Following is a letter written by a graduate psychology student to his college professor.
The student has struggled personally with same-sex attractions. In this letter, he seeks to educate his professor about the unmet developmental needs that lay the foundation for homosexual attraction.
He describes the unmet needs he recognizes in his own background, and at the same time, explains why the “born that way” theory simply doesn’t account for the development of his homosexuality.
I am enjoying the multicultural counseling class immensely. But there is a subject, which, when it comes up, I feel like a distinct minority, and it is causing me pain. You appear to hold a strong point of view on this subject, which I know springs out of good intentions, but for which I feel invalidated.
I would like to begin by referencing a quote from page 205 of the textbook we are reading. In referring to African-Americans, it quotes:
“Environmental factors have a great influence on how people develop. This orientation is consistent with African American beliefs that racism, discrimination, oppression, and other external factors create problems for the individual. Emotional disorders and antisocial acts are caused by external forces (system variables) rather than internal, intrapsychic, psychological forces.” (Sue & Sue, 2008)
The quote seems to imply that the black experience of oppression is due to what they grow up with and face environmentally, rather than any intrinsic difference. And that it is these environmental factors which are the problem. I agree with this.
In my own life, the “environmental factors” that influenced my growing up caused many maladjustments. You know, for example, that my dad sexually abused me. In addition, core needs of mine were unmet. It’s a theme you read about in my personal life story paper in the Human Development Theories class you taught. I believe a principal need of mine that went unmet was attuned nurturance from my dad. To me he was such an unattractive and abusive individual that I can remember as early as age 4, detaching from him as a kind of defense response. This has been termed “defensive detachment.”
I turned instead to my mother, who was only too eager to have “a special little boy” to look up to her. I believe, in fact, that I was meeting her emotional needs as much as, if not more than, she was meeting mine. This set up a very unhealthy triangulation dynamic in my upbringing.
My dad was scary to me, and I felt I needed to suppress my natural masculine instincts in order to survive. Take for example, the day when I was six years old, and stood at the front of the line with my family, and decided to express masculine initiative and care for my siblings. We were standing in line to order donuts at one of these places with 50 different donut varieties. I remember how overwhelming it felt to choose which donut to order. I imagined that the rest of my family felt this way too. So when I saw a piece of brown donut on the counter top within my reach, I thought I could narrow the field on behalf of my family. I proudly announced “I’ll taste the chocolate donut!” I then picked up the donut piece and popped it into my mouth.
I felt like I was expressing qualities of both problem-solving and love for my family. This was true masculine initiative, coming from a six-year-old boy. What happened? My dad started slapping me in the face, with a mean, ominous look. No words were spoken. I ran to my mom and buried my head in her skirt. She said nothing on my behalf to my dad.
I share this with you because this, and countless other little incidents like it, had a dire effect on my self-concept as a male, and my sense of personal power. My self-esteem kept sinking and I began to portray myself as a victim, seeing most males as mean and scary, like my dad. I had a real problem. I had defensively detached from my dad, and was also defensively detaching from the boys at school as well. BY DEFAULT, NOT BY CHOICE I identified with girls, because it was safer to be around them, and my subjective experience from males had been so negative.
So what do you think happened to me in adolescence? I WAS SEXUALLY ATTRACTED TO OTHER BOYS, NOT TO GIRLS!
Does this mean I was “born” gay? A counselor I once had seemed to imply that an abusive father “knows” when his little toddler son is gay, and unconsciously abuses him for it. It’s such an outrageous implication, it makes me vomit.
Did I want homosexual arousal? No. Did I choose it? Again, no. Was my upbringing a major factor in this? Sadly, I find that the psychological community in general would admit that it was a small factor that was meaningless, because I was probably born gay. The Sue & Sue textbook states on page 445:
“As one researcher concluded, “Homosexuality in and of itself is unrelated to psychological disturbance or maladjustment.”
For many gay men I have known or met, I COULDN’T DISAGREE MORE. And it is sad that an enlightened textbook as this has given us a chapter on sexual minorities that is so single-track.
Also on page 445, is a discussion of the APA removing homosexuality from the DSM in 1973. It goes on to state:
“However, it did create a new category, ego-dystonic homosexuality, in the third edition of the DSM…for individuals with (1) ‘a lack of heterosexual arousal that interferes with heterosexual relationships’ and (2) ‘persistent distress from unwanted homosexual arousal.’ This category was eliminated in the face of argument that it is societal pressure and prejudice that create the distress.”
Wow, I would definitely have fit that DSM description, and perhaps a therapist could have addressed it with me. Too bad they removed it.
Why was it that I could not embrace a gay identity and gay sexuality? I can’t speak for other men, but I reject the notion that it is strictly because of societal disapproval. In my own case:
My sense of masculinity had been extremely compromised as a boy, and this was related to abuse and rejection from males. I felt so lacking in masculine affirmation, which to me is such a natural and normal need for boys (as is feminine affirmation for girls). Yes, I desperately needed connection with the masculine, and in part because I was afraid of other boys, I didn’t like sports, which is a major avenue whereby boys in our culture get that masculine connection. I couldn’t seem to get what I so desperately needed. It’s as if my psyche screamed “Get connection with masculine, and get it now!” So no wonder my bodily response in adolescence was one of sexual arousal toward other boys!
So why didn’t I “go for it”? It is true that my religious/ spiritual convictions played a part as a huge protective factor. But beyond that, I knew something profound at an intuitive level. That capitulating to my sexual desire for other boys would be to capitulate to the abuse, and to the family and social factors that had caused me great emotional pain in the first place. Instead of feeling better about myself as a male, this would likely cause me to feel worse about myself. I do not attribute this feeling to societal pressure, although I admit that such pressure is strong. For me it had to do with wanting to access my own masculinity, rather than cannibalizing it from another male. And also, despite being “exciting,” the idea of sex with a male felt “dark.”
In my journey, I certainly understand that piece about “darkness.” I believe that being sexually and emotionally abused at a very young age was a large part of that darkness. The reparative drive of the human psyche looks to the familiar, in order to try to promote reparation, or “healing” (witness the women who were battered by their fathers, who go on to marry a batterer). On some level, I believe I intuitively understood that sex with another male would have been like a re-creation of the sexual abuse I had experienced.
Through lots of personal growth and prayer, I felt my self-esteem improve as I moved into young adulthood. Beginning a professional career in my 20’s was difficult, but I stuck it out. When I began to hit my stride in my department, my manager, who was a man I looked up to, as well as other men in the office, praised me, and affirmed me. I felt AFFILIATED with men in a positive way, for perhaps the first time in my entire life.
How interesting that this was the period when I met the woman who was to become my wife, AND HAD GENUINE AND COMPELLING SEXUAL AROUSAL TOWARD HER. Having sexual arousal TOWARD A WOMAN had never happened prior to this in my entire life! However, after a time, the same-sex attraction returned, when healthy masculine affiliation waned again. And in my private thoughts and moments, my sexual fantasies would be about men, not women.
After my divorce quite a number of years later, I attended an intense, week-long residential therapy program, geared for people who grew up in dysfunctional families--often with a substance-abuse component, and the problems which derive from that. The program was excellent, and tears it evoked in me were intense. It was like lancing a wound. We were, of course, encouraged to find a therapist when we returned home, if we did not already have one. Before leaving the retreat, I spoke a few minutes to the clinical director of the program, to tell her how much it had meant to me. I then brought up the (to me) troubling subject of my unwanted same-sex attractions. Her response? She shrugged her shoulders, as if the feelings that had damaged my marriage, and were destroying my life, were irrelevant! That’s SHOCKING to me.
So here are the stated choices, from the standpoint of the psychology profession: That you are either heterosexual, or, if you feel attracted to the same sex, you are either gay or bisexual, and you should embrace your gay/bisexual identity. But Professor, neither of those “shoes” fit me! And I believe it is destructive to imply that the battle is between liberals and conservatives, or those who believe in gay rights, and those who don’t. I vehemently disagree with the tone of the rhetoric of some right-wing churches, and with ANYONE who would bring harm to a gay person, be it physical or psychological harm. And yet, the implication from our profession is that a gay lifestyle is totally healthy, and should be embraced by any and by all. I disagree with that profoundly.
So I find myself in a distinct, and yes, oppressed minority position on all of this, which rejects both the right and left. The issues are so deep, and the arguments, in my view, by both the right and the left, so shallow, and take into account surface manifestations only, rather than looking deeply into causes.
I also believe that there are profoundly unhealthy behavior cultures rampant in the gay male community, which are harming men. (This has nothing to do with religious moralism). But the psychology profession seems hostage to political correctness.
Consider a book that came out a few years ago called “Destructive Trends in Mental Health: The Well-Intentioned Path to Harm,” by Rogers Wright and Nicholas Cummings. Cummings is past president of the APA, and Wright is the founding president of the Council for the Advancement of Psychological Professions and Sciences. From a book review in the January/ February 2006 “Psychotherapy Networker,” I quote the following:
“Their charges of runaway political correctness add up to an exhausting critique…Many lesbian and gay activists want to forbid the right to treatment for troubled clients who come into therapy wishing to change their sexual orientation.” (How outrageous—so much for client self-determination!)
“What seems to bother Wright, Cummings, and the other contributors to this book more than the content of political correctness is its baleful effect on the scientific foundations of psychology. They believe that political correctness is behind the shortsighted view that science is somehow irrelevant to what psychologists do. For instance, Cummings says that he supported the 1974 American Psychological Association resolution stating that homosexuality isn’t a psychiatric condition. What’s often forgotten, however, is that further resolutions were passed, prescribing the need for more scientific research into the issue. But none has ever been done. In short, writes Cummings, “the two APA’s had established forever that medical and psychological diagnoses are subject to political fiat.”
Some organizations with religious affiliations claim to help men and women with unwanted same-sex attractions (SSA) to change. But I am wary, because of what I view as a potential religious agenda. There are, however, some organizations which are secular, and which are pioneering a relatively new model for healing from unwanted SSA. Several years ago, I attended an experiential weekend put on by an organization called “People Can Change” (www.peoplecanchange.com) That weekend was among the most powerful experiences of my entire life. In preparation for the weekend, they sent an article about the principles behind change. This (roughly 10 page) article is a very cogent and logical explanation of the causes of SSA, (for males) and the implications of the work needed to heal. Professor, I have attached it to this e-mail, and encourage you to read it thoughtfully, if you are willing to learn about environmental dynamics which can cause SSA in men. My own life story makes so much sense in light of what is written in this document. In fact, it virtually is my life story.
Another secular organization is the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (www.narth.com). This is a network of therapists and psychologists who believe in a patient’s right to choose “reparative” therapy for overcoming unwanted SSA.
So how has “change” worked in my own life? Whereas I used to isolate, I now have healthy friendships with men, which is meeting those needs for affiliation and affirmation from my own gender. Same-sex attractions have gone from what I would describe as “troublesome” to now only very occasional, and when it does happen, they are far less intense than they once were, and fade quickly. I now can spot the old emotional issues that I formerly was unaware of, and which used to translate into sexual arousal. I have a much improved body self-image now, and have had two relationships with women in the last four years. But more importantly, I believe that I have been shedding an imposed identity and embracing my true authentic identity.
Is this kind of reparative therapy for everyone? No. Is it hard work? Yes. As you know, the neural networks of the brain don’t change overnight.
Professor, there are many more details about my journey, but I believe I have written enough. The work I have done toward sexual reorientation has been so profound, so life-enhancing, that it feels a bit like the lifting of a curse. I see this as a potential practice for me in the future: to help other men heal from unwanted SSA.
Please know that I admire you greatly as both a teacher and as a caring person (why else would I spend literally the better part of entire day thinking about and writing this?). Thank you for being open to viewing such a “charged” subject in a new and thoughtful way, and to challenge your own conceptions. Thank you for honoring my experience and my walk, and the experience and walk of those who will come after me.
Sincerely, and with care,
A Graduate Student in a master’s program in counseling
Excerpts from the professor’s response:
Thank you…for trusting me with so many personal details of your story,
for telling me when I do something that hurts you, for taking the time to share your thoughts with me...
I have read your letter four times now, and will undoubtedly need to read it a few more times. Each time I am humbled and honored that you've talked to me, and that I get to know you... as well as so sad that I have invalidated your experience. I haven't read the article yet, but have printed it out to read later tonight. But I didn't want to make you wait that long for my reply, as I imagine you are wondering at my reaction...
I think your story is so important to tell, as (like you say) some of the views around sexuality are deeply imbedded in our professions... Your story has definitely got me thinking, and I really thank you for taking off more of my blinders. You are so committed and passionate about self discovery, and so am I! So I thank you for making me more aware of what I say and how that impacts others.
Please can we talk more? Or do you feel like you've said enough?!?