Thursday, April 25, 2013

Praying Away the Gay

John Paulk, famous during the late nineties for his two books trumpeting the success of his "conversion therapy," has recently come out (pun intended) apologizing for his support of the 'pray away the gay' movement and revealing that--quelle suprise!--he's still hella gay. Like, gold-hoop-earring-fake-tan-clipped-goatee gay (do a Google image search for John Paulk and compare the picture from the 1998 Newsweek cover to his more recent shots. It's like a before and after photo series advertising the youth-enhancing and beautifying powers of hot, sweaty man-on-man action). Ahem. To get back to serious matters, Paulk writes:

I know that countless people were hurt by things I said and did in the past. I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people. From the bottom of my heart I wish I could take back my words and actions that caused anger, depression, guilt and hopelessness. In their place I want to extend love, hope, tenderness, joy and the truth that gay people are loved by God.

I want to say to Mr. Paulk, first of all: bravo, girl. Good on you for realizing that what you did during the late nineties/early aughts injured a lot of people, emotionally and spiritually. You're miles ahead of the likes of, say, Marcus Bachmann, who's still running his reparative therapy clinic despite being--and I'm going to put this in clinical terms, so laypeople, try to hang on--so deep in the closet that he's in Narnia. Thank you for joining the ranks of...well, everyone, from the psychiatrist who originally pioneered conversion therapy (and later admitted it didn't work, offering profuse apologies to the families and patients whose lives he damaged) to the APA. Thank you for spreading the message that so-called 'reparative' therapy is in fact dangerous, destructive, and based on a false premise. I forgive you...AND (not but) I'm going to tell you a little story about what your books, and the philosophy they represent, did to me.

I was a teenager just coming to terms with my sexuality when your books came out; I was coming of age in an extremely conservative church that demonized LGBT folk. They would never have used the acronym LGBT--they always spat the word 'homosexual,' like someone might say 'pedophile' or 'rapist.' My parents got the Concerned Women of America newsletter and watched The 700 Club sometimes, if that tells you anything. It always seemed to me that there was a little bit of...unseemly, prurient interest in what "the homosexuals" were doing behind closed doors. To use one graphic example, I remember reading something in a Concerned Women of America brochure about the dangers of lesbian fisting, and how this depraved sex act was literally KILLING people. In retrospect, I don't think they understood the actual mechanics--what they described sounded more like repeatedly punching someone in the vag--nor did they seem to understand that veeeeeeery few lesbos are into that (not to shame anyone who is--and, BTW, there are people of every gender identity and sexual orientation who are into it, I gather...though I am so not one of them that the very thought makes me cross my legs and squirm uncomfortably). Not every gay couple is constantly fisting up a storm, is what I'm saying, but there were a lot of very pious, concerned members of our church who seemed (pant) very interested (pant, drool, pant) in knowing exactly what the sinners (drool, drool) and sodomites were up to.

 But back to you, Mr. Paulk. Even the titles of your books were confusing and hurtful, to be honest. Not Afraid To Change: The Remarkable Story of How One Man Overcame Homosexuality was the first one I became aware of. Let's unpack that as it went through my teenage mind, shall we? First there's that use of 'homosexuality' again. Even back then I knew that usage was demeaning, clinical, and freaking archaic. Then there's the image of...I'm going to call it gayness, because the term 'homosexuality' just makes me think of the pre-1973 DSM, ok? a challenge to be overcome, like polio or illiteracy but freighted with moral judgement. I read part of your book during some downtime at my job at the local library. It worried me. After I read your book, and after realizing that I was gay, but I COULDN'T be gay, because then I'd burn in hell for eternity, because then I'd be like those horrible homosexuals who were constantly molesting children and fisting and killing each other...I began devising a plan to be straight. It was doomed from the beginning, of course, as so many adolescent self-improvement projects are. I tried to make myself feel something when I looked at David Duchovny on that week's episode of X-Files, but found my eyes inexorably drawn to Gillian Anderson's cleavage and perfect red hair. Bad! Bad thought, I chastised myself. When I played in pep band, I tried forcing myself to watch the football players' butts in tight, shiny Spandex, even going so far as to make myself say (in my head) "Wow, he's hot. Yeah, he looks sexy." However, even in my head the lines fell flat, and somehow the cheerleaders' short skirts were always more appealing. 

 For me the challenge would be not so much to stop liking girls as to start feeling something, anything, but mute revulsion for guys. I "got" a boyfriend in middle school and went to the movies with him, where I let him give me my annual tooth-cleaning with his tongue. It was utterly repulsive (I'm actually not exaggerating; this boy was a singularly terrible kisser, with all the slobber and excessive enthusiasm of a Golden Retriever). I read about how you had married an ex-lesbian and imagined marrying a guy someday, and letting him, I vomited a little thinking about it. OK, let's be honest, I vomited a lot.

 I remember asking a Sunday School teacher who was actually pretty liberal in comparison to the rest of the congregation if she thought people could be born gay. For those not in the know, a common conservative argument is that no one is born gay; it's a choice, a sort of stubborn rebellion, like a teenager who fractiously insists on wearing one pair of torn black jeans day after day. Her answer, which I will never forget as long as I live:

"I think so. I mean, sometimes people are born with physical defects, and sometimes they're mental or spiritual. That doesn't mean it's ok to participate in homosexual behavior, though. It's just like someone who has urges to have relations with animals or children--as long as they never, ever, ever act on them and live in celibacy like God intended, or get married to women [I don't think this woman was even aware lesbians existed] I think they can still get into heaven."

Drop the mic and walk away. So now, thanks to my church, my family, and the bigoted ideology behind your books, my Life Options were laid out before me at the vulnerable age of seventeen: No Sex Ever, Forever; Learn to Love Dick; or Go Straight To Hell.

I read part of your book Love Won Out, when I was in college. By then I was pretty comfortable in my skin and in my identity, but there was still something intimately galling about the book; it annoyed in the way that only a close friend or family member can annoy. It was written in what I still thought of, for good or ill, as the language of my people. The title suggests that whatever emotions I might experience as--sigh--a filthy homosexual would not be as good, as pure, as holy, as church-sanctioned heterosexual love. That getting 'straightened out' and getting married (rather than reveling in nonstop gay orgies or whatever it is gay folks do) would be an act motivated by love of God, rather than love of The World and its pleasures.

I have to say, Mr. Paulk (why do I have a feeling you go by Mr. John instead?), that I might write a memoir called Love Won Out as well--and it might be remarkably similar. My story might be less sexy; no sudden conversion experiences, no absolute happy endings, no wedding dresses (yet). It is the story of gradually coming to terms with myself, my sexuality and my God--and of realizing that all these things are connected, and none needs to be alienated from the others. I want to extend love, hope, tenderness, joy and the truth that gay people are loved by God, you wrote. I agree, Mr. John. I agree.

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