You’ve probably heard of conversion therapy, also called reparative therapy, which is meant to turn gay people straight. Or at least to allow them to turn off their same sex attraction, or ignore it, or whatever—basically to allow them to live as heterosexuals. There’s no evidence that it works, the American Psychiatric Association and other professional organizations have spoken out against it, and it’s banned in nine states. The practice of conversion therapy is at the heart of the central conflict in Joel Edgerton’s feature Boy Erased, a film I was less than impressed with despite the righteousness of its cause.
To get a more realistic view of what conversion therapy, or at least one version of it, looks like, can be gained by watching Richard Yeagley’s documentary The Sunday Sessions. Basically, this film follows a young man identified only as Nathan through about two years of conversion therapy with Chris Doyle, a well-known practitioner of and advocate for this type of treatment. Although Yeagley does not insert himself into the film, he’s clearly no fan of conversion therapy, as he introduces Doyle through a clip of him being interviewed by Dr. Oz, that well-known promoter of questionable remedies such as homeopathy and the use of coffee bean extract for weight loss, not to mention psychic communication with the dead.
Yeagley enjoyed extraordinary access to Nathan’s life and to his therapy sessions, possibly because Doyle actually believes in his product and thought the film could get him some free publicity. We also see Nathan with his family, in church, and in rehearsals (he aspires to be an actor, although from what is shown here, he’s got a long way to go); sometimes some of the faces are greyed out, presumably at the request of individuals did not want their images to appear in this film. It’s not distracting, however, and the extra scenes give you a good sense of who Nathan is.
There’s a quandary at the heart of The Sunday Sessions. Nathan seems to be a fine young man, who is well-groomed, sincerely religious, works hard, and treats those around him with respect. He has a good relationship with his family, and at least one of his parents has assured him that their love is not contingent on his sexual preference. Why, then, does he get so emotional when discussing his sexual identity, and why does he find it necessary to put himself through a questionable therapy that aims to change what seems to be a core aspect of his identity? I’m tempted to blame his religious upbringing, but answer that question is not really the point of this documentary.
While watching The Sunday Sessions I frequently wanted to jump into the screen and give Nathan a good shaking, followed by prodigious assurance that he’s fine just the way he is and that he should be focusing his efforts on building a life where he can express his whole self. That’s not my place, of course, but it’s hard to watch someone going through this process and not react. Not that there’s any electroshock or anything like that going on, not even much yelling and screening, just a lot of talking with some assumptions behind it that really should not pass without challenge. | Sarah Boslaugh