Preface – The People Who Are Special, Too

I strongly believe there is no species of millipede I will ever find palatable. The particular version I found in my bowl on a warm summer evening in the summer of 2005 was an easy call. There were hundreds of them, red and pink, each about an inch long. They had however many legs it takes to make something “milli” as well as angry-looking pincers from both the front and back. They had been deep fried and were left moist with oil. The dish included long sugar sticks that one could lick and dip into the bowl. The millipedes that stuck would get sucked off the stick in what I had been assured was a delicious combination of sweet and sour. Nevertheless, I demurred.

“I cannot eat this,” I told my host, a middle-aged Communist Party official in a dusty blue jacket. We were two of the dozen or so people who had gathered at the center of Unicorn Hill Village #3—a tiny hamlet of perhaps thirty single-story houses constructed of cinder block and wood—to celebrate my visit and the arrival of the Peace Corps. We were sitting around a low, round table on fourteen-inch-high plastic stools. The millipedes glistened before me in a chipped porcelain bowl. The group stared on in silence as the village leader looked from me to the millipedes and back to me. He had a spindly frame and tanned skin that was drawn taut against his cheekbones. He looked like a Chinese Voldemort.

“Eat the food,” he grunted. His wife had made the millipede dish according to what my guide told me was “a very special recipe of the Bouyei people.” The Bouyei were a tiny, impoverished ethnic group concentrated in the mountains of central China. These were some of the very people the Peace Corps had sent me to live with, learn from, and—in theory—teach. My first meal in the village and I was off to a bad start.

“You can eat this,” my guide said with a nervous smile. “It tastes good.” He demonstrated for me, licking his sugar stick, dipping it in the bowl, and sucking off one particularly hairy millipede. “They’re sweet,” he explained, crunching away happily, “and Americans like sweet things.”

I nodded. “That’s true.” I groped for a polite escape. “But I’m a little different than most Americans.”

This gained me perplexed looks from both my guide and my host.

“I’m a Jew.”
Gasps. Widened eyes. Furrowed brows. Awkward silence. I said this last sentence in Chinese. “Wo shi youtairen.” The phrase, loosely translated, meant “I am a Person Who Is Special, Too.”

Why—oh why—had I said this? This was atheist, Communist China, after all. Didn’t Karl Marx say religion was the “opiate of the masses”? Had I just told my hosts I was a drug addict? And hadn’t Chairman Mao condemned religion as one of the “Four Olds,” a remnant (along with old culture, old habits, and old ideas) of the feudal past the Communist Party sought to destroy? I wondered if the arrest and deportation of a Peace Corps volunteer would make the evening news back home in Philadelphia.

As the silence around the table deepened and my face turned ever-darker shades of red, I marveled at the desperation of my religious mea culpa. I should have known better. I had, after all, already undergone months of Peace Corps training, sweating through seemingly endless hours of language classes, daily safety-and-security lectures, and occasional lessons in cross-cultural sensitivity. All of this, however, had taken place in Chengdu, the wealthy, relatively Americanized capital city of Sichuan Province, which was now a sixteen-hour train ride to the north. Chengdu had McDonald’s, Starbucks, and an IKEA. It was the China of Thomas Friedman and other American pundits touting China’s rise. I was now in Guizhou Province, the desperately poor, rural province in the dead center of China that would be my home for the next two years. Guizhou had . . . millipedes.

I was happy that my training was complete and I was finally on my own. I was happy to be in a part of China I had rarely seen covered in the American media. I was feeling like an authentic, trailblazing Peace Corps volunteer on an Indiana Jones adventure. Unicorn Hill Village #3 was no Temple of Doom, but this was far from my typical dinner.

Dr. Jones played it cool; I was desperate. Embracing my Jewish roots at that particular moment was a foggy-headed attempt to get excused from the table. I had never yearned so powerfully for a bagel.

“Jews can’t eat insects,” I mumbled, my eyes scanning for reactions from the men who surrounded me. “I don’t want to get into it, but there are a lot of rules for us . . .”

The tension seemed to mount until, quite suddenly, the silence was broken by a hoot from my host’s wife. Her cry was followed by smiles from others in the group, pats on my back, and even some applause.

“Comrade Marx was Jewish,” said a man sitting a few paces away from the table, staring at me intensely.

“So was Einstein,” beamed the man to my right, offering me a cigarette.

“You must be very clever,” said my guide, as the bowl of insects was removed from my side of the table, replaced by a dish of steaming meat.

“Why would the CIA send us a Jew?” mumbled Voldemort. I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly, but the raised eyebrow from my guide let me know I had, officially, just been accused of being a spy.

It was all a little bewildering, but I smiled like an idiot, happy to avoid the millipedes. I dug right into the mystery meat, and the men around the table quickly began eating their food as well. There was a toast to my health, then another to my success as a teacher, then another to American-Chinese friendship. We all got good and drunk.

I had passed the test. I was a Jew in the middle of nowhere, China.



Excerpted from Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy
Copyright 2011 by Michael Levy
Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

[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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