Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O Almighty God, who alone makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will: grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Why Not Ex-Gay?, Part I: Swiss Cheese Theory

I am writing, for the first time, from what will (probably) be my new home in Baltimore. There are no curtains and no AC, and the carpet is a study in hideousness. There is a certain ascetic pleasure to it, I have to admit. (Does it still count as asceticism if you enjoy it, I wonder?)

I've been toying with the idea of a post on ex-gay stuff for a while, and the recent closure of Exodus International, along with a handful of personal conversations, have decided me on doing so. (The post might have been earlier, and better, if I hadn't gotten caught up in reading delightful articles about social awkwardness while I should have been typing.)

It's been the default response of American churches (those that embrace a traditional sexual ethic, anyway) more or less since Stonewall. Attempts at curing homosexuality are older than Exodus or any other ex-gay ministry; psychiatric experiments on gays were a common feature of the awkward beginnings of modern psychology. The shift away from the "cure" mindset among Christians will be slow, challenging, and uneven, and not everybody will make it at the same pace or for the same reasons. Nor will everybody go an equal distance: there are, after all, churches that currently bless same-sex unions, and then there's Westboro Baptist, and everything in between. There's no reason to suppose that diversity will cease. But I tend to agree with this excellent post from Brent Bailey that (to oversimplify) the center of gravity will shift, and that that's a good thing.

I actually didn't get that deeply involved in ex-gay culture, though I am in many ways a textbook example of the things it purports to cure. Many friends and acquaintances of mine have been deeply involved, and profoundly scarred by their experiences with it; others I know have come out unchanged, negatively or positively; and still others have taken something valuable away from it. I therefore have to temper what would otherwise be a pretty categorically negative series with some reservations. But I still definitely don't endorse ex-gay thought or practice, and it bears saying why.

My Experience As an Ex-Gay

I said I didn't get deeply involved, and I didn't: I was in ex-gay counseling for about two years, and ultimately believed I had changed from homosexual to heterosexual. But, though I dabbled on the fringes -- attending lectures and reading a book on the subject, here and there -- I never joined any of the groups.

This was partly out of nerves; if I went to one, I might meet a nice guy, and we might like each other, and we might fall in love and destroy each other's lives. But there was more to it than that (and the prospect of falling in love was something I was ambivalent about anyway, not merely scared of).

The thesis upon which ex-gay theory is based is one of family dynamics. The notion is that homosexuality is caused, in men, by overidentification with the mother, and a corresponding lack of identification with the father, usually attributed to an overbearing mother and an emotionally distant father (what I call "farther and smother"). This unmet need for male affirmation and affection then got sexualized at puberty, possibly with strengthening factors in same-sex peer rejection, sexual abuse, experimentation, and the like, and ultimately a generally homosexual disposition would form.

This certainly described my own experience. And so I did my best to reconnect with my father, under my therapist's guidance (a project that began going much better, as it happens, after I accepted myself as a gay man, several years after dumping reorientation attempts). And I concentrated on working up what flickers of attraction to women I had, and building solid, non-sexual friendships with male peers. (Not that they felt like peers; I usually feel about five years younger than I actually am, and being around people who are chronologically the same age as I am is intimidating.) And it didn't do me much harm. I even had an episode where, after a particular prayer, I was attracted to women and not men for about two months or so. Well, that technically means it worked, right?

... And As an Ex-Ex-Gay

And after that short period of heteroerotic attractions -- which I'm now inclined to attribute to hysteria, not miracle -- my desires changed back.

What troubled me more, though, and had been troubling me from the beginning, was the theory. "Farther and smother" always seemed to be an explanation that did not explain. First of all, why were these unmet needs "sexualized at puberty"? Everyone has injuries and unmet needs going back to childhood, and it doesn't turn the majority of us into sexual minorities or anything else, save perhaps that collection of neuroses that is called being a grown-up. And even supposing that such familial psychodynamics could produce homoerotic desires, why would they additionally crowd out the normal desire of a man for a woman? Or, conversely, if homosexuality was caused by a distant father, did that mean straight men needed to have distant mothers to develop into heterosexuals? Presumably a child who was well-loved by both parents would go on to become asexual.

And the ex-gay attempts at explaining lesbianism were an embarrassment. The distant-father narrative was also used for that, somewhat confusingly; especially in conjunction with the possibility of a father abusing a daughter, or abusing her mother, thus producing a distrust of masculinity and/or a contempt of femininity. The former would lead to avoiding men, the latter to failing to identify as a woman. Or overidentification with the father was also possible, leading to a masculinization of the girl's psyche, which could also make her a lesbian. In other words, a connection to her father that was too weak or too strong could result in lesbianism; apparently virtually anything could cause lesbianism. And there remained the bald assertion that these problems somehow got tangled up in sex during puberty -- an assertion backed by no evidence, no clear reason; just a claim, "This is what happens." Trying to accept that unbacked claim was, for me, like trying to live in a house made of Swiss cheese.

Further, plenty of heterosexual men I knew had exactly the family dynamic described by ex-gay theorists, and going gay had plainly never crossed their minds. Conversely, I knew, or read about, men and women like myself, whose families had completely different patterns. (Justin Lee is an excellent example of a gay man whose familial and social patterns should, on ex-gay theory, have made him as straight as anybody.) And I couldn't help noticing that a lot of their examples of what would constitute a distant father, an overbearing mother, peer rejection, and so forth were so mundane that what they really suggested (if anything) was that they affected a given boy because he was already different, inside, and therefore received these things differently.*

My school trained me well in logic, and such things as demanding proof of first premises, considering alternate hypotheses, never suppressing evidence, and avoiding false links between correlation and causation, were ingrained in me. And ex-gay theory quite simply didn't ring true.

I don't regret the counseling I went through: I've suffered from depression since I was a small child; I had terrible relationships with both my parents, which their unexpected and unwelcome discovery of my being gay hadn't helped; I related terribly to my peers; I needed counseling. But it didn't do what it claimed for itself, and the professionals behind it acted unprofessionally in failing to think their theories through adequately, or to examine their results with scientific rigor.

Besides, with me, they lucked out: I was too stubborn to swallow their theory whole (I'd sooner be told what to do than what to think), and therefore escaped the worst of the guilt, shame, and confusion stemming from failed attempts at reorientation. Other people have been scarred for life by their involvement; some entered marriages which ultimately traumatized themselves, their spouses, their children; and there have been some who, having tried and failed to become heterosexuals, have gone on to try and succeed at becoming dead. Not. Bloody. Worth. It.

In short: the theory didn't make sense, and the results didn't last, so I didn't stay.

*This isn't to say that plenty of queer people haven't experienced horrible rejection at the hands of their families or of peers, before coming out of the closet as well as after. But some haven't, and the desperation to find some traumatic "root cause" of homosexuality has led in some cases to vague, insignificant, or irrelevant things being attributed as the cause. Lee himself gives the example, in his book, of an ex-gay theorist insisting that his alopecia -- which never deeply bothered him to begin with -- was the original psychic wound that led him to be attracted to men.

1 comment:

  1. The theory sounds like more fallout from Freud, the wretch. (I have OCD with repugnant obsessions. Freud has not helped.)