I’ll never forget a dinner I had with my family, in 2001. We were all—siblings, spouses, and my parents—at a swanky downtown restaurant in honour of my parents’ 45th wedding anniversary. After a few glasses of very expensive red wine, I leaned over and I asked my sister-in-law sitting next to me if she’d ever considered the possibility that one of her two sons, both of whom were under 10 at the time, might turn out gay. Without so much as blinking she told me that she knew they weren’t gay because they’d never been sexually abused. Her words really shook me, because it struck me that this was the exact same logic—ideologically insular, pointing to nothing in the real world that validated its flawed argument—that had led me right into the hands of a sociopathic psychiatrist and his plan to "change" me from gay to straight while I was in my 20's and early 30's. According to this licensed doctor, since sexual abuse had "made" me gay, healing the trauma of the abuse would inevitably revert me to my underlying "base heterosexuality."
But at this dinner in 2001, already six years out of that "therapy," I questioned my sister-in-law's logic. And in response she asked me, clearly rhetorically, if I had ever been sexually abused (by this time she, and everyone in my family, knew that I'd been abused). I told her I didn’t think the abuse had "made me gay." She looked genuinely surprised. What about all the gay people who have never been sexually abused? I said. What about all the straight people who have been abused? She herself had been sexually abused as a child—a fact we had all known for years. But none of that mattered. None of that seemed to factor into her argument. She remained convinced that sexual abuse caused a person to be gay. I left the restaurant in disbelief, angry and really saddened, reminded of all the years that I had believed this lie about myself, what I’d done to myself as a result of that lie. So many years of suffering.
It was easy, as a confused teenager, to think that sexual abuse from my childhood had "made me gay." I was raised in the 1970's to believe that Homosexuals Recruited Children. Anita Bryant's voice prevailed. The one and only time my mother and I talked about the sexual abuse was when she told me, I think I was 11 or 12 at the time, that dirty old men kidnapped little children and made them do really bad things that turned them toward a life of perversity. We were in the kitchen, sitting at our blue metal Arborite table next to the window. What could I say? She stared at me. Her words freaked me out, because they seemed to come with a dire threat or warning: beware what you've become.
Despite much progress and education, I still see glimpses of this old lie slipping through the cracks of our current culture. Many right wing zealots and ideological liemongers, which of course includes the likes of Anne Coulter, often do point to a history of sexual abuse as the "reason" why some "choose homosexuality" (interestingly, they never mention all the straight men who've been sexually abused). But it's not only the right wingers. Gay men silence themselves. Years ago, after my six years in this "conversion therapy," for a short time I was employed as a gay outreach worker, where I met literally hundreds of men ("Men Who Have Sex With Men," we were told to call them) who confided in me that they had a history of sexual abuse, but that they'd never told anyone because of their fear that they'd be told the abuse had "made" them gay. This, to me, is tragic. Voices of distress: snuffed out, and all because of the fear of intolerance and ignorance. What happens to all that suffering, when it turns back into the soul of a human being? Where does it go? In the case of a lot of the gay male survivors that I met, that very suffering turned into sexual addiction: using the compulsive behaviour—which, to at least some degree, was the result of the abuse—as fodder to engage in even greater acts of self-flagelation. It does not help that gay culture often reinforces some version of the belief that More Sex is Always Good Sex. Sex, for many gay men, may still be a political act of resisting oppression (which I would applaud), but in the case of survivors of sexual abuse, more sex is not always necessarily good sex.
All abuse survivors struggle, at one point or another, with whether or not to disclose their history of abuse to anyone, and yet I doubt very much that straight men worry that their abuse "made" them straight. They likely do not confuse or conflate their attraction for women with having been sexually abused.
One argument that I've heard repeatedly expressed against the proposed legal bans on "conversion therapy" is that outlawing these "therapies" would dissuade licensed therapists from freely exploring various issues of sexuality with their patients—take for example, a history of sexual abuse. Lawmakers, these arguments profess, do not have the right to intercede on what amounts to very complicated and complex therapeutic relationships.
This is an ironic position to take, considering that, by their very definition, "conversion therapies" aim to "change" a person's sexuality to the desired outcome of heterosexuality, or at least to guide them in one direction only. Throughout my own six years of "therapy," my former psychiatrist's goal became to "guide" me toward my "innate heterosexuality." "Primal doesn't lie," he'd say, after my regressions on the mattress where I'd talk (scream) about "hating homosexuals," or "hating gay sex." My own words "proved" that I really was straight, he'd tell me afterward, which did nothing but confuse me even more. Of course, we never discussed the fact that I'd grown up learning to hate, and fear, homosexuals, and by extension: myself. We never discussed that I'd gown up being taught that sexual abuse "made" homosexuals, and that, by extension, I'd learned to hate my own flesh. How can you not hate yourself, body, mind, and soul, when your most primal urges are the result of sexual violence? How could I not Hate Myself when these were the Lessons Of My Youth?
Learning to love oneself is not easy, because often it can mean unlearning a lot of what we've been taught to believe about ourselves, even from people we dearly love, then starting again.