Ex-Gay? Is That Even a Thing? An Interview with Steve Gershom (part two)

[This is the second part of my interview with Steve Gershom. I posted the first half yesterday. Gershom has also written a four-part series about orientation change on his own blog, SteveGershom.com.]

Have you had any bad experiences with Christian organizations who try to bully or shame you into becoming heterosexual?

I know those things exist, but I’ve never seen them. Any organization I’ve come up against, there’s always been some good and some bad.

You spoke about “strands of homoeroticism” that run through most people, but also of the pathologies that often go along with homosexuality. So if you do see your homosexuality as a problem that needs fixing, what is the best way to approach it? Head-on, or through some more indirect approach to emotional health?

That very much depends on who you talk to. To my mind, there’s some parts of the various methods of reorientation therapy which I think are a great idea.

Like what?

Like, some of the things they want to help men achieve are things that would be good for any man, straight or gay. Things like realizing that every human being has some amount of brokenness or twistedness relating to their own and other genders. It’s just as pathological for a straight guy to be working out at the gym for 16 hours a week and sleeping with three women at a time, because he has messed up idea of what masculinity and femininity are.

The good parts of the “ex-gay” movement are parts that make people address their brokenness in the realm of gender. Their real brokenness.

I went on a retreat which is controversial, a “Journey into Manhood” weekend. It’s been used as an example of the worst things about ex-gay world. And there were some friggin’ creepy things about it!

Like what?

Like way the men who had been in the program treated each other: constant back massages, syrupy voices, stuff that dudes don’t do. Supposedly it was to teach men to be men, to get in touch with the masculinity that was always there. A lot of it was that, but a lot of it was: Well, we’re not going to have sex, but let’s do everything else, and call it “authentic mind-heart connection.”

But some of the good thing were learning some of the patterns that existed in my own ways of interacting with men, and recognizing some of the assumptions I unconsciously thought men were thinking about me. Learning to realize when a past trauma is still affecting your patterns of relating to other people. Those thing were legitimately dealt with in that weekend.

So, would you recommend an experience like this, with the good and the bad parts?

If you go in thinking, “I’ll swallow this thing whole!” — of course you’re going to get messed up. You have to discern whether you’re psychologically healthy enough to tell the difference between the good and the bad parts. There are people who are not in a psychological state to be ready for that kind of discernment.

I would say it’s probably always a mistake to try to directly pursue heterosexuality. But I don’t see anything wrong with trying to locate where you wounds are, and seeking healing for them. You may or may not hold out hope that as you heal, you might get “less gay.” I still recommend both the book, Growth Into Manhood, and the weekend, with the good and the bad, and if you’re able to discern the difference, then do so. The guy who wrote the First Things column you mentioned picked out the gross, bad things, highlighted them, and took them out of context.

Say you were talking to someone who’s just admitted to himself that he’s gay, and wants to try to change his orientation. What advice would you give to him?

First, find at least one person you can tell, and can talk to as regularly as possible. This is the most frustrating thing: someone will write to me, and say, “Help, I’m miserable!” So I ask if he’s told anyone he’s gay, and he says that nobody can know. But there’s nothing anyone can do unless they open up to one person. Ideally, someone who has a solid orthodox head on their shoulders, plus great empathy and patience. Those people aren’t a dime a dozen! What I always tell people is, if they’re Catholic, start by mentioning it in the confession, and see if the priest is receptive to meeting outside the confessional to talk about it.

I have also been helped by a therapist who saw no problem with gay relationships, but I made it clear that I did, and she respected that. Some people are dishonest, and will try to convince you that it’s really okay. That happened to me: someone said she respected my beliefs, but then she tried to manipulate me into a relationship with a friend of hers.

So, see if you can find a therapist, see if there’s a female friend you can talk to — because with women, there’s a lot less fear of judgment. It’s easier to tell a woman.  But it’s more healing to tell another man, because it helps to deflate this overblown fear of rejection. On the other hand, you do read horrible news stories of guys who did tell other guys, and the things they did to him. So you have to be careful! And, you know, sometimes it helps to send out feelers: see how they talk about homosexuals when it comes up; see if they’re bigoted.

I was thinking about the Church’s teaching on sterilization. Getting sterilized reflects a disordered view about sexuality. But if you do get sterilized and then repent, you are not required to get surgery to repair it, and a married couple is not required to be abstinent. They may do these things, and I’ve known some couples who felt called to have restorative surgery, and are glad they did; but it’s not required.

So, do you think God wants everyone to be heterosexual? If you’re gay, are you required to at least try, in one way or another, to become heterosexual?

I don’t think the Church would ever require someone to be more heterosexual. I don’t think it’s possible; that phrase doesn’t make any sense.

I was all upset about a year ago because I was in love with this guy who wasn’t it love with me. I was talking to a friend about it, and I was talking about how I just needed to get over it and move on. And she said, “You know, there are some things that are not a matter of your will. You don’t have the power to stop feeling this way.” No one has the power to be more heterosexual, per se.

I know there is some debate over whether the Church should use words like “disordered,” because it makes people feel like they are intrinsically second rate. And I know there are some Christians who are not thrilled at the prospect of being celibate for the rest of their lives, but they accept their SSA as part of their identities, maybe like some deaf people refuse to call their lack of hearing a disability. Do you think there’s some comparison there? Is it legitimate to sort of “own” your gayness, even if you’re chaste and celibate, because it makes you who you are?

That’s why this is so tricky to talk about the definition of being gay.

Do I want to be no longer attracted to men? Absolutely. Would I like to be attracted to women? Absolutely. But would I like to lose any of the things closely tied to being attracted to men? It’s anybody’s guess what those things are, exactly. You can’t talk about life like that — what life might have been.

Right, and I know people who are who they are because of something horrible, like the death of a child. They have become strong and close to God because of it, but they can’t quite bring themselves to say they’re glad it happened!

Yeah. What part of who I am is because of the struggle? The ‘person you would have been’ doesn’t exist. I’m extremely glad to be who I am. But would I change the things that made me who I am? Of course. And that doesn’t make sense!

See, that’s the whole reason this “gay thing” is such a big deal — because it brings the paradoxes of human experience right onto the surface and makes them unavoidable. It’s why people can’t stop talking about it. It makes it impossible not to talk about the relationship between sex and procreation, or the difference between love and friendship. It makes these things pressing concerns; it makes them so explicit.

Well, let’s end with a really big question: what does chastity mean to you? Do you see any difference between how you, as a gay man, see it, and how you’ve heard it described by heterosexual people, either sexually active or not? Does it sound like we’re all talking about the same thing?

I don’t think I can answer that. I don’t know what chastity is yet. No one I talk to does, either.

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[This ends the second half of my interview with Steve Gershom. For the first half, see yesterday’s post. Steve has also written a four-part post about orientation change on his blog, SteveGershom.com.]

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