So, I’m as amused as anyone when the umpteenth “ex-gay” evangelist is spotted leaving a leather bar after another triumphant speech about how Jesus magicked away their sinful homosexual feelings. I’m as incredulous as anyone at folks who insist that homosexuality is a “choice,” seemingly without ever having paused to ask themselves when they “chose” to be attracted to members of the opposite sex. But I nevertheless find it a bit odd that so many people seem so axiomatically certain that every ex-gay personal narrative can only be a tale of confusion and denial.
Here is a story I think we all agree describes something that happens all the time—though not as much as it used to. A young person who naturally feels same-sex attractions suppresses them—perhaps not even allowing himself to be consciously aware of them—because of overwhelming social or familial expectations and norms. They go on to have a series of heterosexual relationships, perhaps even marry. These are not necessarily a complete sham: They will often involve genuine love and affection, and even a modicum of sexual attraction sufficient to get a couple kids produced. Nevertheless, the person has a nagging sense that something is missing, and eventually comes to terms with their own repressed feelings. Though they may, for a time, have sincerely convinced themselves they were straight, they finally acknowledge that, deep down, they’re actually gay.
If we think something along these lines has often occurred, and continues to, then why would we rule out the possibility that it occasionally happens in reverse? Not, of course, because of overwhelming social pressure to be gay, but perhaps (as we sometimes hear in “ex-gay” narratives) some childhood sexual trauma or abuse that leaves the victim with a physical aversion to members of the opposite sex, which they confusedly take to mean they must be gay. It’s true, most self-described “ex gays” sound like they’re engaged in a religiously-motivated form of denial, rather than responding to some genuine personal epiphany about their inner nature. But if people who are actually gay can go years or decades convincing themselves (or trying to convince themselves) that they’re straight, surely it’s at least possible that some small handful of actually-straight people sometimes convince themselves they’re gay.
One obvious pragmatic reason not to want to draw attention to this possibility is that it creates an opportunity for conservative families struggling to accept a gay child or sibling to lapse back into denial: “Aha, maybe you’re the one-in-a-million who only thinks you’re gay! I just know it! How about a couple years of therapy?” The flip side is that makes all this “ex-gay” stuff properly irrelevant to larger discussions about sexual orientation without necessarily calling into question anyone’s personal narrative. We need not insist that a self-described “ex gay” is simply confused: maybe their previous gay identity really was an artificial construct in response to trauma. But that personal story also ceases to have any wider implications. Just as we’d properly find it ridiculous to suggest that, because some people are closeted and later come out, all heterosexuality is a form of denial or mental disorder from which people need to be liberated, we can laugh off attempts to draw inferences from the psychological problems of a handful of people to general conclusions about the larger number of people who really are gay. Not because we claim to know for certain that their private narrative is false, but because people are different enough that not every truth is a universal truth.
Update: Andrew Sullivan is unpersuaded:
So much of the culture and the environment and social pressure is for heterosexuality. It’s the norm. Very, very few people who are the norm in a society where the norm is overwhelmingly celebrated, are going to be in denial that they’re really straight. Maybe a few fluid lesbians in college. But that’s it. I can’t imagine a straight guy feeling in any way pressured to live a gay life.
As several commenters here suggest, part of the problem is an artificially sharp compartmentalization of sexuality into (100%) straight, (100%) gay, and (presumably precisely equally attracted to both genders) bisexual. And we know that doesn’t actually describe people very well. Indeed, we know most people are fairly adaptive, so that in gender segregated environments (prisons, boarding schools) people who in the outside world would exhibit completely heterosexual behavior will, after enough time, take their sexual gratification where they can get it. We can imagine a boy otherwise disposed to be straight who, as a result of some childhood sexual trauma, has a powerful averse reaction to anything approaching sexual contact with women, effectively ruling that option out. You’d have the psychological equivalent of being stuck in a permanent boarding school: Even if you weren’t or wouldn’t naturally be most attracted to other men, they’re what’s (psychologically) available. Strong as social pressure is, it’s not as strong as the human sex drive.
Again, I suspect this describes an extraordinarily tiny number of people, if it’s true of anyone. I’m just suspicious of the instinct to dismiss out of hand reports of human sexual or psychological experience that fall outside some small set of prefab categories.