Collect for Candlemas

Almighty and ever-living God, we humbly beseech thy majesty: that, as thine Only-Begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh; so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Why Not Ex-Gay?, Part II: Trojan Security

A few weeks ago, after work, I was sitting in my car about to leave the parking lot, when I noticed a truck a few spots away. It belonged to a company called something like "Trojan Security."

That's really the name you went with, guys?

Well, never mind. I've discussed what problems I at any rate had, and have, with ex-gay theory. But of course it's easy enough to reject something because of apparent theoretical problems, and then discover later, to one's embarrassment perhaps, that such problems had been foreseen and adjusted for. Even, sometimes, that there was more in the original theory than there had seemed at first or second glance. And I've admitted already that my involvement in the ex-gay world was minimal. Did this better-than-first-impressions thing prove to be the case with ex-gay theory?

The Short Answer


The Somewhat Longer Answer

It must be admitted that -- for some people and to some extent -- sexuality is fluid. This works both ways,* of course: people who spent decades with a predominantly gay disposition may find themselves attracted to someone of the opposite sex, but equally, a straight person may find themselves unexpectedly interested sexually in someone of the same sex. Attraction is complex, involving such a multitude of biological, psychological, and personal factors, that I suspect there are barely rules of thumb to it, and certainly not the essentialist categories or unwavering boundaries suggested by both some schools of queer advocacy and many versions of the ex-gay movement. (I'm happy to say, though, that recognition of sexual fluidity is now more "in" than it used to be.) David Morrison in Beyond Gay recounts a definite -- and unsought -- shift, if not into heterosexuality, at any rate into some degree of bisexuality, after his conversion to Catholicism, while conversely, I've spoken to a man who was married to a woman and had never been interested in other men until, in his late thirties, he fell in love with a male acquaintance. And there are also cases of what the Gay Christian Network terms "mixed orientation marriages," in which -- for any one of a variety of reasons, from dishonesty to wanting children to being in love with a quite unexpected person -- a queer person chooses to enter a heterosexual marriage; and sometimes those don't work, and sometimes they do (Melinda Selmys and Josh Weed, whose blogs are on the right, are good examples of people who are entirely honest about being lesbian or gay, but who happened to fall in love with a member of the opposite sex nevertheless). For this and other reasons, I'm hesitant to categorically deny that anybody has ever experienced any change in orientation while involved in an ex-gay group.

However. To say that sexuality is fluid is not the same thing as saying that it is alterable by effort on our part. This distinction may seem like a pedantic one, but it's not -- no more than the distinction between growing taller and trying to make yourself taller by pulling on the top of your head is a pedantic one. Even supposing that a person is telling the truth about their own change of orientation, it wouldn't follow automatically that the ex-gay ministry was the cause, because correlation does not equal causation.

Thank you to Randall Munroe, author of xkcd.

I would in any case have a hunch that something as profoundly intimate as sexuality is not very amenable to being changed from without by effort; many things about us have to change from within if they are going to change at all, and they may not be going to change in the first place. But it is in some ways easy to excuse someone who has confused natural sexual fluidity with the results of a deliberate effort to change one's sexual orientation.

The Hollow Horse

What is harder to excuse -- though it can be forgiven, which involves acknowledging the reality of the evil being forgiven -- is the complex and, seemingly, mendacious approach to orientation change that most if not all ex-gay groups have peddled, and, in the case of NARTH or the Restored Hope Network, continue to peddle.

The beginning of it, for me anyway, lies in the language. Nearly all ex-gay groups encourage their members to immediately desist from calling themselves gay, explaining that that isn't their identity. Well, we knew that already, actually, but yes, there can definitely be some over-emphasis on it (especially when someone first comes out -- not unlike the overzealous, naive, slightly embarrassing convert to Christianity that many of us have known), so okay. But many ex-gay groups also give the impression of regarding the "change" in question as being accomplished simply by this thinking differently about oneself, and that any continuing same-sex desires can be dismissed as "residual." Gayness is defined, not simply as feeling attraction to the same sex, but as acting on it. Which means that making an effort to stop, and mentally recategorizing oneself, are enough to qualify as an ex-gay.

Well, fine; think of yourself however you please. Truly. The thing is, what people are hearing is that their homoerotic feelings will go away and be replaced with opposite-sex attractions. Do ex-gay ministries not know that? It beggars belief. To insist that the term gay includes same-sex sexual activity is a qualifier that only Christians, and not all of them, insert into the meaning of the term; most people simply don't mean that. To use that more restricted definition of a common term, instead of, say, talking about learning to lead a chaste lifestyle -- language that is equally available -- is either horribly stupid or grossly disingenuous. (On the credit side, it did give us the agonizing first five and a half minutes of this.)**

A ten-year-old could probably have spotted the difficulty about getting a bunch of gay men together and telling them to be manly at each other instead of thinking about sex.*** Anybody at all can spot what did in fact happen next. Not every ministry and not every minister was fraudulent, of course; some people received help that they badly needed, as to a limited extent I did; and even of those figures in ex-gay ministries who fell down on the job, I tend to think that most of the time it was a response to a starved need for truthfulness, intimacy and support, rather than deliberate and malignant deceit and self-indulgence. Often, at least, and at first. But as Alan Chambers admitted in his mea culpa, good intentions don't mean much when people have been hurt. And people have been hurt.

Families have been hurt by the imposition of the reparative drive theory onto people whose personal histories simply didn't read that way. Men determined to be freed of their homoerotic desires have convinced themselves, whether it was true or not, that their fathers had been cold and distant and their mothers intrusive and smothering; and parents equally have been not only allowed but encouraged to blame themselves for their child's orientation. People have been hurt by being pressured into marriages that came to pieces when one or both parties discovered that getting married does not in itself produce the kind of bond that ought, rather, to lead to marriage, and that being attracted to people other than your spouse does not go away just because you have a sexual outlet -- especially if that sexual outlet is literally different in kind from what your appetites are tugging you towards. Adolescents just discovering homoerotic desires have been frightened and damaged, not only by being promised a change in orientation that the promisers had no power to deliver on, but by being, at times, subjected to cruel and barbaric attempts at "curing" them. At other times, the treatments were less tragic only by being more grotesquely comical; as when some ex-gay orgs would use "Balls Back," a (supposedly) therapeutic technique (recounted on Warren Throckmorton's blog), because there's nothing gay about breaking through a chain of men to grab symbolic testicles and suck the juice out of them, no sir.

Painful hilarity aside, the sometimes ghastly consequences of the movement are not even my fundamental reason for objecting to ex-gay therapies -- that fundamental reason, I intend to discuss in my next. But the consequences are, to put it mildly, grave, persistent, and conspicuous, and are a major source of scandal. Chambers, who is perhaps in a better position to know than anyone, said frankly that of all the LGBT people he knew or read of involved in Exodus, less than one percent experienced a substantial change in attraction. Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee had discovered the same thing three years after Exodus was founded, and left the program, and their wives, for one another. I'm sorry, but it doesn't take a Cassandra to see that that horse is full of Trojans.****

(Okay, so actually the horse was full of Greeks. But frankly, that only reinforces the point.)

*Feel free to insert your own bisexuality joke here.
**This is one of several reasons I have for insistently using the term gay to describe myself, rather than adopting the more PC-for-Catholics moniker same-sex attracted. There are other considerations at work, and of course gay is not a 100% satisfying word either. I don't think there is one, and I tend to doubt that there can be (though, for the celibate among us, Joshua Gonnerman's phrase "virgin queen" comes close). But gay is the closest thing to standard currency that our culture has, at present, and self-control -- even perfect self-control -- is not the same thing as an altered sexual orientation.
***Feel free to insert your own "Don't think about pink elephants" joke here.
****You wipe that smirk off your face right now, young man.


  1. I have to disagree with the assertion that people like Weed are genuinely entering into a marriage because they are in natural LOVE with the other person. They are entering into it to not be gay, to have kids, to fulfill a heterophilia like idolization of heterosexual relationships, or literally to make sure they can't *be* gay by tying themselves down with responsibility.

    Do natural spontaneous relationships happen, where a straight person has a gay relationship, a gay person a straight one, etc.? Yes, absolutely. But the difference is that they are NATURAL relationships, they happen naturally.

    I can't let that distinction go. People in mixed-orientation "marriages" are not the same thing as a natural heterosexual, or homosexual couple- the motivations are inherently different. It's an intentional family unit where you force yourself to engage each other intimately and romantically, not naturally, but by force.

    Huge difference. Massive difference.

  2. I don't deny that some people force themselves into heterosexual marriages for terrible reasons, sometimes even failing to tell the other party their true orientation. In saying that mixed orientation marriages occur, and that they sometimes work, I don't at all mean that such marriages are always good or that they are 'the' solution (there isn't one) to the challenge of life as a gay Christian. But I certainly see no reason to assume the worst of Josh Weed; judging from his own testimony and that of his wife, they are not only in love, but have an unusually healthy and happy relationship. The fact that he was frank with her about his orientation before they even began dating, and that he does not claim to be ex-gay now, are both extremely strong indicators (to my mind) that their relationship is a solid one.

  3. I've been thinking to myself recently about a line of thought I pursued earlier regarding the ex-gay narrative.

    Specifically, I was a bit disturbed by how people are quick to condemn the ex-gay "narrative of salvation" for lack of "results" or "success"; indeed, I even saw a petition on to illegalize reparative therapy (even for consenting adults!) As if a particular narrative framework, a way of explaining and making meaning out of internal phenomena...could be made illegal! That's a very scary trend, though I suppose they're "asking for it" a bit by portraying reparative therapy as "medicine" rather than a spiritual method. But "talk therapy"-type psychology (not psychiatry) is always in that grey area, it's subjective.

    I worried that the same critique might be lobbed at Christianity as a whole; it promises to make one holy, a Saint, a "New Man," virtuous (and thus, at least in some abstract sense, happy)...and yet many people find that they don't really change at all. You yourself discussed this re: concessionism, etc.

    Yet the ex-gay narrative is really, in the end, a particular system of salvation (albeit it tries to work within a broader Christian narrative); it defines something about desire or the inner-life of the passions as problematic or sinful, and then creates a specific symbolic narrative (in this case, a vaguely Freudian one) in which people are supposed to find salvation from the problematized desire. In reality...well, it isn't so straightforward. But neither is the Christian salvation from sin, is it? Both would probably say, "Well, really it's more like an asymptote you approach or an ideal you strive towards but never fully reach."

    So I've been thinking about "What's the difference?" because in spite of the possibility of being able to make this sort of comparison (which, at the very least, gives me a desire to protect the free-speech and toleration of the ex-gay narrative as a "religion" even if it's one I think is false)...I also do feel in my gut like there IS a crucial difference between the ex-gay "narrative of salvation," the spiritual answers it offers, and those of more established traditional religions. Something about ex-gay feels like snake-oil, which is different than just saying it isn't true. I wouldn't accuse Tibetan Buddhism of being snake-oil even if I do not believe it.

    Perhaps it's like the difference between an established healthy religion and a "cult," and perhaps sociological examination of the difference could shed some light or bring some clarity to a distinction there. Certainly, people go through all sorts of abnegations and abstinences and restructurings of identity and desire and self-narrative and narratives about desire and about the world and happiness in BOTH cases, that of cults and "regular" religions (at least the more devout adherents).

  4. But I was thinking tonight, another difference might be how ex-gay's narrative has been, as it were, unable to "overpower" mainstream narratives. That is to say, I operate under the assumption that "desire" is largely a social construct. "Attraction," "sexual orientation"...I'm no essentialist. I believe these things are largely social constructs, not some sort of "objective" reality that you can test empirically, exactly because so much of them does rely on a narrative of identification. Yes, there may be "raw facts" physiologically, but the leap from those to something like "I'm gay" requires interpreting the pattern and giving it a certain significance both socially and personally. Certainly, I don't think it is crazy to imagine that there have been societies where the idea of being a homosexual or of wanting that...has simply been a literally unthinkable thought for sane people. It simply wasn't then available as a model or lens for fitting their experiences into.

    However, it seems like there is a sort of "Occam's Razor" effect that goes on when it comes to models, epistemologically. A sort of "local minima" or "lowest vacuum energy" effect whereby the model that explains the MOST details with the least "effort" or need to explain-away...becomes "the truth" in a given context.

    We can look at Creationism and Darwinism. To be fair to creationists, there is nothing empirical science can ever say to "prove" that "Last-Thursday-ism" isn't true, that all the "evidence" of evolution and a long-timespan for the universe doesn't have some other cause or explanation. However, there does seem to be a "simplest" explanation, an explanation that explains the evidence most "elegantly" and without raising extraneous questions, without multiplying the "whys" and in some sense this is how people seem to define truth; the explanation which offers the path of least resistance or something something like that.

    Relating to the question of sexual orientation, I think is why people find the "SSA" or "ex-gay" narratives problematic and hard to swallow. The construct of "gay" may be a construct, but it's a construct which DOES exist socially, and which furthermore seems to be the current "best fit" or "path of least resistance" model for making sense of experience for most people. Is it a perfect fit?? Not at all; again I'm not an essentialist, and I don't thing any model for something so subjective and psychological and sociological is going to be able to explain ALL the pieces as if there is every going to be a perfect correspondence with some Ideal Form. All of us have feelings and experiences which are "outliers" and which we just sort of have to ignore (without denying) in order to adopt a coherent identity model. I'm "gay" not because it is some essence which perfectly conforms to my experience, but because it is the "line of best fit" to my series of plotted points. But then again, in other societies, before complex functions were invented, there may have been only other sorts of lines of best fit available. And in the future we may find lines of even better fit.

  5. I guess my point regarding ex-gay is that while I do believe that orientation and attraction and desire are all basically social constructs, the internalization of narratives and categories that only make sense socially...the fact is that there is something like "authenticity," there is a sense in which an attempt to actively "resist" a known "path of less resistance" (like Creationism does against Darwinism) is a different creature than believing in Creationism when it WAS the best fit a society had to offer at the time. There is a sense that people who choose to deny gay in a world where that is the "lower vacuum energy" require an active exertion of psychological effort that is "fortress mentality" in the manner of a cult.

    The same is true not just for identity narratives, but even for the attraction or desire itself. I have no doubt that desire in humans, not being mere animal instinct but rather a future-projecting narrative about what one wants and what the significance of various experiences is for ones notion of happiness...can be very malleable according to social circumstances. There is no particular reason why even something involuntary like an erection or the pull to look repeatedly at an attractive member of the same sex has to be projected forward to the act of getting-off with them, except because of the mediation of all sorts of social narratives and symbols and images which make that script the "best fit," the most "credible" script, for putting those experiences into a matrix of meaning.

    However, you look at something like prison homosexuality. Clearly, in a very controlled and "closed" social environment, desire and identity and all that can take on a very different significance. "Social engineering" on that scale really can create and change desire itself. One wonders if the same dynamic is not at play in monasteries and "cults," the sort of closed social environment and shared narratives and images changing the very mode of subjectivity. I wouldn't find it that hard to imagine that in a little commune totally sheltered from exposure to the outside world (and hostile to it), gay men really could not only enter a "forced" mixed-orientation marriage, but "truly" (in the context of that symbolic world) become attracted to women, etc. In reality, it would be "forced" in some sense, inasmuch as the social "ecology of desire" would be an artificially isolated and bubbled-off system that was perhaps not "self-sustaining" but rather parasitic on the larger society. But still, since such differences are relative, to the people INside the "bubble," it would not be felt.

  6. I think, then, one of the problems with ex-gay narratives are that (at least once they leave their reprogramming camps), the men are put out back in the world where they have to construct their identity in a "reactionary" way against the gays. Whatever social support networks Christian fundamentalists may have, they aren't the Amish or a monastery or some closed cult, and so they are still exposed to the "currents of desire" structuring larger society (and those aren't always explicit; homosexuality was already emerging even in repressed 1950's America and the Victorian times, of course...such things can be implicit in the economic relations/"base" even before they manifest in the "superstructure")

    As such, I guess part of the problem is that ex-gay simply hasn't shown itself a powerful enough narrative to "symbolically overcome" mainstream society, or even to have a "fighting chance," epistemologically. In a small closed community, it might really be able to restructure desire through it's narrative. But in our society, it seems like Creationism versus Darwinism, like a narrative that requires willful ignorance and delusion to believe, and which thus rings "inauthentic" to people because of how much cognitive dissonance is clearly there. There comes a point where one can insist "I don't want that! I don't like that!" and one realizes that this narrative is really being dragged away by a very strong current in the other direction, socially, and that eventually the effort to sustain such a construct in the face of dominant social too exhausting or futile. Too many contrary experiences pull towards a "better fit" path-of-least-resistance unless very high barriers (barriers probably too high for people living in the world to put up) buffer the flimsier narrative or symbolic system from the waves.

  7. Is there anything in the catechism that you disagree with or do not quite understand the point of? I think all of us can think of something, right? An example for me would be the teaching on the death penalty. I used to have trouble with it. Well, what is your rule of thumb when that occurs? We are supposed to be silent about our disagreements with Catholic teaching, study up on it, and pray to ask the Holy Spirit to help us to see what the Church is saying to us. I did that, with the death penalty issue and I get it now. The truth and grace transform us. If we do not believe that, we are not really Catholic but in a social club. I recommend you try this method with CCC 2333. Denying that God can change you is a very serious denial indeed.

    1. There is nothing in the Catechism that I propose to contradict. (There are mysteries it addresses that I don't understand, certainly, or only understand imperfectly, but I'm willing to take the Church's word for it.) But the theories set forth by the ex-gay movement, even when it is Catholics who agree with the ex-gay movement setting these theories forth, aren't Catholic teaching. They are admittedly compatible with Catholicism; I mean, no one is heretical for believing ex-gay theories. But there is nothing in the Church's doctrine that compels us to accept these theories, and I don't think they are true; at the very least, I don't think they apply consistently enough to be of much use.

      I'm slightly puzzled by your reference to paragraph 2333 here. Certainly I accept the complementarity of the sexes. But that paragraph doesn't state that sexual orientation can be changed by therapeutic methods -- in fact, it doesn't say anything about sexual attraction just as such at all (which is what the language of sexual orientation primarily deals with, whereas the Church's language about complementarity is concerned with the essential nature of mankind, irrespective of accidental properties like attractions). Nor do any of the other paragraphs on sexuality in the Catechism insist, or even suggest, that sexual orientation can be altered through therapy. Indeed, when it comes to homosexuality specifically, the Church goes out of her way to point out that "its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained." It is the ex-gay theory of change by therapy, specifically, that I am here concerned to reject, and not the theory of complementarity (ex-gay theory is not needed to believe in complementarity); and that rejection of the likelihood of therapeutic change is wholly compatible with strict Catholic orthodoxy.

      Nor do I wish to deny that God could change my sexual disposition (or anybody else's), by miracle for example, if He felt so inclined. But it does seem clear that God does not often exercise His miraculous power -- miracles are by nature exceptional; even that special class of miraculous events we call the sacraments are not normal exactly, even though they occur every day -- and it would certainly be presumptuous to suppose that we could count on a miracle to change someone from homosexual to heterosexual, no matter our grounds for thinking so. I would make it analogous to certain disabilities: it isn't that curing these things is beyond God's power, but that He does not in fact cure them as a matter of course, and such cures cannot be demanded of Him -- so that learning to live with these things is, as a rule, a much more profitable course of action than trying to figure out some way of escaping them. This doesn't mean a person may not pray for a miracle; only that they cannot insist that one will inevitably be granted.