A lot of my life has involved the struggle not to be defined by the assumptions of bigots. Whether it was being called sissy, faggot, or worse while being bullied as a kid, or being called depraved, hell-bound, or worse while being denied legal equality as an adult.
As irritated as I get when someone tells me that I could stop being gay if I really wanted to, or that if I just met the right woman I would feel differently, or if I read the Bible and prayed hard enough it would all go away, you would think that I would never, ever say or imply that someone else is “really” something other than they claim, particularly in the area of sexual orientation.
You might think.
I have been called (somewhat angrily) a hypocrite for not believing at least one person who claimed to be ex-gay…
I’ve written about the topic of so-called ex-gay therapy a lot over the years—it’s one of my hot buttons, obviously.
It bothers me, first, because the existence of people who claim to be ex-gay is used by a lot of people to rationalize withholding civil rights or actively persecuting gay people. And there are the many cases of people, particularly children and teen-agers involuntarily placed in such therapy, who have been driven to suicide (and/or self-destructive behavior) when they found that the therapy didn’t change their desires. Which it never does.
But I also have some personal reasons. The claims of the ex-gay “therapy” peddlers have been used by some of my relatives to justify excluding my then-partner from family gatherings, disinviting me from their homes, and so forth. And that’s not the worst of it. The worst is a long tale. You might want to get a nice beverage or something before settling in to read it:
Most of the characters in this story I’m about to relate are relatives, and anyone familiar with the enormous constellation of cousins and extended family I grew up around will probably know who I’m talking about, but I don’t have anyone’s permission to tell this tale, so I’m going to assign everyone an alias (Also, there are certain first names that a whole lot of my relatives share, which can confuse things even further if I don’t rename a few people).
Christopher, who is a year-and-a-half younger than me, could never please his father, Uncle Mac. No matter what he did, no matter how hard Christopher tried, his dad always found fault, and was always disappointed. And Christopher was desperate for approval. His younger brother, Ryan, couldn’t possibly care less what anyone, especially his father, thought of him—and, of course, his father adored and praised every thing that Ryan did.
During our teen years, Christopher and I each realized that the other was gay. We didn’t actually talk about it, but we both knew. Being raised in the same extended family, of course we both were struggling in the same homophobic environment. We weren’t actively helping each other with the struggle, but we would exchange eye-rolls from time-to-time. That was the extent of it.
I ought to have been Christopher’s ally in the family. I certainly didn’t mean to contribute to his problems. But I wound up doing precisely that, however unintentionally. About a year after he graduated from high school: I accidentally outed him to his step-mother, Aunt Sarah. She had been lamenting Christopher’s having never had a girlfriend and her own lack of success fixing him up with someone. I don’t know why she had such a bee in her bonnet that day, but she just kept going on and on, even when my grandmother tried to get her to change the subject, she just kept nattering. And eventually I stupidly said, “Did it ever occur to you he isn’t interested in girls?”
I immediately regretted it. I tried to walk it back. I tried to pass it off as a joke. But apparently that night she confronted him about it, and he admitted he was gay. There followed a long argument, with shouting and slammed doors and so on. His parents didn’t throw him out (he was attending community college and living with them at the time), but he wound up moving out soon afterward. He left town entirely not long after that.
I was long ashamed of that, not least because Christopher never told anyone about me. Even after that. He could have outed me, but he didn’t.
I didn’t see Christopher again until about nine or ten years later, when I ran into him in a gay bar here in Seattle. He introduced me to his boyfriend, Eric, who seemed like a very sweet guy with a good head on his shoulders. They were living together in Tacoma. They seemed extremely happy. In fact, it was the first time I ever remembered seeing Christopher look and act truly happy. I tried to apologize for the outing, but Christopher laughed it off.
I ran into Christopher and Eric from time to time after that at various events. They always seemed happy.
Then one time I ran into Eric at a fundraiser for some gay cause. I asked if Christopher was there, because I wanted to introduce him to some people. Eric got a weird expression on his face. My heart sank, and I was expecting him to tell me that he and Christopher had split up.
A few months before, Eric had come home from work one day, and noticed that the deadbolt wasn’t locked, and the house seemed messier than he remembered it, with some odd things out of place. Eric worked at a 9-to-5 office job, while Christopher was a cook at a restaurant and usually worked evenings. Eric assumed that Christopher had been doing some re-arranging of the furniture or something, lost track of the time, was running late for work, then left in a hurry, forgetting to lock the second lock.
Until Eric got the phone call a bit later from Christopher’s boss. Christopher had never shown up for work, nor had he called in sick.
This was the early 90s, and almost no one had mobile phones. Eric tried not to panic. He started calling friends to see if they had heard from Christopher. He called Aunt Sarah, to see if some sort of family emergency had come up that Christopher had been called away for. She seemed very concerned that Christopher was missing, and promised she would call if she heard anything. Eric started calling hospitals, with no luck.
Eric eventually called the police. He knew that it was probably too soon to report a missing person, but he thought maybe the state of the apartment as he had found it might constitute signs of a crime. Nothing particularly of value was missing, and where wasn’t any evidence of forcible entry, so the police said Eric would have to wait a couple days more, and if Christopher didn’t turn up, he could file a report then.
Eric did file the report. No one had seen Christopher. Everyone Eric contacted denied any knowledge of what had happened to Christopher.
A police officer called Eric a few days after the report was filed to explain that they were closing the case, because Christopher had been located. The police officer said that another officer had spoken with Christopher, and Christopher knew Eric was looking for him, but because Eric wasn’t a relative or a legal spouse, the officer could say no more. “You’ll have to wait for him to contact you and explain.”
Eric was pretty upset. Before the officer hung up, she finally said, “I shouldn’t say this, but you might want to contact his parents.”
Eric immediately called them. Aunt Sarah explained that Christopher was no longer gay. “He’s seen the light and repented. He doesn’t want to talk to you.” Uncle Mac got on the phone and informed Eric that if Eric ever showed his face around Christopher again, Eric would be beaten so badly he would wish he had never been born.
I was flabbergasted when Eric explained all of this to me.
Eric said he made a couple of attempts to call a few non-family members he knew who lived in the same town as Christopher’s parents. But that had just caused Ryan, Christopher’s younger brother, to show up at Eric’s door and threaten him with worse than what Uncle Mac had threatened.
It wasn’t out of character for Uncle Mac or Ryan to make threats of a homophobic nature—one reason I hadn’t spoken to Uncle Mac for a few years was because he’d once threatened my late husband—but there also were parts that didn’t add up. I wound up calling one of our cousins, someone I thought would give me the straight scoop, but she said that she couldn’t talk to me about it. She wouldn’t say why. I knew a lot of extended family members, demi-cousins, and other various people who were related to Uncle Mac or Aunt Sarah by marriage, but not technically one of my relatives who still lived in the area. So, I tried contacting a few others. Most told me that until I got myself right with god, I should stay away from Christopher.
Eventually, I found a a demi-family member who would talk to me about it, but only if I absolutely swore that I would not tell Aunt Sarah or Uncle Mac who I got the story from, so I’ll just say it was Cousin Anonymous.
The afternoon before Eric came home to the empty apartment, Uncle Mac and Ryan had arrived unannounced and informed Christopher that they were there to take him to a special bible retreat where he was going to be cured of being gay. They were not going to take “no” for an answer. The way Anonymous heard it, they didn’t actually beat him up, but he didn’t exactly come along willingly, either. Anonymous had spoken to Christopher afterward. Christopher described it as a kind of boot camp, but also insisted that he now agreed it was the right thing to do.
Everyone in the extended family was aware of the situation, Anonymous said, and they all knew that no one was supposed to tell Eric, or me, “or anyone else who had approved of him while he was in the lifestyle” where Christopher was. Anonymous claimed to only know that since their conversation, Christopher had gone off to California to work in some sort of missionary group. And of course, Aunt Sarah had known exactly what was up when she was pretending to be worried the first time that Eric called.
Aunt Sarah called me. She had heard I was asking around, so she figured the cat was out of the bag. She thought this would be a good opportunity to tell me that I could go get the same treatment Christopher did. She told me how my being gay was killing my mother, and what a relief it was, now, to know that Christopher wasn’t going to hell after all.
Ever since, certain family members have continued to tell me, when an opportunity arises, that they don’t believe for one moment that anyone is born gay. Obviously it’s just a matter of choice, because look at Christopher! He changed. So can you!
When Grandma died a few years ago, I was back in Longview for the funeral, and when they herded a bunch of us family members into a room of our own until the service started, I saw Christopher for the first time in over a decade.
Various family members were no long sticking so strictly to the “don’t tell Gene anything!” policy, so I wasn’t completely in the dark about his life since we’d last seen each other. I had heard he’d left the missionary group and was back in town where we’d both lived as teen-agers. I knew he was still single, and that even though he was no longer gay, he still had never, ever had a girlfriend. But I didn’t know anything else about his life.
I don’t know which of us said, “Hi” first. There we were, in a very crowded and very noisy room in the back of the church, waiting while the non-family members were being seated for Grandma’s funeral. It wasn’t exactly a time and place conducive to an in-depth conversation.
I asked how he was. He said “Not bad.” Christopher was always a bit of a babbler, and it got worse when we was nervous. He started babbling about his life. I didn’t follow half of what he said, because he was referring to people by first name without any context. I assumed they were friends, co-workers, and/or neighbors. He mentioned his meds. He said something along the lines of, “I have to remember to take my pills, or temptation will get me!”
During one of those “he can change, and so can you” conversations, one of the extended family members had mentioned that Christopher was on medication for “his condition.” Strangely, they had thought that explaining that he had to take multiple drugs, at least one of which allegedly repressed his sexual desires, and another to treat the depression that went along with having no love life somehow bolstered their argument that being gay was simply a choice. I really don’t understand how they can say such things with a straight face.
In any case, I assumed that he was referring to some combination of drugs like that, but I didn’t get any details. I wasn’t really sure what to say. Christopher finally asked, “So, how about you?” At which point I attempted to introduce him to my husband, Michael.
Christopher blinked at Michael and said, “I didn’t realize they were letting friends in, too.”
I repeated that Michael was my husband.
Christopher blinked again. “I should really say hello to Anne!” and he walked away.
I don’t know what else there is to say. I could link to stories about the juries and judges that have been concluding that ex-gay therapy is a fraud. I could fill a lot of screen space with links to the many practitioners, proponents, and purveyors of these therapies that have been revealed to be involved in fraud and similar crimes.
But to what end? People in my family were willing to coerce and intimidate their own adult child into this kind of quackery. They think the fact that someone has to take multiple medications to “resist temptation” is proof that gay people can be cured. They think that living what does not seem to be a very happy life alone and unloved is better than my husband and I being legally married. They think that my husband and I living and working and being happy together is an abomination that will cause god at any moment to “strike America down.”
And they think I’m the one who needs help?