One day in grade six, Teacher asked us all to say aloud what we wanted to be when we grew up. “I’m going to be a doctor,” one boy announced as we all sat cross-legged in a circle. “I’m going to be a teacher!” a ponytailed girl called out with a raised hand. Another boy with red hair and freckles said he wanted to be a fire engine: a big, loud, red, fire engine. Teacher, a kind, grey-haired woman who always wore a blue, pleated skirt and held a piece of new, white chalk, corrected him by saying, “Don’t you mean you want to be a fireman?” “No,” the boy said, shaking his head. “I want to be a fire engine. A big, loud, red, fire engine.” Everyone laughed, but secretly I was scared that Teacher would ask me what I wanted to be. I was scared because I didn’t know what I wanted to be. There was no profession I could imagine myself becoming when I grew up. Would I even grow up? That was like imagining myself outside a forest when all around me it was dark and I was alone and really, if I’d been honest, although I already knew well enough not to be, all I wanted was to be at peace. Not a doctor or a priest or a football player—at peace.

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The impact of growing up “different,” more stereotypically feminine than masculine but unmistakably male, was dissonant, and divisive. I was, throughout my childhood, “at war” within: wanting to be like the other little boys, but knowing, or at least thinking, I was not. In what way I was different, I could never have articulated, but my “otherness” was isolating. While the “real boys” played sports, talked about guns, cars, and were generally aggressive, I was more interested in singing, drawing, painting, writing poetry, playing with dolls and baking with my mother in the kitchen. Crying came easy, I never understood cruelty, and was teased, both by my schoolmates and my two older brothers, for being “too sensitive.” Once, in grade six, I pretended to like guns so that the schoolboys would like me. It worked: For a week I was included in their fold. The sense of belonging, of finally being “normal,” filled me with joy. But it was only a matter of time before my true self shone through; and shone through it did: Like pentimento beneath the painting of myself, my “femininity” eventually surfaced, as did my dislike of sports, and I was once again excluded, banished, from all their activities.

There were other signs of my “differentness.” My older sister, once while we were watching television in the living room, noticed me sitting with my legs crossed at the knees and, in a frenzy, told me never to sit “like that.” Her look of horror made me panic. “You need to sit like a real boy,” she said. My body had deceived me; in a moment of forgetfulness, my inner self had again revealed itself in ways I didn’t like, or seem to be able to control. Long before I’d heard of words like “gay” or “homosexual,” all I knew was my internal compass of desire was directing itself toward boys, and not, as I’d been taught was normal, girls.

My own body could not be trusted; it was the enemy, and I questioned it repeatedly. Sometimes, during puberty, while lying naked in the bathtub after dinner, I prayed for God to make my penis into a vagina, and my flat chest into breasts. I’d stand and look at myself in the mirror, pushing my penis between my legs so that my body looked more like a body that was supposed to like boy-bodies. My prayers, however, went unanswered, and I remained out of synch, discordant to what was normal. I remained, to my bewilderment, a boy-body.

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A team of researchers, headed by Selcuk R. Sirin of Montclair State University (2004), have helped explain people’s negative reactions to male gender role transgressions. They found that “. . . men are punished more harshly than women for deviating from traditional gender role norms. This phenomenon, called male gender role rigidity, leads many boys and men to avoid developing or engaging in what society has prescribed to be feminine-typed gender role characteristics and stereotypically feminine behaviors . . . Other researchers have suggested that, for men, gender role rigidity might be a defense mechanism against experiencing anxiety associated with gender role violations” (“Differential Reaction to Men and Women’s Gender Role Transgression: Perceptions of Social Status, Sexual Orientation, and Value Dissimilarity,” The Journal of Men’s Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, Winter 2004, pp.129). This was certainly true for me. The anxiety that my own gender role violations might reveal the fact of my “differentness” is what, for years, kept me acting the part of a heterosexual—a “real man.”

Finally, at the age of 24, I came out to my parents as gay. “I am a homosexual,” I wrote in a letter that I left on their bed. The next day my mother, while we were alone at their house, told me that I wasn’t born gay, that I’d been “made into a pervert from some old man”—a reference to when I’d been sexually abused as a child, an event that we had never, in 15 years, discussed. In an instant I felt buried beneath the shame, and the heteronormativity, of her words.

In 1989, following a year of familial conflict, I left my hometown “to start over.” Soon alone, confused and depressed in an unfamiliar city, I sought treatment with Dr. Alfonzo, a psychiatrist referred to me by my then-general practitioner. “I feel like a crippled heterosexual,” I told him during my initial consultation. “How do I come to terms with who I am when who I am seems to cause so much pain and suffering to everyone I know?” Alfonzo explained the process of his treatment—a form of primal therapy—and I began therapy several weeks later.

During one of my early sessions, however, Alfonzo began presenting me with various causation theories, and said that he was sure I wasn’t gay because I didn’t have “any of the characteristics of a homosexual.” I asked him what he meant.

“Effeminacy, passivity, desperation to get a man, a drug addict, an alcoholic. You aren’t any of these things. The fact is, Peter, most gays learn their behavior. Therefore, it can be unlearned, though with great difficulty.” My greatest fear had always been that the sexual abuse had “created” my sexual orientation. Like my mother before him, I could not object.

Therapy intended to help me “feel better,” quickly morphed into treatment geared at changing my sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. Not only did the practice, a form of reparative therapy, not work, it also resulted, three years into treatment, in my near fatal breakdown precipitated by prolonged, excessive overmedication—one of the many ways Alfonzo’s tried to “flip me over to the other side.” The medications, some used specifically to deaden my sex drive, made me feel numb, lifeless and passive. Any light that had remained alive in me was switched off: erections were eliminated, fantasy and arousal eradicated.

If Alfonzo, or psychiatry, became my oppressor, then I was like the written word and the eraser erasing itself. Yet despite both our efforts, and over five years of several concurrent psychotropics, I still clocked in at a six on Alfonzo’s revised “Kinsey scale” of one to seven: men, not women, remained the object of my affection. Finally, when it was clear my same-sex attraction could not be changed, Alfonzo attacked my gender: the ways in which I’d been masculinised or feminized. Hiking, construction work, ditch-digging: all were encouraged, as if in doing them I’d become a “real man.” His methods weren’t that uncommon. Clinical counselor Alice Christianson (2005) noted that in some reparative therapies, “. . . the solution is to more strongly identify with one’s gender. Men therefore should learn to change oil as part of their therapy, while women should get makeovers” (“A Re-emergence of Reparative Therapy,” Contemporary Sexuality, Vol. 39, No. 10, October 2005, pp.14).

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In 1974, The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders II; twenty years later, Jordan and Deluty (1995) found that 12.9% of therapists surveyed still believed that “. . . such a lifestyle [of the homosexual] is a ‘psychosexual disorder,’ and 5% claimed that it is a ‘personality disorder’” (“Clinical Interventions by Psychologists with Lesbians and Gay Men,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51, pp.451). Christianson (2005) found that “Some reparative therapists have diagnosed homosexuals as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and then attempted treatment of the homosexuality as a symptom of one of these disorders” (ibid, pp.13). More recently, Eubanks-Carter and Goldfried (2006) noted that “. . . individuals who are having difficulty coming out as gay or bisexual may be misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder. . . [because the] problems that resembled borderline symptoms . . . were also consistent with a sexual identity crisis” (“The Impact of Client Sexual Orientation and Gender on Clinical Judgments and Diagnoses of Borderline Personality Disorder,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 62(6), pp.751).

In 1997, two years after leaving the therapy, I filed a five-page letter of complaint with British Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, detailing Alfonzo’s treatment of my homosexuality as a disease. His 500-page rejoinder, received by the College two years later, discredited my complaint by qualifying me as suffering from “borderline personality disorder.” In 2001 I sued him for medication malpractice, once again citing his treatment of my homosexuality. Prior to our Examination for Discovery, in late 2002, defence counsel’s “expert witness”—another psychiatrist—interviewed me in order to write an “expert opinion” about my psychiatric history. Once again I was diagnosed with “borderline personality disorder, in which disillusionment with caregivers could be a feature.” That I had also, throughout my therapy with Alfonzo, expressed “intense anger and negative views” about both my parents—that I had experienced distress at their lack of acceptance of my homosexuality—seemed to further reinforce his diagnosis. I couldn’t help but surmise, after reading his “expert opinion,” that virtually all men and women whose families had rejected them for being gay—or, for that matter, any other reason—and who’d then expressed “intense anger” towards and “negative views” about their parents, would also be labelled as suffering from some sort of personality disorder. Psychiatry, it seemed to me, had become the science of drawing maps, and not the exploration of the territories they signified.

Coincidentally, following in the footsteps of the removal of homosexuality from the DSM II, Gender Identity Disorder (GID) reared its disordered head in the American Psychiatric Association’s third edition of the DSM (1980). According to the current DSM IV (1994),

There are two components of Gender Identity Disorder . . . There must be evidence of a strong and persistent cross-gender identification . . . manifested [in boys] by a marked preoccupation with traditionally feminine activities. They may have a preference for dressing in girls’ or women’s clothes . . . Towels, aprons, and scarves are often used to represent long hair or skirts . . . They particularly enjoy playing house, drawing pictures of beautiful girls and princesses, and watching television or videos of their favorite female-type dolls, such as Barbie, are often their favorite toys, and girls are their preferred playmates. When playing “house,” these boys role-play female figures . . . They avoid rough-and-tumble play and competitive sports and have little interest in cars and trucks or other non-aggressive but stereotypical boy’s toys. They may express a wish to be a girl and assert that they will grow up to be a woman. They may insist on sitting to urinate and pretend not to have a penis by pushing it in between their legs. More rarely, boys with Gender Identity Disorder may state that they find their penis or testes disgusting, that they want to remove them, or that they have, or wish to have, a vagina (532-533).

The DSM IV goes on to describe GID in adults, which, it explains, most commonly manifests as a preoccupation “to live as a member of the other sex.” Considering my own cross-gender behavior as a child, and the fact that I developed into a gay man who’s accepting of the body he was assigned at birth—I have no desire “to live as a member of the other sex”—I can’t help but wonder if GID is the new euphemism for homosexual. Maybe the best way for psychiatry to diagnose and then treat the homosexual today is to diagnose and then treat the Gender Identity Disorder in children.

Kenneth J. Zucker, M.D., of Toronto’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health, and Robert L. Spitzer, M.D., of New York’s State Psychiatric Institute (2005), have argued against any type of “‘backdoor maneuver’ in replacing homosexuality” with GID, and yet they readily admit that some therapists continue to treat children with GID “in part, to prevent homosexuality” (“Was the Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood Diagnoses Introduced into DSM III as a Backdoor Maneuver to Replace Homosexuality? A Historical Note,” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Brunner-Routledge, 31, pp.36). The American Psychiatric Association, meanwhile, is set to release its fifth edition of the DSM in 2012, with Zucker and Ray Blanchard, M.D., a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto, leading the committee for Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which was instrumental in having homosexuality removed from the DSM, has opposed their involvement with the committee, citing both as advocates for reparative therapies in gender-variant children.

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If I am a house with many rooms, all doors to each of those rooms open up into me, my gender and I: one person. In other words, were I, as the 10-year-old boy I once was, to walk into a psychiatrist’s office today, without a doubt I’d be diagnosed with GID. Almost all of its symptoms I displayed as a pre-pubescent child, and yet I’m convinced my “preoccupation with traditionally feminine activities” was nothing more than an early indicator of my homosexuality.

But maybe that’s the point.

As long as we live in a heteronormative culture that by its very nature, its “thought reform,” teaches children to see themselves as heterosexual and “gender-appropriate,” those children who are not—and there will always be children who are not—will continue to experience their bodies as discordant to who they’re told they should be. I could not, as a child, imagine myself a grown up because I could not envisage a life beyond the normative boundaries imposed on me as an atypical boy. In the binary world of gender-appropriate children, I didn’t exist.

Several weeks ago, while at my parents’ house, my mother started talking about her escape from the concentration camp in the former Yugoslavia, post World War II. Most of the stories my mother shared about the camp I’d heard before, many times before, and so it took me a minute before I realized what she’d said. This story was new.

I was the shy, chubby kid who was poked and taunted by his elementary school classmates–the Rudolph, who wasn’t allowed in any Reindeer games. The difference with me was the name the kids all chanted, spat back at me with vengeance, was my own–pronounced, “Gay-dicks.” The story goes that when my father emigrated from Hungary in the 1950’s, in order to Anglicize his surname, and make it easier for North Americans, he changed its pronunciation from “Guy-ditch” to “Gay-dicks.” He was still learning English at the time and, evidently, must not have realized the implications of such an alteration.

With the onset of puberty, like a lens shifting slowly, forebodingly, into focus, came the realization that I was, or was at least becoming, as my name implied. If my name had been like flesh I would have peeled or burnt it from my bones, exposed, from within, my true essence and said to everyone, to all my Tormentors, Look, see, I am not the name you call me. But I was. I was everything they named me, and more. My name was marrow; there was nowhere, not anywhere, I could go to escape my insides.

I changed my name, or at least its pronunciation, back to “Guy-ditch” the year I met my former psychiatrist. “How do you say your last name?” he asked, during my initial consultation. “Guy-ditch,” I said. “As in a ‘guy-in-a-ditch.’” Earlier that same year, in 1989, my family had rejected me for being gay, and so I’d moved away from my hometown to “start over.” The doctor said I could, with his assistance, “unlearn” my homosexuality, and revert to my innate heterosexuality. I was twenty-four years old, had been raised Catholic, and believed what he, and the culture at the time, told me.

Medication, used initially to combat insomnia, became the doctor’s weapon against my sex drive. Any light that remained alive in me was switched off: erections were eliminated, fantasy and arousal, eradicated. The canvass to my mind’s imagination was being whitewashed. “Dry mouth, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, involuntary twitching, constipation, urinary retention, weight gain of over forty pounds: my body became an earthquake that I was trapped inside.

Six years of aversive therapy would elapse before I’d stand naked before my bedroom mirror, staring at a sad and pale reflection of my former self–at my body, bloated from years of over-medication, and into my thirty year old eyes–dark, sunken and unhappy. There would never be a heterosexual in me waiting to emerge; instead, I’d become more like a shell that had had its innards scooped out.

My mother, who escaped a concentration camp during World War II, once told me that she survived thirty-four months in various labor and death camps because her captors never touched the core of who she is. “They might have killed my body, God knows they tried, but they never touched my spirit.” Likewise, six years of therapy to change my sexuality taught me that the only thing that lasts, after losing everything else, is what is real: what can’t be changed.

By the way: after suffering through withdraw of all medication, and recovering from the therapy, I sued my former psychiatrist for treating my homosexuality as a disease.

The case settled out of court in 2002.

The doctor continues, to this day, treating patients.

I wrote a book.

Emery and Me

By Peter Gajdics

Memoir

When I was thirty-three years old I interviewed several gay men as part of a sex research project being conducted through the AIDS Organization where I’d started working as a “Public Sex Environment Outreach Worker.” Most of the men met me at my downtown office. First names were all I knew. I asked them a series of questions about their life, their sexuality, their coming out process, then let them talk. Some went on for hours. An opportunity to tell their story, to be heard, was all that many of the men needed. ,I listened to them as I’d always wanted, when I was a teenager, someone to listen to me.

One mid-50’s man asked that I interview him in his home. Emery lived on the main floor of an old, three-story walk-up near the outskirts of the city. The long, dimly lit corridor inside his building smelled of cigarettes and fried food. I knocked on Emery’s door and when he opened it, the first thing I noticed were his eyes, their kind, youthful glint that seemed to contrast against his lined face, like cracks in the earth of his age-toned skin. He smiled and invited me into his sparsely furnished room, the room of his life, with a single bed pushed up against one wall, and a mini fridge and hot plate on a blue laminate counter against the other. Next to his bed were a stack of yellow egg cartons upon which were several paperbacks, a framed black and white photograph, and a nightlight. We took a seat at a small foldout table in front of the window where we began our conversation almost immediately.

In 1960, when Emery was twenty-five years old, the Canadian Public Service “purged” him from his job for being a “practicing homosexual.” Soon after, his parents sent him to Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute, the Psychiatric Department of the Royal Victoria Hospital, which had been at the forefront in Canadian psychiatric education and research. Emery spoke openly about his involvement with the Institute, and about its Director, Dr. Ewen Cameron, a former head of the Word Psychiatric Association, who had been awarded funds from a CIA front-organization to conduct brainwashing experiments on innocent civilians, both Canadian and American.

“Can I ask you a question?” Emery said, interrupting his own story.

“Of course.”

“You’re gay, right?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re okay with that? With who you are?”

“Now I am, yes.”

“You’re lucky.”

“How so?”

“Growing up in a different time and place the way you have. Back then we were all considered mentally ill. Cameron thought he knew how the human mind was wired and what he needed to do to fix it. He hooked us up to electrodes, gave us drugs like LSD or sleeping pills. Massive electroconvulsive shock treatments, sensory isolation, insulin-induced comas that lasted months on end.”

“Why? What was he trying to do?”

“Wipe our brains clean of all thought, and identity, including what he thought was our neurosis. Break us down so that he could build us back up again, his own way. Imprint a new, healthy identity on top of our blank minds. Depatterning: that’s what he called it. Most of what happened to me personally I only read about years later, when I finally got a hold of my hospital file. I have no real memory of any of it. I don’t know if you can imagine what it’s like to have gaps in your life. Years, literally stolen from you.”

I wanted to tell him that I did know what it’s like, but I listened as he continued.

“For months we were confined to the Institute’s ‘sleep rooms,’ not just homosexuals but married woman, straight men, all of us wearing headphones and listening to taped messages, endless taped messages, sometimes sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. Everyone’s tape was different, depending on what your problem was. I thought I was a homosexual: that was my illness. Cameron’s goal was to erase my brain of all association with homosexuality, and replace it with my innate heterosexuality. So his theory went. We became like children. Grown men and women: incontinent, with no past life. By the time they released me in 1962, I was a shadow of my former self. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t process information, or make decisions. My memory of the 50’s and early 60’s, well, of my life–it was gone. Wiped clean, like a chalkboard. Everything, I had to reconstruct everything, my entire personal history, from pictures or slides, from stories people told me, or from letters that I wrote or received from family and friends. Everything about my former self was a mystery. Erased. Except for my homosexuality. I was still attracted to men.”

So reflective of my life was Emery’s description of his that it took all my effort not to sink back into my past. Nine years earlier I’d started therapy with psychiatrist, Dr. Alfonzo, after my family rejected me for being gay. Within months, Alfonzo presented me with conflicting causation theories, including that an incident of childhood sexual abuse had “created” my attraction for men. Believing that my homosexuality was based in anger and driven by pain, Alfonzo said that by releasing my anger and by feeling my pain, I could undo the knot of what he termed the error of my misguided way of thinking: the erroneous belief that I was homosexual. To facilitate treatment, various antidepressants, sedatives and an anti-psychotic, even though I’d never been psychotic, were prescribed. Doses increased rapidly. So too did the medications’ side effects: dry mouth, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, involuntary twitching, constipation, urinary retention, weight gain of over forty pounds. Weekly injections of Ketamine hydrochloride, an animal anesthetic, soon followed, which were administered before reparenting sessions with a surrogate mother who, according to Alfonzo, would imprint a new, “healthy” identity onto my child self.

When it became clear, after four years of therapy, that my attraction for men wasn’t diminishing, Alfonzo ordered me to bottle and to sniff my feces whenever I saw a man I found attractive. Then he threatened to hook my genitals up to electrodes in order to “retain” my penis, and added a fourth tricyclic antidepressant to my regime of now over 600 milligrams of daily medications. Any light that had remained alive in me was switched off, as if the fire in the furnace of my body were being extinguished by medication: erections were eliminated, fantasy and arousal, eradicated.

Another two years of so-called therapy would elapse before I’d stand naked in front of my bedroom mirror, staring at a sad and pale reflection of my former self–at my body, bloated from years of overmedication, and into my thirty year old eyes: dark and sunken and unhappy. There would never be a heterosexual in me waiting to emerge; instead, I became more like a shell that had had its innards scooped out.

Thirty years separated Emery’s experiences from mine, but the similarities between what he went through with Cameron, and what I had with Alfonzo, were shocking. The psychiatric community may have ceased classifying homosexuality as an illness in 1973, but beneath the banner of gay liberation and political progressiveness, as I had learned all too well, beat the hearts of some of its practitioners that still treated it like one.

Emery walked to his egg carton bookshelf, picked up a picture of a young man with greased black hair, sea-blue eyes and a dimpled smile.

“His name was Jim,” he said, displaying the framed photograph with pride. “Such a handsome man, don’t you think? His parents sent him to the Institute. To help cure him. By the time he left he was physically and mentally impaired. Like a vegetable. They killed him, but left him alive. Two years later he killed himself.”

Emery dusted the frame with his shirtsleeve and replaced it back on the egg cartons. “There’s more than one way to murder a fag,” he said. “Cameron was an architect for genocide.”

Question after question raced through me. I wanted to ask Emery about his road to recovery, whether he’d ever found love, or forgiveness, somehow reconciled himself with his past. I wanted him to tell me what I could not figure out for myself. But before I knew it our interview was over and Emery, visibly shaken, was ushering me out his front door.

I was scheduled to hand out condoms in the park that night–the “public sex environment outreach” part of my job. It was also the part of my job I liked the least, that seemed the least productive. At least it would have been for me, had someone handed me a condom through all the years, as a teenager, that I’d had sex in parks. Not to mention all the sex I’d had in cars, and public toilets, bathhouses, parkades. Condoms, I knew, would not have saved me from my self, my use of sex to fill a void, the hole inside my heart that became, with every passing year after the year I was sexually abused as a child, like a crater in my soul. But part of our funding at the AIDS Organization depended on the number of condoms distributed, so I distributed as many condoms, as many “safe sex packets,” as possible. At least the men liked the flavored lube.

The park seemed busier than usual. Nighttime brought with it the need for sex, the need for something, and everywhere I looked, once my eyes adjusted, shadows of men, like hunters, roamed back and forth between trees. My routine had always been to wait until a man approached me along the trail, then to tell him that I wasn’t there to “play,” but as an outreach worker–would he like to talk instead? That night, however, all I thought about was Emery, the years he’d lost to ignorance, to hatred, years that he would never get back. His words “There’s more than one way to murder a fag” echoed through me as outside, all around I heard the sounds of ravaged, hungry souls, breeding in the dark. The memory of Alfonzo was with me too, as was the knowledge that whatever he did to me I did to myself. Six years of trying to change myself had taught me that I could not change, and yet I’d tried. And tried. Like stabbing myself, I’d tried to kill that part of me, and in the process, almost killed myself. I had been both the written word and the eraser erasing itself. If Alfonzo was a monster, then when I met him there were monstrous demons inside of me just waiting to emerge. I was Pandora’s box.

I left the forest before distributing my quota of condoms. Back home, alone, naked and in bed, Emery’s phrase “an architect for genocide” haunted me to sleep. And before I opened my eyes the next morning, not yet awake but not still asleep, balanced liminally in between, for a moment I thought I heard someone next to me in bed crying, sobbing.

I awoke to realize it was me.