Whether as the plaintiff in a recently filed lawsuit or a central figure in a new documentary, therapist Christopher Doyle portrays himself as both healer and healed.
“The same-sex desires, just like it was in my case, just went away. And today, I’m married, I have two kids and I’m so happy,” Doyle says in a 2012 Dr. Oz appearance that opens the documentary, “The Sunday Sessions.” The movie will be screened at the Creative Alliance at on Sunday.
“I’ve changed,” he says. “I’ve been straight for eight years, so I know personally it works.”
Doyle is an ardent defender of what is most commonly called conversion therapy, which claims to change or control sexual orientation and has been denounced by major medical groups as ineffective and damaging. He sued Maryland officials last month to overturn a ban on its use on minors, as a total of 15 states have done, offering himself up as literally Exhibit A.
“I was able to resolve my unwanted same-sex attractions and today, I am living my dream!” he writes with an exuberance not commonly found in federal court filings.
But “The Sunday Sessions” shows that clients’ results may vary.
He and a client gave Baltimore-based filmmaker Richard Yeagley broad access to months of sessions, and the often-wrenching footage from them forms the heart of the 1 1/2-hour documentary, which was released for streaming on iTunes, Amazon and Kanopy on Feb. 5 and previously screened in other cities. It depicts the client, Nathan Gniewek, struggling, often tearfully and angrily, to deal with his attraction to men.
The power of the film comes from its fly-on-the-wall approach — there are no voiceovers or interviews, and Yeagley kept his belief that gay people shouldn’t have to feel a need to “convert” on his side of the camera.
“I come from an anthropological mode of documentary filmmaking and less from one of advocacy,” he said. “I’m not heavy on editorializing. I didn’t want it to be didactic.”
For Yeagley, 34, who is straight but considers himself “LGBT-affirming,” the appeal was the story. He has made one previous documentary, in 2011, "The Tradesmen: Making an Art of Work," about blue-collar workers in Baltimore. More recently, he made a five-part podcast for WYPR about a developer from Virginia with a $10 billion redevelopment plan for Baltimore.
Yeagley got the idea for his most recent film from a 2014 article in The Baltimore Sun about a General Assembly bill to ban conversion therapy for minors — it was withdrawn during that year’s session but was passed last year — and included an interview with Doyle discussing his work. Yeagley contacted him to see if he’d consider allowing him inside therapy sessions with a client. He recalls Doyle saying clients would never agree to that, but after he asked them, Gniewek agreed. As it turned out, the then 26-year-old Gniewek had also been quoted in The Sun article, saying he’d eventually like to marry a woman and have a family, and that the therapy had given him “some glimmer of hope that wasn't there before."
That hope seems to have been dashed over the course of the sessions filmed by Yeagley.
In the film, the sessions — in Doyle’s home — seem duskily lit, matching Gniewek’s tortured mood. He sometimes seems resistant to the therapy, and wonders how long it will take and if he’s wasting his time, or at least his youth. Mostly he seems defeated by his own struggle.
“I’m exhausted,” he says at one point. “I want so much at times to just switch off all emotions.”
By contrast, other scenes are lighter — Gniewek in the embrace of his seemingly supportive family in rural Virginia, attending a church he is devoted to and, at least on screen, doesn’t seem to pound an anti-gay message from the pulpit. While his job is not identified, he is shown rehearsing for theatrical productions, posing in photo shoots and spending time with a gay friend, Cameron, with whom he seems to have a flirty, relaxed relationship.
In other words, it doesn’t seem like there’s external pressure on Gniewek to fight rather than accept his feelings. And yet that does not seem to be an option for him.
“It’s Nathan vs. Nathan,” Yeagley said.
Gniewek struggles to reconcile his Catholic faith with his attraction to men. In therapy, he speaks of how vulnerable his friendship with Cameron makes him feel, and ultimately puts “boundaries” on the relationship and starts seeing less of him.
Yeagley said he found himself wishing Gniewek “would have renounced the whole process and gone back to Cameron,” imagining a final scene of the two at a gay pride parade. “But you can’t script the story,” he said.
The film ends ambiguously, with multiple ways to view what is revealed along the way. Doyle said in an interview that he considers the therapy, which concluded several years ago, “a success for Nathan.” Gniewek declined to be interviewed for this article. But Yeagley points to a particularly heart-breaking session in which Gniewek says he’s concluded there could never be enough therapy in the world that would get him to the point where he would marry a woman. And yet, because of his faith he doesn’t feel he can be in a same-sex relationship, he seems left with what Yeagley thinks is the “worst outcome.”
Doyle disagrees. He said Gniewek achieved his goals for therapy, and remained true to his faith. “Nathan didn’t really want to marry a woman,” he said. “His whole process was to find peace.”
Although he’s emerged as a defender of conversion therapy, Doyle rejects the term and says what he does is help clients with the underlying issues that contributed to their unwanted same-sex attractions. He said he also works with clients who are fine with their orientation, and simply want to work on other aspects of their lives.
Yeagley hopes his film illuminates a therapy that occasionally makes headlines but is little known to the general public. Last month, for example, a prominent conversion therapist, the Utah-based David Matheson came out as gay and is now divorced from his wife of 34 years. While declining to fully renounce the therapy, he “unequivocally” apologized to those who felt harmed by his work.
A UCLA study last year estimated close to 700,000 LGBT adults have gone through conversion therapy at some point in their lives, about half when they were adolescents. A Gallup poll last year estimated that more than 11 million Americans identify as LGBT.
The Creative Alliance was interested in screening the movie because few have experienced conversion therapy, said Samantha Mitchell, the group’s curator. “I certainly knew it existed,” she said, “but as far as what happened in the sessions, that was kind of mysterious.”
Like good therapy, the documentary provides moments of revelation. There is one in particular where Doyle, who in his public advocacy role speaks buoyantly about overcoming his same-sex attractions in favor of a life with his wife and, now, five kids, offers a surprisingly more nuanced view of that transition, acknowledging it involved no small amount of grief.
For Yeagley, the revelation signaled that perhaps he’d achieved his goal — the invisibility of a fly on the wall.
“I think they let down their guard,” he said, “and forgot I was there.”
‘The Sunday Sessions’
Screening followed by panel discussion with director/producer Richard Yeagley and others
Sunday, Feb. 17, 3 p.m.
Creative Alliance in the Patterson Theater, 3134 Eastern Ave., Baltimore, MD 21224
$10, or $7 for members, plus $3 at the door