As a graduate student, I lived in a coastal town in California. I worked right on the coast and would usually park the car in a residential area a few blocks south of my research building. Along this stretch of popular California coastline, there were constantly surfers coming and going – mostly guys. There were invariably lots of really cute ones. Since I was trying to repress homosexual inclinations at this point in life, I tried not to look, or if I was perhaps being a little less hard on myself, I allowed myself just one glance at someone I thought was attractive. Needless to say, I was not always successful at keeping these self-imposed rules about stealing looks at guys.
When “temptations” were really bad, I would often remind myself of a statement by George Bernard Shaw that served as a motivation for me in denying my homosexual feelings. To paraphrase, I think: “Life is not about finding yourself; life is about creating yourself.” I really liked this quote. It was empowering, I felt, and it suggested to me that there was no pre-determined outcome for my life. In my case, religious expectations to have only heterosexual thoughts and behaviors bound me mentally, so I could not and would not allow myself to “find” my homosexual self. I had decided then to be a heterosexual and that was that.
I still enjoy Shaw’s statement today very much for the same idea of personal empowerment, but I have sort of eaten some internal crow over how I should apply this statement in my life. Years of prayer, thought control, fasting and marriage to a woman have really not made me any less gay. Sure, I generally have a respectable degree of behavioral self control, but internally I have not lessened the need for emotional intimacy with a guy, appreciably decreased my physical and sexual attraction to men, or significantly altered the deep seated feeling that only in a relationship with a guy do I have the greatest chance of giving and receiving the best that intimate relationships between two people can offer.
I want to tackle here something that I feel might be a common argument made by those are motivated by religious or other reasons to reject homosexuality as a stable and acceptable form of human attraction. That argument is hard work. Consider these potential arguments: “If you simply had more faith and worked harder at controlling your thoughts, you would not be gay.” “You may never be able to completely eliminate your homosexual feelings, but with enough hard work you can manage them and live a heterosexual lifestyle.”
Alright, let’s look at these types of arguments critically with a series of questions.
The first question is why…why should a person strive to change his or her sexual orientation? Is there scientifically-rigorous evidence showing that homosexuality itself (not societal harm due to homophobia or discrimination against gays) is psychologically harmful? Does homosexuality directly cause crime, dissolve straight relationships or nuclear families, result in poor performance in school, or negatively affect vocational aptitude? Can anyone unequivocally demonstrate that there is a divine preference for heterosexuality and that the narrow interpretation of holy writ used by some conservative churches to claim that homosexuality is immoral is the only interpretation that God him/her/itself approves? If change advocates cannot demonstrate any sound social, religious or scientific reasons to alter orientation that would not be cured by eliminating homophobia, then the whole change therapy idea needs to be tossed out the window.
The second question is whether change in sexual orientation is possible. The short answer, is that yes, across the broader gay population, some change is possible. However, change is not probable. And for specific individuals, changing from gay to straight may be essentially impossible. Kinnish et al. (2005) and Mock and Eibach (2011) for example, found that at least for men, homosexuality is a stable and largely unchanging expression of human sexual orientation. Most gay people cannot become straight, no matter the amount of effort expended. A valid corollary question is whether a straight person, with enough hard work, can make him or herself gay. If change in sexual orientation is possible with enough faith and prayer, why aren’t more straight people signing up for costly weekend programs to become gays and lesbians? After all, if the disadvantages of discrimination, homophobia, and self loathing turn out to be too much for the straight-turned-gay person, he can just change himself one more time to become straight again! ;)
The third question is whether hard work is actually the factor responsible for change in orientation in the few cases where gay people insist they have become straight. Perhaps many of these individuals are more bi-sexual than others or are naturally more fluid in their sexuality, so it is easier for them to change orientation over time. Or perhaps, those claiming change only maintain the semblance of being straight because they are isolated socially, or they perform exhausting mental gymnastics to suppress the gay inclinations that are still there. Would such people still be straight if they spent a few hours on my beach in California with young half naked surfers milling about? Will they still be able to claim that they are straight 10 or 20 years from now? There is a difference between actually becoming straight versus simply becoming not gay. Hard work may accomplish the latter, but I am more skeptical that it can effectively lead to the former.
The fourth and final question: Even if change is possible through hard work, is it worth it? Is the requisite internal remodeling and the potential for harm to other parts of the self worth the change in orientation? Some who are deeply invested in specific religious points of view may claim that it is worth it. But all gays should honestly ask themselves if a high degree of internal tension, persistent anxiety, self rejection or other derivatives of destructive emotions are really going to benefit themselves in the long run. Can positive things be built with so much negative energy?
Personally, my heart seems to tell me that I do not need an internal remodeling with respect to my sexual orientation. If hard work was an effective solution, then perhaps I should have seen some appreciable change in my gayness by now. But alas, many guys are still hot, I still want to have an intimate relationship with a guy on a variety of levels, and I still generally lack comparable feelings for the opposite gender. Prayers, mental discipline, fasting and other forms of hard work are much better spent becoming the kind of person that my core attributes will allow me to be, not the kind of person that someone else thinks I should be. Life is short and the limited energy I have would be infinitely better spent learning how to be more compassionate, forgiving, intelligent and spiritually insightful than re-arranging my core self. I still believe George Bernard Shaw’s aphorism, but making myself the best gay person I can be (along with the best father, partner, biologist, citizen, etc. that I can be) is the best use of my time and energy.
(1) Mock and Eibach 2011. Stability and change in sexual orientation identity over a 10-year period in adulthood. Archives of Sexual Behavior.
(2) Kinnish et al. 2005. Sex differences in the flexibility of sexual orientation: a multi-dimensional retrospective assessment. Archives of Sexual Behavior.