This is the second of three parts of a talk given at the University of Dallas on October 19th, 2015. Photographs gratefully used with permission from Elizabeth Kerin.
Remember the definition was “predominantly and persistently attracted to members of my own sex”. So what about that “predominantly”?
That’s simple enough. I do actually experience some attraction to women, and I don’t think this is uncommon among men who identify as gay or homosexual or same-sex attracted. But for me, attraction to women is something that I sort of have to be thinking about, or going out of my way to notice, and then when I do notice it, it’s kind of like speaking a language that I’m really bad at, so I only catch little bits of it, or hearing a song on a radio station that’s almost totally detuned, so I can almost make it out, but not quite. Attraction to men, on the other hand, is something totally visceral. You know the kind of classic moment in a comic book when a gorgeous woman is walking down the street and everywhere men are walking into lampposts and running their cars into fire hydrants and falling down manholes. That’s me when some really good-looking guy goes jogging down the street with no shirt.
What does it mean that I’m a little bit attracted to women too? I have no idea. It is what it is, and I tend not to pay much attention to it.
Now on to the word “persistently”. And in some ways this is the most fraught out of all of the words, because if you can distinguish between an attraction to men that’s persistent and one that isn’t, then you’re talking about the idea of orientation change, or reparative therapy, or whatever you like to call it.
So, when I say that I am “persistently” attracted to men instead of women, I mean that this attraction has been, for me, as constant as the attraction that most men have towards women. It has been with me about as long as I’ve been aware of being attracted to anybody at all. I became seriously aware of it around the age of 12-14. It’s been with me no matter what season of my life I’m in: through periods of joy and depression, through periods of mental health and mental illness; it’s been with me through periods when I was stuck in patterns of habitual lust, and it’s been with me through periods when I felt that I was doing pretty well, chastity-wise. It seems to be, for better or worse, a permanent fixture of my personality.
So, this is where I want to double back to the part where we’re talking about different ways of approaching the world. I was talking about how, for me in high school, men were scary and women were not. This fits really well with the standard reparative-therapy narrative. If you’re not familiar with that narrative, it goes something like this (and, disclaimer before I start — this does not necessarily match up with my views about the origins of homosexuality — I’m not even sure that the phrase “the origins of homosexuality” is coherent — but here we go): start with a sensitive boy, that’s me. Give him a father who in one way or another makes him think men are bad or not safe; maybe he’s angry or maybe he’s just distant. Then give him some peers who reinforce that notion by being cruel, or excluding or bullying him. So now the boy starts to feel safer with women than with men; and men start to be scary; and the boy starts to see himself as different from men in some essential way. And then you add to this the fact that puberty is happening. What happens when puberty hits? All of a sudden, the fact that you’re different from women doesn’t make them weird — it makes them incredibly interesting. And that interest turns sexual. And boom! You have a straight man. Except what if the “different” sex, the “opposite” sex is men instead of women? Well boom, you’ve got a gay man!
As I said, I don’t endorse this theory. I think there might be something to it. But I want to draw out some of its consequences.
First of all, if all of this is really true, then it stands to reason that if you undo these things — if you heal the peer wounds, and you heal the father relationship, and you heal the man’s interior sense of his own masculinity, then the homosexuality part goes away. So the first consequence of this theory is that, if someone is gay (predominantly attracted to his own gender), then they haven’t dealt with these things yet.
Second of all, if all of this is really true, then being attracted to men is a kind of measurement of emotional maturity; or to put it another way, it’s a measurement of whether we’re able to relate to men and to women in a grown up way, or whether there’s something stunted in there. So one of the consequences of this theory is that if someone is gay, then they’re not as emotionally grown-up as somebody who is straight.
Now, these things are kind of unpleasant, right?, but they seem to make sense. They make sense from a theoretical standpoint, they’re pretty logically consistent. There’s only one problem with the theory. It’s that it doesn’t bear up under experience.
Let’s take the claims one at a time. First we have the claim that, if people deal with these psychological or relational issues, the homosexual attraction vanishes and heterosexual attraction takes its place. Now, the extent to which this happens is extremely uncertain.
It does seem to be the case that some men are able to lessen their degree of same-sex attraction, and increase their degree of opposite-sex attraction. I wonder, though, what exactly is meant by this “lessening of attraction”. Sometimes the men making these claims are starting from a point where their sexual attractions are actually obsessive, compulsive, or pathological in some other way. So naturally, when you start dealing with emotional wounds, this pathology is improved. And that’s wonderful. If you’re somebody who deals with obsessive or compulsive or self-destructive sexual patterns, then psychological and spiritual healing is extremely important.
But I would say that this pattern applies equally well to men who aren’t same-sex attracted. You can very obviously have a straight person with sexual pathologies, and those pathologies are going to be improved if he undergoes emotional healing. And after the straight person undergoes emotional healing, he might very well say that his attraction to women has diminished in intensity, or become less urgent, or become manageable. And again, this is wonderful. But it doesn’t amount to a change in orientation. It amounts to an amelioration of pathology: the obsessive or compulsive or self-destructive element of the thing has been reduced.
So it’s very easy to find men who used to sleep with other men and don’t anymore, because they’ve undergone the kind of psychological and spiritual healing that reparative therapy seems to specialize in. It’s very easy to find men who used to engage in obsessive or compulsive or self-destructive sexual behavior, and don’t anymore, because they’ve undergone reparative therapy. And that’s very good.
But I think it’s very, very hard to find men who will even claim that they used to be attracted to men and now aren’t. You can find same-sex attracted men who are married to women, sure. But are they still — to use the previous formula — “persistently and predominantly attracted to people of the same gender”? In my experience, in most cases, they are. This might or might not be problematic in their marriage, but they seem to be — to be colloquial for a moment — as gay as ever.
Maybe that means that they needed more years in therapy. Maybe that means that you just never get rid of the issues that plague you in childhood. Maybe it means they’re making up or fooling themselves. Maybe it means none of those things. Maybe it means something different for everyone, because everyone’s different. Whatever it means, I’ve never met anybody who’s taken a predominant, persistent tendency to be attracted to men and turned it into a predominant, persistent tendency to attracted to women. You don’t need those things to get married to a woman — provided that you’re up front and honest with her about it — but I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who even claimed that that was the case for him.
So that’s why I find the first claim very unconvincing — the claim that, once you heal the emotional wounds that reparative therapy is interested in healing, the homosexuality goes away. In my experience, it doesn’t go away; it just becomes un-pathological. Which is very good, and worth working for, but not at all the same thing.
Let’s look at the second claim: the claim that, if somebody is homosexual, that means they are emotionally stunted in some way. Now, we have to ask ourselves, how far are we willing to take this claim? Are we really willing to say that any given homosexual person is less emotionally mature, less relationally mature, than any given heterosexual person? Are we really willing to say that a celibate 45-year-old man who spends his time in prayer and work and volunteering — but is just as gay as ever — is not as emotionally mature as some 14-year-old sitting in his bedroom browsing Pornhub?
Now, I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t seen relational problems among the gay men I’ve known. I’ve seen some people who fit this pattern very well. I fit this pattern very well. I was the queerest kid you could hope to meet. I learned how to crochet when I was eleven and I memorized the lyrics to Les Mis when I was 12. “On my ownnnnnnn….pretending he’s beside me…” you know. And I had the father issues, and I had the peer issues, and I had the depression, and I didn’t feel like one of the guys, and I wondered if I ever would.
And when I first started to talk to other gay people, I assumed that everyone was like me. Everyone had father issues, everyone was depressed, everyone dealt with peer rejection, everyone wondered when they were a teen whether they would ever feel like a real man. And I found that that was true…some of the time. I also found that there were gay men who had great relationships with their fathers, gay men who had never experienced serious depression, gay men who were at least as masculine as the next guy.
And I also realized that there were plenty of men who experienced all of the factors that were supposed to make you into a homosexual…but somehow turned out straight. Granted, they had other problems, because it’s always something, isn’t it? — but they didn’t all turn out gay. And I found out that there were people who were much less secure in their masculinity than I am — but who still didn’t think men were attractive.
When I was young and just figuring this stuff out, I kind of told the Lord, Listen, you don’t have to make me straight. I think you’re probably not going to do that, because it doesn’t seem to be a thing that you do, with maybe an exception here and there. I told him, if we can just get past the other stuff; if I can only learn to be friends with other men, and to feel comfortable around them and not scared and not nervous and not anxious; if I can do that, I don’t care who I think is hot. I’ll be able to deal.
And that was a prayer he answered. And that is the reason why, ultimately, I’m very skeptical of the idea of orientation change. Because I do feel like a grownup, probably about as much as anyone ever does. I am comfortable around other men, probably about as much as any man ever is. I do have friendships with other men, and those friendships are some of the most important things in my life. I feel good about myself — but I’m still gay.
The funny thing is that, actually, most of the stuff that was supposed to turn me straight really did help. It got me going to therapy when I needed it. It got me taking antidepressants to get me out of a really deep emotional hole. It got me to start consciously working on the way I related to other men and the way I related to my father and the way I related to women. It got me to revisit some pretty deep emotional wounds and to start to process those things for the first time in years or decades. It got me to do all of that stuff which is just the basic business of growing up, just the basic business of being human.
So that’s all I’ve got for the third word: persistently. I do think it’s persistent, in 99 cases out of 100.
The only other thing I want to do, before we have some time for Q&A, is to talk about some practical considerations. What does this mean for the way that we interact with gay people?
It means that, whatever else we do to minister to gay people, we can’t — we absolutely cannot — start from the point of view that, for us to consider them successful and on the up-and-up, for us to treat them like normal people with normal-people problems, instead of a specially horrendous class of people with a specially horrendous class of problems, they have to be straight. We can’t make that our criterion for acceptance. We can’t treat them like they’re broken just because they’re attracted to the wrong gender. It’s incredibly insulting, and it has the effect of alienating exactly the people that we want to draw close.
Even if it were possible (even if it is possible) for every gay person to become straight — I mean to lose all of his same-sex attraction and replace it with opposite-sex attraction — I don’t think it would be fair to require it of all gay people. This is something that I tried for about a decade to get rid of, and I was unsuccessful. Are we really ready to tell gay people that they’ve got to try harder than that if they want us to accept them — if they want us to stop being suspicious of them? If after ten years they’re as fabulous as ever, do we really want to ask them to put in another five — just so they can finally achieve, in our minds, the baseline level of psychological health that we attribute to a fourteen-year old straight kid?