In the new Netflix documentary, Pray Away, former ex-lesbian Yvette Cantu Schneider revisits earlier versions of herself. In one video clip she’s wearing a pink suit with padded shoulders, addressing a fundraiser in a swank Laguna Hills living room. She tells the women gathered that homosexuals are getting “special rights.” “We’re not talking about equal rights here,” she says. “We’re talking special rights.” After she spoke, she tells us, she was recruited to the staff of the Family Research Council. In another piece of archival footage, she’s addressing a stadium of Christian believers, mobilizing them to vote for Prop 8, California’s 2008 anti-gay marriage amendment. In a third she’s asked to speak directly to “those who are trapped in the lifestyle”—gay people who want to be straight. She tells them that it’s hard, but God can heal them. Later, the film recreates that clip, its producers asking her to speak directly to those still working in the “ex-gay” movement. “I absolutely thought that what we were doing was right,” she tells them. “But all it does is crush souls.”
The film, directed by Kristine Stolakis, revisits the history of Exodus International, a now-defunct organization made up of so-called ex-gay ministries. In the 1990s and 2000s, Exodus was the nation’s largest voice advocating for changing sexual orientation (from gay to straight—they weren’t interested in change in any other direction). Ex-gay ministries first emerged in evangelical churches in the 1970s. Because of the successes of gay rights activism, gay and lesbian people were more visible, homosexuality was no longer considered a mental illness, and conservative Christians were mobilizing against what they saw as a threat to the family. LGBTQ evangelicals were caught in the middle.
The ministries that made up the Exodus network were places where LGBTQ people could find each other and a measure of refuge in a deeply homophobic world, albeit in indirect, problematic ways. Instead of being out and proud, people in ex-gay ministries could talk about their “struggle” with “same-sex attractions” and their faith that God—and a lot of time in ministry-supported counseling sessions—could change them. Think of it as a gay evangelical version of two truths and a lie: I’m Christian, I’m attracted to people of my same sex, and God can make me straight. Two truths, while far from the whole truth, was more truth than many a queer, young evangelical could speak anywhere else. At their best these ministries made a flawed but real space where there was no space.
At their worst, the continual affirmation of and effort toward change was vicious gaslighting, miring people in self-hatred and shame, keeping them from building loving queer relationships, and creating or exacerbating mental health issues that survivors still struggle to recover from. In the film, former Exodus leader and speaker Julie Rodgers reads a section of her memoir aloud to her fiancé. It tells of the self-injury she practiced while part of an Exodus ministry, repeatedly burning the skin on her shoulder to relieve the pressure of trying not to be gay. Later we see their wedding, Rodgers’ scars made visible by her sleeveless white gown.
Exodus brought hundreds of these local ministries together to form a national movement founded and led mostly by gay people who claimed to have changed. It was largely, although not exclusively, a white evangelical phenomena. (African American ex-gay D.L. Foster tried to establish a similar network for black ex-gays, then called Witness for the World). Exodus leaders held themselves up as exemplars, guiding others along the path of denial they themselves had taken. In its early years the larger evangelical world paid Exodus little attention—even ex-gay was too gay for them. But in the 1990s, Christian Right organizations such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council realized the usefulness of a group of gay people claiming to be straight. Ex-gays became props in forwarding the Christian Right’s anti-gay political agenda, publicly testifying that homosexuality was a choice—therefore LGBTQ rights were neither civil rights nor necessary. They also created an opportunity for evangelicals to perform compassion and proclaim love for (sort of) gay people—therefore evangelical opposition to gay rights (and deeply problematic reactions to AIDS) didn’t make them monsters. Ex-gay leaders became the human face of anti-gay Christian politics, appearing in ads, on television, and in major news publications testifying to the possibility of change. They contributed to many anti-gay political successes, including the passage of Prop 8.
The film recounts the story of Exodus’s rise and its undoing in 2013 in the face of harsh criticism by “ex-ex-gays,” or survivors of ex-gay ministries. It does so by tracing the stories of six movement leaders, one of whom is still active and five of whom have renounced their big lie—that they had changed their sexual orientation—and reveal more than two truths about the ex-gay movement, their roles in it, and the damage it has done.
The film comes at a time when many are revisiting evangelical culture and politics from this period. The election of Donald Trump with the overwhelming support of white evangelicals—including leaders like James Dobson—and all that’s ensued since has spurred questions from all sides about evangelicals’ true values. Political commentators and some evangelical insiders have been grappling with the conundrum of self-professed values voters supporting a blatant liar, sexual predator, and cheat. Former insiders, or “exvangelicals,” are taking moral inventory of the worlds they once inhabited and trying to figure out how to make amends for the positions they once held. (Post-purity culture is an example.) And academics are asking questions about how scholarship has represented evangelicalism, and how to re-write its history in a way that does not evade the foundational racism and sexism that Trump and his political movement have made impossible to un-see. It is a moment to review older selves and re-narrate them in the face of changed worlds.
Viewing this film is such a moment for me as well. I researched Exodus for three years in the mid-2000s for a book that compared the ex-gay movement and Christian weight loss programs. While I was critical of its lies, I was sympathetic to many of its participants and saw in ex-gay spaces some of the informal support spaces that sustained me in feminist and other queer worlds. And I wanted to demonstrate my own fairness to a world that was foreign to my personal upbringing and the target of misunderstanding and scorn by many a left-leaning scholar like myself. I last wrote about Exodus in 2012 when they formally shifted their position on the possibility of changing sexual orientation. I haven’t followed Exodus, its collapse, or what’s become of its leaders since.
THE FILM OPENS WITH Jeffrey McCall driving in the rain. A self-identified former trans person, he’s going to a strip mall where we will see him tell the few who will listen about how he has changed. A poster in the back seat with his “before” and “after” pictures will serve as a visual aid; in letters of gold glitter it proclaims: “Trans 2 Christ.” The one person featured in the film still active in the ex-gay movement, he tells us that, “The biggest thing Jesus is to me is truth.”
Also featured in the documentary is John Paulk, likely the best known of the former Exodus leaders. He was the Exodus board chair and founder of Love Won Out, a program on homosexuality sponsored by Focus on the Family. Their conferences for “strugglers” and their families featured both personal testimonies by Exodus leaders and political briefings by Christian Right policy analysts. With his former wife, Anne Paulk, John was also a public face of a major media push by Focus and its allies promoting the possibility of change in the mainstream media. They were featured in full-page newspaper ads, graced the cover of Newsweek, and made innumerable rounds on TV talk shows. He’s also known for having his picture taken outside a gay bar while still a staff member at Focus and an avowed ex-gay. “I had never been honest a day in my life,” he tells us now. “It was lie after lie after lie after lie.”
Exodus ministries blended the therapeutic and the religious in their search for a “cure.” The film rightly criticizes the therapeutic strand, known as Reparative Therapy, for its false etiological model of homosexuality, the lack credentials amongst its practitioners, and the rank opportunism in the collaboration between a movement in search of some measure of legitimacy and renegade therapists in search of clients. Reparative Therapy, as the film notes, has been denounced by every association of medical and mental health professionals.
I was critical of Reparative Therapy too. Especially of the pseudo-therapeutic gymnastics of people like Joseph Nicolosi, author of two books on Reparative Therapy and founder of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). But I also thought it potentially held the seeds of Exodus’s undoing. For all its gaslighting, the pretense of therapy offered some space for the examination of truth. Over time it seemed to me that, as critics of the ex-gay movement would have it, truth could win out.
In retrospect the therapeutic strand also had some potential political value for people like me who wanted to see anti-gay politics fail. For all of the Bush administration’s mocking of “the reality-based community,” the Christian Right and the ex-gay movement of the early 2000s still had a foot in it. They believed they needed a measure of truth—or something that could be stretched to plausibly conform to it—in order to claim the legitimacy necessary for power. They could not yet imagine, or hadn’t yet fully realized, a political world where they could have power without reality, truth, or legitimacy. As long as power had some investment in truth, truth might effectively be spoken to power.
MICHAEL BUSSEE HAS LONG been one of my models of how to make amends. One of the original founders of Exodus in 1976, he left the group in 1979. He had fallen in love with fellow Exodus member Gary Cooper and realized that change was neither possible, nor desirable. He’s spent the decades since making up for those three short years, apologizing for what he did, organizing survivors, and holding an open yet insistent dialogue with Exodus leaders. In the film, we see footage of a structured conversation he organized between Exodus leaders and survivors in 2012, where survivors conveyed how damaging the movement had been. It was an encounter that led directly to Exodus’s closure.
Not all former leaders had travelled as far down the path of amends when Pray Away was filmed. We see Randy Thomas, former Exodus vice-president, in pictures from the aughts with an array of prominent right-wing politicians. He tells us how the passage of Prop 8, which he fought hard for, was a turning point for him, prompting the realization that gay people were in fact his people and that he had betrayed them terribly. And he recounts in the film a conversation he had after he left Exodus and came out as gay. A gay person told Thomas he had blood on his hands, and asked what he thought about that. “Right now,” he told the questioner, “all I know is I’m afraid to look down at my hands.”
The film focuses on leaders, giving them the opportunity to publicly renounce Exodus, take responsibly for their wrongdoings, and try to make amends. This is as it should be. Rank and file members of ex-gay ministries are strugglers, indeed, and some media efforts at depicting their lives seek only hypocrisy while neglecting complexity. Leaders are of a different order, and they have more amends to make. The film lets them do so with respect and without pulling punches.
But it also felt unsettling to me. The film points out the connections some of these leaders had with the larger infrastructure of America’s political and religious right, but it does not pursue them. Nor does it probe the institutional connections between Exodus and the larger Christian Right as deftly as it might. As a result, I felt like I was watching only gay people being held, and holding themselves, accountable for the anti-gay politics that put all LGBTQ lives in peril. I was moved by the film’s footage of the encounter Bussee organized, by seeing Alan Chambers, Julie Rodgers, and other leaders sitting, absorbing, and, months later, doing the right thing by shutting Exodus’s doors. But I wanted James Dobson to be there, Joseph Nicolosi to be there, every leader of the Christian Right who posed with Randy Thomas and every woman at that Laguna Hills fundraiser to be there. And every straight person on every board of every Christian Right organization who profited from this movement to be there—to be called to account by this movie, to be making amends, to be asking for forgiveness, and afraid to look at their own hands.
Scholar Anthea Butler writes that “racism in evangelicalism is not only about individual sin. It’s about the corporate sins of a religious movement that continues to believe itself good, and that good is predicated on whiteness and the proximity to power.” And sin, she writes, needs to move past confession to accountability. A similar case can be made in relation to evangelical homophobia. It may have been outside the film’s purview to fully explore the larger question of evangelical accountability for its anti-gay politics and their poisonous effects on gay life. And the leaders profiled in the film could not do it themselves without seeming to deflect the responsibility they’re trying so earnestly to take. But in hearing them make their confessions, I felt that the work of evangelical amends in relationship to LGBTQ people should neither start nor end with Exodus and its leaders, even if they’re the only ones willing to do so. I hope that, in the wake of the film, the work of more fully unravelling what Exodus was and holding those with more power to account may be able to begin.
THE FILM UNDERSCORES THAT, in Yvette Cantu Schneider’s words, the ex-gay movement “isn’t dying like we thought it would or think it should.” Truth, she implies, should be enough to kill it. But the more religiously oriented ministries, those untroubled by the discrepancies between claims of changing sexual orientation and the realities of its persistence, have regathered in a new group called the Restored Hope Network. John Paulk’s former wife, Anne, was a founder and is its current executive director. And new leaders have entered the scene, creating new forms of ex-gay work. Jeffrey McCall’s glittered posterboard testimony may be a long way from the Paulks’ slick media campaigns, but his home church looks like almost every ex-gay worship service I’ve been to—which is to say like almost every LGBTQ worship service I’ve been to. Minus the affirmation.
Pray Away does important work and it does so with dignity and respect. But important as it is to hear the history of Exodus told (more) truthfully, and to see these leaders acknowledge their harms, and try to make amends by speaking against it, I can’t help but think the deeper harms of the past and the more existential dangers to LGBTQ people in the future lie elsewhere. And in a changed political world organized around lies big and small, I wonder what holding power to account could look like. And if it will be possible.
Liberals and progressives may see Exodus as a relic of sorts, a throwback to a time when the ignorant might have thought it plausible that sexual orientation could and should change. But in a world where truth and plausibility no longer matter, it is alarming to think of how power untethered might be used to quash gay thriving. We can see outlines of it in efforts as threatening to freedom as religious exemptions to gay civil rights protections and as cruel as depriving trans people of bathrooms. In that context, Exodus could be seen as having been a bulwark of sorts against evangelical homophobia unleashed from the demands of legitimacy. “Truth,” writes historian of fascism Timothy Snyder, “defends itself particularly poorly when there is not very much of it around.” Pray Away offers the hope that former Exodus leaders telling more truth in the face of the big ex-gay lie may keep nightmares from becoming realities. But to really face the legacy of evangelicalism’s anti-gay politics, there are other truths that still need to be told.
Lynne Gerber is an independent scholar in San Francisco, California. She’s the author of Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America. Her current research is on religious responses to the emergence of AIDS in 1980s and 90s San Francisco.