[I]t is more important than ever for scholars of sexuality and performance to scrutinize the political and cultural implications of those offering a “cure” to gays and lesbians. While conversion therapy may seem like the only viable option for those struggling with their queer identities, activists and allies should not lose sight of the diabolical motives of those offering the antidote, the disdain and contempt they hold for LGBT life, and the world they envision without us (Bennett 2003, 348-49).


1. Abstract

Despite widespread opposition from the psychiatric and psychological communities, reparative or conversion therapies, geared at “changing” sexual identity from homosexual to heterosexual, continue to appeal to a population “struggling with their queer identities” (349). Even after years of treatment, however, “ex-gays” often still end up experiencing same sex desire. What, then, if anything, do they change? This essay unpacks the logic behind some of these therapies, and answers the question: When someone tries to “change” their sexual identity from homosexual to heterosexual, what exactly is it that they’re trying to “change”? I posit that “homosexuality” is a socially constructed identity, or map, to the experience, or territory, of same sex desire, and that the two are in fact dissociable, but have been culturally and personally conflated. 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.

2. Introduction

When I was 24 years old I entered the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Alfonzo, soon after coming out as gay and being rejected by my family. Initially, when I first sought Alfonzo’s help, all I’d wanted was to find some way of reconciling who I was with how my family, and the world, perceived me. Alfonzo’s treatment—primal regressions, followed by “reparenting” sessions with a surrogate mother—quickly turned into a form of reparative therapy geared at trying to “change” me from homosexual to heterosexual. Three years into the therapy I suffered a physical and mental breakdown, precipitated by prolonged, near fatal doses of five concurrent psychiatric medications, one of the many ways Alfonzo tried to suppress my sexual desire, my same sex desire, and “flip me over to the other side.”

As I recovered from the breakdown, while continuing with Alfonzo’s therapy, two things became clear: 1) despite our combined efforts to “change” my sexual identity, my same sex desire remained virtually unaltered; and 2) a core belief that I was “not homosexual” overwhelmed my primal regressions to the point that I became convinced, paradoxically, dissonantly, of my “non-homosexual” identity. Alfonzo would quickly reframe my “non-homosexuality” as proof of my innate heterosexuality and assure me that my same sex desires were the result of “faulty parenting,” and from having trained my own body, through years of “homosexual activity,” to respond only to men. My goal, therefore, was clear: unlearn my unnatural sexual responsiveness to men, and return to my “innate” heterosexuality.

I left the therapy in 1995, six years after I began. But questions lingered; a contradiction remained whereby, sexually, I had never not been attracted to men, while mid-point in the therapy I believed myself to be, resolutely, “not homosexual,” that I was, in fact, “changing.” How could I have experienced both to be true? If it had not been my same sex desires, then what, if anything, had I been “changing”? Had I been living in a state of dissonance?

In the 2004 film, Save Me, a young gay man, Mark, begins treatment with a Christian Ministry, not unlike “Exodus International,” in order to “save” himself from his drug and sex addicted “gay lifestyle.” As one of the other men in the Ministry says before a therapy session early in the film, “We admit we are powerless over our homosexuality, and our lives are unmanageable. We have come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.” What is this “homosexuality” over which these men claim to be powerless? And how has it caused their lives to become “unmanageable”?

Complications arise when Mark falls in love with one of the other men in the Ministry. When his friend leaves, choosing instead to live his “gay self,” Mark follows. The two embark on what appears to be the beginning of a relationship. The film’s message, however simplistic, is clear: gays don’t need to “change”; they can find love. But the underlying issues as to what drove this man, or others like him, to want to “change,” or how they could have come to believe that such a change was possible, are never addressed. Neither is the conflation, suggested early in the film, between Mark’s self-destructive “lifestyle,” and his homosexuality. Is there a correlation between the two? Mark, after all, enters treatment to “save” himself from his homosexuality. Why does he not enter drug rehab? Why an ex-gay Ministry? Is the only message we can glean from his “failed” treatment that gays don’t need to change? That love, the promise of a relationship, cures all? How about the possibility that all these men had displaced the ways in which they’d experienced their same sex desire with this other thing called “homosexuality,” so that when their “sexual lifestyle” became “unmanageable,” their only recourse seemed to be to not be homosexual? Maybe, if homosexuality and same sex desire are, in fact, dissociable—two divergent roads that have been culturally, and personally, conflated—an individual could come to believe they were changing one, all the while experiencing—paradoxically, dissonantly—the unalterable other.

3. The Invention of Homosexuality, and its Conflation with Same Sex Desire

In The History of Sex: An Introduction (Volume I), Michel Foucault writes about the “discursive explosion” (1978, 38) throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with whole groups of individuals, including “those who did not like the opposite sex,” (ibid) suddenly scrutinized, as they’d never been before. “It was a time for . . . these figures, scarcely noticed in the past, to step forward and speak, to make the difficult confession of what they were. No doubt they were condemned all the same” (39). Such confessions, one could say, began their long night’s journey from the proverbial closet toward not solely their liberation, and not merely their prohibition, but a “closer supervision . . . an incorporation of perversions and a new specification of individuals” (42-43; italics in original).

The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a type of life, a life form, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized . . . less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species (43).

The “homosexual,” as a socially definable identity, was thus birthed into being. State-sanctioned power was exerted over him—his subjugation and vilification was necessary within the domain of the “matrix”* in order to normalize and reinforce its counterpart, the heterosexual—but in the naming of him, in the demarcation of his sensibilities, his own sense of agency also emerged. The discourse of homosexuality made possible “the formation of a ‘reverse’ discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified” (101).

Individuals with same sex desire named themselves; they transmuted their previous “‘[c]losetedness,’ itself . . . a performance” (Sedgwick 1990, 3), into the naming of themselves as “homosexual”—they “came out,” and in their necessary coming out, conflated their experience of who they were and what they desired, with the category that had been created on their behalf, oppressively, to describe who they were and what they desired: “Homosexuality” became the closet into which they stepped in order to escape the invisibilizing effect of cultural unintelligibility.

One could say that homosexuality, as a category, is a map, “a representation . . . of the whole or a part of an area” (on-line Merriam-Webster Dictionary), to the territory, the “indeterminate geographic area” (ibid), of same sex desire. The danger with maps, with all maps in general, is that they are sometimes confused for the territory they represent. Maps, as individual positionalities, point to one’s territory; they are signposts; they should not take the place of who or what one is. Maps also change over time, and not always for the better. In the case of the social construction of homosexuality, they become medicalized, legalized, moralized, even politicized. Language, as representation of the object it’s meant to signify, sometimes “forgets” itself, too, and we are left with the belief that words themselves are what they point to—that words are the thing, and not the representation of the thing. As long as one remembers that one is not, indeed, never has been, one’s map, that one is not the word that’s used to point to oneself, all is well. But most soon forget; they forget, then forget that they’ve forgotten. Though not without consequence.

Feminist scholar Judith Butler postulated the construction of gender as a type of “performativity,” “. . . not a singular ‘act’ or event” (1993, 95), as in the case of a conscious performance, “but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance” (ibid). How might a similar theory of performativity, not as a conscious “singular act . . . but a ritualized production,” apply to homosexuality?

I would postulate that an individual, upon being born into the heterosexual matrix, and while (unconsciously and consciously) struggling to ascribe meaning to their otherwise meaningless, incoherent, same sex desires, is, as described by philosopher Louis Althusser, “hailed” into the ideological self-identity of “homosexual.”

[I]deology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it “recruits” subjects among the individual (it recruits them all), or “transforms” the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing . . . (1971, 174).

The individual in effect ascribes the map of “homosexual” to their territory of desire, their same sex desire, by “learning the ropes” about what it means, what they’re citationally taught it will mean, to “be gay.” They are not, to use the right-wing pejorative vernacular, “recruited” into their same sex desires; they, like “heterosexuals,” apply form to the formlessness of desire—in this case, same sex desire—by internalizing, as a sense of identity, the social construction of homosexuality. Were it not for others who had, in citing those previous to them, self-identified as “homosexual,” individuals born into the matrix with same sex desire would have no means of “formatting” their unintelligible desires into consumable self-identities. This culturally cumulative citationality remains like a wave indistinguishable from other waves within one body of water, the hegemonic civilization, with most unable to “see” the source material of their newly formed identity: the ways in which they’ve attributed meaning to their same-sex desires, the ways in which they’ve “become gay.” The performativity of homosexuality, then, refers not to the individual’s same sex desires, but to the ways in which the social construction of homosexuality has been ideologically interpellated, is ceaselessly, citationally reiterated, and ends up “produc[ing] the effects that it names” (Butler 1993, 2).

Deepak Chopra has written that “[c]hasing symbols is like settling for the map instead of the territory. It creates anxiety; it ends up making you feel hollow and empty, because you exchange your Self for the symbols of your Self” (1994, 84). One such way of “chasing symbols,” I would add, is through the “exchange,” or conflation, of the territory of same sex desire with the map of homosexuality. Many individuals, of all sexualities, conflate their social map with their inner territory and end up, as Anne Sexton wrote in her poem, “The Play,” “running after the hands and never catching up” (1975, 38). The hands toward which these individuals run, ceaselessly, reiteratively, are their citations—their socially projected maps to who they think they are, or want to become; and they never “catch up” because the hands, being citations, “are out of sight—that is, offstage” (39). Others, such as those who try and “change” themselves from homosexual to heterosexual, enact on the stage of their life a displacement of maps under the erroneous belief that by rearranging their social identity—by learning how to “throw a football,” for men, or “apply makeup,” for women—their desires will also, oftentimes Divinely, “change.” When it doesn’t change, when they become “ex-gays” while continuing to experience same sex desire, they exist in a state of cognitive dissonance. Both groups of individuals are, to a greater or lesser extent, “running, running to keep up, but never making it” (ibid).

The consequences of fusing same sex desire with the construct of homosexuality cannot be undermined; for many, the two remain undifferentiated. To illustrate how this conflation engenders confusion, and considerable harm, I will draw on the following case study of John and Anne Paulk, two “ex-gays” who were at the center of debate about the “curing” of homosexuals during the late 1990’s.

4. Becoming “Ex-Gay”: Extricating Homosexuality from Same Sex Desire

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.

What becomes evident throughout Bennett’s essay is the urgency with which the Paulks attempt to reconstitute themselves as heterosexual is in direct proportion to their former identifications with the construct of homosexuality, and the displacement of that construct with their lifelong pain. If they perceived themselves as obsessive compulsive, their obsessive compulsiveness was rooted in their so-called homosexuality; if they immersed themselves in meaningless one night stands, in prostitution, drug and sex addiction—even mention of Anne’s childhood molestation—all of it was spelled out as either the cause, or effect, of “being gay.” Homosexuality was the culprit, plain and simple; and to the Paulks, since they’d identified as homosexual, their only salvation lay in becoming not homosexual, in becoming “ex-gays.”

In the following passage from an essay about my own six years in a similar therapy, I describe part of an intensive therapy session lasting two 10-hour days, during which time I “worked” my feelings about “being homosexual”:

Moreover, my homosexuality was the result of the sexual abuse. Or so I screamed while lying on the mattress. It never occurred to me that my promiscuity and episodes of dissociation were forms of acting out abuse, regardless of my sexual orientation. Instead, promiscuity was the nature of homosexuality. All gay men dissociated while having sex. Shame and a lifetime of lovelessness were synonymous with desire. Homosexual desire. There were no shades of gray. My life was black and white.

Better yet, there was someone I could blame for my life’s unhappiness: my parents. If it had not been for my parents’ poor role modeling, their lack of intervention, I would not have spent my teenage years in public toilets and bathhouses, behavior I still equated with homosexuality. My parents were the cause of my misfortunes, as surely as if they’d walked me downtown and into the arms of every man I’d encountered. Years of shame and isolation, of praying to God to take me in my sleep—it had all been because of my parents. My body was a grave and I was falling deeper into it, word by word, as I talked without interruption about the sickness of my homosexuality, digging myself deeper into the pit of my self-hatred (2009, 119).

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, not only had I conflated the map of homosexuality with my territory of same sex desire, but also the impact of that abuse, the ways in which I ended up compulsively and addictively expressing my sexuality, with my so-called “homosexuality.” Thus, when I “talked without interruption about the sickness of my homosexuality,” what I really was attempting to articulate was the sickness of my soul as expressed through my sexuality. Not my “homosexuality”—my sexuality. The “gay lifestyle” from which I was attempting to flee, by trying to change, had nothing to do with my same sex desire, but with the crippling effects of being sexually violated as a child.

For the Paulks, as described by Bennett, their “‘homosexuality’ . . . [remained] . . . seemingly unaltered by the actions undertaken by reparative therapy” (334). I would add that it wasn’t simply that the Paulks’ “homosexuality” remained “unaltered,” but that their same sex desire remained unaltered. They had tried to enact the identity of heterosexual, but in not achieving it—in not experiencing “opposite” sex attraction—they ended up, instead, as liminal “ex-gays.” Yes, the Paulks had children. But if coupling and having sex with the “opposite” sex were all it took to live one’s truth, millions of men and women around the world would never have thought it necessary to “come out” and leave their “opposite” sex spouses.

Of agency, Jana Sawicki has said that “[the] subject does not control the overall direction of history, but it is able to choose among the discourses and practices available to it and use them creativity. It is also able to reflect upon the implications of its choices as they are taken up and transformed in a hierarchical network of power relations (1991, 103-4). If agency is an act of “creative choice,” the Paulks were certainly free, as choosing agents, to subvert their homosexual identity formation, yet one can’t help but wonder why, to what end? What drove their subversion? What drove mine? Was it individuation, one’s “Auseinandersetzung (‘coming to terms with’)” (Hollis 2003, 88). Or was it their harmatia, their “wounded vision” of having conflated “opposite” sex desire with the construct of heterosexuality, and believing that by changing their behavior to align with set strictures of heteronormativity, a change to their desires would also, hopefully, follow?

[T]he classical imagination identified a condition they called harmatia, which has been translated as “the tragic flaw,” but which I prefer to define as “wounded vision.” Each protagonist believed that he or she understood enough to make proper choices, yet their vision was distorted by personal, familial and cultural history, dynamically at work in what we later called the unconscious (2001, 14).

Not all “proper choices” lead to happy endings, or are in fact choices, especially when one considers the tendency, from within the invisibilizing effects of the matrix, to belie.

Eighty years ago, British psychoanalyst Joan Riviere wrote that “. . . what appears as homosexual or heterosexual . . . sexual manifestations, is the end-result of the interplay of conflicts and not necessarily evidence of a radical or fundamental tendency” (1929, 303). In other words, the ways in which individuals end up expressing their sexuality, and even self identifying, may have less to do with their actual desires than with their ability, or inability, to reconcile themselves with their territory of desire. Trying to “change” one’s homosexuality is an attempted harmonization of this “interplay of conflicts.” Such an attempt, however, is destined to fail, with the resulting dissonance between self-identity and desire ensuring the individual either “tries harder” to change themselves, or breaks the cycle, like an addict, once and for all, and addresses their conflation between identity and desire.

As I wrote near the end of my (unpublished) book manuscript, Crossing Styx: “There was no heterosexual in me waiting to emerge; instead, I’d become more like a shell with its innards scooped out.” It might have been more accurate if I’d written: “There was no ‘opposite’ sex desire in me waiting to emerge,” for I had done all that could be expected in order to become, performatively, “heterosexual,” and still the role I played, dissonantly, was a performance.

Today, twenty years after beginning that therapy, I would say that any prolonged attempt at trying to “change” an individual’s sexual identity is akin to a psychic lobotomy, whereby the “surgeon” probes into the psycho-sexuality of the individual, cutting and scarring their way toward the desired establishment of a different sexuality, while the “patient,” already severely undermined by lifelong messages of heteronormativity, becomes co-conspirator in their own loss of agency. But there is hope. As Tolle, in The Power of Now, reminds us:

[I]f you . . . develop a sense of identity based on your gayness, you have escaped one trap only to fall into another. You will play roles and games dictated by a mental image you have of yourself as gay. You will become unconscious. You will become unreal. Underneath your ego mask, you will become very unhappy. If this happens to you, being gay will have become a hindrance. But you always get another chance . . . Acute unhappiness can be a great awakener (1999, 174).

Whether or not Tolle was reflecting on reparative therapies when he wrote the above passage, his words do make reference to a universal, ontological displacement of one’s cultural map, one’s ego mask, for one’s desires. It took me six years of therapy trying to “change” myself, and many more years unpacking my experiences, to arrive back to what was common knowledge a hundred and fifty years ago before the “invention” of “homosexuality”: There is no a priori identity called “homosexual” from which one “changes” and becomes “happy.” Neither is heterosexuality the Promised Land for those who abandon their “gay lifestyle.” Forgetting that we are not who the culture that tells us we are, that our maps are not our terrain, begets the notion that we can change desires, like a pair of pants or performative utterance, when what we’ve needed—dare I say, desiredall along is to find some other, perhaps more meaningful, map of self expression.

5. The “Acorn”

The Introduction to the spiritual text A Course in Miracle concludes with: “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God” (1975, unnumbered page). With respect to the materiality of sexual identity, this “realness” points not to a regulatory categorization of homosexual and heterosexual—to the idea that “my homosexuality” is what’s real, or “my heterosexuality” is what’s real—but to something far more ineffable, perhaps to what James Hillman, in his book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, calls the mythological “acorn”—the individual image that belongs to each person’s soul.

The acorn theory proposes . . . that . . . every single person is born with a defining image. Individuality resides in a formal cause—to use old philosophical language going back to Aristotle. We each embody our own idea, in the language of Plato and Plotinus. And this form, this idea, this image does not tolerate too much straying. The theory also attributes to this innate image an angelic or daimonic intention, as if it were a spark of consciousness; and, moreover, holds that if has our interest at heart because it chose us for its reasons (1996, 11-12).

Within one’s “acorn,” I would add as a caveat to Hillman’s theory, are the ways in which individuals express their innate image sexually in order to fulfill the promise of their lives. And “acorns” will not, as Hillman writes, “tolerate too much straying.” Unfortunately, sex, especially “gay sex,” is more often than not viewed simply as an act of the body, a narcissistic compulsion. But sex, so says Thomas Moore in Dark Nights of the Soul, “reaches deep into [our] soul, and the desires and anxieties connected to it touch [our] very foundations. Sex represents life . . . [it] has the potential to do nothing less than make [us] into a person and . . . create a world that is sensuous and alive” (2004, 170-3).

The world that I had created by remaining in that therapy—taking toxic doses of psychiatric medication, for example, in an attempt to suppress my sexual drive and “reorient” myself toward heterosexuality—was laden with despair and dissonance. It was eviscerated of all sensuality and aliveness. When those who are “struggling with their queer identities” turn to any type of conversion or reparative therapy for hope, when they become “ex-gays” in an attempt to assuage their inner turmoil, they are doing nothing short of betraying the needs of the soul by silencing its daimon. Acceptance of one’s “homosexuality,” however, is also not the answer. When we instruct others, through the discourses of “coming out” literature, to accept their “gay self,” that a denial of their homosexuality is the root cause of their self-hatred, we are really meaning to help them accept the means by which their soul is needing to express itself, but instead, are circuitously reinforcing the very conflation that resulted in their so-called “self-hatred” to begin with. Again, same sex desire should not be confused, conflated, or displaced with the category of “homosexual,” yet this is precisely what has occurred. No one hates their true self; they hate only what they have been told they should be when they know, if only intuitively, that it’s not who they are. “[A] Foucaultian perspective,” writes Butler, “might argue that the affirmation of ‘homosexuality’ is itself an extension of a homophobic discourse” (1991, 13). “Gay self” is, in fact, an oxymoron, since “gay” points toward one’s map, while “self,” one’s territory.

Similarly, in using the notion of a “gay gene,” the language that one is “born gay,” as defense against any mindset that says homosexuality is a “choice,” the gay movement as a whole is reiterating its own subjugation by reinforcing the conflation between their shared experience of same sex desire—which is, after all, their movement’s goal: personal and cultural egalitarianism for who they desire—and the illusory identity of homosexuality. No socially constructed identity—neither homosexual, nor heterosexual, nor any other—will ever materialize in one’s genes, and we must be wary of anyone who ever tells us it has.

The problem is not that there remains a minority of people who continue to turn to reparative therapies for “help,” and not even that such therapies still exist; the problem, from one who spent six years of his life in a similar therapy, is that we have conflated who we are with a socially projected image of what we think we are, and continue to generationally reinforce this construct, this closet of homosexuality, as what anyone who experiences same sex desire must “be” before they can go about living their lives.



*Judith Butler first described the “heterosexual matrix” as a “grid of cultural intelligibility through which bodies, genders, and desires are naturalized.” This “matrix” was based on the similar “heterosexual contract” and “compulsory heterosexuality” postulated by Monique Wittig and Adrienne Rich, respectively, which “characterize a hegemonic discursive/epistemic model of gender intelligibility that assumes that for bodies to cohere and make sense there must be a stable sex expressed through a stable gender (masculine express male, feminine express female) that is oppositionally and hierarchically defined through the compulsory practice of heterosexuality” (1990, 208).



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Sexton, Anne. 1975 The Awful Rowing Toward God. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Tolle, Eckhart. 1999. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. New World Library, Vancouver, BC.

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.