The Sunday Sessions and the Heartbreak of Gay Conversion Therapy

Sheldon W. Helms

The Sunday Sessions. Produced and directed by Richard Yeagley. Dickie Bruce Productions, 2018.

At the 2017 CSICon conference in Las Vegas, a well known skeptic psychologist asked me what my presentation would be about that weekend. I explained that I was scheduled to talk about the horrors of gay conversion therapy (GCT), and that I advocate for an outright ban of the practice. His response surprised me: “So, you think we should ban a therapy because you don’t like it? Shouldn’t adults be given the right to seek any therapy they want?” A bit thrown by his summary of the issue, I replied, “I think we should prevent people from furthering the notion that homosexuality is a disease, offering them false hope, and putting them at risk of depression and suicide.” He left the conversation noticeably unimpressed by my argument.

More than a year later, the general public has become much more aware of the problem of GCT. The recent film Boy Erased, based on a book of the same name, brought one family’s story to light, and numerous articles, podcast episodes, TV shows, and documentaries have further increased public awareness.

In March 2018, another documentary about GCT, The Sunday Sessions, was released. This film follows Nathan, a twenty-six-year-old gay man in a small Virginia town, as he avails himself of a variety of religious-oriented counseling services that promise to make him straight.

The film opens with a clip of Chris Doyle, the man who will act as Nathan’s therapist, in a 2012 appearance on The Dr. Oz Show. Although this may impress the uninitiated, many readers will likely raise a skeptical eyebrow to this apparent endorsement by someone known for promoting unscientific ideas. Later, we are privy to scenes from Nathan’s everyday life and personal interests, most of which revolve around family, religious activity, and involvement with a local theater group, as well as regular “therapy” sessions with Doyle.

Those in the anti-GCT community will immediately recognize the major players in The Sunday Sessions. Early in the documentary we see Nathan in a group therapy run by a face very familiar to me. Although never named, this man is Richard Cohen, a disgraced former psychotherapist who features prominently in my talks. Cohen describes himself as an “ex-gay,” as do many pseudo-therapists who offer GCT. He also has the distinction of a lifetime ban from the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Counseling Association (ACA) for a series of ethical violations. Cohen now runs the International Healing Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit he founded to provide pseudo-counseling for gays and lesbians in return for a tax-deductible donation. This allows Cohen and his underlings to offer their services without any pesky oversight by the APA or the ACA, both of which have joined over a dozen other professional groups in issuing policy statements denouncing GCT as both ineffective and potentially harmful.

The one-on-one counseling sessions to which Nathan is subjected by Doyle are somewhat predictable yet at times disturbing. Not only does Doyle influence Nathan to cut off communication with the only person who seems willing to support him regardless of his sexual orientation—a gay man named Cameron—but he also repeats Bible verses as inspiration, as well as to support his contention that homosexuality is a disease, a belief not supported by social science. Further, Doyle continually cites discredited Freudian ideas about the “overbearing mother” and the “distant, non-loving father” as reasons for Nathan’s attraction to men. Their discussions are riddled with unprofessional (sometimes foul) language, disturbing threats of violence and intimidation, and odd role-playing exercises such as throwing waded up papers at household objects meant to represent family members, as well as a number of other activities that reveal decided bias and unscientific ideas about psychology, psychotherapy, and human sexuality.

Little of what is in these sessions will be in the least familiar to those who provide actual counseling, but this is to be expected. A bit of online sleuthing reveals that Doyle—far from being a renegade therapist who simply seeks to assist those struggling with their sexuality—is actually an employee of Cohen’s International Healing Foundation. Doyle’s profile on their website even proudly boasts that he is “the first ever recipient of the Dr. Joseph Nicolosi Award for early career excellence.” Nicolosi was the founder of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) (now cleverly rebranded as the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity), a group that presents itself as a secular ex-gay organization offering GCT but which actually has close ties to many religiously based GCT providers, such as Cohen’s. The groups are often quite small and pretend to operate independently, but they tend to have much more interaction, overlap, and collaboration than meets the eye.

Owing mostly to a decided lack of editorial voice, The Sunday Sessions is not the sort of film that seeks to educate viewers on the background of its topic, which may account for its relatively low ratings online. Many Americans have grown accustomed to heavy-handed documentaries that offer shocking revelations or guide them toward a conclusion, none of which is to be found in The Sunday Sessions. Moreover, since we are provided with very few details about the protagonist, Nathan, beyond that he is highly religious, active in theater, and a gay man who wants to be straight, the film cannot rightly be called a biography. These facts have even led some to accuse the film of providing a platform for GCT adherents. On the movie’s promotional website, however, director Richard Yeagley makes his position clear: “The filming and production of this documentary proved time and time again to be an emotionally taxing process. … No individual in modern times should ever feel the need to hide or change their sexual identity.”

Perhaps the most meaningful (and heartbreaking) part of the film is when a frustrated Nathan, choking back tears, tells Doyle, “It seems that other people’s happiness comes at a much lower cost than mine.” What’s clear from the research is that this happiness will not be found in GCT. There is no evidence that GCT practices provide a change in one’s sexual orientation, and for a large majority, no lasting change in behavior is seen. GCT will bring people such as Nathan only disappointment and failure. And happiness will only be achieved once people such as Nathan reject the superstition and bigotry that currently inform their beliefs regarding sexual orientation.