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Netflix Documentary ‘Pray Away’ Exposes the Truth of Religious Trauma in the LGBTQIA+ Community

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

In just a few days from the writing of this article, Netflix will release a new documentary called “Pray Away.” If that phrase sounds familiar, it’s because many people, especially those who lived through the 80s and 90s, will recall the prevalence of the words “pray away the gay,” or “pray the gay away.” This documentary chronicles the history of the “anti-gay” and “gay conversion” religious movement that tore through the American Christian landscape towards the end of the 20th century. But it doesn’t stop at history. It shows how that movement is still very much alive and well, it’s just hiding better. I should know because I grew up in the modern expression of this dangerous and deadly wave of trauma for thousands of people. And it almost claimed my life.

For those who don’t know much about the “anti-gay” and “gay conversion” religious ideologies, it is a series of Christian beliefs rooted in two foundational concepts. First is the idea that being LGBTQIA+ (some common descriptions include: “an active homosexual, “a self-proclaimed practicing homosexual,” or “one who rejects the sex they were assigned by God at birth”) is an automatic ticket to eternal suffering in hell. Second is that these “lifestyles” (the word they use instead of “identities”) can be changed, eliminated or rejected by completely devoting oneself to God and Christ. Anyone who “struggles” with same-sex or gender attraction, or gender dysphoria, can be “saved” and “converted” simply by embracing a particular branch of Christianity and “making Christ your one and only identity,” as one person told me. This branch is a radically conservative sect of the religion, one that many in our society like to think is not still having a significant impact on the LGBTQIA+ population. That is wrong.

Through middle and high school, I went to a religious school that very much fell in line with this radical expression of Christianity. They embraced the idea that LGBTQIA+ people are damned to hell, but that they could be “saved” from their attractions or gender dysphoria by faith. If someone admitted these feelings, tried to embrace the “solution,” but ultimately were not succeeding (because “gay conversion” doesn’t work), they would be shamed by the community continuously until one of two things happened: they were manipulated to believing they had converted from their LGBTQIA+ identity, or they broke. In middle school, as a young kid with a gay older brother, hearing this stuff was repulsive and I fought back. But in high school, when I came to terms with my own identity as a gay man, these dangerous ideologies reached a different level of impact on me. They became traumatic.

I never wanted to admit that the school traumatized me in lots of ways, but especially regarding my queer identity. I thought that if I said the school didn’t harm me, that I would’ve “won.” If I convinced myself and others that no trauma had happened, that somehow would make it true. I wasn’t going to give the school the satisfaction, even without knowing it, of having had the power to traumatize me. But that’s just not how trauma works, including religious trauma.

If you watch the trailer for the documentary, you will see a momentary glimpse into what will be one of the focuses of the movie: the impacts these churches and religious organizations had on the mental health of their communities. When this movement was at its peak, conservative communities began to notice a trend among their members: deaths and hospitalizations due to suicide or suicide attempts. A lot of people underestimate the power religion can have on queer folk, especially young queer kids and teenagers trying their best to navigate life. To be told they are going to hell for who they are or forcing them into conversion camps and programs to try to change them, irreparable harm and damage can occur. And if those sorts of efforts occur constantly, at home and church and school, with nowhere for these people to go to be themselves, it brings many to a breaking point. LGBTQIA+ youth are at significantly higher risk of attempting or dying by suicide if they had heard their parents speak negatively about LGBTQIA+ people as a matter of religiosity, and that is regardless of the person’s own religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

As I said, I lived for seven years in a school that harmed and permanently traumatized me due to my LGBTQIA+ identity. I can also attest, personally, to this “breaking point” because I got to it. After my high school graduation, but before starting college, you would think my mental health would improve beyond measure. Never again would I have to be around the teachers and preachers who damned me to hell, who told me I would never be good enough if I didn’t reject my identity. Graduation was a threshold I passed through to get away from the community that traumatized me. So, my torment should’ve been over during that summer, right? In one aspect, yes. Very matter of factly, I was no longer surrounded by that school community to continue to be traumatized. But after seven years, the damage had been done.

I had suffered in the dark for all those years, spiraling further and further into depression, and I’ve now come to terms with the fact that part of that was fueled by the trauma that school caused me. My spiral didn’t stop after graduation. In fact, it brought me to the edge of the abyss. I was hospitalized for nine days that summer for being actively suicidal, and it was then that my friends and family saw the mask I had been putting on my entire life was a fake. I shocked my parents and siblings with the truth of my suicidal ideation, and hurt them beyond my imagination when I was honest about my self-injury behavior.

With all that, here is what I will say about “Pray Away.” Based on the trailer and other information available about the movie pre-release, the movie appears to tackle head-on the past and present of the “anti-gay” and “gay conversion” movements in Christianity. Many of the people interviewed were the figureheads, the household names associated with this movement. All of them have recanted their beliefs, admitted their personal stories of having achieved “conversion” were lies, and expressed immense regret over the pain and damage they caused their immediate communities, but also people around the country, and even the world.

So, I will leave you with a couple of pieces of advice. First, as a matter of justice and reconciliation with this country’s past, I would highly recommend as many people as possible see this film. However, I would caution some about watching it. If you have experienced any form of trauma based on your identity as an LGBTQIA+ person, this movie may be triggering and bring up a lot of old memories. Even just watching the trailer did that for me. So I would caution you in that respect when deciding whether to watch the film. I would have the same advice for anyone who has experienced any form of religious trauma, not just based on an LGBTQIA+ identity. Though trauma can manifest in a multitude of ways, radical religion is remarkable in its ability to use the same few tools and techniques available to it to harm and traumatize just about anyone they want, for whatever reason. So for anyone who has experienced religious trauma (also, not just in Christianity), I would also suggest careful consideration when deciding whether or not to watch. The same thing goes for anyone who has attempted suicide or who has been personally impacted by someone’s death by suicide.

We are all in control of whether we choose to watch this movie or not. For me, I fit into all of these categories in very deep ways. Just speaking for myself, I have decided to watch the film when it is released, but I will not watch it alone. Regardless of whoever decides to watch, or not watch, and for whatever reason, just know that this movie has the potential to change a subculture in American society that, like a parasite, has damaged and harmed the LGBTQIA+ community from the inside out. Let’s hope that this change will manifest to give LGBTQIA+ people and all those who are survivors of religious trauma some justice, and help others avoid the mistakes of the past going forward.

Image via Netflix/YouTube

Originally published: August 6, 2021
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