The Ex-Gay Debate: Pt I – Is Gay a Kind of Person?
I promised I would eventually post about why I don’t believe in ex-gay ministry or in reparative therapy. This is a really huge topic so I will split this into three parts. Part I investigates one of the fundamental assumptions at the heart of the discussion. In Part II I will tell my experience of how the Unification Church handles homosexuality. Part III will be about change and why I don’t believe in ex-gay ministry and reparative therapy.
A Note on Language
Here I continually use the word gay pretty much exclusively, rather than ‘LGBT’ or ‘gay and lesbian’. ‘Gay’ often infers both gay men and gay women (i.e. lesbians) and I use the term in this sense. This is mainly because gay-to-straight conversion organizations tend to target homosexual men and most studies on the subject of conversion therapy deal with homosexual men.
Part I: Is Gay a Kind of Person?
There is one fundamental difference between those who believe that gay-to-straight conversion is possible and those who believe it is impossible. Those who believe it is impossible consider gay to be a kind of person, while those who hold that it is possible believe that ‘gay’ is a condition and that each person is by nature heterosexually oriented.
There is no way of proving that gay is a kind of person. There is no way of proving that homosexuals are part of God’s design of the universe. There is no way of knowing if our current understanding of the immutability of homosexuality is not entirely culturally (and historically) determined. I say this as a self-identified queer person. People always overestimate how much they know about themselves. But in reality, people often surprise themselves, for better or for worse. To analyse, understand and communicate our feelings and the essence of our persons is actually really hard, even when dealing with the socially acceptable. Take for example, how people deal with grief, political opinions, or religious identity. The strong become weak, the weak become strong; the holy man turns apostate, the atheist turns believer. It is hard to know yourself.
So when we deal with emotion, personhood and meaning, proof is often somewhat irrelevant. While there may be no way of proving that gay is a kind of person, there is no real way of proving that black, woman or Jew is a kind of person either. There is no way of proving that homosexuals are part of God’s design of the Universe, but there is no way of proving that starfish or monkeys or planets are either. An uncompromising attitude to such ideas is not helpful. When dealing with matters that resonate with the deepest parts of a person’s soul, the only appropriate attitude is compassion. Dialogue – listening, understanding, questioning – should be favoured over the scientific approach of analysing, measuring and comparing. Through dialogue, models are built – imperfect, temporary, but ultimately helpful. We use these models to help us make decisions but remain humble in the knowledge that we are running off guesswork.
‘Gay is a kind of person’ is a model. It might be imperfect, it might be temporary, but it is helpful. It accounts for the experience of gay and lesbian people when they fall in love with people of the same sex and want to spend their life together with that person. It accounts for the odd experience of not being in control of who one falls in love with. And it allows for the gathering of LGBT persons under political causes and helps protect the human rights of a marginalised group.
But sexuality is flexible, nebulous and changeable, and so clarity is difficult if not impossible. A model is always open to questioning and we should recognise it as such. There are those who disagree that gay is a kind of person, which is not the same as saying that gay people do not exist. But if gay is not a kind of person, what is it? I tend to find that it is variously:
- a personal moral failure – caving to a temptation; homosex is a (bad) choice, every time
- a psychiatric disorder – SSAD (Same-Sex Attraction Disorder) or similar; same-sex attraction is the result of bad choices and others’ (parents, particularly fathers) failings
- a lifestyle choice – gay means being a part of a community with its own parties, mannerisms, fashion and lots of wild sex (straight people, of course, never do it that way)
Those who disagree that gay is a kind of person are not necessarily unaware that there are people who identify as gay. Where the legitimacy lies in their claim is in their saying that we do not know that gay is a kind of person and we do not know that it is a part of their being. Where they fall short is that they often fail to enter into dialogue: to listen, to understand, to question. As such, the helpful aspects of the ‘gay is a kind of person’ model are not apparent to them. They often do not understand that there is love – and therefore enduring happiness – in many same-sex relationships, but understand only the surface manifestation of desire. When love is out of control, it is a mystery; but when desire is out of control, it is lust, and lust is sin. When sin organises into a group with political aims, it is a threat.
Personally I find it hard to firmly decide whether gay is a kind of person or not. I cannot say for sure. Alternative proposals for what gay is seem rather weak and yet my anti-gay upbringing stops me short of being fully certain that it is an unchanging essence of some people’s personhood. It is incredibly hard to let go of a worldview in favour of something you have been radically opposed to. People everywhere, of widely varying opinions, expect reasoning to be enough to convince their opponents of their rightness. However, offering proof keeps the conversation tied to the wrong level of conversation. The very thought of having to prove the full humanity of a black person is horrifying to people today (yet curiously tricky as a thought exercise) and yet less than 50 years ago the civil rights movement was running at full steam in the United States. If we are to transcend this argument, if we want to be heard and understood, it is imperative that we ourselves begin by listening with compassion.
What do you think?