A new booklet says sexual orientation can be changed and offers “proof.”
Yesterday, I stood in front of a display of weight loss pills. I’ve never taken weight loss pills before. But I’m older. Last five pounds. Blah blah blah. We all know how that goes.
One bottle seemed especially promising, touting body fat loss quickly with proven results through “multiple studies” in “thousands of people.” I read the box, read the bottle and even saw the disclaimer that said the product had not been tested by the FDA. “Oh, what the hell,” I said under my breath. There are lots of things the FDA approves that are terrible for you. Like Twinkies. I shrugged my shoulders and dropped the box in my cart. Twinkies sounded good.
Forever the cheapskate, I paused. It seemed like a lot of money to spend for something on which I was simply taking a chance. So before I took off toward the checkout stand, I did a quick product review search on my smartphone. The results couldn’t have been worse. I put the pills back on the shelf, determined to continue my slow, but proven regimen of positive and healthy choices. I also avoided the Twinkies.
25 years ago I wanted to lose my sexual orientation. There were no online reviews, no readily available research and no one to tell me to read the fine print. I spent decades toiling in a broken system of ideals. On the brink of suicide and failing physical health, I finally started asking the tough questions. Like finding out those miracle diet pills didn’t work after all, I wasn’t particularly pleased to hear the truth at first; but the truth did eventually set me free.
Then, this past week, someone brought to my attention a booklet from the controversial organization People Can Change. It’s called Then & Now How My Sexual Attractions Have Changed (2015). It goes on to tell 50 brief stories of “successful” sexual orientation change efforts. Like the box in which the diet pills were encased, it sounds promising, until you get to the fine print. Truth be told, you don’t have to search for the fine print. Just start at page one.
What is “Change?”
The booklet begins with a bit of a disclaimer titled, “What do we mean by ‘Change’?” This is key. Change in “sexual orientation change efforts” automatically implies going from gay to straight. However, since there is not an ounce of scientifically, peer-reviewed research to back up the claim that people can change from gay to straight, one has to pay attention to how change is described prior to reading the stories.
“For most people who seek change, heterosexuality is not actually the ultimate goal—happiness and peace are,” it states. If happiness and peace are the ultimate goal, then why does the title say, “how my sexual attractions have changed”? It shouldn’t matter, should it? And why not include gay men in the book who have also experienced happiness and peace since connecting with their sexual identities?
“Some skeptics,” the author points out, “erroneously assume that by ‘change’ we always mean (or should mean) a 180 degree shift from 100% homosexual to 100% heterosexual in all behaviors, interests, attractions and thoughts, forever after. Anything less than that, some critics argue, isn’t real change. Some look for evidence of ‘only’ a 170 degree shift or ‘only’ a 90 degree shift, and cry ‘failure!’”
First of all, it is the obligation of the person making the claim to prove it, not the obligation of someone else to disprove it. The contradictions don’t come from those on the outside crying “failure,” they come from the claims themselves. The author goes on to lay the groundwork for this “change,” establishing it as, “To be free from the constant pull of homosexual desires.”
What are “homosexual desires?”
Do they mean the desire for sex? A romantic relationship? An emotional relationship? All three? And what do they mean by “constant?”
In the world of reparative therapy (conversion therapy, ex-gay, or whatever you want to call it) there are a lot of assumptions about homosexuality. The first is that it is all about, and only about, sex. The concept that two same-sex people can have a relationship that is identical to their heterosexual counterparts is somehow inconceivable to those in the reparative therapy community. An inconvenient truth, if you will.
I recently interviewed Dr. Mel White who recounted an incident that happened to him and his husband, Gary, on the Larry King Live Show. A caller asked, “What do you two do in bed?”
Larry King was disgusted by the caller’s question, quickly scolding them and telling Dr. White, “You don’t have to answer that question.”
“No, I want to,” Dr. White said. “We’ve been together 12 years and we do what every other married couple does who’s been together that long. We sleep.”
To be free from “homosexual desires,” then, automatically implies changing from gay to straight because those desires – as heterosexual desires – are all encompassing. They are not merely sexual, but relational, emotional, intellectual and lie at the core of the individual.
I’ve learned from the many men I have interviewed, the many stories and the research I have read, as well as my own experience, that one never rids himself of same-sex “desires.” Most often they are suppressed, which causes a decrease in sexual/relational attachment of any kind. It feels like the feelings have disappeared, or at least no longer hold a place of prominence in ones life, but the result is that life eventually becomes mundane as the focus gradually turns to avoiding sexuality, attractions and depth of relationships. A person becomes consumed with avoiding anything that triggers a thought or a feeling, or attraction.
Psychology Professor Gregory Herek points out that, “In many of these behavior-change techniques, ‘success’ has been defined as suppression of homoerotic response or mere display of physiological ability to engage in heterosexual intercourse. Neither outcome is the same as adopting the complex set of attractions and feelings that constitute sexual orientation.”
Can gay men have non-sexual relationships with each other?
The author of the Then and Now book goes on to say that success also enables men “to have deeply fulfilling non-sexual friendships with other men, and to belong to a close community of men.”
Without fail, every person I have ever talked to who has entered some type of ex-gay support group, live-in program, or community feels that, for the first time, they belong. Many of these people lived with intense shame over their same-sex attractions and by simply encountering others like themselves, they find a deep sense of relief.
Additionally, similar beliefs and ideologies unite people together. Camaraderie develops and intense bonds are cultivated, especially as they talk about their deep emotional pains and shared experiences. It is the same thing that happens in any group of like-minded people with shared interests in intimate settings, particularly with those who have been deeply wounded.
Most of the gay people I know would be considered successful under the criteria of “non-sexual friendships with other men, who also belong to a close community of men.” Again, there is an assumption that it is not possible for gay men to have close friendships without including sex. This particular criterion of change only speaks to the internal homophobia this group feels toward themselves and other gay men.
Gay and aligned with God’s will?
The last point I’ll address is the author’s statement that success is “to live a life we feel is aligned with God’s will for us.” Most of the discomfort people feel about being gay usually comes from the social-religious belief that homosexuality is abnormal and incompatible with their Christian beliefs. For years the ex-gay movement capitalized on an individual’s discomfort with being gay. These organizations quote verses from the Bible that “unequivocally” state homosexuality is a sin.
Because sexuality is a core part of the human experience, it is almost imperative that we reconcile our beliefs with our sexuality. This is especially difficult when our beliefs and our sexuality are at odds.
I, and many other former “ex-gay success” stories, spent years, even decades learning to suppress, hide, deny and, in some cases, lie and cheat in order to live up to the religious ideals we so firmly believed. When we could no longer deny our sexuality – not for the purpose of sex, but for the purpose of authenticity – many of our worlds came crashing down. Marriages were lost, jobs were lost and, in most cases, friends and family were lost.
Why call it change?
The sexual orientation change effort (ex-gay/reparative therapy) movement is based on the belief that God, prayer, the Bible, and accountability (sometimes along with discredited and/or bizarre therapeutic practices) can change a person’s sexual orientation, allowing them to live a “normal” heterosexual life. However, the word maze and mental acrobats used as confirmation usually only work with those similarly uncomfortable with their own sexual orientation. A cursory glance from those on the outside sees through the faulty reasoning.
Truth be told, most people – the LGBT community included – are not concerned with people who want to modify their behavior for religious reasons. You want to marry a heterosexual person? Knock yourself out – but please be honest with the other party. If you feel that you cannot be who you are, that’s fine, too. Ideologies drive more of our behavior than we would like to admit.
For many of us, sexual orientation aside, coming to terms with who we are – our pasts, present and personal choices – is a journey. It can take years to finally feel comfortable in our own skin. However, a journey founded in honesty and reality is going to get us to that place a lot more quickly than one shrouded in word games and alternate realities.
Photo – Flickr/No fake name given