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.
Your experience has validated my own positive experience of reparative therapy. I am married, and disclosed my SSA to my wife 9 years into our marriage, about 16 years ago. I did a year of therapy with Nicolosi, and looked forward to every session. I never felt shamed or invalidated, and received tools that I still use to this day.
Yes, I’ve had trouble being able to dissect his developmental theories away from the techniques/tools/approaches that helped me. And now as reparative therapy is being relegated to the same category as Castor Oil or Mustard Plasters — old therapies that were just the best we had way back when but are certainly ridiculous to consider now — I don’t know what to do with the fact that my experience with it immensely helped me mature as a man who has SSA.
I don’t really remember now whether I expected to become straight or not, but finished the experience hopeful that this “thing” would not rule my life. And I have not been disappointed.
You are so right in that we have to be honest. If I were to admit it, there is a desire to come across more healed than I am, in terms of my SSA. But I honestly have developed some OSA that I never ever EVER had prior to that, so what do I do with that experience? I cannot deny that. Even at the same time I admit that the OSA is less than the SSA, even today.
But for me the fat lady has sung: I no longer feel like the SSA is the elephant in the living room. It doesn’t rule me. It doesn’t define me. It’s the gnat that annoys me. It’s the pile of dog crap I step in from time to time. It’s not the monkey on my back. And all the stereotypical male culture exposure I had to do for homework way back when? I would have given anything at the time NOT to have to do those things then; yet in hindsight, going through those motions indeed de-mystified the archetypal male I had constructed in my head, and may have been some of the most helpful things.
And along with you, I have strong male friendships and enjoy deep conversation. I feel comfortable in my own skin around men of all types. The emotional energy I no longer spend thinking about what other guys are thinking of me or how I need to exactly act to relate – it’s amazing.
So this is what I think – I think Nicolosi is actually on to SOMEthing, and maybe his technique/approach can really help some men. Maybe where he lands on etiology isn’t quite right. And maybe we need to be very humble about making sure we don’t botch the process. But I really think that we abandon some of these approaches to our detriment. It may feel triumphant and progressive to throw it all under the bus, but at the end of the day, we may have let something slip that could help us. Is it possible that we can actually talk about it?
Thank you for your risk, and your candor. And praise God for His mercy and grace.
The part about same sex attractions not necessarily being sexual in nature (and the Ed Shaw article you linked) reminded me of a thought I had the other day and I’m wondering what others’ opinions might be. I was trying to figure out when appreciation of beauty crosses the line into sin. For instance, if I happen to walk past a guy and realize I’m attracted to him, I would imagine most people wouldn’t identify that as sinful, but what about if I began to admire his physique? Is it all OK as long as I don’t start fantasizing? Also, and this is the part I was really curious about, is the line where I cross into sin in a different place than if I were attracted to women and not men? In other words, is it less sinful for those who are heterosexual to appreciate the beauty in the opposite sex than those with same-sex attractions to appreciate the beauty in the same sex?
Appreciation of beauty is not a sin. Desire for something sinful is.
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I was in the ex-gay movement, and only later realized that I had never fully bought their explanation for why I had homosexual desires. However, since I didn’t have a great relationship with my father and had a shaky sense of manliness, their theories had some resonance for me. I think that was true for most of the men I knew in the movement, few of which had great relationships with their dad, so it is easy for me to see why we initially worked within that framework. I went so far as to be a leader in Living Waters in my church, although I now see my homosexuality as my own particular type of brokenness and accept it as my challenge to live as a Christian committed to the historic faith.
I realize that some people were harmed by the ex-gay approach, but I knew many more who were like me, in that participation in the groups changed me emotionally, helping to let go of the shame I had for my orientation. It was also a way I learned to progressively feel more comfortable being open about myself in the church, and to realize that I wasn’t the worst sinner, uniquely tainted, and that I could take my place in the kingdom as a believer on equal status with others.
The real damage is that the movement failed to give Christians and the church a realistic way to deal with the struggle that some have with homosexuality. The church can be very unrealistic about sex, but it is good to see the ex-gay movement dying and the church having to find other, better ways to deal with it’s homosexual members. We deserve to feel that we are no less as Christians than others.
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As a straight Christian who is committed both to the the truth of what Scripture teaches about marriage and sex and to loving LGTB people, the articles from Spiritual Friendship are some of the most helpful and encouraging I’ve read. I resonate with the idea of turning what was initially a sexual attraction for guys into a deeper friendship when they weren’t interested in a romantic relationship; I did that, too, from a heterosexual perspective. I also think having both same-sex friendships and opposite-sex friendships that don’t involve sex is beneficial to our growth in Christ. Thank you for what you are doing, and for sharing your experiences with the rest of us.