Why I Forsook Gay Identity, Part 1: Introduction

Last August I said:

But I found for myself that moving past gay identity was essential for living stably and contentedly according to my beliefs as a same-sex attracted Christian woman. So this part of the exgay teaching I found extremely helpful. I really need to say more about it, but I don’t think this post is quite the place to do it. So let me just say this: Abandoning gay identity doesn’t mean being in denial. It doesn’t mean “naming it and claiming it,” proclaiming that you’re “healed,” that you’re totally straight and happily heterosexual, while you’re still homosexually attracted. What it means is radically altering the role that the fact of your homosexual attractions plays in your thinking about your self and your life. 

Well, this is the place where more gets said.  The question of gay identity and what should be done with it keeps popping up in my posts here and there, and I feel guilty that every time I just do a little handwaving and move on.  If I’m going to run around talking about how great it is to nail your gay identity to the cross, I had better take the time to examine that idea and to clarify what I’m talking about.

In addition to fulfilling my intellectual responsibilities, I also want to encourage my brothers and sisters who feel similarly convicted.  In my experience, when you are struggling to give up your gay identity, nobody understands you.  Christians can’t grasp what the big deal is, why there would be any struggle at all, why you would ever be tempted to think of yourself as gay for a moment now that Jesus has liberated you.  And gays think you are being dishonest or that you’ve simply gone insane or that you’ve “drunk the exgay kool-aid.”  It can really suck to be caught between the “How dare you call yourself gay?” crowd and the “How dare you NOT call yourself gay?” crowd. 

I’ve wrestled with this subject off and on for a long time, but this post of Eve Tushnet’s is what inspired me (eventually) to sit down and try to hammer out what I think.  Virtually nothing of what I have to say will be a reply to her, at least up until my final post in this series, and even then it’ll be a rather oblique reply, more of a “yeah, but…” than a “no way Jose!”  Still, her articulation of what she sees as reasons for embracing gay identity really got me thinking, precisely because I mostly agree with her about all those things.  The intriguing question for me was:  Given that we share so many premises, how the heck did I end up here?  

 In the rest of this post I want to emphasize and explain how the posts that follow are a discussion of my personal experience. Hence the very me-focused title of the series.  This is not “Why Gay Identity Is Bad” or “Your Gay Identity Is A Stench In God’s Nostrils So Get Rid Of It Now Before He Becomes Very Wroth And Smites You.”  I expect that bits and pieces of what I have to say about myself and my life might have some relevance to others. But this is not an advice column, and it’s definitely not a lecture or sermon about what anybody else should be doing.  It kind of started out as an apologia, but it’s not even that now.  It’s more just, “Well, this is what I was thinking.” 

What follows reflects my Christian convictions and my convictions about homosexuality.

Everything that I am going to say assumes that homosex is sin. I know some readers are eagerly waiting for me to defend that assumption. Unfortunately, I’m really busy right now, and therefore reluctant to open the floodgates of controversy.  I suspect I would get many intelligent replies disagreeing with me, which I simply could not adequately respond to right now. I don’t want to start something I can’t finish.

What follows reflects what gayness meant to me.

I am aware that the gayness means different things to different people, which is why I think it’s a little silly to obsess about the word “gay” in the way that some do.  I spell out in my next post what being gay meant to me. What I have to say will probably have little relevance to those with a radically different view. I’d love to hear in the comment threads or via email how others saw things differently, but I don’t intend to take such differences to be objections to what I have to say.  Your Mileage May Vary.

What follows reflects my own positive experience of gay stuff.

Although I don’t get into it explicitly in this series, my struggle with homosexuality and gay identity has always been in part about the difficulty of giving up something valuable, something at least partly good.   This is confusing to some people.  I have heard well-intentioned Christians insist that true healing for the homosexual means “seeing through the deception of homosexuality,” which apparently means devaluing and despising every aspect of gayness and gay life as utterly corrupt and worthless.  So what I have to say in this series will seem to many to stop well short of where I should go.

As I’ve said before, if there was some extraordinary inherent awfulness and emptiness to gay life, God snatched me away before I could discover it. Yes, I converted when I was twenty, and maybe if I’d been a self-avowed unrepentant practicing homosexual until the age of forty or sixty or whatever my perspective would be different. But I can only talk about what I know. My experience of gay love, friendship, community, culture, etc., while far from perfect (hey, it involved me, so what did you expect?) was chock-full of common grace.   When I converted, there was rejoicing in my heart over my new life in Christ, but there was grief as well, a sense of great loss.  Maybe some of that grief was sinful, but I don’t think it all was.  God has made up to me richly and abundantly everything I gave up, but that doesn’t mean the things I gave up initially were worthless. 

I have heard some tragic and painful stories of others’ experiences with gay people, gay relationships, and gay life, and I know many more who were simply far less impressed with their gay adventure than I was.  It is not my intention in this post (or ever) to argue with anyone else’s story.  But again, I can only tell my own.

What follows reflects my observations of the “spiritual dynamics” of gay identity within my own life.

For me, I don’t think gay identity in and of itself was sin, but it wasn’t exactly innocuous either.  It was like Samson going to sleep in Delilah’s lap.  (Jdg. 16)  Temptation is an unavoidable part of life, but there are things we can do to put ourselves right in temptation’s hands (paws? talons?) so that it can abuse us, torment us, get an advantage on us. In this specific case, my homosexual temptations were perhaps unavoidable, but in continuing to embrace my gay identity I made myself more vulnerable to them, weaker agaisnt them. It made it harder for me to think clearly. It compromised me in a lot of ways.  Anyway, I understand that gay identity might interact differently with other people’s spiritual lives.

What follows reflects my own struggle, based on my own specific weaknesses

Abandoning gay identity was a last resort when my spiritual life was more or less in total meltdown. If I had been better at living a celibate gay-identified life, I probably never would have tried anything else. But I had some strikes against me which made that incredibly difficult, and turned my Christian walk into this constant soap opera of whether or not I was going to ditch God:

  1. I was spectacularly butch. Like, getting-repeatedly-barred-from-or-chased-out-of-ladies’-restrooms butch. (Once by a very large female janitor brandishing a mop handle, which was especially exciting!) I suspect that if I had looked a little more normal, I might have felt more comfortable with Christians, and vice versa.
  2. I was deeply ashamed of what a hard time I was having as a homo-attracted Christian. I did not make it look easy. I felt humiliated over being so much worse at something (i.e., being a Christian) than everybody else who was trying it. And I was totally ashamed of being associated with exgays and homophobic evangelicals. My pride kept screaming at me to go back to familiar territory, to what I was good at–as if my libido needed any encouragement! If I hadn’t been so prideful, maybe I wouldn’t have had such a hard time.
  3. I simply could not figure out how to sublimate sexual desire. I had some very patient long-term celibate friends who tried to explain it to me. I believe it’s possible, I really do. I just must really suck at it.  So I was basically super-sexually-frustrated all the time.  (uh, except when I wasn’t.)  

So, my particular issues with gay identity were the issues of a woman struggling fiercely, teetering on the brink of apostasy.  (You can read more about that here and here and a little bit here.)  They may not apply to those who aren’t doing such a crap job of living the Christian life, which most likely includes you, dear reader. 

Go on to Part 2

12 Responses to Why I Forsook Gay Identity, Part 1: Introduction

  1. Jay says:

    I am so looking forward to hearing more from this series. I can identify with a lot of the struggles that you’ve gone through (obviously). I’m having a hard time abandoning gay identity right now, even though I’ve never been “in the lifestyle” so to speak. The sense of great loss that you describe is there…and, mostly, it feels like envy:

    “Well, all those other ex-gays got to enjoy gay life a little before they converted. What about me?”

    I’m looking forward to reading the next post. Keep up the good work, girl!

  2. Ron Belgau says:

    “Well, all those other ex-gays got to enjoy gay life a little before they converted. What about me?”

    Jay,

    I don’t think I ever felt envious of any of the ex-gays I’ve read about. It seems to me that they made singularly bad choices in how they went about “enjoying” gay life. I would never have wanted to live like they did.

    This is not to say that the thought of making a go at having a partner hasn’t crossed my mind. But the only gay lives I’ve ever envied have belonged to those in stable relationships. Aside from a very small number of ex-lesbians, I can’t think of any ex-gays who were in a long-term relationship prior to “coming out of homosexuality.”

    With respect to the whole series, I think “gay identity” is a many-splendored thing.

    One illustration of this: when I was about 22 or 23, I first started getting to know openly gay friends. Someone asked me when I started coming out. I said 17, because that was when I first started talking about it with a straight friend. So, in my mind, I had been coming out for five years at that point. In fact, by 22 or 23, virtually all of my friends knew. It just happened that all of my friends were more or less straight.

    This provoked a little bit of controversy among “the gays.” Could you really count it as “coming out” if you told people you were gay but didn’t make any effort to connect with gay culture? They really just couldn’t fit their mind around someone “coming out” at a place like the University of Washington, being out to all his friends, but not bothering to walk over to the GLB office in the student center, or trying to seek out gay friends.

    So what someone has in mind when they say that they’re “gay” or if they say that they’ve “come out” may vary a bit from one person to another. I was speaking with this thread with a SideB friend yesterday, who’s celibate, has never had sex, and hasn’t had any connection with gay culture. He didn’t even see how “I’m gay” could mean anything beyond a harmless acknowledgement of SSA.

    On the other hand, I often ran into confusion back in the days when I did have contact with the secular gay community through the Microsoft GLBT employee group, with people who couldn’t understand how I could be gay and not be having sex. If I thought gay sex was wrong, I couldn’t be gay, I could only be a self-hating homosexual.

    So I think there may be a lot of variation in what people mean when they talk about having a “gay identity.”

    Moving right along, I don’t relate at all to Eve Tushnet’s rhapsody about the joys of gay culture.

    I think I identify somewhat with the “key turning in the lock” experience, but that was not connected with gay culture at all. That was just a realization I made within myself, years before I had any connection to gay culture beyond seeing articles in the news about AIDS–which I didn’t identify with at all.

    On the other hand, I do feel a rather strong sense of solidarity with GLB’s, in the sense of having a shared experience of alienation. Under ordinary circumstances, I feel almost no identification with gay culture. But let me spend 15 minutes listening to various conservative voices speak their bit about the “gay agenda,” and I start thinking all sorts of defensive thoughts about “my people.” (Incidentally–and perhaps somewhat ironically–ex-gays and reparative therapists doing their “gay identity is evil” schtick have this effect on me in spades. Joseph Nicolosi does a better job of making me feel identified with the gay community than anybody associated with HRC, NGLTF, or any other gay pride group could possibly do.)

    It does not seem to me that, apart from the shared experience of alienation, there would even be a “GLBTQXYZetc community.” There isn’t really anything else that everyone who identifies with that community shares in common. In fact, there are huge differences that, apart from a common threat, would instantly fragment the community into many different pieces.

    I don’t think that gay identity has ever been very central to me. The form in which I contracted “gay identity” was always tightly connected with being celibate.

    For me, the whole thing has mainly been a question of language. Should I use the word gay to describe myself or not? And my conclusion has been, “generally, no, because it can give the wrong connotation to some people, but in some circumstances, yes, in order to avoid seeming to dodge the question.”

    But in the deeper sense of identity–thinking that “my people” are the ones who live in the Castro or the Village, and getting obsessed with all the things that gay men are supposed to be obsessed by–I just really haven’t felt that at any point.

    So I guess I would say that there are several levels to “gay identity”:

    First, there is the sense of sharing something in common with others who have experienced alienation from society, and particularly from the Church. Since this is rooted in fact, it doesn’t seem to me healthy to try to deny it. Doing so leads to downplaying the real sins of conservative Christians, and turns into a form of Stockholm Syndrome. I think that anyone who has experienced this and then trains themself not to feel empathy for others suffering the same alienation is causing serious damage to themselves and others.

    Second, there is the question of language–what terms do we use to identify these feelings? Here, I see the point of why one should be concerned about “gay,” but mainly because there’s been so much propaganda within conservative circles that if you say you’re “gay,” you’re embracing the whole gay agenda. I think that a significant part of the difficulty here stems from needless distortion put forward by conservative leaders in pursuit of partisan, not pastoral purposes.

    Third, there is the question of identity in the deeper sense–who do you identify with in the sense of making them a role model. I think that this kind of identification with the gay community, trying to become stereotypically “gay,” choosing fashions in order to flaunt one’s gayness and fit in with other gay men, and basically turning onself into a Castro Clone–this is obviously bad on all kinds of levels.

    But I think that a lot of the “gay identity” stuff that comes out of Exodus, et al is based on conflating all kinds of “gay identity” with gay identity in the third sense, and this conflation is done for partisan reasons aimed at villifying gays, not out of pastoral concern for understanding what someone means when they say, “I’m gay.”

    In Christ,

    – Ron

  3. Jay says:

    Those are some fascinating thoughts, Ron. For the record, the only “ex-gays” I’ve ever been jealous of to any extent are the ones who I’ve read were involved in long-term, committed relationships (because such a relationship is the only kind I desire). Now that I think about it, more of them were lesbians. I didn’t make that mental distinction at the time. And besides, those feelings come from a very proud, childlike place, so they aren’t something I encourage in myself.

    The rest of your thoughts are, as usual, spot on.

  4. Not new reader says:

    But what you’re both describing is just the very variety of gay life. If my upbringing were 100% gay, I’d be massively unenthused about straight culture if my exposure was watching “The Sopranos”, “Desperate Housewives” and “The 700 Club”. There’s such a wide breadth of gay culture (of course) that saying you don’t feel connected to your brethren in the Castro is like a sregular straight person saying they don’t feel connected to their brethren on “Sex and the City”. But I don’t think it’s entirely a sense of alienantion that binds all these very disparate gay groups – I think the sensation of gay identity has moved well past that for the vast majority of gay Americans. My 15-year duration (Massachusetts) marriage, beloved child with two legal parents, and said parents both having wonderful careers (college professor/anesththetist) where we’re out and and loved by our colleagues – it’s ceratainly not alienation that binds me to my queer community. It’s more a sense of belonging to a slightly exclusive club – I like it.

  5. Jay,

    Yeah, like I said via email, still trying to think of something to stay that doesn’t sound trite or easy. Sigh.

    Ron,

    Wow! When we first met, you struck me as so catty…I sort of assumed…well, let’s just say I didn’t think of you as the sort of guy who would have primarily straight friends. I still have a choice remark or two of yours etched into my brain, seven years later. :)

    I agree totally that gay can mean different things to different people–I tried to acknowledge as much in this post, although perhaps I wasn’t clear.

    I think you’re coming down a little hard on the culture stuff though. You make identity and community and culture sound like things that require slavish adherence, and I don’t think it really has to be quite like that.

    Your view about the alienation-identity link sounds roughly like the Peter Tatchell view–that all this gay identity business is just an unfortunate defensive reaction to a homophobic society, standing in the way of true sexual liberation. Or something like that. I need to think about it more.

    More tomorrow. Must…go…to…bed.

  6. Ron Belgau says:

    Three things. First, I was a smart-ass when I was a kid, so that wasn’t necessarily connected with having gay friends.

    Second, when I first started meeting gay friends in 1997-98, the % of gays in my circle of friends gradually increased. By the time we met in 2000, I had about a 50/50 gay/straight mix among my friends. Among my straight friends, I generally kept the choice remarks somewhat more in check. On the other hand, among gay friends, I had developed my native talents at choice remarkery.

    Third, when I was around you–how can I put this?–it seemed appropriate to play it as gay as I could. Also, you will recall that on that trip, we were around Randy and Carlton (not to mention SteveS). If I recall correctly, I needed to exercise a certain amount of my choice remarking talent to avoid seeming “breederish” by comparison. For some reason (and this may well relate to immaturity and growing up as a gay teen in the ’90’s) I felt that it would be some kind of social disaster if Carlton and Randy came off as being more gay than me. It was some kind of “celibate gay pride.” However, according to SteveS, I lost that competition miserably, despite my best efforts.

    Finally, just to be absolutely clear–I’m not familiar with Peter Tatchell’s views, but based on a cursory glance, I want to be clear that the only similarity is in his views of alienation and identity. I don’t quite endorse his views of sexual liberation. :)

    – Ron

  7. Not new reader:

    I think your point about the Sopranos and the 700 club is well taken. And I certainly wouldn’t say that every LGB indiviidual’s association with gay community and culture is directly based on alienation. But I think there is some plausibility to the idea that gay community, identity, culture as we know them today, in all their diversity, would not have come into being without the alienation factor.

    Am I making sense? There may be plenty of reasons why people feel drawn to gay culture. But I think the very existence of a distinct subculture in the first place is to some degree dependent on alienation. In fact, it seems quite striking to me that I have a hard time thinking of a significant American subculture that doesn’t have its roots in a reaction to alienation, exclusion, or oppression.

    (And I would suggest that at least in the political and religious spheres, there is still plenty of alienation/oppression material to fuel a strong sense of identity even for those who are relatively assimilated and who inhabit gay-friendly parts of the country/world. I don’t know anything about you, but I do know plenty of people who while quite happy and non-alienated in their personal lives are still plenty riled up about perceived political and religious alienation/oppression. So, while I agree with you that we can overstate the alienation point and make it seem as though every gay person identifies with gay community and culture simply out of a sullen feeling of rejection from the straight world, I would stop short of saying that the vast majority have “moved past” alienation. But then, you no doubt have your finger on the pulse of queer America far more than I do, so please correct me if I’m just plain wrong here.)

    The intriguing question, I think, is how well the distinctness of gay culture and community will fare as assimilation and acceptance continue to increase, at least in the short run.* How much pull will the enjoyable feeling of a “slightly exclusive club” hold for LGB folk in coming generations, especially if/after they attain what they consider to be full (and secure) political equality and manage a radical overhaul of religious opinion on the subject?

    *In the long run, probably after we are dead, I expect the pendulum will swing back to more conservative sexual mores, for better or worse, as it has done cyclically throughout human history.

  8. Ron Belgau says:

    I would also add that many GLBT individuals will have a social circle which is bound by many ties beyond shared experience of alienation. However, individual social circles are not the “GLBT community” as a whole.

    I am sure that Not new reader has more experience with gay culture than I do. But even in my relatively limited experience, it seems to me that there is a great deal of diversity within the “GLBT community,” and it is quite possible that there are many GLBT individuals around the country who would not feel at home in Not new reader’s “slightly exclusive club.” Moreover, there are likely lots of GLBT individuals who, for whatever reason, the club would not want to associate with.

    So my point was not that there would not be lots of voluntary associations of GLBT in a world without the shared experience of alienation–there would be, just as there are lots of voluntary associations of heterosexuals and Christians and all sorts of other demographic groups. Birds of a feather flock together. But there is no meaningful “heterosexual community” in this country. There are lots of groups where heterosexuals get together. But those groups do not see themselves as primarily associations of heterosexuals.

    In fact, it is only as GLBT’s are becoming a socially visible group that heterosexuals have even begun to think of themselves as a group at all, and begun to identify themselves as heterosexual.

    In short, none of what I said was meant to imply that GLBT individuals wouldn’t form associations with other GLBT individuals in a world where there was no sense of alienation for being GLBT. What I meant was that absent that sense of alienation, there would be no concept of a “GLBT community,” just as there is no “straight community,” where straight people feel an automatic communal bond with each other just because they are straight.

  9. NNR says:

    But the majority rarely sees themselves as ANYTHING, Ron, unless their backs are to the wall (see 9/11). I certainly do not identify as “white” (even though I plainly am), anymore than reg’lar old straight people self-identify as heterosexual. Maybe this is because of the alienation that blacks and gays have lived with throughout the years, but a lot of it is simply a function of being in the minority. Even those belong to elite minority groups (Harvard alums, Kennedys, Daughters of the American Revolution) demonstrate the”it’s our little club, and you don’t know the secret handshake” aspect of the queer community that DM used to enjoy so much, and I still do. I couldn’t agree more that a large chunk of gay Ameirca would feel uncomfortable in my (East-coast liberal, married-with-kids, sushi-or-vietnamese-tonight, dear?) club. But when I’m at a non-gay event and I make eye contact with a black, working class, uber-butch person who’s obviously a lesbian, I still experience that frisson of – what? Identification? Bonhomie? Shared alienation?! Whatever it is, I enjoy reading DM’s description of it as she is such a wonderfully evocative writer. Maybe it takes looking in from the outside having looked out from the inside for so long in order to be able to do that?

  10. Musings on sexual identity: Views from other bloggers

    I don’t have time at present to comment at length on the following links from various bloggers but I wanted to note them.
    Disputed Mutability has a series of posts regarding the abandonment of a gay identity. The links are as follows: Okay, here …

  11. […] or Christianese. She wrote an excellent three part series on Why I Forsook My Gay Identity. Read Part I and Part II and Part […]

  12. […] My sense is that if you’re Christian and you’ve had experiences like these, you’re more likely to self-identify as gay, and if you haven’t, you’re more likely to self-identify as same-sex attracted. (Although for a contrasting perspective, see here.) […]

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