In many ways, Jeffrey McCall — a formerly transgender-identified man — is at the center of the new Netflix film, “Pray Away,” a documentary critical of conversion therapy and the so-called “ex-gay movement.”
The film begins with a camera trained on McCall driving in his small hometown in rural Georgia, where he’s shown sharing his testimony at a strip mall with those willing to stop and listen to him.
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“Pray Away” chronicles the stories of former leaders within the “ex-gay movement” who used conversion therapy in the past but have since renounced their old beliefs, opened up about the harms they endured, and have affirmed LGBTQ lifestyles.
McCall, though, serves as a bridge: the minority voice representing the rarely acknowledged community of Christians who believe homosexuality is sinful and have chosen to walk away from it.
“I felt it was very strategic and very necessary for me to be a part of it so that people could get both sides,” McCall told Faithwire about his decision to participate in the Netflix project. “I don’t think it’s fair to always share one side of things. I think people need to hear all the options and make their own choice.”
“If God gave us free will, then we as humans can allow people free will to choose and hear all the sides,” he added, noting he hopes his story helps “certain people that are questioning and want another option than just saying they have to identify as LGBTQ.”
As the film’s opening scene unfolds, viewers learn a bit more about McCall, who tells shoppers he once lived as a transgender woman named “Scarlett” during a time when he “was really deep in sin” before he “left everything to follow the Lord.”
Juxtaposed against McCall’s story are those of Michael Bussee, co-founder of the since-shuttered Exodus International, a parachurch organization launched in 1976 that taught sexual orientation could be changed; Yvette Cantu, a former spokesperson for the Family Research Council; John Paulk, who helmed the now-defunct Love Won Out ministry at Focus on the Family; as well as Julie Rodgers, who went through reparative therapy at Living Hope, a ministry she later joined for nearly a decade.
The movie ends with Rodgers marrying a woman in a church.
While many of their stories are explained more thoroughly, most of the details of McCall’s transformation are left out of the film, which was directed by Kristine Stolakis, whose late uncle endured conversion therapy.
Viewers are exposed to the negative and harmful experiences of those who have since gone on to affirm LGBTQ lifestyles, but they aren’t shown the spiritual and psychological struggles McCall faced when he identified as gay and transgender.
When he was living as “Scarlett,” McCall said he struggled intensely with suicidal ideation, depression, and alcoholism.
“I began to drink alcohol like I had never drank before,” he recalled. “[I] had to drink even to get ready to be ‘Scarlett.’ And it was then that I started having an affair with a married man in the town — he was an attorney there — so my whole life I just felt was oppressed in every way you could feel.”
“My life was miserable, really,” McCall continued. “And here I was doing what everyone was telling me to do, ‘Become ‘Scarlett,’ just start transitioning and I’ll be happy,’ and I was beginning that process, but it wasn’t bringing me any happiness.”
Leaning back in his chair during a recent Zoom meeting, McCall said he will “never forget” what happened to him one night during that time in his life.
He said he was home alone — a rare event then — when he laid down on his bed and “cried out to God,” whom he said he wasn’t even convinced existed.
“I just remember saying, ‘God, I think I’ve met people and they have peace and joy and love,’ and literally, I’m balling crying, my thoughts are racing, and I’m literally speaking these words out of my mouth, not just some upset prayer inside my mind,” McCall said. “And I said, ‘God, I know I’ve met people — I think they have love and joy and peace. I don’t know what happened to them, but they have these things. Something’s happened in their life, and it changes their life.’”
“The last thing I said was, ‘Will I ever live for you?’” he continued. “Those were the last words that came out of my mouth and, all of the sudden, a peace and a calm came to my mind. I’ll never forget all my thoughts went silent — and until you’ve had it happen to you, you can’t really describe it to people — and His voice just ran across my mind, He said, ‘Yes, you will live for me.’”
McCall was 29 years old at the time. Although he had grown up in the church, he said, that moment on his bed was the first time he truly encountered God.
“I was kind of in shock,” he recalled, noting the sin surrounding his life at the time. “Did this God I’ve heard people talk about, that supposedly spun the stars and the moon and the sun and the earth into orbit — why would He even take time to talk to me or answer that prayer? But I didn’t know the Bible. … The Bible says He’s drawn to the brokenhearted.”
One of the major problems with the old “ex-gay movement” was its suggestion that once one chooses to walk away from LGBTQ lifestyles, he or she will never again struggle.
For the vast majority of people, McCall said, that’s just not realistic, no matter what the struggle might be. Referencing the New Testament passage of Luke 9:23, he said believers have to “pick up your cross” and “deny yourself” in order to be obedient to God.
“When you start obeying God, it brings a peace that nothing in the world can bring,” he explained. “They’re all vying for peace. … The world is screaming out for peace and, when you start obeying God, that peace will flood in and it makes all things new. You’re a whole new creature.”
“So if you struggle or are still tempted in that way, that doesn’t mean anything,” McCall reassured. “The Bible says Jesus was tempted in every way but He knew no sin. So Jesus was tempted in every way we are, but He chose not to sin. We’ve all sinned and we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God, but we just keep going. If you fall and mess up, you get up and keep going. If you don’t quit, you win.”
In all things, he added, we “have to rely on God’s grace.”
At another point in the film, viewers see McCall sitting at his dining room table as he’s counseling a mother over the phone. Her son, she tells McCall, is now identifying as a transgender woman.
He told the emotional mother she has “to stand in faith” and trust God.
For McCall, that advice is born out of his own life and testimony, which he shares publicly and frequently through his Freedom March ministry, which he launched in 2018 and features people like McCall who have chosen to walk away from LGBTQ lifestyles as a result of the spiritual transformations they’ve experienced.
Freedom Marches have taken place in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, St. Paul, Orlando, North Carolina, and Atlanta. The ministry will be hosting its next march in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Oct. 23.
“We’re going to these cities and releasing the sound of freedom,” McCall said.
You can watch our full interview with McCall in the video above. The “Pray Away” documentary is now streaming on Netflix.
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