Midway through the Netflix documentary Pray Away, we see Julie Rodgers being comforted by her wife, Amanda Hite. “I’m sorry,” Hite whispers in Rodgers’ ear as she holds her in her arms. Rogers is reading a draft of her memoir in which she recounts her experience harming herself during her time in an “ex-gay” ministry. Rodgers responds tearfully, “Yeah, it’s kind of intense.”
The spiritual and psychological harm of conversion therapy is indeed intense. Rodgers gives an insider’s account in her new memoir Outlove and Pray Away, which premieres on August 3. Her survival story will appeal to readers and viewers whether they are LGBTQ and Christian, one or the other, or none of the above.
It’s difficult to grapple with the depth of misery faced by those subjected to conversion therapy, which GLAAD describes as “any attempt to change a person's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.” The impulse to live a holy life in accordance with God’s intention for humanity is a good one, preached by every church throughout Christian history. But that good intention sours as soon as it is turned against the faithful to make them hate and fear their own bodies. Abuse is never divinely sanctioned.
While the film features other survivors of conversion therapy, Rodgers, now 35, provides the narrative heart of the documentary. We learn how her mom forced her into conversion therapy when she was in high school, and how she went on to embrace the “ex-gay” ministry — even becoming a leader in it — before breaking away from the practice and embracing an LGBTQ-affirming theology. Several of the other stories in Pray Away follow a similar narrative arc. The film highlights former leaders of Exodus International, an ex-gay ministry that shut down in 2013. The filmmakers do include one current “ex-gay” ministry leader who is shown organizing a march of Christians who are no longer LGBTQ; I found it an unnecessary addition to the narrative of the film about those who’ve broken with the evil of conversion therapy.
Rodgers’ evolution isn’t linear, and her memoir treats her personal story with more nuance than the documentary. Most readers are likely aware that conversion therapy has been discredited by every major psychological association, but in Outlove, Rodgers wrestles not only with the evil of gay conversion therapy, but also with her own complicity. “Many of us find ourselves at various points, a victim, a villain, and a champion,” she writes.
The most interesting section of the memoir is the middle of Rodgers’ story, when she's rejected conversion therapy, but hasn't yet arrived at full LGBTQ affirmation. Pray Away doesn’t include this chapter of her evolution, perhaps because it’s a much more complicated story to tell. Rodgers theology moves away from a belief that LGBTQ people can be changed into straight, cisgender people and toward a theology of forced celibacy. This position asserts that even though LGBTQ Christians cannot change their sexual orientation or gender identity, they are nonetheless called to honor anti-LGBTQ church teachings and practice celibacy for life — whether they feel called to a life of celibacy or not.
The villains of this section of her story are more insidious than the “ex-gay” ministry leaders. Gabe Lyons, the hipster evangelical conference organizer, and Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College, where Rodgers worked at the time, are the principal antagonists. Lyons and Ryken, two straight and cisgender men, support and promote Rodgers as long as she sticks to the company line of forced celibacy. “[I became] convinced their acceptance of people like me was a political strategy,” she writes. “Not only did gay people with conservative theology guard them against accusation of discrimination, but we also served as convenient mouthpieces.”
During a phone interview with me, Rodgers elaborated on the negative impacts of both conversion therapy and forced celibacy.
“Ex-gay ministries create an even deeper sense of shame,” she said. “In circles where people are forced to be celibate … even if you can feel more affirmed in your body and desires, which does bring some relief, you still run into the fact that we are relational beings and we need intimacy. We need deep intimacy and relationships and we're made to give and receive love.”
Her message is clear: “They both feel equally untenable.”
As Rodgers’ theology evolves, so does her own sense of style. In the memoir, she describes how her clothes and hair change to fit the stages of her own personal acceptance.
“I’ve arrived to the place where I feel totally free to express externally who I am and where I feel internally, which I think is a really important part of how we present ourselves in the world,” she told me during our interview. “I have every reason to think that it will change and evolve over time, because I'll change and evolve over time … But I think what's important is feeling free. And within myself and my body to be able to express myself.”
Rodgers has been surprised by her memoir’s positive reception. She said the most moving response has been from others who’ve been subjected to or are currently in conversion therapy and feel seen in her story. She told me that readers have shared with her that the book gave them a “sense of possibility.” It did the same for me, even though I was never subjected to gay conversion therapy myself and have thankfully been surrounded by LGBTQ-affirming Christians throughout my life.
Rodgers’ story, and the stories of all LGBTQ Christians who come out and embrace their divine belovedness, can inspire people of all sexual orientations and gender identities to become more fully ourselves. The image of God — expressed through each of us in our own particularities — is diverse and expansive.
Through the documentary and memoir, Rodgers communicates a simple yet profound message of choosing the side of love. Those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ must make that choice every chance we get.
If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or TrevorLifeline at 1-866-488-7386.