So I want to recognize Jeffery for that. There are so many people who practice this in the shadows. So I am appreciative of the fact that he took the responsibility to say “I am doing this.” I was forward with him in our first email to be honest about my intentions. [I told him] we had a number of people who have left the movement and we want a voice for the movement. He called very quickly and we had a conversation, and he said yes. I feel like I honored what I told him, which is that I will not let others speak for him. Of course through putting his story against Exodus’ there are parallels that I see. He’s used to being attacked online, which, I think, bands ex-gay individuals together.
So he’s been as supportive as an ex-gay individual can be.
You know, looking at the film, it really struck me: why is there his fixation by fundamentalist Christians on queer people? Of all the things…
What is that about?
What a great question. I don’t know is the quick answer. We hint in the film that when the DSM declassified homosexuality as a disorder, there were a lot of LGBTQ Christians that felt like they had nowhere to go. Exodus filled a void for them. People who were steeped in internalize homophobia felt like there was something wrong with them. They were looking for a community, a marketplace. Exodus and other ex-gay ministries filled that void. Like Michael Bussee says at the end of the film—and I’m paraphrasing—as long as a larger culture of homophobia and transphobia exist, something like Exodus will manifest.
There’s a bigger system at play. So I’m not sure. I’m not sure the Bible is really the root of homophobia and transphobia. I think maybe there’s something going on culturally that is still with us, and people with the Bible say “Here’s the proof it’s bad.” I’m with you in the curiosity around the fixation. My gut, having spent years talking to people in this world, is that the Bible is not the only reason it’s going on.
That makes sense. So your uncle and his experience as an ex-gay person is what helped inspire the film…
An ex-trans person, I have to say.
Just so you know, yeah. The language he used at the time was a “gender identity problem.” If he were my age, he would have said he was trans or ex-trans. He never transitioned but for him it was about gender identity. He also referred to himself as being gay, but I think that was more a product of the era since being trans was not in the language.
So how does your family feel now? I’m sure they miss your uncle, but now looking back on it all, how does the family discuss it? What do you say just sitting around the dining room table?
My grandparents, the people that took him to a therapist, were incredible people, some of the best people I know. They were doing at the time what everybody thought was right. Years later, when their knowledge increased and the language increased, they were actually quite supportive of him and his gender identity, if he’d wanted to transition. But he had a really hard time with that because he’d been so deeply taught that it was wrong. So my family was actually affirming before he was. He was never out; he was a very private person. That is one of the most sad things in my family. My family is now fully affirming. It pains me that he grew up in the era when he did, that my grandparents couldn’t raise him today with trans visibility being what it is. His life would have been extraordinarily different. So many parents in this world have good intentions…
Oh yes, absolutely.
They want what’s best for their child. And they were surrounded by people saying take your kid to Living Hope or the Exodus Conference. I’ve talked to so many people who say that’s true, and so many who got in a fight with their parents. They start to believe these messages themselves, even when the parents start to say “I don’t think this is good.”
So then the kid is on the other side think that they’re sick in some way. So my family has been fully supportive of the film. I think there’s just a sadness that my uncle had the life he did. That, we all have to just live with. But, if he hadn’t passed away, I don’t know that I ever would have found those materials or made the film. So it’s a strange part of all this.
One of the recurring themes in all the testimony you have here is this recurring need for community. People like Julie Rogers talk about how wonderful it was to feel like she had a place where she was needed, and how it was the first time she found the queer community. There are so many paradoxes to that…
I know. It’s a really shared thing in this world. There are people that got to say they were gay for the first time because they went to Exodus. And there were people destroyed by it. There was every experience in between.
How does making a film like this challenge your faith?
I’ll say this: it’s not my place to say whether or not someone needs to have a spiritual life. That is someone else’s right, and someone else’s choice. I do know, in my heart as a person, that there is nothing about being LGBTQ that means you can’t have a rich spiritual life.
It makes me sad how many people don’t believe that. It was very hard to witness so many people believing that in order to have a spiritual life they had to deny something so central and wonderful and defining about themselves.
So in terms of my own faith, I do have faith that is a private experience for me. It’s very dear and special to me. The film was also a reminder of how believing in something bigger than yourself can be. I just want people to be able to do that without it feeling like it needs to cost them something. Whatever your language, who doesn’t want to be connected to something greater? It’s true of all communities.
Ok, so last question. And I have to preface it by saying this is one of the most difficult questions I’ve ever seen a movie raise. The film ends with Randy Thomas talking about how he’s accused of having blood on his hands.
It’s fairly common knowledge at this point that conversion therapy is very damaging, and that many, many people who attempt it take their own lives.
It’s wonderful to see people like Randy and Yvette and Michael Bussee doing so well. They’re happy and out and healthy. They’ve admitted to doing something wrong, and are trying to do something right. That’s brave.
But at the same time…do they have blood on their hands?
I’ve thought about this quite a bit. I don’t know if in the role I feel like I play in this film—being a director and working with a team to usher it into the world, our team—we have had this discussion so many times during the production of this film. I feel where we landed is that we cannot make that call. That is something we want to present in film, which is why we include Randy saying that. We want to pose that for the audience to decide. I don’t think that’s my call to make. I do think the reality is that this movement causes trauma.
That’s what I want people to know walking away from this. That is a fact. And we still do not have a unanimous consensus in this country to accept that fact. That is very troubling to me. So I struggle with that question too. But I really hope that people see Randy struggling with that question on the other side, and that others in the movement choose to follow in his footsteps. 700,000 people in the US have been through this. I hope this will not be the last film about the ex-gay movement.
Pray Away is currently seeking distribution.