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Are There Any Genuine Ex-Gays?

July 29th, 2011 · 20 Comments

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.

Tags: Sexual Politics



20 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joel // Jul 29, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I think the more likely case is that Kinsey was right, and there are people at many points along the Heterosexual-Homosexual scale, and one’s place might change over time. Someone might be on the more Hetero- side, but just happen to have a deep emotional relationship with someone of the same sex first. If that relationship deteriorates, the person may find themselves more attracted to the opposite sex, but during the first relationship called himself/herself “gay”.

    As our understanding of human sexuality progresses, I bet we’ll be putting less emphasis on “gay” or “straight” as a near-unassailable identity, and accept that things are more complicated than that.

    I also hate how people immediately jump to “child abuse” as an excuse for having gay children. If I were to give an example of a reason someone might create a false gay identity, I would mention classic youth rebellion, a desire to be edgy and stand out (see: “emo”), or early sexual experimentation with same-gender kids that one might be more comfortable with.

  • 2 Alex // Jul 29, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    I agree with Joel. Although I agree that there are probably some people who at some point, somehow realize that they are not actually gay, I don’t think it is necessary or desirable to appeal to abuse or trauma in order to assert that such a thing can happen.

  • 3 Mike // Jul 29, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Way back in the 80’s here in the UK on a TV program was just such a case of a dedicate gay guy (was in mid 20s then, had known he was gay since 12 etc etc) finding himself strangely in love with a girl, anyway they got it together and by this stage were sexual partners and the Professor Dr. bloke said yeah human sexuality was like that its all fluid.

  • 4 Glen // Jul 29, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    I think it’s pretty clear that women’s sexuality is more malleable than men’s, and I personally know at least a couple of women who have transitioned from gay to straight without any weird Christian re-education or guilt involved.

    If you read Dan Savage’s column or listen to his podcast, you’ll know that he gets rather frequent calls/emails from lesbian-identified women who have unexpectedly developed hetero impulses and gotten involved in hetero relationships. When Savage says this, however, he gets roundly criticized by lesbian activists (not all such activists, but a vocal minority).

    So, in short, I think Julian is not just right hypothetically but empirically; the key is to look at women, because men’s sexuality tends to be relatively fixed. And Julian is also presumably right about the reason that some activists resist this conclusion: because they believe (correctly) that anti-gay bigots will seize upon it as evidence in favor of their re-education camps. The problem with that conclusion is that (a) there’s no evidence that re-education is among the factors that can toggle a woman’s sexuality, and (b) the plasticity applies mainly to women, so the evidence offers no support at all when it comes to making gay men straight.

    FYI, here’s an article with a summary of the relevant literature on the plasticity of female sexuality (sorry, can’t seem to find an online version):

    BAUMEISTER, R.F. (2000). Gender differences in erotic plasticity: The female sex drive as socially flexible and responsive. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 347 – 374.

  • 5 Glen // Jul 29, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    Oh wait, here’s a PDF version: http://people.fmarion.edu/tbarbeau/Erotic%20Plasticity2000.pdf

    I can’t vouch for the author’s credentials or lack of bias, but I found the article credible when I read it a few years ago.

  • 6 Jim // Jul 30, 2011 at 4:53 am

    When teaching medical students/residents and the subject of “homosexual orientation as choice” would come up I’d ask them to do a thought experiment; in their minds decide their preferred gender for sexual congress and for an experiment tonight go out and get it on with the other gender.If it’s merely a choice like carrots or peas it should be no big deal.

  • 7 John Baker // Aug 1, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    I don’t think that anyone who can convince themselves that they are gay are really straight either but somewhere in between. We tend to call this “bi-sexual” and it operates on a range rather than a simple either or.

    Yes there are people out there who go through a period of being identify themselves as being gay and then realize that they aren’t really.This is not particularly rare and there is an enormous amount social pressure for people who go through this sort of period of experimentation to officially declare themselves gay.

  • 8 kipp // Aug 1, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Of course people exist who did once but now no longer indulge gay thoughts and/or inclinations. There are ex-gays just like there are ex-judges and ex-wives.

    Some of these regular ex-gays claim to be (or aspire to be) being a more exceptional form of ex-gay who no longer has any gay feeling or inclinations – these having been entirely supplanted by heterosexual feelings and inclinations.

    There is vanishingly little evidence that this kind of ex-gay actually exists.

    I don’t think people can be mistaken about what they find attractive. Hence, I seriously doubt there are “straight” people who mistakenly thought they were non-straight. A better place to look for the problem, such as it is, would be in the false dichotomy of straight/gay itself.

  • 9 BobN // Aug 1, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Why do we care?

    I mean, as long as they’re not allowed to marry or have equal rights. Oh, wait…

  • 10 BobN // Aug 1, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Are you attracted to members of the same sex? You’re gay.

    Are you attracted to members of the opposite sex? You’re straight.

    Are you attracted to both? You’re bi.

    Are you an insufferable prig, finally recovered from years of drug or alcohol abuse, and just can’t keep your mouth shut about how you’ve found your — and my — only god-approved way? You’re ex-gay.

  • 11 JoeL // Aug 1, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Since when has self-denial disqualified anyone from being an authentic Christian?

  • 12 Davide // Aug 2, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    If there’s even the tiniest chance that homosexuality can be cured, parents of gay kids should do everything possible to cure them.
    Sorry for my english.

  • 13 Julian Sanchez // Aug 2, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Your English is fine. Your bigotry is unfortunate.

  • 14 Davide // Aug 2, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    So, that’s the point when I say “surprise, I’m gay!” But, of course, that would prove nothing.
    You said: “If reparative therapy is proven to work, families will start to use it!”
    Exactly. Why shouldn’t they use it? If there is one chance in a million is worth trying.

    PS You said “conservative families”, I think all families would think like that.

  • 15 Jesse // Aug 2, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Lots of good points here. To make one of them more explicit, I think the availability heuristic distorts people’s perceptions of this issue. I.e., if you once had exclusively/primarily gay relationships and were OK with that but wound up being in exclusively/primarily straight relationships, you’re probably not going to go running for attention (and especially attention from people who consider your past gay relationships to be awful). So the only “ex-gay” folks most of us can think of are people who’ve decided they want to be straight for religious reasons.

    Also, kipp’s point: “A better place to look for the problem, such as it is, would be in the false dichotomy of straight/gay itself.” Kenji Yoshino published a really good article a few years back on the subject of “bisexual erasure.” Now that the biggest battles for gay rights have been won (imo), which reduces the political incentives for gays to engage in bisexual erasure (an opinion I know I share with at least some others), it will be interesting to see whether the dichotomy erodes.

  • 16 Luke Forney // Aug 3, 2011 at 3:13 am

    Never been here before, but followed a link and found this pretty interesting. I have no real hard fact to back me up, but if I remember correctly, Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates in Psycho) might fit what you are describing. He claimed to be incredibly shy and nervous around women, and was more comfortable with men, including in a sexual sense. He had intimate relationships with a number of men (I think Rock Hudson might have been one of them, but again, no sources are coming to mind). However, when he was 40-ish he had sex with a woman for the first time, and a couple years later married Berry Berenson (female “Berry,” rather than male “Barry”). It would seem that his eventual marriage to a woman only a few years after his first sexual encounter with a woman might be related, in that he perhaps realized that his homosexual feelings could have been a reaction to discomfort around women, which could be due to any number of things. However, all that is based on the fact that Anthony Perkins isn’t known to have had sex with any men after getting married, which means nothing more than that he was a loyal husband. He might not have identified as heterosexual, but perhaps as bisexual. So, here’s to Anthony Perkins, the maybe-answer to your question.

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  • 20 Phil // Mar 21, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    ” 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.”.

    Indeed it’s good not to dismiss ideas, or “reports” out of hand. Much better to be open to good evidence.

    But what “reports” are being referred to? Are they found in credible, published articles in reputable peer-reviewed journals? Where?

    Or are they personal anecdotes found on “pray away the gay” websites, or the websites of those selling “therapy”? Does any single one of those anecdotes sound like a real change in the direction of the sex drive? Which one/s?

    As someone remarked, “The best way to counter claims of a lack of solid scientific evidence, is to produce solid scientific evidence”.