The Nervous Breakdown, an eclectic intellectual blog covering poetry, politics, the arts, and popular culture, recently ran this insightful essay by Peter Gajdics, a survivor of ex-gay therapy. (Hat tip to Paul A. Toth, who blogs about
psychology, atheism, the writing life, and the cultural bankruptcy of
Sarasota at Violent
In “One Road Diverged: Same Sex Desire & the Closet of Homosexuality“, the author observes that both conservative Christians and gay activists tend to conflate same-sex desire and gay identity. The former has always been with us, while the latter is a modern invention. So-called conversion therapy rarely changes one’s inner feelings, but rather teaches participants how to perform a mainstream heterosexual identity. From the introduction:
Trying to “change” oneself from homosexual to heterosexual is a displacement of social identities under the erroneous belief that by changing one’s map, one’s territory will also, oftentimes Divinely, “change.” Such a “change,” however, is destined to fail, with the resulting dissonance between identity and desire ensuring the individual either “tries harder” at changing themselves, or breaks the cycle, like an addict, once and for all, and addresses the conflation between their map of identity, and territory of desire.
Later in the essay, Gajdics writes:
…The institutionalization of homosexuality performs three distinct functions: 1) it divorces same sex desire from the experience of many by projecting it into the experience of few, thereby maintaining a binary view of sexuality generally, and a normative view of heterosexuality specifically; 2) it reinforces the either/or mentality that sustains a hegemonic patriarchy, and relieves a cultural anxiety over what it means to be “male,” a “man,” “masculine”—in other words, as long as I am on the side of the fence marked “straight,” I am safe, loved, accepted, all-powerful; 3) it promotes the implicit idea that “changing” sexual identity from the category of “homosexual” to the category of “heterosexual” is not only possible, but highly desirable—after all, who wouldn’t want to be “safe, loved, accepted, all powerful”?
In his essay, “Love Me Gender: Normative Homosexuality and ‘Ex-Gay’ Performativity in Reparative Therapy Narratives,” author Jeffrey Bennett examines the Paulks’ co-autobiography, Love Won Out, in which the two juxtapose their early immersions “into homosexuality” to their later involvement with Exodus International and “entrance into ‘heterosexuality . . . [in order] . . . to pursue a ‘normal’ life of marriage and children” (2003, 332-34). Their stories spawned national attention, with articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek, as well as with guest appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and 60 Minutes. Can gays “change”? Should gays “change”? These and other questions were raised amongst media, and public. Unfortunately, there was little, if any, inquiry into what the Paulks, or others like them, were attempting to “change,” when they said they wanted to change their sexuality. While the implication always seems to be a change from same sex to “opposite” sex attraction, this is precisely what does not occur, as I myself can testify, for those who undertake such therapy. How, after all, does one change desire? In practice, the locus of attention in reparative therapies becomes less about desire, about changing one’s desire, than it does the obligatory avoidance of same sex temptation, engagement in “opposite” sex scenarios, and modification of behavior to reflect a normative stance on male and female gender roles.
As detailed by Bennett in his essay, the Paulks’ memoir “attempt[s] to reconstitute the discourses that shape and stabilize abstract notions of the self . . . [by] . . . relegate[ing] identity and authenticity to a system of anticipatory acts that can be modified by altering the conduct of the actors” (332). Nowhere is it claimed the Paulks end up changing their desires; rather, they reduce themselves to actors, playing the part of the “homosexual”: In order to play the part of the “heterosexual,” they simply modify their performance. “If Anne can learn to wear make-up, and John to throw a football, they are taking the necessary measures to redefine and stabilize their heterosexuality by employing an illusory ontological identification” (ibid). In a reversal to Butler’s theory on gender performativity, the Paulks have reframed their collective “homosexualities” as the normative, and their modification to heterosexuality, its subversion.
Throughout their book, the Paulks point to the unreality of “gay life” as justification for “replacing . . . the unnatural homosexual self with the ‘true’ heterosexual identity” (335). This statement alone necessitates delineation. If “homosexuality” points, as I’ve suggested, to the territory of same sex desire, then in one respect the Paulks, or all advocates of such therapies, are correct in their description of an “unnatural homosexual self.” Homosexuality, as with heterosexuality, is the symbol for the thing, and not the thing itself—symbols are, to a large extent, “unnatural.” However, as the Paulks also evidently conflate their map of homosexuality with their territory of desire, their same sex desire, they illogically deduce that if homosexuality is unnatural, heterosexuality must consequently be natural. The “naturalness” they, and others like them, seek lies not in a different map, a different symbol, but in a consciousness, an awakening, to their own, incontrovertible territory of desire. Maps, if lived as territories, will always disappoint: sooner or later they will always be experienced as unnatural, inauthentic, unreal.