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The Sunday Sessions

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Feb 19, 2019
'The Sunday Sessions'
'The Sunday Sessions'  

Richard Yeagley's documentary "The Sunday Sessions" follows Nathan Gniewek for part of his years-long journey to attempt to become heterosexual under the guidance of Christopher Doyle, a practitioner of so-called "conversion therapy."

Nathan is in his later 20s; he's had a couple of unsatisfactory relationships with men, and none with women. He's also Roman Catholic, which in itself provides him a motive for seeking a fundamental change in his sexuality.

Doyle's message - and his operating hypothesis - is that SSA ("same-sex attraction," a way of talking about being gay that makes it sound like a pathology and deprives it of its inherent connections to a person's identity) "is not SSA, it's about all the underlying issues" that Doyle's philosophy preaches is the true reason for homosexuality. What "issues," exactly? The usual: A lack of male bonding early in life that leads to a yearning for masculine closeness, which then - in the hormonal rush of adolescence - turns into gay desire. Or, rather, SSA.

This is a core tenet of Doyle's therapy, and in itself, it seems laughable. Good luck telling all those gay boys out there that they are actually straight, just in need of manly role models and a little male bonding of a different and platonic sort.

But Doyle takes this all seriously, and he sandwiches his contention that "SSA" is a matter of "underlying issues" rather than innate sexual orientation in a multi-layered nest of supportive therapy, reminding Nathan that he's in charge of his own life and happiness and even coming out to admit that the therapy he offers "isn't a cure." The real tragedy behind Doyle's therapeutic approach is that in a different context - telling gay men that their sexuality does not mean they are broken, for instance - the things he's telling Nathan are actually things that gay men (or any man, really) need to hear: Messages of worth, value, dignity. All those notions, in other words, that many gay men have bullied and beaten out of them while still in their youths. Yes, gay men need to hear these things. But not in the service of trying to tell them that, underneath a varnish of psychological garbage, they are actually straight.

The film doesn't focus overmuch on Doyle's working theory, or on the messages that Nathan absorbed from the Catholic church. We see those things emerge naturally in the flow of the film. We also see Nathan pushing away one of his few genuine friends, a fellow named Cameron, who expresses concern that Doyle is simply adapting the salesman's trick of linking feelings about his product to the positive emotions he generates as part of his sales ploy. Doyle never tells Nathan to push Cameron away, but he does encourage Nathan to "set boundaries," and you can't help wondering about the mass of assumptions that lay beneath that advice. Would Nathan fall in love with Cameron without those "boundaries?" If so, are they actually boundaries - or are they a kind of emotional fencing, designed to pen him in?

Later on, we see Nathan tearfully admitting that he wanted to stable and happy, only to find himself - in mid "process" - feeling like he's not either of those things. As his sessions with Doyle continue, Nathan eventually arrives at this realization: "If what you're telling me is that marriage doesn't guarantee happiness, well, at that point, who cares whether I'm miserable with a man or a woman?" One of the most succinct and ruefully funny punchlines to emerge from the whole same-sex marriage debate is posed here as an existential question.

To his credit, Doyle agrees: "Nathan, whether you're with a man or a woman sexually or romantically is not going to make you happy or unhappy." But what Doyle fails to address is the way the society - and the law - can very much make someone unhappy if he's gay and determined to live authentically. It takes huge strength and self-assurance to find one's way out of prefabricated models of happiness that, while they might not actually deliver as promised, at least offer the comforts of conformity and the perks and privileges that go with them.

Doyle, it should be noted, has filed suit (with the backing of anti-gay religious group Liberty Counsel) against the state of Maryland in an attempt to invalidate Maryland's state law banning "conversion therapy" on minors. That - plus the fact that he brings Bible stories into his "therapy" sessions - tends, in the skeptic's view, to undercut both his professional detachment and his claim that he simply helps people become "who they really are," as if being lesbian or gay wasn't a real and integral part of gay and lesbian people. Still odder is to hear this argument coming from a quarter of society that vocally and vigorously rejects the argument from trans people that they are simply trying to live according to who they really are. There's more to gender, after all than genitalia, just as there's more to sexuality than who you happen to be (or are restricted to) sleeping with.

Perhaps the most painful thing about this documentary is how we witness not just Nathan, but his entire family suffering because Nathan has been told by his church that he's not exactly who he should be, and who God intends him to be. At one point, speaking to his family during a group session with Doyle, Nathan says that the things that caused him to swing upstream against his own nature and toward the church were "natural law" and the Eucharist, the latter being a sacrament in which believers consume what they understand to be the literal body and blood of their savior. The church's cruel and illogical stance on both issues - "natural law" pertaining very little to nature as scientifically observed - stands revealed as a kind of cudgel, a psychological pressure point, and a kind of blackmail. You won't be permitted religious ecstasy, the church tells its gay and lesbian believers, if you seek physical ecstasy or relational fulfillment with someone you actually want.

With an exploitative new book hitting the shelves about the church's gay demimonde and the church's steadily worsening institutional hostility toward gays, this is a film that's landing at a moment of considerable stress and inflamed passions for those of the Roman Catholic faith. In a way, this film might serve as an instructive, if disturbing, lens through which to view those issues. We can agree with Doyle that Nathan is a young man deserving of love, happiness, and fulfillment; we might, however, disagree as to how he should be allowed to pursue those things: According to his own innate nature? Or according to an artificially separated spirituality, held apart from him by those telling him that he would be "disordered" were he to accept and celebrate sexuality God gave him - the gift that Nathan and the other man, at the film's beginning, tell God in prayer that he can take back?

What this film is not is hopeful. Nothing is resolved; we leave Nathan still in the midst of his pursuit of heterosexual happiness, seemingly not at all happy. In fact, in his last scene, he seems to more or less white-knuckling it. Gay men who have been where he's seen to be at will remember all too acutely the fruitless struggle of trying to fit into a heterosexual box. Those who made it through and found their way to authenticity - and found a way to thrive - will see in this film a story of a young life needlessly detoured. Will Nathan find his way? It's not for us to tell him who he ought to be, but one at least hopes he will find true and lasting happiness. We don't have any real reason, watching this film, to believe he's on any such trajectory.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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