Post-Ex-Gay

October 15, 2009

I am officially no longer ex-gay identified.

Now, before anyone starts either panicking or dancing in the streets, let me say that nothing has really changed. My lifestyle, my loves, my convictions, my feelings, my views, are all pretty much where they were when I left off. I just finally realized that I haven’t been much of an ex-gay for a while now. (Which, yes, some of you have been trying to tell me for years.)

For those who are wondering why I ever snuggled up to the word in the first place, well, it did some things I needed it to do back in the day. After my religious conversion, I felt exiled from gaydom, very dyke-without-a-country, afflicted with a ridiculous traitor-guilt complex. (What a crippling loss for the gays! How will they ever get by?) I craved a new tribe to latch onto, and the ex-gays were there for me! Also, they were the folks who had been primarily responsible for bringing me to Jesus, and the folks I imprinted on as a young believer trying to figure out what it meant to walk with God, so it made sense that I would see myself as becoming one of them. And “ex-gay” allowed me to get a little emotional distance from “gay” without having to be normal. (Celibacy I could accept. Assimilation never!)

When I was going through some really difficult seasons of struggle, which was most of the time during the early years, the hardness and combativeness of “ex-gay” both reflected and reaffirmed my resolve to stay faithful to my convictions and the path that I believed most honored God, and my efforts to intentionally reject and disown “gay identity.” (No, I haven’t forgotten the series. Yep, I know I need to finish it.) Using the label “ex-gay” was my way of trying to be tough about what I was leaving behind: “Screw you, gayness! I never really liked you anyway!” And what to do about girls and my feelings for girls was, for better or worse, an issue which dominated my thought and life for years. It was my battle. “Ex-gay,” I think, did a good job of describing that. Whether or not the issue should have dominated my life so is a trickier question to answer.

I never ever thought the word meant “straight.” When a friend asked me shortly after my religious conversion what an “ex-gay” was, I replied, “Oh, that’s what evangelicals call their gay people.” It never occurred to me to consider it misleading. The self-identified ex-gays I knew were all over the map on how much attraction change they claimed to have experienced, and for the most part they all seemed honest (and obvious!) about where they were at, at least in private conversation.

I’m still unconvinced that the word is inherently deceptive. From what I’ve seen, when someone hears it for the first time, they don’t assume it means “purely heterosexual;” rather, they look puzzled and ask you what it means. In all my time blogging as an alleged so-called “ex-gay,” I’ve only had one woman mistake me for a “heterosexual,” and I wrote to her right away to clear things up, because we can’t have people thinking that!   In general, I believe that presenting ourselves and our lives with honesty and integrity and faithfulness is what matters, and I feel I’ve more or less successfully managed to do that on this blog, even though it has been infected with the dreaded “ex-gay” label for quite some time.

(There’s an interesting parallel here with evangelical hang-ups over ssa conservative Christians who have renounced homosexual sex and relationships who nevertheless call themselves “gay.” As I’ve said before, there may be issues with at least some forms of gay identity for the repentant believer. But throwing hissy fits because someone has dared to describe themselves as “gay” is missing the point completely. You have to ask what the person means; you have to discern what is going in their minds, hearts, and lives.)

Why did I stick with “ex-gay” for so many years, even as I became keenly aware of its limitations?

For a while I did it precisely because I was frustrated with and embarrassed by a lot of the stuff going on in the ex-gay movement. It seemed like a useful exercise in humility, a way of clobbering my ever-burgeoning intellectual arrogance, to force myself to identify with folks who were driving me nuts with the sorts of things they were saying and doing. Along similar lines, I kept calling myself ex-gay (at least in the blogosphere) because I didn’t want to be a coward who ran from the movement as it became increasingly scorned, pitied, and reviled. It is better for my soul for me to be counted with the unpopular, with the losers, with the fools. (Side note:  I highly recommend this Catholic prayer!) And I kept it up in part because of my dislike of the trend where more and more ex-gays insist on abandoning not only the “ex-gay” label but apparently all descriptive words for talking about our sexuality. “I’m not ex-gay, I’m not gay, I’m not straight, I’m not bisexual. I’m just me!” Or “…I’m just a child of God!” Look, I appreciate that we’re all infinitely complex and unique little snowflakes who can’t be reduced to any one label, and I appreciate that for the believer our identity in Christ is the most important thing, but I’m not cool with forsaking the use of adjectives to describe ourselves and the facts of our lives. I don’t think that’s a viable way forward.  Being a faithful Christian cannot mean that we must refuse to discuss or name any other aspect of our lives.  And honestly, I feel that this is what the anti-labelling movement among ex-gays often amounts to.  It means making coy allusions to the “possibility of being tempted again someday” and to the fact that we will “never be as though we never were.”  (And yeah I know some people argue that our same-sex attractions are irrelevant and that talking about them and answering questions about them is making too much of a concession to the world’s and the gay activists’ priorities.  But isn’t keeping silent about our same-sex attractions sometimes making too much of a concession to straight ‘phobes in the church, who want us at least to give them the freedom (by our silence) to imagine us as fully heterosexual, even if we can’t manage to actually be fully heterosexual for them?)

And I guess I also stuck with “ex-gay” because I didn’t have an alternative I preferred.

Peter Ould has been trying to introduce his concept of “post-gay” as a replacement for “ex-gay,” the fundamental idea (I think) being that we should not think of ourselves in terms of gay or straight, that we should not let ourselves or our lives or our walks with God be defined by those “un-Biblical” categories. Also, he sees “post-gay” as putting more emphasis on direction rather than position: what matters isn’t one’s precise location on the Kinsey scale, but which way one’s journey is headed. As he puts it, “I’m post-gay because I chose to leave “gay” behind. I chose to no longer accept “gay” as an explanation of who I was and instead to begin a journey away from it.” (I believe commenter “Eddy” on Warren Throckmorton’s blog has on several occasions defended a similarly directional understanding of “ex-gay,” but I don’t have a link at the moment.)  There’s some helpful stuff there, but I’m not completely sold–another post for another day. In any case, my big problem with “post-gay” is that I learned an older definition first, many years ago as a young dyke. So when I hear “post-gay,” I instinctively think of someone who doesn’t want to be burdened with gay sensibility and culture, but plans to keep on having homosexual sex. Which, if you think about it, is pretty much the opposite of an ex-gay: Camp is all we’ve got left!

As I’ve said before, “bisexual” is fine in many contexts, and I use it in those contexts, but I often found myself wanting a word that hinted at more of my story. The thing is, either I didn’t become bisexually-attracted until around my 26th birthday, or I was so stupid that I didn’t realize I was bisexually-attracted until around my 26th birthday. I had tried to find some feelings for the other half of the species on several occasions before: first as a teenager, in order to try to appease my mom and get my peers to leave me alone a little (after years of getting kicked around for being such a queer), and later as a young twenty-something evangelical convert, in order to see if I had any chance of escaping the doom of celibacy. All efforts failed dismally. So my early ex-gay years were as frustrating and scary as anybody’s, and have shaped my life, my perspectives, and my attitudes in ways which are relevant to my writing here. For example, if I had been more bisexual at the time of my conversion, and thus had an easier transition and a more hopeful attitude about the whole business, I think I would be much more pro-ex-gay than I am today, and have much less empathy with the celibate queer crowd and the former ex-gay crowd.

Some folks like “people with unwanted homosexual attractions” or some variation on that. But the thing is, I’m not sure that I “unwant” my homosexual attractions. At least, I doubt that’s a helpful way to think about it. We normally call things “unwanted” that we can at least in principle do something about. Things we can intentionally get rid of, or at least reduce significantly. Unwanted gifts, unwanted pets, unwanted pregnancies, etc. I guess I don’t think that homosexual attractions really belong with these. It’s not that we have to want them or ought to want them, it’s just that it’s not terribly helpful to dwell on whether we want them or not.

So yeah, no great ideas for a replacement.  (I have a soft spot in my heart for “failed homosexual,” but don’t really see it catching on.)  But I need to ditch “ex-gay” anyway. It just feels wrong.

Partly it’s because of an inevitable lifestyle shift and a resulting shift in spiritual focus. Gay/ex-gay stuff just isn’t my battle any more. Yes, I’m “still” attracted to women, though to be honest, what with chasing a 17 month old around all day and the nausea and exhaustion which come along with another on the way (19 weeks), I have lots of days when I feel pretty much post-sexual. But even when things are more libidinally lively, ssa just isn’t that big a deal. In fact, it’s not a deal at all. I have the utmost respect those folks who talk frankly about lifelong struggle and a need for daily prayer about this stuff, but that’s just not where I’m at. I like some girls, I like some guys, and I’m in love with my man. So the warrior-toughness of “ex-gay,” which was a big part of my motive for adopting the label in the first place, seems irrelevant now.

I’ve had people chide me for this, perhaps rightly so, but I don’t really have much interest in eradicating or diminishing my homosexual attractions. Maybe if I were radiantly holy, and the only thing that was even slightly questionable about my soul was my lingering love for the ladies. But you know, I’m not really all that sanctified. I have huge spiritual struggles with pride, greed, unrighteous anger, sloth, “fear of man,” selfishness, etc. And all of those, unlike my ssa, are a daily threat to my walking in faithfulness and obedience to God, to my enjoying close fellowship with Him, to my growing in faith. So honestly, I can’t really be bothered with growing into full heterosexual maturity and wholeness or whatever given that I’ve got all those to deal with.

But the biggest reason for ditching “ex-gay” is that my blogging journey has led me to a place of deepening alienation and confusion with respect to the broader ex-gay movement, what I have sometimes called the ex-gay mainstream, including but certainly not limited to Exodus and its referral ministries.  (I’m not suggesting that they all march in lockstep, I know there’s diversity there.  The general feel of the “movement” is what I’m talking about.)

There are two aspects to this alienation.  The first is that my dissenting views have become more fleshed out and solid.  So, for example, I think I’ve always been uncomfortable about the developmental theories and how they are used/administered in ex-gay ministry.  I’ve always thought that ex-gay involvement in the culture war and in efforts to oppose gay-rights measures was a bad idea.  And I’ve long been troubled by a tension I sense between the pursuit of healing for ssa on the one hand and the pursuit of discipleship and Christian maturity on the other.  (Of course true healing of one’s real wounds is not incompatible with discipleship and Christian growth!  But I worry that the efforts and approaches that ex-gay ministries advocate in the “healing” area may hinder and sabotage their efforts in the “discipleship” area.  My own journey had me leaving ex-gay ministry to put myself in a non-ex-gay Christian residential program in order to find meaningful growth as a believer.)  But before my blogging, my stances on these matters were relatively fuzzy, because I hadn’t taken the time to think about them.  Over these years of trying to work out my views and share them with others, these vague discomforts and worries have crystallized into strong convictions.  And this has made my sense that I don’t fit in with other ex-gays much more acute.  Whereas before my joining an ex-gay group or attending an ex-gay conference would have been fundamentally a happy and comfortable event tainted by a little awkwardness and conflict, now it would be mostly uncomfortable and perhaps even painful for me, mitigated by some sense of commonality of experience and faith.  It would not be fellowship; it would be dialogue.

The second and more serious aspect of my alienation from the ex-gay world…sigh.

I’ve written and rewritten this section of the post many times, trying to find a way to articulate my thoughts that is both charitable and gracious and gentle and yet honest about what I’m seeing and feeling.  I haven’t figured it out yet.

But maybe I can say this:  There’s a sense in which the sorts of disagreements I mention above were/are a relatively small problem.   I could understand where the ex-gays stood on those matters, and why. I could see how given their experiences and perspectives and personalities, they could arrive at the positions they did while still being fundamentally decent people and sincere lovers of Jesus.  Sure, I noticed that there were often errors in their beliefs and reasoning, and that they often put their trust in sources that didn’t deserve it, and that they were sometimes too hesitant to question things that obviously should be questioned, and that their brains would sometimes short out if someone got too close to threatening one of their sacred cows.    But these are simply intellectual foibles which afflict all of us.  I’m sure others can spot plenty of places where I am guilty of them.  Our differences didn’t used to strike me as a difference of heart.

So maybe the safest way to phrase my concern here is that I just don’t feel I understand the heart or values of Exodus any more.  I once believed that we shared the same heart, that we cared about the same things, that we cherished and pursued the same virtues, in spite of all our disagreements.  I felt that our fundamental goals were the same, even if we had some different ideas about the best ways to reach them.  That’s why I could say in my old and horrifically-out-of-date “About Me” page that I saw myself as “pro-ex-gay in the deepest, truest, and purest sense.”  Now…I just have no idea.  Sometimes I find the things they say and do so baffling that I can’t come up with a charitable interpretation.  The fault may well lie in my own lack of comprehension rather than in Exodus, but the end result is still the same:  alienation.  The confusion lamented in this post has only grown more intense.

Which brings me to the last reason for my decision to move past “ex-gay”:  I’ve found new community for thinking about these issues through this and other blogs. Yay!  I’ve encountered all these awesome gay/ssa folk who more or less share my religious convictions about homosexuality but mostly situate themselves outside of the ex-gay movement. And these are the people that especially interest me–that’s where the cool stuff is happening! These are the folks I want to think through and talk through and wrestle through these issues with.   I don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with them all on everything, but I feel like we see the same problems and are asking the same sorts of questions.  And this is a very exciting and happy thing for me, which is why I am ending my list of reasons with it.  For so many years I felt like a minority of one, maybe sometimes part of a minority of two or three.  But mostly folks just looked at me kinda crazy when I tried to articulate my views and concerns, or worse, patronizingly assured me that I would understand someday when I had progressed further in my healing.  Now I know that while I may be wrong, I’m not crazy.  And if I’m not healed, well, I like the company I’m in!

(Gay-affirming friends and readers, please do not feel neglected by the above paragraph.  You know I love you and delight in your presence, real and/or virtual.  It’s just that I always knew that you were out there.  It was an enormous and wonderful surprise to discover that so many other people like me with my convictions exist.)

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So where does all this leave me? Well, I don’t think I’ll be able to completely abstain from using the word “ex-gay”. It still is the most widely known expression for referring to people like me or to the issues I talk about here, and it’s certainly the easiest shorthand.  And it brings home the Google bacon, or at least it used to back when I updated this blog monthly instead of yearly. But consider this the beginning of a deliberate move away from it when possible.

This also means that I have to redo the About Me page, which is now a complete wince-fest for me anyway , given all the different ways in which my perspective has evolved.

And now I will get to work on another post.


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