Ex-gay ideas -- explicit and implicit -- have outlived the collapse of Exodus International. Given that, as a Catholic, I believe gay sex is wrong, why haven't I taken the ex-gay road?
Well, the answer is in part that I did. It turned out, as far as I could see, to be a cul-de-sac. So, I turned around and looked for another road.
The series that follows will, basically, consist in my explaining why and how I came to these conclusions. Welcome to kintsukuroi.
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"I'm straight," I told my counselor.* I was grinning and laughing.
He laughed too. "What, you think I'm not good at what I do?"
I had been in ex-gay counseling for two years. My counselor had established a rapport with me through months of effort, he had gotten me to open up about the rape I had suffered, he had forced me to talk to my dad about it before I was even sort of ready, he had conducted a deliverance session to rid me of any evil spirits that might be obstructing my progress, he had yelled at me for keeping secrets after he found out about the later rapes. Now, as I believed, all the work had finally borne fruit. I could have all the things I'd wanted; I could be normal, and happy, and get married one day, and raise a family.
My counselor used to say that he liked me enough to hope he never saw me again. I wonder whether he's ever seen any of the gay men he counseled again.
At the time, I thought it was, in the most literal sense of the words, an answer to prayer. The idea of living with being gay was something I simply wasn't willing to contemplate (not intellectually, anyway, and I didn't quite admit to myself that I could be okay with it in any other way). I'd been trying to find a way out of homosexuality since I was thirteen. I realized back then that I was gay only because I did an internet search for, well, exactly what you'd think a thirteen-year-old gay boy would do an internet search for. I had never, until that moment, articulated to myself what it was I wanted to see, and do; I was shocked by my own compulsive passion. I lay awake for I don't know how long afterward, reciting hymns to myself, praying, crying. I didn't want this.
And it wasn't because I'd been told I would go to hell or anything like that. The Calvinist tradition, in which I was raised and of which I was still a part at the time, has many flaws; but threatening people with hell over any one kind of sin or problem is not as a rule among them. They tended, definitely in theory and pretty often in fact, to be treated as strictly equal. I wanted to be straight because who wouldn't want to be straight? I thrived on being different, but not that different, and certainly not the kind of different that threatened my ability to have a family, which I wanted (and want) so badly; still less, the kind of different that threatened my religious ego. That I happened to be gay was just one of the problems a person could have: a nasty one, yes, but a solvable one. And God would solve it. I just had to obey.
My het phase lasted for a couple of months, I think. I wasn't riotous with lust for women or anything, but I'd be a little interested, sometimes, and I did stop noticing guys for a while. My friends were overjoyed for me. After their months, and my years, of anguish, of not daring to hope, the fight had concluded -- and in victory.
I didn't pay much attention when the feelings started to come back a little bit. I'd be attracted to a guy I saw at the gym, or get turned on by a shirtless dude in a movie, and I'd think, Oh, it's the memory, it's the force of habit, it's to be expected. It'll go away. And it would go away; and then come back. My occasional attractions to women also went away, and didn't so much come back. Before long, I was back to where I'd begun.
I will employ literally any excuse to use this picture
It so happened that I was no longer seeing that counselor, or any counselor, by then. I mean, it had worked, right? Why bother? (I learned later that there were other complications, but "What for?" was pretty much my outlook at the time.)
I had no idea how common my story was. I'd never been directly involved with Exodus International, or any of its affiliated groups, despite efforts to get connected through my church; I didn't know who John Paulk or Michael Bussee were; the public confiteors of people like John Smid, Warren Throckmorton, and Robert Spitzer hadn't happened yet. I knew that, with this as with anything, there were ex-gay groups that had gone decidedly off the rails (which is partly a manifestation of a larger problem with trendy and expensive "troubled teen" programs, so named because "effectively lobotomizing a teenager for aggravating you" doesn't sound as good), but I took them to be outliers. I had sort of vaguely assumed that, one way or another, the Christian tradition had always had some sort of means of turning gay people into straight people, and the reason I hadn't heard of it or come across it in my reading was just a result of chance and inexperience. The idea that ex-gay therapies could be a very new thing, without proven success and with questionable theological and scientific grounding, simply hadn't entered my mind.
But I had my own reasons for becoming disillusioned with the ex-gay movement.
Now with Vitamin Q. No wait! The opposite of that!
To begin with, the fact that I had "gone straight" -- an experience I'm now more inclined to put down to hysterical autosuggestion than to miracle -- and yet reverted, although no aspect of my life had changed either before my heterosexual phase, or during it, or for a long time thereafter, did not look to me like very good evidence for the assertions of ex-gay theorists. I knew that some other people professed a complete or at any rate substantial change of orientation, but even as naive as I was then, I could see both that they might not be being quite truthful (whether with others or themselves), and that something being possible for one person didn't automatically mean it was possible for another.
There was also the fact that, though I had sort of gone along with them for the sake of my counseling, I was never totally sold on the doctrinaire assertions of my counselor, Exodus (as it then existed), NARTH, and co., that homosexuality had no biological element and was always caused by having a distant father and an overbearing mother, leading to a deficit in male affection that was sexualized at puberty (often with male peer rejection and/or homosexual experimentation or abuse thrown in for good measure). The obvious problems that I saw with this started with the fact that there were plenty of straight dudes who had exactly the same sort of childhood I did, or one that -- on these premises -- ought to have made them even gayer than me, who just weren't. Conversely, though the kind of childhood the theory described did seem to match plenty of gay men, there were some it didn't match, too. Nor did it have anything like an adequate explanation of lesbianism: for some reason, both a distant or abusive father and an overbearing, masculinizing father were viewed as possible sources of homosexuality in women, and the possibilities went on multiplying until it seemed to amount to little more than "Having human parents may cause lesbianism." (Which, while strictly true, could be criticized as a somewhat nugatory contribution to the discussion.)
So the data didn't really seem to line up with the theory, and for that matter there seemed sometimes to be hardly any cohesive theory for the data to test. But more significantly, the explanation it claimed to offer for homosexuality didn't seem to me like it explained anything. A deficit of male attention, I could understand. But why, and how, should that be "sexualized at puberty"? Of course, we are familiar with the slutty-girl-has-daddy-issues stereotype; but surely, even to the extent that that corresponds to any reality, it represents only one way of dealing with daddy issues.
Okay, so maybe some guys deal with their own daddy issues by turning gay, even though some of them don't. Didn't that fact suggest, or at the least make room for, the possibility that there was (biologically or not) something within the men in question that caused them to react in one way versus another? Some sort of inner difference, rather than one imposed by upbringing? And for that matter, wasn't it also possible that ex-gay theorists were seeing causation where there was only correlation? noticing that lots of gay men have bad relationships with their fathers,** and failing to realize that this could as much be a consequence of the sons being gay as a cause of it?
Much later, when I had long forsaken ex-gay thought, I couldn't help but notice that my decision to leave it was confirmed and re-confirmed. For instance, if the root problem lay in feeling rejected by my father and my peers, then repairing my relationship with my father and making solid male friends ought to have helped me to at least move into some degree of bisexuality. But I noticed that, when I finally accepted that I was gay a few years ago, my relationship with my dad markedly improved -- because I was far more capable of emotional authenticity when I stopped trying to force my psyche into a mold that would, supposedly, result in my feeling this way and not that. And if anything, the support of my close friends (who are, by the way, nearly all straight) has helped me make peace with my orientation, not change it.
Returning to my original exodus from ex-gay, the hostility to any explanation that was at least partially biological was off-putting and nonsensical to me. After all, heterosexual desire was, in a fashion, genetic. Was it so impossible to suppose the same thing about other desires? And sexuality might not be a solely animal phenomenon in human beings, but it clearly had an animal dimension; and, if evolutionary biology were true, then the presence of homosexuality in animals suggested that the animal side of us rational animals might easily contain that element, too.
And then there was the Scriptural problem. I did feel, the more I analyzed the language and the history and the culture, that the traditional interpretation of the clobber passages*** was correct about the specific question of whether it was morally okay to have gay sex. But what I didn't see anywhere in the Bible was any indication that gay people should expect their orientation to change, either by effort or miracle. This was, of course, because, while the notion of preferences most certainly existed in the ancient world, the idea of sexual orientation wasn't really current, so that the idea of orientation change wasn't really current, either.
But suppose, with Scripture and tradition, that homosexuality is bad. Could God alter it by miracle? Yes, as He could alter, say, leprosy by miracle. Yet -- there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian. For all the lepers Christ cured, how many were left with leprosy? For all the blind men who could see after they met Him, how many blind men were still blind at the Ascension? The natural methods (i.e., psychoanalysis and effort) didn't seem to work, or not in any lasting way, at least not for me -- and, as I found out later, for most of us. And the only supernatural methods are prayer and sacraments, or else witchcraft: there is no middle way, and neither prayer nor sacrament (nor, come to that, witchcraft) can force God to grant any miracle, however impassioned and indeed however worthy our desire may be.
This is ridiculous. Avada Kedavra wasn't even explained until Book 4, which is here conspicuous by its absence.
In short, none of the ex-gay stuff seemed to be adding up, in theory or in practice; and if there's one thing I hate, it's feeling that I've been lied to. And I did feel that way. At thirteen, I'd discovered that I was into guys, not girls, and shortly thereafter had pursued treatment that billed itself as change. God knows I needed therapy, and to some extent profited by it; and, also, at seventeen, I identified as straight. And at eighteen, I identified as gay again, for the same reasons as before.
I certainly wanted a spouse and a family; there was no question of hostility to reproduction (which many Catholics seem to attribute to LGBT culture, a phenomenon that baffles me, since to date I have met exactly one gay man who exhibits any such trait). But the kind of spouse I wanted was a husband. Harp if you will on the metaphysical impossibility involved: I am a Catholic, and I know it well. Yet I know of no other way of articulating the desire, and I didn't, and don't, know what to do with it.
But a desire isn't the same thing as a decision. Desire is, rather, a sort of raw material, upon which we make decisions. To be continued.
*Who shall remain nameless. I don't think that receiving hate mail will do either him or the senders any good.
** But in all seriousness, the anecdotal evidence I'm familiar with does seem to support the idea that gay men and their fathers often aren't close. However, I'm not well acquainted with academic and rigorous experimental studies of the subject, and even my anecdotal evidence tends to be of a very specific subset of LGBT-identifying individuals, namely my gay friends, who (like me) have almost all come from white, middle class, evangelical, Republican backgrounds. That's a lot of extra factors to sift through, and the only control group for anecdotes is other anecdotes.
***For those not familiar, these are the passages that have traditionally been referenced for the Christian belief that homosexual sex is wrong, so nicknamed because some of us have been treated more than a little harshly on their account. They are: Genesis 19.1-29, vv.4-11 particularly; Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13; Romans 1.24-27; I Corinthians 6.9-11; and I Timothy 1.8-11. My own opinion is that Genesis 19, the passage about Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction, is muddied with other questions (like gang rape, which is wrong in heterosexual contexts too) -- to say nothing of the fact that, when Scripture refers to the sin of Sodom later on, it explains what it has in mind quite differently (cf. Ezekiel 16.44-58) -- and is therefore useless as an interpretive tool, but that the other texts are applicable in varying degrees.