Kristine Stolakis’ uncle has struggled her entire life with her gender identity and mental health issues.
After her death, she found a conversion therapy flyer among her possessions – conversion therapy representing the ill-conceived idea, mainly prevalent in religious communities, that you can overcome issues of homosexuality or identity of kind to become straight. Usually this involves coercive prayers and counseling that are not science-based at all and frequently cause significant psychological and emotional trauma.
Horrified, Stolakis, a filmmaker, began to research the subject extensively and is now making her feature documentary debut with “Pray Away” on Netflix. The film tells the story of four former leaders of conversion therapy who not only left the movement, but gave it up and are working to end this nefarious practice.
But it also weaves into the current work of Jeffrey, a self-identified “ex-trans,” who works hard to keep the conversion therapy movement alive. To give perspective, Stolakis also includes the story of Julie, who was pushed by her mother into conversion therapy and spent nearly a decade trying to become straight. The film shows Julie’s pain and suffering at the hands of those who impose their will on her, but it also shows the joyful humanity she has found – despite the lasting scars – since she left the movement.
Stolakis recently spoke through Zoom about his experience with the issues surrounding this topic as well as the importance of having survivors and women leaders on his production team.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What were the biggest surprises for you in making this film?
I didn’t understand until I started to research how ubiquitous it continues to be. About 700,000 people in the United States have gone through some version of this and it continues on all major continents – we say major because we don’t know of any recorded cases in Antarctica – so the movement exists in a very present way.
The other thing that surprised me is that the vast majority of people who run conversion therapy organizations are actually LGBTQ + Christians, who claim to have changed themselves. It gave a better understanding of why my uncle believed change was possible and why he was incredibly devastated and blamed himself for not being able to change. The general public generally understands that conversion therapy is bad, but we don’t understand who is running these things and we hope the film sheds light on that.
Q. Do you hope to change your mind in the conversion therapy community or to help survivors feel better about what they have been through?
I hope members of the movement take a look at the film and hear these stories of pain and trauma. People weren’t always in pain and when they were they would excuse him, “Oh, that’s just one person,” but if you see it, it’s really hard to deny that you cause harm. This is why we have included the story of Julie, who is a survivor of the movement.
For some survivors it will be too much to see and that’s okay, but for some it will feel healed. We work with Netflix to provide online mental health support for people. It really can be a lot if you’ve been through this.
Q. The former leaders, who are now working to stop the movement, are filled with regret.
Their experiences were built on internalized homophobia and transphobia. When they really had to face, by choice or by circumstance, the harm they did to themselves or that they were lying to each other, it doesn’t surprise me that they decided to leave. I think they all wish they had left much sooner and they have to live with that.
There was a lot of talk about mental health and therapy planning around these talks. I would ask them to go back and shed light on the most difficult and traumatic parts of their lives and the pain they caused and I would ask them to deal with that. But they knew there might be more good to record.
I am truly grateful that they shared their stories and I hope this inspires other leaders currently in the movement to be open to the fact that they may change their mind. We live in a world where changing your mind is seen as a weak leader or not, but open-mindedness is one of the best qualities a leader can have.
Q. You mentioned the leaders that we see in your film, past and present, having “good intentions”. But when you know how harmful this practice is, it’s hard to watch someone carry it on now and think good intentions count for anything.
Good intentions do not absolve people. I think it’s important to help understand how motivated people are to continue this work even if it hurts people. Jeffrey is someone who truly believes in the work he does. I don’t think he’s a bad person, but his work leads to very bad things.
I wanted to show the responsibility of these people, which is why I weave Julie’s story as a participant, which resulted in incredible mental health issues. People who take this therapy are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide and we are not afraid of that. It is not a four bad apples system or the movement would have all disappeared.
Q. What can be done to stop conversion therapy?
If you see in a newspaper headline that your state has banned conversion therapy, that’s a bit of a mistake – they have banned it for licensed practitioners and especially minors, which is about a third of that. that happens. The majority of conversion therapy takes place within religious institutions and communities. In countries like the United States with religious freedom protections, no law can touch where conversion therapy occurs most. We need a culture change and this is how it will change.
A big question I was asking myself was, “Why does this continue if we overwhelmingly know that people cannot choose their sexuality or their gender identity?” The sexual and gender fluidity is real, but it’s the idea that being LGBTQ is a disease and a sin that is the problem. As long as this larger culture of homophobia and transphobia exists in religious communities but also more broadly, they are essentially training new leaders. It doesn’t matter if a handful of people defect, as there will be other people who are very motivated to believe that change is possible, ready to believe with a good feeling inside of them that change is possible. imminent.
Q. Your team includes survivors of conversion therapy and people who grew up queer in religious communities. Why is this important?
From an ethical standpoint, it’s our job as filmmakers to create a team that has a real connection to the community you cover. That doesn’t mean you slap five names five seconds before trying to sign a deal with Netflix – which it does – but I’ve worked with this team for years and it made a better movie.
Q. You also have a woman editor, a woman director of photography, a woman composer. Why was this important and how did the film shape?
I didn’t hire them because they were women – two cinematographers on the project were men – but because they are really good at their jobs and I love collaborating with them.
But most women in the movies haven’t taken the experience as seriously as their male counterparts, although your idea is a little better. Women are meant to be perfect the first time around, and our mistakes are seen as proof that we aren’t as smart and capable. Women in cinema are therefore hard workers who do not take no for an answer. You need to have strong motivation and self-confidence and this is even more true for women of color, women with disabilities, and women who are parents. I really hope that our film becomes a platform for other people to see the quality of each other’s work.