WHEN AN EX-GAY MAN RETURNS TO A GAY LIFESTYLE
By Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D.
Last year, ex-gay spokesman John Paulk left his wife and three sons after more than 20 years of marriage and rejoined the gay community. He has renounced his former married life and is now discouraging others from attempting change.
Long ago, John emerged from a very troubled past. Prior to his Christian conversion, he assumed an identity as “Candi,” a cross-dressing and drug-using prostitute, immersing himself in the wilder and more anti-social aspects of the gay world. But his Christian conversion led him into a stark change: marriage with Anne, a former lesbian and a committed Christian woman dedicated to an orthodox understanding of family and sexuality, with whom he raised three sons, now teenagers. He also had a key position with Focus on the Family, where he became a well-known media figure testifying to his commitment to heterosexual family life and the traditional, Biblical understanding of sexuality, which holds that a gay identity is a false construct, not part of our human design. But now, all that life has crumbled.
As a reparative therapist who has worked with thousands of homosexually oriented men seeking change, I believe I am in a unique position to speculate on these recent events.
First, John’s story is a cautionary tale about ex-gay celebrity. There is an inherent risk in the ex-gay movement’s reliance on any public spokesperson.
Second, in his testimony, John advises against Reparative Therapy, but he himself has never been in Reparative psychotherapy. Rather, his sexual-identity change evolved as a result of his Christian conversion.
As John tells his own story, he is a man who always felt unloved and who always searched for identity and belonging. I will not speculate about his own interior processes, because I do not know them. I will, however, speak of psychological patterns I have seen in other SSA (same-sex attracted) men who have gone from “ex-gay” back to “gay” in their lifestyles.
For many SSA men, the deepest problem they must wrestle with is not sexual identity, but core identity. The original source of this struggle is not the more obvious problem in bonding with the father, but a breach in the primary attachment with the mother. For these men, their deepest-level problem is not about sexual orientation but about something more fundamental: identity, attachment and belonging. Gender-identity conflict and attraction to men are only surface symptoms. This is the problem that the media chooses to ignore, and which both sides of the debate fail to acknowledge.
As such a man’s identity evolves, there will be an excited “discovery of my True Self,” followed by disillusionment, then a new “real discovery of my True Self,” and then again, disillusionment. At the base of this desperate search is the anguished grasp for a stable personhood, a profound emptiness and beneath it, a self-hatred. That self-hatred is often expressed in deconstructing and condemning every previous aspect of the person’s own former life, including the influence of persons most near to him.
Radical shifts in “the discovery of my True Self” are associated, in some such people, with Borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and gender confusion, since gender identity is built upon an earlier foundation of self-identity. A fragile self-identity makes the later structuring of gender identity particularly perilous.
The restlessness such people feel is shown in a chronic state of dissatisfaction; in the narcissistic expectation that “if others really love me, they must take this pain away from me; and they [or what they stand for] are responsible for my pain.” When others fail to do this, there is a deep sense of betrayal; betrayal that these individuals failed to take away the core emptiness, and so the person in conflict may become angry at the people that participated in his former life. The pain of an identity search and the need for escape from the ordinariness of life can be alleviated for awhile by adulation. The narcissistic inflation found in celebrity, for example, can be an intoxicating balm.
This periodic disillusionment leaves behind devastated individuals who have invested deeply in the person; in John’s case, Anne, his wife of 20 years.
The gay community wants to frame changes from ex-gay back to gay as proof that people who experience SSA were simply designed and created for homosexuality, but we would be deceived if we believed this simplistic paradigm.
Where core identity is the foundational problem, we suspect a breach in the primary attachment with the mother. From my clinical experience, there is a particular kind of client who, although he is deeply dissatisfied with gay life and does succeed in developing good heterosexual functioning, will, over time, struggle to muster the self-discipline and maturity to put in a hard day’s work, come home to wife and family, help the children with the homework, have dinner and settle down to a good conversation with his wife, and go to bed. Such a life of day-to-day investment in one’s loved ones seems too confining: it is boring, lusterless, unexciting, “just not enough.” Underneath the boredom and restlessness remains this deep, chronic dissatisfaction.
It’s not just about needing to find a partner of a different gender; it’s about getting attention, flirting, being made to feel special, distracting oneself from one’s chronic dissatisfaction with life through parties and other high-animation activities, such as the gay community offers on its well-known, drug-saturated party circuits. I suspect that “excitement” was what John was looking for when he went to the gay bar in Washington, D.C. many years ago, just after speaking at a Love Won Out conference, when he created a public-relations crisis while working for the ministry Focus on the Family. I don’t believe John was there looking for sex. I suspect he was bored with the Christian community and its expectations – I believe he sought diversion, flirtation, adventure, and – a favored word in gay politics- “transgression.”
Of course, every shift the person makes from “I thought I was such-and-such…” to “Now I really know who I am,” will always have its cheering admirers.
Who is the "real me" -- the ex-gay, or the gay man? Each man will decide for himself.