Like several other bloggers on Spiritual Friendship, I had a period of my life when I was actively trying to change my sexual orientation. Although my perspective has shifted dramatically since then, I learned some important lessons through my experiences. In order to reflect on those lessons, I am posting a two-part series. In this piece, I will discuss my experiences with ex-gay approaches. In a follow-up piece, I will discuss some practical insights, many of which are broader than the ex-gay context in which I first learned them.
As I’ve mentioned before, I discovered the ex-gay movement during my later teenage years, and I initially understood references to being “formerly gay” or having “overcome homosexuality” as becoming completely straight.
Much of the ex-gay literature comes from a particular perspective about how same-sex feelings arise. I never really bought the most common claim, which was that my attractions arose from a defect in my relationship with my father. I knew that, while not absolutely perfect, my relationship with my dad was a good one. The prevalence of this explanation in the ex-gay literature, however, did cause some hurt and frustration when I first told my dad about my sexuality. Though I didn’t blame him, I could tell he was concerned he may have done something wrong.
Despite not resonating with this particular explanation, I resonated with certain other ex-gay perspectives when I encountered them. For example, I was pretty isolated and kept to myself way too much, I perceived myself as being different in some fundamental sense from most other guys, and I had been picked on a lot by peers during grade school. I came to believe that those things had contributed to my attractions to other men, and that by pursuing healing, I could become straight.
Unlike many other people, I was never involved in formal ex-gay ministry. Nonetheless, I did read ex-gay literature, went to some counseling, and worked on the areas I believed I needed healing.
The basic ex-gay theory I initially came to accept was that my attractions to men weren’t really about sexuality at all. At their core, they were really about wanting to belong as a man, or to have male companionship. I think I was able to buy this theory particularly easily as a result of my pattern of attraction. My explicitly sexual desires have always been more primarily toward women, but other aspects of my sexuality have been directed more primarily toward men. This made it easy to believe that my feelings toward men weren’t really about sex at all.
As I’ll discuss more in the next part, I also worked on my relationships with other guys. I had previously been pretty isolated, but I came to develop deeper friendships with other men.
I also had some significant changes in the way that I perceived masculinity. Early on, perhaps as a result of some of the rejection I faced early in life, I often had a subconscious sense that other men were hostile. Some of this was also a fear that they would reject me if they knew about my attractions.
I also perceived myself as being “different” from other guys in some negative sense, as though I was defective as a male. I think this started to change as I came to do more things with male groups like my dorm floor.
I also had a critical moment where I asked a good friend what I could do to become more masculine, and he replied that he couldn’t think of anything. That helped lead me to the realization that much of my perception of difference was not grounded in reality. Over time, the perception definitely changed. Reading through some of my old journals now, I find my past perspective quite foreign.
As I’ll additionally discuss in the next part, I also worked through a great deal of shame that I was feeling as a result of my feelings. I came to realize that many people still loved and supported me even when they knew about my sexuality, and I came to feel less like a bad person as a result of my feelings. (I do want to recognize that many people have had the opposite experience from trying ex-gay approaches.)
After the sorts of changes I just described, I had a “honeymoon period” where I thought that my basic orientation was changing. I recognized that I still found men attractive, but I thought it was totally divorced from my sexuality. I had such a strong expectation that ex-gay approaches would make me straight that I too readily thought they had. However, I later came to realize that my feelings for men hadn’t really changed.
Some of this came from reading a few blogs by celibate gay Christians. For a time, I was sad that they hadn’t been able to find the right kind of healing to become straight. However, I later came to realize that they were really experiencing the persistent nature that sexual orientation has for most people.
I also started to question what I was believing about my own experience of change, and ultimately realized that my orientation hasn’t changed. My orientation no longer troubles me the way it used to, and I have experienced many positive changes in areas I originally thought were related to sexuality. However, my basic orientation is still the same as it always was.
In my next post, I will discuss some practical reflections from all this.
Jeremy Erickson is a software engineer in Wisconsin. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.