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.