In my previous piece, I described my experience trying to change my orientation. As promised, in this post I will discuss some practical insights, many of which extend beyond the ex-gay context in which I learned them.
The most immediate insight is directly about sexual orientation change efforts: change in orientation is not something we should promise. Hope in orientation change can be false hope. This is true even for someone who is willing to put great effort into trying to become straight and, more importantly, dealing with the sorts of issues often claimed to be behind a homosexual or bisexual orientation. It is important that we be honest.
Putting my hope into orientation change had less fallout for me than it had for many others. As a man who was already attracted to women, changing my orientation was never quite about being able to function in a marriage. Remaining attracted to the same sex did not have any particular implication about celibacy; it merely meant that I could not be as normal as I wanted and that I would face negative attitudes from some conservative Christians. I was able to come to an acceptance of this reality. However, other people do experience significant hurt. As I alluded to in the first part, even parents may be unnecessarily hurt when they take the blame for their children’s orientation.
I also learned that we shouldn’t put too much stock in cultural stereotypes about gender; there is a natural diversity within each gender. I did not have to become a jock or to adopt particular culturally-defined mannerisms in order to be truly masculine. We should not act as though a man involved in performing arts or a woman involved in engineering is somehow less masculine or less feminine than others, nor should such a person feel pressured not to pursue his or her passions.
Another insight relates to the ex-gay idea that attractions to the same sex are not fundamentally sexual in nature. Before I pursued ex-gay approaches, I had often been in some sense fearful of guys I was attracted to. (Ed Shaw has also described a similar experience.) I saw my attractions to men primarily as a form of sexual temptation, one that indicated I should avoid getting to close to men I found myself particularly attracted to.
The ex-gay literature I was reading claimed that attractions to men were really about a drive for something other than sex. As a result of this belief, I had the freedom to pursue friendships even with men I was particularly attracted to. This isn’t to say that I formed friendships primarily on the basis of who I was most attracted to, but rather that I no longer lived in fear of attractive men.
I came to realize that if my attractions caused me to be less isolated, and to be willing to relate more closely with other men, that was actually a good thing.
As I’ve been looking back at some journaling I did at the time, I’ve realized how much good actually did happen to me. I definitely came to have deeper friendships than I had ever allowed myself to have previously, several of which continue to this day despite moving to different cities.
I no longer believe that my feelings for men can be so cleanly divorced from sexual temptation. However, I came to realize that not every aspect of my same-sex feelings is something disordered that leads me to sin. Wesley Hill, Melinda Selmys, and Nick Roen have made similar points: non-heterosexual orientation can involve a complicated mixture of good and bad.
A major lesson I took away from my ex-gay days was that I could often direct feelings for particular guys into deeper friendship. This was a particularly good idea when the other guy was straight (as was often the case), so that a sexual relationship was not realistic.
I do not usually find that such an approach leads to increased sexual temptation, but it can lead to closer friendships in many cases. As before, this certainly does not mean that I form most of my male friendships based on who I am attracted to or that I have crushes on most of my close male friends. However, it is part of how I have learned to respond to my feelings.
My last major point has to do with shame. As I’ve discussed previously here and here, once I overcame denial about my sexual orientation, I experienced a great deal of shame. I internalized messages prevalent in much of the conservative Christian world, that sexual minority people were especially broken.
The particular ex-gay approaches I pursued actually helped reduce shame by positing that my orientation was not initially my fault. This made it clear that I was not a bad person for feeling what I was feeling. Additionally, as I just discussed, they gave me a way of processing my feelings for particular guys that didn’t interfere with being able to form meaningful friendships. Had I not become more generally skeptical of ex-gay approaches by the time I came to realize my orientation wasn’t changing, I may have experienced significant shame at that point. However, the ex-gay theories I initially accepted provided an alternative to the notion that I was attracted to the same sex because I was especially perverted.
Additionally, experiencing positive responses when I shared about my sexuality helped me see that others would not shun me if they knew about what I was going through. That also helped me in overcoming shame.
After I moved past ex-gay approaches and accepted that my sexual orientation was unlikely to change, I grew further out of shame by realizing that my particular form of brokenness, i.e., the temptation for particular forms of sexual sin, did not render me more fundamentally broken than others. Experiencing brokenness is a normal part of living in a fallen world.
Although I ultimately rejected large components of ex-gay approaches, my time living them did help me learn some valuable lessons. My intention in sharing about my experience is to help others learn those lessons without having to adopt the false assumptions I was operating under when I first learned them.
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.