My Misadventures With “Healing” Approaches to Homosexuality

So, discussing things in my comment thread with And Also With You, I mentioned my not-exactly-warm-and-fuzzy feelings about “healing” approaches to dealing homosexual attraction, the sort-of-Freudian theories about how homosexual attractions come into existence, and how they can be gotten rid of. Given that this is probably my biggest point of departure from the exgay mainstream, (it might actually be enough to disqualify me from being exgay, I’m never quite sure) I’m going to try to explain why I’ve come to feel they way I do.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s common in exgay circles to view homosexual attractions as being caused by a lack of necessary emotional bonding with the same-sex (especially with one’s same-sex parent) in childhood. According to the story, the child ends up with a same-sex love deficit, and also a lack of security within their own gender, having not been properly affirmed by others of their gender, especially the same-sex parent. Also, lack of affirmation in one’s gender by the opposite-sex parent can be a problem too. Once adolescence rolls along, this deficit and insecurity and confusion can become sexualized, possibly leading to homosexual attractions. The solution, therefore, is to remedy the same-sex emotional deficit with healthy, non-sexual same-sex friendships and to heal the wounds of the past, spiritually and/or with therapy. Once those are taken care of, the story goes, the homosexual attractions should diminish or disappear, and the way should be open for heterosexual attractions to develop.

I don’t know to what extent these theories are accurate. I’m not trying to claim here that they are always false and/or never work for anybody. On the contrary, many people I respect deeply have told me that these theories worked well for them and were a real blessing to them, helping them change their lives. So I think in some cases they may be a valuable tool, and I believe that tool should be available to all who find it useful. But my own experience of trying to work with these theories raised a lot of concerns for me, and that’s what I want to talk about here.

1. The theories became self-fulfilling prophecies for me.

My first concern with these theories is that they tended to function in my own life as a self-fulfilling prophecy, in at least two ways.

The first way is this: part of the theory is usually that homosexual attraction is tied to being emotionally and sexually immature, a child trapped in a grown-up’s body, or being emotionally broken and incapable of healthy adult relationships. Now, far be it from me to deny that some people (both gay and straight, I think) are immature, childish in certain respects, and emotionally broken. But what I’ve experienced in my own life (and seen in others as well) is that when we believe we are immature, needy, emotionally broken beings desperately in need of same-sex affirmation and healing, it affects how we act. In a way that’s sometimes not for the best, I think. When we believe we are love-starved little children on the inside, we start to feel and act like love-starved little children. And it’s not pretty.

Thus, when I was into these sorts of theories, I was very self-obsessed, very focused on my needs, in part because the exgay theology I accepted was very focused on my needs. I was told by exgay literature that my mission was to make sure I got my needs met and my relational deficits filled. So I became the taker (and not a giver) in my relationships with others, in large part because I believed I desperately needed to take, and I believed I had little to give. According to the exgay theories, I needed emotional sustenance from “normal”, “healthy”, “whole” women. What could an “abnormal”, “sick”, “broken” wretch like myself possibly have to offer them? I expected very little of myself in the way of holiness, because I believed I would be incapable of attempting a holy, mature Christian life until I got my “legitimate unfulfilled emotional needs” met.

For me it was a hugely startling realization to make (and it was a long time in the making) that I could choose to live (relatively) maturely and participate in responsible, healthy, equal relationships with other Christians. Right now. Regardless of my homosexual attractions. I largely have the residential program to thank for that, and that is because they did not care one bit for these theories. In their mind I was simply a Christian who struggles with sin, like any other, and as such I was called to the same standard of life and love as every other Christian. (I should note that other Christians spoke that truth to me–but it took the program to really drive it home.)

The other way these theories worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy in my life is in my relationship with my parents. Anyone who has followed my story at all will note that my relationship with my parents was sub-optimal. There is no use denying that. But I will say that spending years trying to diagnose what they did and how it might have caused my homosexual issues made our relationship worse rather than better. It increased the distance between me and my mom rather than diminishing it. It led me to turn my frustration with my same-sex attracted predicament (and it certainly felt like a predicament at times!) toward them. Every time I saw a fault in my mother or father, I would make a mental note of it, and remember how they did something vaguely similar when I was little, and how that probably contributed to my struggle in some way. Often I felt rather bitter about it, especially when I was having a tough time of things. And that drove a wedge into our already flawed relationship.

Please don’t get me wrong–the exgay movement does not endorse either of these things. They do not approve of behaving selfishly and immaturely, or of feeling bitter toward one’s parents. But in spite of their explicit stance, I found both of those problems to be very real side effects of these theories, potential pitfalls that I stumbled into. I accept responsibility for that, but the role these theories played in my choices is not negligible.

2. The pressure to fit the mold of these theories led me toward dishonesty about my past.

I once had a series of conversations with an exgay where the pressure to come up with a sexual abuse history was pretty overwhelming. I had no recollection of sexual abuse, but she kept bringing up the possibility. Weren’t there, after all, periods of time in my childhood that I couldn’t remember? (Well yeah, but does any adult completely remember their entire childhood? Isn’t it all bits and pieces for most of us?) Wasn’t it possible that I was abused during those times, and simply blocked out the trauma? With gentle coaching of this other exgay, I made the leap from “possible” to “probable” to “almost certain” in about ten seconds flat.

Later, I was informed by an exgay leader that 100% of people with a set of issues like mine were victims of sexual abuse. 100%. Unequivocally, totally confident, without a doubt. I walked away from that conversation rather dazed. I had no knowledge of ever having been sexually abused, but now it seemed like it had to be so.

Now, no one told me flat-out to my face: You must believe you were a victim of sexual abuse. But the pressure to believe it was extremely high, and as a result of that pressure I began to secretly blame someone in my life for the mysterious abuse that it seemed I must have experienced. Someone who I now believe is obviously, totally, completely innocent of that. To be honest I’m pretty horrified at myself. I have to admit that I really wanted to fit the ex-gay theory model. They insisted that they knew how to fix a particular kind of person with a particular kind of history, so I wanted to be that person with that history.

Again, don’t get me wrong, exgay groups in my experience do not endorse dishonesty. But for me the temptation to dishonesty went hand-in-hand with the theories that were presented to me, the theories I was encouraged to find myself in so that I could be healed.

3. I found an alternative that worked better for me.

By far the biggest reason why I’m not such a big fan of the healing approach, at least for myself, is that I found the alternative so much more livable and liberating. For years I thought about this struggle very much in these healing terms, as is standard in exgay circles and in some Catholic circles as well, it seems. I won’t say it was all a bad thing. It certainly got me to pay more attention to my emotional health and my relationships than I might have otherwise. It got me to be more reflective about certain things, and I’m a big fan of reflectiveness.

But I found it a somewhat stagnant, frustrating approach to take with regard to my homosexual attraction. After a certain point, I had pursued psychological healing and emotional healing and spiritual healing and healthy relationships with my parents and others for years. I just wasn’t sure what else could be done in any of those areas. (This was after I finished the residential program.) Yet my homosexual attractions were quite present, and I had no heterosexual attractions to show for all my efforts. Given all the obvious progress I had made, shouldn’t I have shifted straightward a tiny bit? If the theories were correct, then given the continued existence of my same-sex attractions, I was still obviously, severely, sexually and emotionally immature. But what else was to be done?

One day, a thought occurred to me. What if I thought about my homosexual temptations in the same way I thought about my temptations to every other sin? Like pride, greed, or unrighteous anger?

Did I worry about psychological or emotional healing for the temptations to any of these other sins? Did I try to diagnose and dig up their “roots” and make the temptations go away? Not really, it seemed to me. I just accepted them as sins that I struggle with, that I would probably always struggle with to some degree. Heck, my pride goes ten thousand times deeper than my homosexual struggle does! But I didn’t psychoanalyze each prideful thought or tie it to some emotional wound that I’ve suffered. Instead, I sought repentance. I sought grace. I sought strengthening from God to live faithfully, to make holy choices. I sought self-discipline and maturity to live more obediently, in thought and in deed. And I didn’t think that the mere presence of any of these temptations meant that I was psychologically or emotionally stunted relative to “normal” people. On the contrary, everyone experiences temptation. Paul experienced temptation. Even Jesus experienced temptation. So if my experience of temptation in general didn’t mean that I had specific psychological or emotional problems, then why was I viewing my struggle against homosexual temptation so differently?

Thus I decided to try treating my homosexual struggle in just the same way as I treated my struggles against those other kinds of temptation. And I found that an immensely freeing switch to make. Rather than focusing on trying to make the temptation go away, I focused on living with the temptation, doing battle with it, gaining mastery over it. I no longer worried about how it got there. Just as I didn’t worry all that much about why I struggled with pride or greed–I just knew that I did, as part of my fallen nature. I stopped treating it as a sickness that needed curing, and started treating it as a something that needed to be lived with in a faithful and holy way. Perhaps the temptation would eventually disappear. Perhaps not. It didn’t really matter.

This worked amazingly well for me. It got me to lighten up about my homosexual attractions. It helped me enjoy far greater peace and contentment than I knew before. It gave me a set of goals and a purpose that seemed more solidly Biblical to me than those recommended by these theories about what makes people homo-attracted. And, rather ironically, I got far better “change” results with this approach than I did with deliberately trying to get healing for my attractions according to those theories.

25 Responses to My Misadventures With “Healing” Approaches to Homosexuality

  1. ck says:

    Funny. When I ‘lightened up’ about my sexuality I was able to take a step back from much of what was going on and re-evaluate. It did come out of a period of intense self-examination (which I chronicled), but the shift was from a focus on my wounded, broken, sinful, etc. etc. self–as you say someone “desperately in need of same-sex affirmation and healing”–to simply living.

    I have found that being in a same-sex relationship, far from what I expected, has brought maturity and the opposite of codependence to me. Before, I assumed that people were gay because it was ‘easy.’ After all, you’ve got the same wiring and packaging, so it’s simple to figure out how to get along, make love, etc. Well, surprise, surprise–it’s not. And the stories I tell are just as boring and typical as any married couple I’ve met. It’s made me work on–like we’ve talked about before–conflict avoidance, stuff with my family, anger management, etc.

    What I’m saying isn’t that your path is invalid and you should have taken mine, but that there’s something in common between them. I’m not as big a John Hick fan as I was a few years ago, but I do think that one of his major themes hits onto a human reality. The sorts of people we find most ‘spiritual’ or ‘mature’ are the ones who shift from self-centered to “Reality-centered.” (Not necessarily ‘other-centered’, because that can just be codependence.) When you move towards what you consider to be “ultimate” in the world–whether Christ or shared human dignity, etc.–certain consequences happen.

    I’m glad there are bloggers like you (and Grace of Willful Grace) writing a balanced perspective. I’ve been following the latest Stacy Harp debacle (apparently gays have sex with infants now!) and it makes me sick. Where the need comes from to demonize gays and lesbians I don’t think I’ll ever understand. I may disagree about whether being gay is a sin (or acting on it, however you want to frame it), but I can applaud your path. People like Ms. Harp I simply want to have put into a small padded room, where they cannot disseminate their vitriolic message to anyone else.

  2. Jay says:

    Wow. That was a really great post! I’ve always felt odd because I don’t fit the standard “ex-gay” bill of traumatic childhood/distant father. Any emotional scarring that I incurred in my adolescence was a result of my same-sex attraction, not vice-versa. In fact, I’ve been blessed with some of the most caring, devout, and loving parents in the world, not to mention an older brother who definitely fills my need for a non-sexual same-sex friendship. In that regard, I’ve always wondered what it was that made me turn out “gay.”

    Thanks for helping me realize that it doesn’t matter. Homosexulaity is just like any other sin. It’s not part of God’s plan, and I can leave it at that. Keep up the great posts.

    Jay

  3. Hey ck,

    Thanks for sharing your experience with this. You’re right that there’s a lot in common between our experiences. I’m not really all about John Hick, as you might guess, but it does seem he has a good point about “Reality-centered”. I think I have a hard time conceiving of Christ and “shared human dignity” as interchangeable, though. :)

    I agree with you that being gay isn’t necessarily easy. There *are* some special challenges that come with wiring/plumbing differences. But overall, I find the claims about the radical sameness of homosexuality and the radical differentness of heterosexuality to be exaggerated all around. Women are not all clones of each other, and the two sexes are not from different planets. While I do feel that there is a kind of differentness (maybe somewhat mystical?) and a complementarity in heterosexual relationships that isn’t present in homosexual ones, I think many Christians tend to go overboard in labelling all homosexuality as narcissistic obsession and fear of the Other in contrast to a “mature” heterosexuality which can appreciate difference.

    Regarding Stacy Harp, um, all I can say is maybe you shouldn’t read/listen to her if she distresses you so? Just a thought?

  4. prodigalhercules says:

    I am a 40 year old Evangelical Protestant Christian “ex-gay” man who found your blog site either completely by accident or by divine initiative. Of course, as a Christian I believe that there are no accidents. I grew up in the Church, but my own personal Christian journey started nearly twenty years ago, after which nearly ten years of frustratingly futile misadventures in the exgay ministries myself, I found myself at a crossroads and which has taken me in and out of same sex relationships for the better part of my adult Christian life. While I lament some of those choices I’ve made, I can honestly say that God has brought me safe thus far and I am able to see some sanctifying benefits even in that willful, sinful course. However, I am now standing at another major crossroad in my life so that I know finding this blog site was not accidental in the least.

    Your site name is interesting in and of itself. Is change possible? And what constitutes change. Without dispute, Christian life changes you. But, does that imply that homosexuality becomes heterosexuality? God and I have almost daily conversations to that issue. I found these insights rather liberating to me. Thank you for being honest.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I guess it depends on whom you ask whether or not it implies anything — homosexuality to heterosexuality.

    The question is: does it work for you, are you changed, are you straight?

    I think that overall people *know* whether or not change has occured, they don’t need an ex-gay group, minister, or website to tell them. Now, whether or not you need these things to keep *believing* is another matter.

  6. prodigalhercules says:

    I disagree with Anonymous. The question is NOT “does it work for you, are you changed, (or even) are you straight?” but what does God’s promise of sanctification look like in a believer. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear enough. If we are all being changed into the likeness of Christ does that mean for a homosexual that they can expect to be made heterosexual? I would tend to think not. The problem with these types of ministries is that “marriage” is some how looked at like proof of this change in a person’s affections. Not necessarily so. And as Anonymous pointed out this would most certainly be known by that person regardless of who they are listening to. However, it is also most certainly contingent upon a person’s particular beliefs. If fact, the most important factor in a person’s destiny is what that person believes about themself and in particular, their relationship with God. Consequently, it begs the question, what does a person believe and is this belief life changing?

  7. genderqueer says:

    Speaking of self fulfilling prophecy, last year I got a new job. Before I started though, I thought it would only be right to tell my future boss (who is married) about the fact that I can tend to be attracted to members of the same sex as me. I was in a support group at the time and they encouraged me to tell her as well. I had been reading a lot of material on what makes women attracted to other women etc. So I went on to share how it had a lot to to with self hate. She tried to counsel me as best she knew how. After all she is a counselor. She said that I may never get married. She also sort of made a joke at the end saying something about being straight and then caught herself saying it and said that wasn’t was she meant. I laughed, but I don’t know that it was really funny. She said I was still wanted for the job (I would be working for a Christian institution). I don’t know that she saw my confession as necessary though she did see it as bold. She said it is no one’s buisiness as to what your sexual preference is. I think that was after she discussed that it was best no one else in the institution know about my attractions. Well what ended up happening was that it was really awkward whenever I would see her. I was attracted to her (and from the vibes I was getting, she was to me). I never knew how to act around her because of what I had told her about my issue with self hate. Also, it felt weird to wear something feminine around her because of the stereotype that I assumed she put me in. And based on what she said to me how it’s no one’s business as to what your sexual preference is and how I may never get married, I assumed that she didn’t see me as being very flexible in my sexual attractions. What I thought was the right move ended up causing a lot of turmoil for both my boss (I could tell that she was not happy about the ideas my confession had put in her mind) and myself. I’m relieved that I no longer have the job. Have you ever experienced something similar?
    Also, I’ve gone through the blaming parents thing. I confronted them about it and my mother cried. She denied what I was saying. My father was offended. The conversation did not end in a moment of spiritual unity from what I can remember. I’m glad I found your blog!

  8. genderqueer says:

    p.s. just to agree that there may be some truth to how you were raised theory, and I imagine there’s a lot of evidence to back it, but like you, I think there’s got to be a way to handle it to avoid the pointing fingers game.

  9. (trying to respond to a couple of comments in one comment)

    Hey Jay,

    It’s cool to hear that I’m not the only one who feels that this stuff didn’t fit quite right. I am praising God for your loving parents who have blessed you so! And praying for their continued support for you. And I’m glad college is starting off well!

    Hi Prodigal Hercules,

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing a little bit about yourself here. I’m glad that my little ramblings were able to bless you in some small way.

    It is wonderful that God has brought you “safe thus far.” He is faithful! I know what you mean about finding sanctifying benefits in the strangest of places. God’s ability to work all things for our good never ceases to astound me. :)

    I don’t know much about your situation or your particular crossroads, but I’m praying that the Lord will draw you even more closely to Himself, and make you more like Christ. If you think of it, you can pray that for me as well.

    I’m not quite sure I understood everything you said in your reply to Anonymous, but I think I agree with you. But could you explain your last three sentences (the ones about belief) a little more, so I can be sure? Thanks! I certainly agree that sanctification / becoming more Christ-like is what is of ultimate importance! This is one thing I think the exgay movement as a whole needs to present more clearly–it is all well and good to defend the possibility of attraction change, but we have to keep it in perspective and make it clear that that kind of change is NOT the change that really matters.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, prodigalhercules, I apparently misunderstood your questioning — I took it to be unrhetorical. I personally have no issue with gay Christians marrying, saying they are straight and having a gay orientation — even if they act on it. Who am I to judge? Straight Christians fornicate, use pornography, commit adultery, etc… It has always struck me a bit amiss that there is a much higher standard presented to gay Christians. As if the striaghts can and want to keep it themselves. lol

    Ex-gays are about politics these days. They are largely ineffective at helping gays become straight so that have to do *something* for crying out loud. Maybe it helps them feel better.

    I guess since I misunderstood your point, prodigalhercules, I can’t really comment, but , yes, I have noticed that gay Christians tend to have gay relationships just like straight Christians tend to have relationships, too. I guess the change thing was to prevent or alleviate that. But if someone doesn’t change, they are probably going to be human and have sex, affection, companionship.

  11. Hey Genderqueer,

    I’m not sure if I’ve experienced something exactly similar, but I think I know what you mean about how telling someone can actually make things worse. You think it’s going to be freeing but it’s way more complicated than that. It’s funny that this woman didn’t handle it better, given that she was a counselor. But I guess we’re all just human. And it’s understandable that it could feel very threatening to have those thoughts put into her head for the first time. I just think the possibility has never occurred to most Christians.

    And I’m definitely with you on the parental stuff. I agree that at least for some people, there certainly does seem to be something to it, but we need to be careful about how we handle it. I’ve heard that some parents are actually overjoyed to hear about those theories and embrace them, perhaps because they offer at least some sort of explanation for what before seemed like a totally incomprehensible mystery.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  12. ck says:

    dm, re your question–Ms. Harp (and her ilk) is/are like a car wreck–it’s hard to avoid looking. But you’re right–I check various sites like that occasionally, but try not to get sucked in. There are just so many other ways to use my energy.

  13. genderqueer, I don’t think you owe it to anyone to confess what your attractions are; you just need to find the people you feel easy talking to about it. It’s too bad your ex-boss had trouble dealing with it, though; you didn’t need to tell her, but you also weren’t wrong to do so.

    I’m dubious about all the parental stuff; it doesn’t much match my experience. Though I suppose it may be the experience of some people.

    ck, I know what you mean about the car wreck stuff. I’m glad I’ve managed to avoid looking at Ms. Harp, but there are other sites I’ve gotten sucked into looking at in the same way.

  14. John R. says:

    Homosexuality, as far as I can see, is habitual. It’s like any other compulsion. After awhile it becomes ingrained neurologically, just like any other habit. This is why it is difficult to break habits such as watching pornography or overeating for example.

    The rates of recidivism in the psychological treatment of smoking and other habits that people seek help overcoming is pretty much equal to those who seek to overcome their homosexuality.

    I don’t condemn anyone as a person, but there’s no concrete evidence, say from studying prepubescent children that homosexuals are born that way and not created. Some people are able to quit smoking, but other’s can’t quit. Just because you haven’t been able to overcome your homosexual passions doesn’t mean anything in the larger picture.

    Don’t confuse the forest for the trees.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know if there will ever be any “concrete” evidence as you say that will be satisfactory. However, there have been many, many studies over the years pointing out “gender atypical” behavior among children who end up homosexual or homosexually oriented. Even NARTH and other groups and organizations acknowledge this. It is pretty inescapable — the observation of this pattern — regardless of who or what group is doing the study — right, left, in between.

    Oh, and no one teaches these sissy boys and butch girls to be this way. ;-)

  16. John R.,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

    I don’t think I or anyone else here was claiming that “homosexuals are born that way”. I was just expressing skepticism about some particular theories about how homosexuality comes about.

    I’m also a little skeptical of your compulsion theory. I agree with Anonymous’s observations on this subject. I have a bigger concern with your view as well, but I’m gonna give it its own post. (It seems kind of off-topic for this thread.)

    I agree with you in that I don’t think the recidivism rates (do we even know what they are?) show much at all. There are all kinds of difficult struggles out there, and in many respects this one isn’t really different from any of them.

    I try not to miss the forest for the trees. (I find that I’m far more likely to miss the trees for the forest, but that’s another matter.) This post, as the title indicates, was pretty clearly devoted to my own experiences. Ultimately I don’t profess to know what causes homosexuality, in my own case or in anyone else’s. I’ve just found an approach for dealing with the desires that works for me better than the alternatives I’ve tried.

    dm

  17. DM – I came very late to this party but I like how you put this into words. If you follow my blog at all, you know we on the same page.

  18. Ongoing Struggle says:

    I really enjoyed this site. I too have struggled with same sex attraction to men for years and do not fit the mold of having bad parents. My parents are strong, devoted, faithful and uplifting and I have a wonderful relationship with them. I am also blessed with a wonderful wife and 2 beautiful boys (3 1/2 and 1 yr old), but sexually I struggle immensely with being attracted to good-looking in-shape men. I do not have any sexual abuse in my history that I feel would have pushed me in this direction, and I have grown up being taught that it is wrong and a sin. I beleive there are times when I fight it well and when I give in to porn, but God’s grace keeps me from going beyond that. I do encourage you to continue believing you can live a normal life if you hold fast to Jesus and continue walking with him and he helps me fight the te,ptationms

  19. Ongoing Struggle,

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing a little of your experience here, and for the encouragement. I am delighted to hear of how God has blessed you, and I will pray for you in your struggle. May we both hold fast to Jesus!

  20. […] because of the psychoanalytic narrative that homosexuality is caused by abuse.This narrative can foster mistrust between adult children and their parents; it can cause parents to blame themselves for their […]

  21. […] degree of pressure to conform my narrative to theirs. (The anonymous blogger Disputed Mutability has described that pressure in detail here, and I’d encourage you to read her excellent post along with this one by Melinda […]

  22. […] degree of pressure to conform my narrative to theirs. (The anonymous blogger Disputed Mutability has described that pressure in detail here, and I’d encourage you to read her excellent post along with this one by Melinda […]

  23. […] the Exodus International fiasco brewing I ran across a very personal yet insightful piece about reparative […]

  24. […] most acute to me–asking the right questions (and do check out his links as well, especially this one). Aaron Taylor sheds light on some of the distorted thinking involved in Exodus’s origins. […]

  25. […] degree of pressure to conform my narrative to theirs. (The anonymous blogger Disputed Mutability has described that pressure in detail here, and I’d encourage you to read her excellent post along with this one by Melinda […]

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