The Grumpy Ghey: The Only Way Out Is Through

by / Nov. 3, 2015 11pm EST

There is no such thing as ex-gay. It doesn’t work that way.

Ask me for the science behind that statement and I will shrug and turn up my palms. It’s not something tangible. But life experience must count for something. 

Conversion therapy claims otherwise. In the wake of a strong legislative movement to make it illegal, state by state, more Americans are aware of what conversion therapy is and why it presents serious problems to the safety of LGBTQ youth. It’s a prescribed course of treatments that claim to, over time, change one’s sexual orientation to heterosexual. The idea is to assist people in ridding themselves of “unwanted homosexuality.”

Just sit with that term for a moment. Unwanted homosexuality.

To me, the phrase posits that there is also wanted homosexuality. And I’m not sure that really exists. I don’t mean that in the context of drooling at the hot dude packing your groceries at the co-op, wondering which way he swings and daydreaming of a chance encounter. I mean it as in, “From the first moment I can remember as a child, I wanted to grow up to be gay.”

Do you know anyone that claims to have felt this way? Probably not. If you do, they’re lying. 

The person who comes out to an unconditionally loving home, encounters no school bullying or hate along the way, and emerges a well-adjusted adult is the odd gay out. But even those people didn’t want to be gay. Embracing who you are comes after the fact. Those of us who are out and proud didn’t necessarily want to be gay. 

Most of us encounter circumstances on our journey that make us yearn to be straight, yet we know that’s not a real option. Hopefully we arrive at a point of self-acceptance. But you play the hand you’re dealt, and, as the campaign promised, “It gets better.” Most of the time. Any ideas to the contrary promote confusion. Suggesting there’s another option (besides remaining in the closet) is a cruel trick. 

Conversion therapy intimates there’s something that can be done to rid you of the gay, and therein lies the problem: So long as we have folks preying on our most conflicted peers with false ideologies about curing them of homosexual feelings and behaviors, flickers of conversion therapy will remain alive. Even if it’s made illegal. But at least that’d force it further underground. 

Conversion therapy is ineffective. Claims to the contrary are always disproven, either as the product of skewed data or flat-out falsehoods. Folks that seek conversion therapy are being sold hope, and they want very much to believe that the process is working, which is another reason why inaccurate information circulates.  

You’ll get a headache reading the history of various nurture theories on how people wind up gay. It’s a conundrum of breastfeeding traumas, cock worship, violent beating fantasies, dominant mothers, absentee fathers…Oedipus this, sadomasochistic that. The history of theories about how to change a homosexual into a heterosexual is full of far-fetched concepts. Thankfully, it no longer relies on nausea-inducing drugs and shock treatments (on the brain or the genitals, which was the case as recently as the 1960s). We’re no longer hearing stories of earnest doctors masturbating patients while sexual images of the opposite gender appear on a portable screen. But that doesn’t mean that modern approaches are any less damaging.

Nowadays, conversion therapy revolves around the notion that homosexuals are the victims of some childhood trauma. (Notice that this reinforces a culture of fault and blame.) Treatment strategies vary, but often involve rarifying interactions with the opposite sex—redefining them, if you will. 

Recent articles have detailed the ordeal of Matthew Shurka, now a 27-year-old advocate in the fight to ban conversion therapy practices. A decade earlier, based on the advice of a licensed mental health professional, Shurka’s father sent his son to see a series of three conversion therapists—one of whom is now denouncing the process as bogus. The young Shurka was instructed to cut ties with his mother and sisters, was given Viagra to help facilitate “successful” heterosexual encounters, and was sent down a psychological rabbit hole searching for some buried trauma that likely didn’t exist. 

Shurka’s dad didn’t set out to find a conversion therapist, but rather went looking into treatments that would equip his son with tools to deal with being a homosexual teen. Instead of working from that point forward—a healthy stance for a concerned father—doctors played on the fear lurking beneath that stance to make conversion therapy seem appealing. For a struggling teen, it probably seemed like a no-brainer when compared to the scary prospect of coming out.

Shurka had a fair amount of straight sex. But the process tore his family apart, cost butt-loads of cash, and didn’t eclipse his homosexuality. Eventually, he came out as gay.

What’s striking about Shurka’s journey is how successful it seemed on the exterior: His peers accepted him as straight and he was able to bed the ladies like a champ. And yet it still didn’t work. Which tells us that it’s possible to go through conversion practices and have heterosexual sex. But is it enjoyable? Is it passionate, satisfying, hot? Is it sexy? Doubtful. When you consider the amount of strain and fuss in redirecting one’s sexual focus, it sounds calculated, mechanic, and soulless. 

Shurka lost 10 good years during which he could have been working on self-acceptance. He’s giving meaning and purpose to that lost time by telling his story. His message is simple: At no point in the process was he encouraged to be himself. Conversion therapy only reinforced the shame he had about his sexuality to begin with. 

There’s a reason why the American Psychological Association (APA) removed homosexuality from the DSM’s roster of mental disorders in 1973: It’s not a malady that needs fixing. By attempting to handle it as such, a dangerous pattern of inner conflict is established that drags an individual even farther from achieving any sense of personal harmony. 

The good news is that conversion therapy is under some serious fire, specifically with regard to minors. California passed a law banning such practices last fall, and similar bills proposed in New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey are proposed. In a recently released  statement that’s paired with a model state legislation form, the Human Rights Campaign and National Center for Lesbian Rights offered the following: “Conversion therapy is a set of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation, change their gender identity or expression, or lessen their same-sex sexual attraction. These practices have been rejected by all mainstream medical and mental health organizations, and there is no credible evidence that they are effective.”

Those statements are echoed by just about everyone whose opinion matters, including the US Attorney General and President Obama. 

But proponents of ignorance and hate always find ways to persevere. They’ve repackaged their approach under the guise of something called “reparative therapy,” which linguistically implies that a wrong is being set right.

Reparative therapy was spearheaded by Dr. James Nicolosi, co-founder and former president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. NARTH has repeatedly failed to substantiate its claims that being gay is something curable. As a result, the organization (which is heralded by Christian special interest groups like the Family Research Council) has come under fire for peddling junk science, prompting the APA to release the following statement in 2006: 

“There is simply no sufficiently scientifically sound evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.” The APA added, “Our further concern is that the positions espoused by NARTH and Focus on the Family create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.” 

Ya think?

Not everyone under the APA umbrella has always been in agreement over this. Former APA president Robert Perloff applauded NARTH’s mission of self-determined sexual orientation. He even made it sound reasonable on paper. But the notion that sexuality is mutable not only wreaks havoc on the mind, it undermines the fight for LGBTQ liberties: If homosexuals can be set right with some prescribed course of treatment, our struggle is no longer so real. It reduces our quest to secure inalienable rights to something like fudging financial records for state assistance. No bueno. Any ideologies fanning that fire are mighty dangerous.

What’s more, it lends credence to the  concept that gays are sick people who need firm, guiding (right-wing Christian?) hands to get well. Other organizations perpetuating this horseshit like Positive Alternatives to Homosexuality and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays present a threat to our mental health and prey on insecurity.

I’ve always believed that we’re born this way. For all of the fruitless effort involved in redirecting sexual energy, we’re better off working toward acceptance, no matter how costly coming out may seem to terrified individuals struggling with “unwanted homosexuality.” Not even the most well adjusted among us truly wanted this. We grew into it, learned to accept ourselves and to find the joy in who we are. That’s an easier, much more rewarding process than what these mavens of medical quackery are prescribing. 

I first sat in a therapist’s office in 1980 at the age of 10. My parents felt there were a number of things about me that needed fixing, and I saw a bunch of different doctors through adolescence. I avoided discussing sexual feelings. Thankfully, none of them ever attempted any of the funky conversion treatments now deemed archaic. But if they had, I’d probably have taken it for what is was: a hand job from daddy. Nothing more, nothing less.