Director Richard Yeagley’s new film, Sunday Sessions, goes inside the world of conversion therapy. Nathan, a devout Catholic, is gay. Deeply conflicted by his sexual orientation, he contacts “therapist” Christopher Doyle to help him work through the issues that presumably made him gay. The next 90 minutes provides uncomfortable conversations between Doyle and Nathan, along with a look at the awkward, and often-twisted reasoning of someone struggling to reconcile himself with his sexual orientation.
Just to be clear, conversion therapy, sometimes call ex-gay therapy, has been outlawed in nine states to date, as well as 25 other U.S. jurisdictions and cities, and the District of Columbia. The New Jersey organization, JONAH, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, was shut down in 2015 after a judge found their program guilty of consumer fraud. It was the first case of its kind where a conversion therapy organization was brought to trial. There is a reason conversion therapy is outlawed in these places.
With more than 50 years of research, there is no evidence that conversion therapy changes anyone’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. None. The largest single study to date was conducted on a little over 1600 participants. One person - point one percent - claimed to change his sexual orientation. However, there was no evidence provided as proof. As I’ve written before, the word “change” is usually redefined as an “alternative fact” when it comes to conversion therapy.
So why do people keep attempting to change their sexual orientation? Nathan provides a partial answer to that question. For those of us who grew up in conservative religious environments, our innate sexual orientation is at odds with our intrinsic religious beliefs. It’s as if our religion has as deeply a hold on our minds as our own biology.
The emotional turmoil is excruciating and we will do almost anything to make it stop. For some, it’s drawing closer to their faith and choosing to ignore the screaming inconsistencies between their beliefs and who they are. This can work for decades, though many struggle with severe depression and anxiety. Sadly, there are some who take their own lives. When conversion therapy inevitably doesn’t work, shame and guilt are compounded by failure and disappointment.
Nathan’s turmoil is as palpable as his conflicted thinking. But, as is often the case as objective voyeurs, it’s clear to see where his thinking takes turns. What’s less clear is why. He appears to have a family who loves and supports him, “no matter what.” However, the drive to quell his own same sex attractions, though religious in nature, is somewhat of a mystery. Nathan doesn’t seem overtly emotionally connected to his faith, but he is driven to “do the right thing.” His therapist, Christopher Doyle, has no small part in Nathan’s quest for change.
Doyle has a reputation in the business that is conversion therapy. While it was somewhat surprising he allowed a camera to film the process, Doyle comes across as someone who is arrogant enough to think he’s just that good of a therapist that the sessions should be shared.
According to his website, Doyle’s organization, the International Healing Foundation (IHF), “has helped thousands of individuals and families struggling with sexual orientation.” Doyle was, he says, “the first ever recipient of the Dr. Joseph Nicolosi Award for early career excellence,” and was “recognized as one of the emerging therapists in the sexual orientation field by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) in 2011.”
NARTH, and it’s conversion therapists, is discredited by the American Psychological Association for teaching positions that are contrary to the many decades and research on sexual orientation. For example, these therapists believe that parents are the main cause of someone’s homosexuality. They believe gay men, who disconnected with their father’s masculinity, can become heterosexual by choosing behaviors, which are decidedly more “manly.” Likewise, lesbians, who disconnected with their femininity because of their mothers, can become straight by choosing to identify with more traditional female roles. They believe another main cause of homosexuality is sexual molestation. Research does not support any of these positions and, thus, they were discarded decades ago.
Psychotherapist, Catherine Chapman, noted Doyle’s overwhelmingly unprofessional and manipulative demeanor from the beginning of the film. “He’s leading the client,” she said. But it gets worse. Doyle uses shame and guilt, telling Nathan to “grow a pair of balls.”
Chapman, also a survivor of conversion therapy, said, “If the client says, ‘No, I don't want to do this,’ then you don't do it. Unless of course you want to recreate every situation in which the client was bullied or abused.” This appears to be the crux of Doyle’s conversion therapy. Chapman added, “All of the exercises meant to assist Nathan are further attempts to control his thinking…and neither of them even realize it. That's the truly frightening part.” How and why Doyle remains licensed is unclear. Perhaps this public window into his practices will change that.
Sunday Sessions premieres in cities across the U.S. on National Coming Out Day, Wednesday, October 11. The release poignantly highlights how far we have to go as a society to create a place where people don’t have to choose between authenticity and faith.