One man’s story of surviving a type of therapy that derailed his life for ten years.
When I tell people I spent ten years of my life trying to turn into a heterosexual, the usual reaction is shock. Some question why anyone would do such a thing, while others have never even heard the term “ex-gay” before. I was involved in what is known as ex-gay therapy (or reparative therapy), which has been roundly debunked by modern medicine as ineffective and dangerous. I’m hardly the first to write about it. But I didn’t spend thousands of dollars like Peterson Toscano did in his pursuit of heterosexuality. No time spent in a residential facility like Garrard Conley, either. And I never rose to or escaped a position of authority like Randy Thomas. While every narrative is unique, I believe my story is in several ways more typical of those who have survived this form of malpractice.
So what did my “typical” ex-gay experience look like?
1. I entered the therapy as a virgin, and remained so throughout the ten years. Like many clients, I wasn’t looking to be “rescued” from a “homosexual lifestyle.” I was 19, deeply closeted, and desperate for acceptance from God and church. It wasn’t just a fear that I would go to hell. I had been taught that Christians were always to set a holy example for others; if I didn’t work to become a heterosexual role model, I might risk other people going to hell.
2. Most of my therapists weren’t therapists, and didn’t really know anything about ex-gay therapy. Most of the time, I was seeing pastors, elders, and Christian counselors, all very heterosexual, through churches and clinics. Their view was that homosexuality is a sin like any other sin, and all sins are to be treated the same: through behavior modification and Bible study.
3. Sometimes, there wasn’t a therapist at all. Like many who have tried to change their orientation, I looked for books to help me. I won’t dignify them by listing their titles here, but I found a number of authors who claimed to have successfully converted to heterosexuality. I’d go through stretches where I would quit face-to-face therapy as my lack of improvement depressed me so; in those times, I relied especially on the books. The recommendation I best remember was to wear a rubber band on my wrist, which I was to snap any time I thought about a man sexually. I never did it because I didn’t want to deal with people asking me what I was doing, and honestly, the very idea that this could change a person’s orientation sounded ridiculous even then. After coming out, I dug deeper into the writers’ narratives and came to three conclusions: 1) some were bisexual in denial (the ex-gay movement doesn’t acknowledge the existence of bisexuality); 2) others were not out when they wrote but would come out soon enough; and 3) still others were flat-out lying.
4. When I finally met with a therapist who specialized in changing orientation, he had never been even slightly gay. He was straight, married, large family. He just wanted to do the right thing by saving the homosexuals and freeing them from “unwanted same-sex attraction” (a commonly used expression in the field.) But it meant that he really didn’t know anything about my experience; most of what he knew came from the very books I’d already been reading.
5. There was no group therapy; it was all one-on-one. There is such a thing as group ex-gay therapy. But, again, I don’t think that’s the typical experience. In fact, my one ex-gay therapy specialist condemned the very concept of group therapy, claiming that the emotional vulnerability would prove too tempting to the clients and they would end up “falling.” And, to be fair, I have some friends who met their eventual partners in that setting! My real challenge with one-on-one therapy was that I felt like I was the only one in the world with my “problem.” The crushing isolation left me vulnerable and thus in the sway of ex-gay therapy longer than I would have wanted. Though, really, I should count myself lucky that the scars were only emotional. Some former clients, such as Chaim Levin and Ben Unger, were sexually abused by their therapists.
6. Aside from the cost of a handful of books, I never spent a dime. There are some, like Peterson Toscano, who sacrificed a great deal of money in seeking to fulfill the cultural demand that we be straight. I certainly don’t want to diminish how they have suffered in this regard. Even so, I have yet to see that spending thousands on therapy is typical. The pastors and elders I saw for free. The counselors met me for free except in one case, in which a friend agreed to pay for my therapy. Most of us used the resources most readily available to us—the leaders of our religious institutions.
7. Ex-gay therapy had a paradoxical relationship with mainstream psychology. On the one hand, the field of ex-gay therapy holds that “secular” psychology is inherently evil. It had been created by atheists as a conspiracy against God, and even worse, it taught that gay was okay. Yet when the therapists and writers sought an explanation for the origin of homosexuality, they went straight to Freud: someone becomes homosexual if they have a distant father and a smothering mother. And if that wasn’t your background, they tried to convince you that you were misremembering your childhood. If you asked why your siblings weren’t gay, the counselors said that you had grown up interpreting your childhood through a homosexual filter and your siblings hadn’t. There was a lot of double talk.
8. Becoming heterosexual wasn’t the goal. Like so many who walked this path, I saw zero progress in turning straight. But as my discouragement compounded, my therapists reminded me that “the goal is not success, but faithfulness.” By framing their treatment in terms of developing a holy life rather than changing orientation, they could excuse the lack of progress. I was simply expected to put as much effort as possible into trying to become a heterosexual, a battle I was supposed to engage in for the rest of my life. Yet the church said that I wasn’t allowed into the leadership positions I had been taught to pursue, and that God wouldn’t really accept me, until I was fully heterosexual, as evidenced by marriage to a godly woman. So I was in a no-win situation.
9. Eventually, I left. In the ex-gay world, they often quoted a maxim from addiction treatment: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” (Indeed, they usually framed homosexuality as an addiction and treated it as such.) The funny thing is that this was exactly the definition of ex-gay therapy itself. I had done the same thing for ten years, receiving the same message over and over, always with the same results: none. Only because of their promise that “thousands and thousands” had changed and my church’s requirement that I become heterosexual did I hang on for so long. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was basically no record-keeping or accountability among all the therapists. You could show up to just one session and, in theory, be counted a success. Who knows if someone is still counting me a success.
10. I’ve had to spend a long time recovering from the experience. For a while after I came out, I was reluctant to see a therapist, despite serious issues with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I associated therapy with the psychological trauma I’d endured through my ex-gay experience. But eventually, I sought treatment to undo the damaging narratives I had learned in ex-gay therapy. I had been handed impossible expectations and taught that I was inferior if I didn’t meet them. No wonder my self-esteem had been ground to dust. But after some years in legitimate therapy, I learned that I am good and worthwhile just as I am. I didn’t need to rely on meeting the demands of others to find my self-worth. And the more I reflected, the more I realized that, by investing all my energy in achieving an impossible goal, my educational, vocational, and social development were put on hold. I’ve essentially spent the past thirteen years playing catch-up.
Photo: Flickr/Ryan McGilchrist
Would you like to help us shatter stereotypes about men?
Receive stories from The Good Men Project, delivered to your inbox daily or weekly.