The New York Times magazine featured two articles, My Ex-Gay Friend and Living the Good Lie: Therapists Who Help People Stay in the Closet that moved beyond the usual “gay and proud” arguments to reveal a segment of the community who struggle with reconciling their religious identity with their sexual orientation.
In Living the Good Lie, writer Mimi Swartz takes us into the complicated discussions happening in American psychology over how best to offer support to people that may identify as gay but fear losing more than they will gain if they come out of the closet. Since the American Psychiatric Association (A.P.A.) removed homosexuality from its lists of disorders in 1973, conventional wisdom would seem to indicate that mental health practitioners should help their clients affirm their sexual orientation. But what do you do when sexual orientation and religious identity collide. Which one takes precedence?
For many gays and lesbians, it’s an either-or question. In affirming sexual identity, a former religious identity is often lost or modified. Or along with affirming one’s religious identity comes the resolve to either remain closeted or celibate. Currently, I fall in with the latter group. I’d like to have the burden lifted by coming out but fear the consequences of affirming a life that may not be in accordance with my religious beliefs and one that some of my family and friends will not support.
My religious identity trumps my sexual identity. I’m aware of the inconsistency and contradiction in that position but that’s where I am in the struggle to reconcile, though I’ve stopped trying to “pray the gay away.” Some days are harder than others, I’d like to be in a relationship and I find myself more attracted to women than to men but I don’t want to violate a religious doctrine which I believe is based in core Islāmic texts and which in almost every other aspect gives meaning to my life and worldview.
By 2007, there was enough confusion and dissent about what had come to be known as “sexual-orientation-change efforts” that psychologists were clamoring for guidance. The American Psychiatric Association formed a task force of gay and straight members to investigate and develop guidelines. A small brush fire erupted when no members of the evangelical community were asked to serve, but they needn’t have worried. “Over time we evolved,” said Lee Beckstead, a task-force member and psychologist who works with Mormons conflicted about their homosexuality. “We were trying to integrate the psychology of religion with the psychology of sexual orientation.” They wanted a client-centered approach that was also based on scientific research. “The science says that being gay is not an illness,” Beckstead told me. “You don’t need another treatment model, because there’s nothing to treat. The important thing is meeting where the client is — honoring them, validating them, supporting them, giving them the ability to decide for themselves.”
In the final document, the A.P.A. clearly stated its opposition to conversion therapy and unequivocally described homosexuality as normal. But it also offered a nuanced view of religious gay people who did not want to come out. The A.P.A. considered the kind of identity therapy proposed by Throckmorton and Yarhouse to be a viable option. No effort needed to be expended trying to change a client’s religion or sexual orientation. Therapy, in fact, was to have no particular outcome either way, other than to guide the client closer to self-acceptance, whatever the client believed that to be. The difference between sexual orientation and sexual identity was microscopically parsed. “Acceptance of same-sex sexual attractions and sexual orientation may not mean the formation of an L.G.B. sexual-orientation identity,” the report stated. “Alternate identities may develop instead.” It further stated that acting on same-sex attractions might not be a fulfilling solution for everyone. “I called up Mark, and I said: ‘Can you believe this? Am I reading this right?’ ” Throckmorton told me.
The chairwoman of the task force, Judith Glassgold, remains pleased with the outcome. “People might want to adopt an identity that fits with what their religion proscribes,” she explained. “Or they might want to be celibate rather than identify as a gay person. Some people prioritize their religion over their sexuality, like priests and nuns. That’s an identity.” The goal was to help the client come up with an identity that worked for them. “The dialogue has changed in the last decade,” she continued. “Among therapists — both among gay activists and the religious — we can have a discussion. We all agree that arousal and orientation are not under someone’s volition. What we can work on is self-acceptance, integration identity and reducing stigma.”
Clinton Anderson, director of the A.P.A.’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Office, put it another way: “The task-force report is more of an acknowledgment than was true in the past that not everyone who is coming to this dilemma with a strong religious background is going to find an adaptation that is positive with regard to their sexuality. There may be people who are just not going to get there.”
In My Ex-Gay Friend, writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis profiles his former friend Michael Glatze who after nearly ten years of living “in the life” with a partner and advocating through his magazine XY for gays to be out and proud renounced homosexuality altogether. Glatze has since joined the ex-gay movement and writes for the right-wing WorldNetDaily where he speaks out against accepting the “cage” of homosexuality. Glatze now lives in Wyoming, “the only state,” Denizet-Lewis informs us, “without a gay bar” and is attending a Bible college.
Another former friend and colleague of Glatze, Peter Ian Cummings doubts whether he was ever really gay:
I told Michael about a recent conversation I had with our former boss at XY, Peter Ian Cummings, who surprised me by wondering aloud if Michael was ever truly gay. “In retrospect, more than you or me or anyone else who worked at the magazine, his sexuality almost felt more theoretical than real to me,” Peter told me. “At a very young age, he had all these very well thought out theories about identity and sexuality. Maybe this gay or queer identity that fascinated him, and that he had taken on, wasn’t really true for him. It doesn’t explain why he says such ridiculous things about gay people now, but maybe, just maybe, he’s not in denial about his own sexuality.”