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Born Perfect: Don’t ‘pray away the gay’

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Still image from the Netflix documentary “Pray Away”
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Multitude Films/Netflix
Freedom March, a current “ex-gay” group, co-opts LGBTQ imagery and holds rallies against conversion therapy bans.

Airing 5 p.m. Friday: Canada's conversion therapy ban took effect in January. Why no national ban in the US? Despite clear evidence that conversion therapy doesn’t work and severely harms LGBTQ people, the practice continues.

An estimated 700,000 U.S. adults have undergone conversion therapy, which attempts to conform one’s sexual orientation or gender expression to societal norms. The practice is linked to high rates of serious mental health issues with sometimes fatal consequences.

Yet there is hope. Many former “ex-gay” group leaders, after finally accepting their own queerness, now speak out against conversion therapy. 20 states and 130-some U.S. municipalities have banned the practice — at least on minors — and in January, Canada outlawed it nationally.

This week’s Out in the Bay guests share their personal connections with conversion therapy, the challenges survivors face, and the work they’re doing to eliminate the practice.

Kristine Stolakis directed and produced Pray Away, a Netflix documentary inspired by her uncle’s experience that takes viewers inside the history and current state of the “pray the gay away” or “ex-gay” movement, which she calls “a movement of hurt people hurting other people, of internalized homophobia and transphobia wielded outward.”

Her uncle endured a “lifetime of mental health challenges” that Stolakis now knows, through her film research, are common for people subjected to conversion therapy: depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, suicidality and other self-harm.

In a Pray Away scene included in our podcast, Julie Rodgers reads from the draft of her now-published book Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story: “The first time I burned myself, I was sitting on a curb outside of the church after a ‘Living Hope’ meeting. As my cigarette burned low … I shoved the burning end of it into my shoulder and listened as the skin on my left arm sizzled.”

Mathew Shurka co-founded the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Right’s Born Perfect campaign in 2014. It seeks to end conversion therapy by passing laws to protect LGBTQ children and adults, fights in courtrooms to ensure their safety, and raises awareness about the practice’s dangers.

Shurka’s conversion therapy, from age 16 to 21, included separation from his mother and sisters for three years “based on the false belief that being gay is caused by a man being too close to his mother or other female relatives.” He later “went to therapy to overcome conversion therapy,” and since co-founding Born Perfect, says he’s “in a great place” now.

Hear much more from Shurka and Stolakis – and film clips – on this edition of Out in the Bay. Just hit the listen arrow at the top of this page anytime, or tune to KALW, 91.7 FM SF Bay Area, 5 p.m. Friday.

Please help us keep bringing queer air to your ears. Out in the Bay is an independent, non-profit production. We receive no funds from podcast platforms nor from radio stations that air Out in the Bay weekly. Your gift will help keep LGBTQ voices and stories coming to you and others who might not be able to give, so please chip in what you can. (Donate tabs on our website will take you to a Media Alliance interface. Media Alliance is our non-profit 501(c)3 fiscal agent. Your gift will be earmarked for Out in the Bay.)

This episode was produced by Kendra Klang, with sound design and editing by Christopher Beale. (It first aired January 6, 2022. As conversion therapy sadly continues, we present it again with minor revisions.)

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Eric Jansen is a long-time broadcaster and print journalist. A former news anchor, producer and reporter at KQED FM, San Francisco; KLIV AM, San Jose; and Minnesota Public Radio, Eric's award-winning reports have been heard on many NPR programs and PRI's Marketplace. His print work has been in The Mercury News, The Business Journal, and LGBTQ magazines Genre and The Advocate, among other publications. He co-produced the June 2007 PBS documentary Why We Sing!, about LGBTQ choruses and their role in the civil rights fight.