Haggard, Take Two: How Many Legs Does A Dog Have, If You Call The Tail A Leg?

February 15, 2007

 (Uh, if you aren’t familiar with Abe Lincoln’s riddle, the answer is: Four.  Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.)

Jay says, in response to my Haggard post:

After talking to several ex-gays with opinions differing from my own, I’ve come to realize that their definitions of homosexual and heterosexual don’t seem to line up with Merriam-Webster’s, if you know what I mean. Mike Ensley and I once discussed the hullabaloo surrounding the “gay-identity” issue within ex-gay ministries, and he said something that I found somewhat interesting:

“I’ve developed a deep (and very freeing) conviction that homosexuality is just an experience some people have–it’s not a thing a person can be. Even people who identify as gay aren’t homosexuals.”

[Jay links to his conversation with Ensley here…]

I could be wrong, but I’ve gotten a sense that many within ex-gay ministries hold a belief that, because all humans were meant to be perfectly heterosexual, then that is the way one should define oneself, no matter what one’s actual feelings are. It seems to me reminiscent of “Name It and Claim It” ideology. I personally don’t hold too much ill-will towards such a view, but I do think it is impractical and misleading.

This post is all about emphatically agreeing with Jay.  The idiosyncrasies of exgay language, in my humble opinion, have gotten completely out of control. 

I know that I personally feel that I have no grip on what people are talking about anymore when they claim to be “heterosexual”.  I know enough to not naively draw the wrong conclusions, but not enough to know what the heck is going on.  And I am someone who, while not a mainstream exgay herself, has read most of the classic exgay texts, has spent years in exgay groups, etc.   And it’s not just me being dense–I know others who feel the same way.

To give you an idea of what I’m concerned with, let me share a few examples of Fun With The Word ‘Heterosexual’.  The first two are specific instances with links, the latter two are more general observations:

  •  –John Smid supposedly said to John Paulk, while trying to encourage him in the midst of his struggles, “The label of ex-gay is still connected with your past. … So from now on … you’re not an ex-gay; you’re a man. And not just a man, but a heterosexual. That’s how everyone sees you.” Now, in fairness I must state that I am borrowing this quote from Ralph Blair’s review of Paulk’s book, and he is hardly an unbiased reviewer.  I myself have not read the book, I do not have access to it, and I do not plan to buy it.  If this quote, fraught with ellipses as it is, distorts what Paulk wrote, please let me know either via the comments or email.  But to me it seems representative of other things I’ve heard and read in exgay circles.
  • –This next one is discussed well by Box Turtle Bulletin. Alan Chambers states in God’s Grace and the Homosexual Next Door that he is “completely heterosexual.”  But then in his CNN appearance  discussing Haggard, he’s much more conservative and nuanced in his claims, about how he “will never be as though [he] never was,” that he’s still human and could be homosexually tempted again, that his feelings are “diminished” and “different”, that he chooses to “live beyond [his] feelings.”  All of that is fine, but it’s certainly not what first comes to mind when someone tells me that he’s “completely heterosexual.”  (On a side note, this talk about “living beyond your feelings” sounds creepily detached and denial-ish to me.  I don’t live beyond my feelings.  I just don’t do everything my feelings tell me to.  The difference seems significant to me.)
  • –I’ve heard exgays come up with definitions of heterosexuality that have nothing to do with being interested in the opposite sex.  So, for example, I’ve heard that heterosexuality is about being secure in one’s identity in God.  Or, alternatively, that heterosexuality is about being mature and comfortable with oneself as a man or woman.  Or, heterosexuality is about having healed your childhood root issues–once those are dealt with, you’re healed, you’re heterosexual, even though you may not feel anything for the opposite sex.  Or, heterosexuality is about not being tangled up in a gay identity or “the gay lifestyle,” regardless of who you’re hot for, or how many guys you inexplicably find yourself in random sexual encounters with.
  • –And then there’s that infamous old saw, “There are no homosexuals, only heterosexuals with homosexual problems.”

Of course, accompanying all these bizarre uses of the word “heterosexual,” there are also parallel uses of words like “homosexual” and “gay.”  People profess to not be gay and not be homosexual, or they say that they are no longer gay, or no longer homosexual, but you can’t draw any conclusions from that about their sexual attractions.  (At least, if you’re smart, you won’t draw any conclusions.)

So, basically, I have a big problem with all of this. 

We have an important responsiblity to communicate clearly, honestly, and accurately.  We might find it unfortunate that the world should use and understand words in a certain way.  But we have a responsibility to be aware of how our words will be understood, and to take care that people will not get the wrong idea.  Civilization as we know it depends on words not being able to mean whatever we want them to mean.  If I am “completely heterosexual,” all is permitted.

I understand that people have their reasons for using words the way they do.

For example, I know some people use words a little differently because they think our society places too much importance on sexual attractions, and it surely does.  If we want to be coy about where out sexual attractions are at, or if we don’t think it’s anyone’s business, that’s fine.  It probably isn’t anyone’s business, unless we choose to make it theirs by using our professed orientation change as grounds for some political argument.  But let’s not cloak that coyness or reticence in words that will mislead.

I know we were all created to be heterosexual, in attraction and activity.  I don’t mean to deny that.  But the fact is, this little thing called The Fall happened, and it screwed that all up.  And we need to be honest with ourselves and with others about how it has affected us.  I don’t think there’s any virtue in being in denial with ourselves or misleading others about the impact of the Fall on our lives. 

Some people may feel it’s helpful for the purposes of encouraging “self-talk” in identity matters to call themselves straight or hetero.  Perhaps kind of like how I have occasionally in the past called myself a “rockstar” or a “champ” while psyching myself up to do something I was really anxious about, like taking an exam or giving a talk.  I’m kind of uneasy with people doing that in the realm of sexuality, but I suppose it’s okay.  Still, I don’t bring my bathroom mirror pep-talk routine into my communications with others, and I don’t take it very seriously in any case.  I don’t let other people (or myself) actually believe that I’m a famous musician or a middleweight titleholder! 

Somewhat relatedly, I know some people are into the whole name-it-and-claim-it theology.  I’ll be blunt with you, I absolutely abhor that stuff.   But even I did accept it, I would not extend my “naming and claiming” to situations where it would actively misinform other people.  Maybe (although I seriously doubt it) it would be fine in your private devotional life, or in a small group of believers who know you well and understand what you are doing.  But if someone is asking you whether you are heterosexual, because they are curious about what sorts of change have occurred in your life, it is not the time or the place to start claiming in faith all sorts of changes that have not yet happened for you. 

And finally, I know that some people use words in the way they do as an expression of rebellion against our society’s way of thinking and talking about sexuality, a rebellion to which I am deeply sympathetic.  I find the concept of sexual orientation that is in common currency today really unhelpful, and I hope to explore this further in a series of posts on the subject of gay identity that’s on the way.  The world asks, “Are you gay or straight?” and if the answer is “gay”, then it says that “being true to yourself” and your life fulfillment hinges on embracing your attractions and pursuing sex or relationships with others like you.  Homosexual attractions are taken to be indicative of some deep fact about one’s nature and identity which must be obeyed, rather than being just another temptation or sin struggle.  I understand why people want to rebel against this, why using their language feels like playing along with something we don’t want to play along with.

But the way I see it, none of these reasons can be an excuse for speaking deceptively.  And the fact is, unless we explain things very clearly, if we claim to be heterosexual, people will understand that to primarily mean that we are attracted solely to the opposite sex.  Again, unless we explain things very clearly, if we deny being gay or homosexual, people will understand us to primarily be saying that we are not attracted to the same sex (unless we say that we are bisexual).  This may be frustrating and lamentable, but it is the way it is.  We can do what we can to try to change the discourse, but in the meantime I feel that honesty demands that we not cause others to have false beliefs about our sexualities and attractions, that we be responsible stewards of our words.  And toward that end, I would make three suggestions.

1.  We ought not to be absolutely allergic to speaking in terms that people will understand.

 Even though we may dislike certain words with their common meanings, sometimes they are the best way to convey the truth.  Sometimes, if someone asks you if you are gay or homosexual, the best answer is “Yes, but…” or “Well, sort of, but…”  We have to recognize that in most cases people who ask us these sorts of questions, though their conceptual foundations may be messed up, are primarily interested in our sexual attractions, or sometimes our behavior.  They are generally not primarily interested in our sense of identity, especially if they already know what our beliefs are.  So we need to acknowledge this in the answers we give to them, and answer in a way that communicates the truth.  If our attractions are predominantly homosexual, and we are responding to the questions of someone who may not be able to understand a complex explanation of our views, sometimes the most accurate, honest, and even most God-honoring answer to the question “Are you gay?” or “Are you homosexual?” is “Yes.”

2.  We can turn our conversations toward a vocabulary we find more suitable. 

We’ve done this pretty well with “same-sex attracted,” I think.  (I personally prefer “homosexually-attracted” or “homo-attracted”, partly because they’re easier to understand, and partly because I think a lot of people just need to get a grip when it comes to applying any “homo-” word to themselves, but whatever.)  Some of us don’t feel that words like “gay” or “homosexual” accurately convey what we’re talking about, so we use different terminology.

I think it’s fine to tell our conversational partners that we can’t express our views fully in their preferred vocabulary, and to share our own with them.  And with minimal creativity and effort, we can explain our sexuality and our convictions without using any orientationist buzzwords at all.  We can say things like, “Well, I’m attracted to men, but because of my religious beliefs that sex belongs in the context of marriage between a man and a woman, I’m not looking for a sexual relationship.”

I honestly think this is the best way to handle both how we present ourselves to others and how we think of ourselves.  If you’re really worried about gay identity, then stop thinking and speaking of yourself in gay-related terms altogether!  Saying “I’m not gay!” buys into a gay identity worldview just as much as saying “I’m gay!” does.   You cannot “move beyond” the latter without moving beyond the former as well.  The same goes for “heterosexual” and “homosexual.”

If we don’t like the orientationist vocabulary of “gay,” “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” “sexual orientation,” and the like, we can simply decline to use it, for the most part.  We do not have to abuse it by employing it in a way that misleads others. 
3.  If we’re going to use the world’s words differently from how others are using them, we ought to make that clear.

So, my personal feeling is that we ought not apply the adjective “heterosexual” to ourselves unless we are overwhelmingly predominantly attracted to the opposite sex.  And, we ought not to describe ourselves to outsiders as “not gay” or “not homosexual” if our attractions are predominantly directed towards people of the same sex.  (Within exgay circles and with those Christians who understand what their words mean, I suppose people can use whatever lingo or dialect they want.  I’m mostly concerned with how we present ourselves to those who won’t understand our linguistic eccentricities.)

But, if some of us feel that we absolutely must say, “I’m not homosexual,” then we ought to explain why: “…because I believe that nobody is really homosexual,” or whatever the reason is.   If we are predominantly same-sex attracted and we say, “I’m not gay…”  we had better add “but you see, I think that gayness is a matter of identity rather than attraction.”  Specifically, if we are going to talk in non-standard terms, we ought to be explicitly crystal clear about our attractions.  “I consider myself heterosexual…but when I’m real stressed and tired and lonely, I sometimes still get turned on by a good-looking guy.”  Yes, we might sound like idiots, but better to sound like an idiot than to deceive others.  And that fact that saying those things sounds idiotic may indicate something about whether we should be saying them at all!  (See my two preceding suggestions.) 

I know that some people don’t want to be explicit about their attractions, because they’re ashamed of them.  I don’t think they should be ashamed–I think such shame generally stems from an unhealthy embrace of the pathologizing Freudian stuff, which we all know I hate.  Or, it stems from the false belief that this sin, this temptation, is worse than others, that the fact that you experience is says something exceptionally bad about you as a person or a Christian, which we all know I’m not a big fan of either.  But I don’t want to beat up on the ashamed people for being ashamed–I know they’ve got enough problems without me ragging on them.  So all I will say is that if you are too ashamed of your attractions to tell the truth about them, then don’t talk about them at all.  If someone asks you, tell them it’s none of their business.  Just don’t mislead others.  That, in my opinion, is something that is much more appropriate to be ashamed of.


Haggard’s Cure

February 12, 2007


When I wrote this post, I assumed that the person who informed the press that Haggard was “completely heterosexual,” someone who was acting in an overseer’s capacity over Haggard in some respect, would accurately relate Haggard’s own view of his progress.   At the time that seemed like an obvious assumption–what motive could his church have for exaggerating or misrepresenting his healing?  Why would they risk getting egg on their face and looking like dupes again, by making some over-optimistic claim that Haggard wouldn’t even make for himself?  Wouldn’t they be more likely, as those overseeing and counseling him, having been burned by his deception in the past, to encourage him to be more humble, more cautious, more moderate in his views of himself?   I sort of imagined it in my head as Haggard arguing with them, “Guys, I swear!  It’s for real this time! I’m completely heterosexual!”, and the committee only grudgingly, gradually relenting and agreeing to convey this news to the press.  I was angry at them for agreeing to go along with this lunacy.  (Unless it was a miraculous transformation.  Even then, I think a little caution in declaring this miracle authentic would be wise.) 

But the more that I think about it (Eve Tushnet planted the seed of doubt in the comment thread below), the assumption that the overseers would necessarily accurately convey Haggard’s view of his sexuality seems slightly less obvious.  It has occurred to my inner cynic that perhaps the overseers in the church (and the special team of people who agreed to oversee his counseling/healing process) just might want to make this whole thing disappear, get it over with, rather than deal with the messy long term reality of the struggle.  Let’s just say he’s fine, and ship him off to the Midwest!  I’d hate to think that they would do this, but it’s possible. 

I see that the email  that Haggard sent to some members of the church–two days before the “completely heterosexual” statement hit the presses–seems extraordinarily restrained in its claims about healing, and the word “heterosexual,” not to mention the phrase “completely heterosexual,” does not appear.  He says, rather, “As part of New Life’s efforts to help me, they sent Gayle and me to Phoenix for a three-week psychological intensive that gave us three years worth of analysis and treatment. We all wanted to know why I developed such incongruity in my life. Thankfully, with the tools we gained there, along with the powerful way God has been illuminating His Word and the Holy Spirit has been convicting and healing me, we now have growing understanding which is giving me some hope for a future.” 

So, if Haggard doesn’t think he’s completely heterosexual, or healed, or whatever, much of what I have to say below may not apply to him.  If it is his church overseers who decided themselves to declare him completely heterosexual, I am doubly (or more like octuply!) horrified at them for making a statement that I believe is likely to bear destructive fruit.

Anyway, I’ve edited this post in order to correct it accordingly–making explicit my assumptions in some places, and getting rid of them in others. 


 The “same new reader” has requested a post on Ted Haggard’s cure.

Well, I don’t think it’s likely that he’s completely heterosexual, if that’s what you’re asking.  Of course, we have to remember that “completely heterosexual” can mean almost anything in certain exgay or evangelical circles, depending on whom you talk to.  But let’s assume that it means that his sexual attractions are solely directed towards women, that he has no sexual interest in men whatsoever.  And, let’s assume for this discussion that “completely heterosexual” is how Haggard would describe himself, something which is not clear, as the assertion of his complete heterosexuality was made by a church overseer and not by himself.

The way I see it, there are three possibilities at this point:

1.  He was instantaneous, miraculously changed.

I’ll admit, I don’t understand why God would change Haggard instead of the many other people I know and love who would be delighted to experience such a transformation.  But, then again, I’m not God, and there are a lot of things that God does that I don’t quite understand. 

2.  He’s flat-out lying, intentionally b.s.-ing everyone.

I know it’s not nice to suggest this.  I’d point out, though, that after the scandal broke, he was stunningly deceptive and slippery in his statements, always denying everything until denial is totally futile, and then admitting to as little as possible.  More like a politician than a shepherd of souls, if you ask me.  I would put more stock in his honesty if he had been forthright from the beginning. 

3.  He genuinely feels and believes that he is fixed.

There’s two ways this could be brought about.  I don’t know what took place in his intensive therapy, but perhaps it was some sort of Clockwork Orange thing.  I think it’s entirely possible that at least in the short run, a man could be made to believe that he is completely heterosexual through aversion therapy or programming or the like.  I’m inclined to think that in the short run, any sort of belief or behavior can be produced in a human being. 

Or perhaps (this is the second way) it’s not a matter of therapy at all, but simply the good old time-honored techniques of self-deception and wishful thinking.  In the short run, when we want to badly enough, we can believe almost anything about ourselves–even without a professional’s aid.  It is very easy to take a temporary fluctuation or easing up in our attractions as proof of a “cure”.  It is easy to reinterpret our feelings, in the short run at least, treating them as something other than they are. 

This sort of thing is fairly common among people who desire attraction change.  If I had a nickel for every person who ecstatically shared with me how much their attractions were changing, how much they were experiencing God’s healing touch, and then months or years later told me it was all a crock (usually on their way back to embracing homosexual relationships), well, I might not be rich but I would definitely have a lot of nickels. 

There can be a lot of fluctuations in our experience of our sexuality (over days or weeks or months) that don’t necessarily mean much.  So, for example, as I’ve discussed before, my sexual attractions evaporated almost completely in the residential program.  And there were times outside of that when I discovered that wasn’t attracted to a particular woman, or that I took a certain sort of interest in a man, and made it out to be something much bigger than it was.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying seasons of lessened attraction to the same sex or increased interest in the opposite sex.  But I think we set ourselves up for serious disappointment if we take any of these things as conclusive proof of permanent healing.  You can very easily find yourself a week or a month later right back where you were. 

This is not to say, however, that attraction change is impossible, that all experiences of fluidity are but fleeting and deceptive. I do not think we have evidence for saying as much, and my own story suggests otherwise, at least to me.  I know other people who have gone through exgay ministries and/or therapy who tell me they have experienced attraction change that is meaningful to them, even if it isn’t “complete heterosexuality,” and in many cases I believe them.  (I’m baffled by the tendency of some to take all exexgay/antiexgay testimonies at face value, and to dismiss all exgay testimonies.  It seems to me that both groups in general could have motives and reasons for seeing things through somewhat distorted lenses.)  Furthermore, while I don’t know any of them personally, I have heard of several instances of perfectly ordinary gay people (both male and female), thoroughly embracing their homosexuality, who one day find themselves falling in love with and sexually drawn to a person of the opposite sex.  My understanding is that most gay people would acknowledge such examples of random fluidity, although they might dismiss it as bisexuality.  (“REAL gay people could never fall in love with someone of the opposite sex.”)  I’m not opposed to calling it bisexuality, as long as it is acknowledged that it is a stealthy, surprising sort of bisexuality, with which you can have attractions and experiences identical to that of a thoroughly homosexual person for many years, and then suddenly start feeling something else out of the blue.  None of us, no matter how gay, can know for sure that we aren’t that sort of “sleeper” bisexual.     

I don’t think we can always neatly sort the fleeting from the non-fleeting, or the deceptive from the real.  As I’ve shared before, I put off Mr. DM’s talk about marriage for a while, not sure whether I could trust my feelings toward him or not.  And while we ought not be permanently paralyzed by the uncertainty of the future, as I eventually decided in connection with Mr. DM, I do think that we ought to be cautious, circumspect within reasonable limits.   This proclamation of complete heterosexuality, to me, indicates an unfortunate lack of caution. It’s a little hasty, to say the least.  And to talk about “complete” anything, this side of heaven, sounds awfully sketchy to my ears. 

Regardless of what the correct explanation is for the announcement, I suspect it will turn out to have bad results.  The way I see it, either people won’t believe that Haggard is completely hetero, or they will.  If they don’t believe it, and find those claims preposterous, they may be inclined to tar all of us who profess to have experienced some sort of change and/or who are simply seeking to honor God through celibacy with the same brush.  I fear that Haggard’s example will be brought up to mock and discourage those who are pursuing celibate or exgay paths, in a way that might be hurtful to them.  And if people do believe that Haggard is now completely hetero, as I fear some evangelicals might, this will make things even worse for the homo-attracted believers.  For without any qualification, the announcement suggests that change isn’t all that hard, that anyone can do it, in three weeks even!  What’s wrong with you, O homo-attracted Christian?  Why aren’t you straight yet?  Perhaps you don’t have enough faith?  Or perhaps you don’t really want to be healed?  C’mon, we’re getting impatient!

A church of New Life’s size must have dealt with some “strugglers,” must be aware of the complexities surrounding these matters of faith, homosexuality, and change.  I wish for the sake of the homo-attracted in their own congregation, as well as the church at large, they had been more careful to make a nuanced statement which acknowledges the realities of life for the majority of homo-attracted people, if not Haggard himself.