In “Pray Away,” a documentary out on Netflix this week, the D.C. writer shares her path from deep shame to affirmation and same-gender marriage, and its road through American evangelicalism and conversion therapy. Rodgers, 35, is among several LGBTQ people featured in the film who started as prominent proselytizers for the idea that being gay is a sin that can be overcome, but then converted to a new cause — one of affirmation, acceptance and regret over their past advocacy.
Rodgers, like director Kristine Stolakis, was driven to make the film by the persistence and prevalence of conversion therapy in religious circles, despite mental health professionals’ conclusion that the practice is harmful and doesn’t work. The documentary focuses on those who left but includes a newer, younger generation of Christian conversion advocates, including LGBTQ people featured in the film as passionate believers.
We spoke this week to Rodgers, who is also out with a book this month called “Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story.” Her comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Why and how did you decide to write your memoir and be in this documentary?
I have lived at a really interesting intersection, coming of age as the Internet was becoming a thing, where queer people were able to come out, tell our own stories and find each other. LGBT rights were gaining momentum. Then I ended up speaking for Exodus [a major “ex-gay” ministry featured prominently in the film that shut down in 2013 after its leaders said conversion therapy was harmful]. Then I was the first openly gay person hired at Wheaton College [an evangelical school]. It felt important to tell people what I had seen, in hopes of moving people who are still not in a place of love and acceptance to LGBT people.
Many of those ministries still exist. Evangelical churches all over with 100 people meeting every week, 10,000 people on online forums, movement leaders still speaking in megachurches all around the world. It’s still very prominent.
Can you clarify what conversion therapy is?
Conversion therapy is any attempt to change someone’s gender or sexuality. Some 700,000 people have gone through it in the United States. And while new laws are banning it for minors, those only apply to mental health professionals. In pastoral settings, people can still do it because of religious freedom laws.
In evangelical communities, it’s still the go-to response. In those communities, when people come out, they will go to their church’s [12-step recovery group] and do a track for people struggling, right alongside people recovering from addictions.
The movement is doing a big rebrand. It’s not just ‘an older generation who doesn’t get it.’ Now leaders are young, hip and cool. My brothers go to these churches, and I haven’t been able to see my nieces and nephews since I came out.
“Pray Away” focuses on previous leaders of Exodus, who, like you, concluded they were LGBT, not changing, fine as they were, and wrong to promote conversion. As someone who was deeply invested in this idea that you could change, how hard is it to give up that narrative, even if it’s one that is hurting you?
It was so hard to know I was going to lose my community and some of my dearest relationships, but it was also so incredibly destabilizing because it was that conservative evangelical lens through which I read the Bible. That lens told me what to do with my mornings, what to do with co-worker who is difficult, what to do with my body; it answered all my questions about why I’m here, all those bigger existential questions. It was so destabilizing to put together a new world view, to answer those questions without the faith system that had held me together for my whole life. Especially in such crucial developmental years.
Now you’re a successful writer and teacher, and you were married in 2018 at Washington National Cathedral to your wife. How did you make that transition?
It was a long process of lots of reading, lots of engagement with a range of theologians, seeing the infinite ways of interpreting scripture and what it means to be a human in the world.
I started seeing the complexity of faith and came to a place of realizing it was healthy to have room for mystery and it was okay to not have all the answers. I’m probably wrong about things I believe now, and it’s okay to hold that loosely.
It’s a really big deal to be good person and extend forgiveness to people who hurt us and to try to have grace. As long as we’re doing that and seeking to cultivate love in our communities, I think God will have mercy on the ways we may be wrong about this or that theological belief.
How did this journey affect your concept of yourself as a Christian?
It’s interesting and exciting, these conversations around gender and sexuality and ways they interact with religion and spirituality. How do nonbinary people reflect a God who is neither male nor female, a God who is referred to in the Bible as a mother and also a father? There is something about transgender and nonbinary people that reflects that part of God’s nature in a way that those of us who are cisgender don’t. Queer people open up so many beautiful possibilities in faith communities and are such a gift to those communities.