[Answered by Director Richard Yeagley]
What is conversion therapy?
Wikipedia defines conversion therapy (also known as reparative therapy or sexual orientation change therapy) as the psychological treatment or spiritual counseling designed to change a person's sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual. Although controversial, and often considered a form of pseudoscience, it is legal in all U.S. states for consenting adults. As of January 2018, it is banned for minors in only nine states and the District of Columbia.
Prior to 1981, techniques used in the United States and Europe included aversion therapy; lobotomies; chemical castration with hormonal treatment; electric shock to the hands and/or genitals; nausea-inducing drugs administered simultaneously with the presentation of homo-erotic stimuli; and masturbatory reconditioning. In the 21st century, techniques have been limited primarily to behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, counseling, visualization, social skills training, and spiritual interventions.
The main premise with which therapists who practice conversion therapy preach is that homosexual urges are rooted in learned behavior. People are not born gay, but actually become gay for a variety of social or experiential reasons. Somewhere along the line, individuals with homosexual proclivities learn this behavior and because it is learned, it can be unlearned i.e., “converted” or “repaired.”
What is the current situation in America?
In July of 2017, Rhode Island became the ninth state to ban conversion therapy from being practiced on minors. Many other state and local legislatures, as well as the federal government, are also considering legislation to ban this controversial practice for individuals under the age of 18.
Although there are strong headwinds to limit the use of conversion therapy on minors, it is legal in all U.S. states for consenting adults. However, in the past few years, several LGBTQ legal advocacy groups have been filing consumer fraud claims against groups that practice this therapy. The legal basis is that by offering services that claim to turn gay people straight, therapists are committing "consumer fraud and engaged in unconscionable commercial practices."
What role does religion play in the story?
The highest-profile advocates of conversion therapy tend to be fundamentalist Christians and other organizations which use a religious justification for the therapy. All of the individuals I conversed with, who were clients of Chris, the featured therapist in story, were deeply pious. In my opinion, most believed being homosexual—or in their words, “having homosexual urges” or “same-sex attractions” (SSA)—is shameful and therefore sinful. Nathan was no different. He often used the natural law argument for why homosexual acts were wrong.
What was the process for gaining access to this story and its characters?
In the summer of 2014 I read an article in the Baltimore Sun which highlighted a piece of legislation that the D.C. City Council was hearing to ban conversion therapy for minors. The article referenced Christopher (Chris) Doyle, formerly of the International Healing Foundation, as an opponent against the ban. While reading the article, my initial reaction was one of surprise: “Holy shit. Conversion therapy still exists?”
As a result of my curiosity, I reached out to Chris directly to ask if he would allow a film crew to document the journey of one of his clients. He expressed that it was unlikely, as many of his clients felt “shame” with their struggle and would probably not want to reveal their personal issues to the public.
A few weeks later, all of that changed. Much to my surprise, Chris called to inform me that one of his clients, Nathan Gniewek, was interested in being featured in the documentary. After explaining my vision and approach to the story, both Chris and Nathan were disposed to the idea of granting me access to the therapy sessions. I assumed that both were inclined to move forward for the following three reasons:
They approved of the style of shooting that I intended to use, which was strictly observational and a more objective approach. This type of shooting, with little or no editorializing, differed from the typical angle many other media segments have used that casts a negative light on conversion therapy.
I wanted to spend time getting to know the people in the story. I wasn’t interested in showing up for just one therapy session or conducting a few interviews; I was interested in devoting a year or two to cover the totality of Nathan’s journey through this process. In their minds, and in actuality, I was able to paint a fuller and more nuanced picture with more time spent on the story.
I believe that Chris was satisfied to hear that I was heterosexual. My interpretation and logic for his approval was that if I were gay, there would be a greater chance that I would be a critic or an activist. Thus, he would not be able to trust me or my accord to film objectively.
Does this film give voice to people promoting or practicing conversion therapy?
In order for the film to have the greatest effect as a narrative, I needed an unencumbered reality of the struggles, conflicts, and psychological trauma that the protagonist faced. The only way to achieve that was to embed myself into the lives of people with whom I may have a difference of philosophy or worldviews.
I am aware that this film may be difficult for some people to watch. Some may even believe that it gives a voice to those who practice or promote conversion therapy—that is not the intention of the film whatsoever. Quite the contrary, the film depicts how a life of repression can lead to emotional, psychological, and potentially physical stress. It acts as a cautionary tale of why lying or concealing realities about one’s sexual nature will lead to a life of unnecessary struggle and disappointment. In my humble opinion, addressing the issue through dramatic narrative is a way to compel, or hopefully inspire, people to make change for the better.
Conversion therapy reinforces the "homosexuality is a sin" philosophy. Its core motivation is based on the idea that LGBTQ people are improper and need to be "repaired" or "converted." This is fundamentally wrong and promotes a climate of bigotry, discrimination, and shame within the LGBTQ community.
This documentary isn't just about conversion therapy per-say; it's about the population of people within the LGBTQ community, many conservative and deeply religious, who feel shame for who they are. Our story chronicles two years of one man's journey through the conversion therapy process and sheds a light on how emotionally and psychologically stressful it is.
There have been written testimonies on how harmful conversion therapy is. Many interviews that recite stories of the past. But with THE SUNDAY SESSIONS, this is the first time a film crew was allowed ongoing access to shoot therapy sessions and weekend camps. We were only asked to turn off our camera on two occasions. Everything else was fair game to be included in this documentary.
This film is a record of what we witnessed and is a narrative document that centers on a topic that is timely and deserves public attention.