He was one of the guys I knew least well, the pale, quiet one with a pretty girlfriend. I knew, because I had had the house full of undergraduate boys to dinner more than once, that he didn’t like vegetables, and that, although he said he didn’t tolerate lactose well, he loved my macaroni and cheese and requested the recipe as a wedding gift when he married the pretty girlfriend. I knew that he had moved from a sort of reflexive, birthright Christianity to a more dynamic evangelical path, inspired by a member of our university’s Campus Crusade for Christ. Although the organization appeared to be at odds with my own religious views, I was honored to be invited to one of the weekly student dinners when Jon hosted. (I am not sure whether it was me or the macaroni they were after). During his senior year, he decided to attend seminary and pursue training in Christian Counseling, and I was both touched and anxious to help when he asked me to look at his admissions essay. Two years later, I got a message in my Facebook inbox asking if I would look at his Master’s thesis. Buttered up by his (inaccurate but endearing) insistence that I had “gotten him into seminary” I agreed.
When the thesis arrived, the title took my breath away; he had written about “reparation therapy” as a tool for working with homosexuals. (I would tend to use the word “de-program” to describe this process, but Jon did not). I had a lot of time before he planned to meet with me, and I immediately called a liberal UCC pastor of my acquaintance to ask what I should do. Could I, an avowed “fag hag” and supporter of gay rights, read and edit such a document? Did I have a duty to disclose to him that I could not, possibly be objective? Would my own strong beliefs taint my utility as an editor? She advised me to start reading, and to decide along the way whether I could give him the kind of help he needed. Optimistically, she suggested that he might, after all, be taking the position that reparative therapies didn’t work. Hopeful, and wanting to help this kind, quiet boy, I started to read.
Never having written or read a thesis before, I wasn’t sure whether it was meant to have a personal point of view, or merely to lay out all of the relevant facts and point the reader to some unavoidable conclusion based solely on the objective. I read pages that outlined the two “sides” in the debate; the so-called “reparative” therapy that sought to help patients see their homosexuality as a mental illness that can be cured, and the contrary position of the mainstream therapeutic community that homosexuality is not a mental illness but a part of one’s psychological makeup. Jon acknowledged, with reams of facts, that the reparative therapists could claim relatively little success, had conducted almost no scientifically acceptable research to back their assertions, and had made some patients feel so wretched about themselves and their inability to give up their “lifestyle” that they had left the church entirely. If it was going to be all about the facts, I thought he was necessarily headed towards the conclusion that reparative therapy is clearly not a practice rooted in the accepted psychological canon, but thinly disguised religious bigotry used to destroy the psyches of confused and vulnerable people.
And then, there it was, the sentence in which Jon stated that he believed that, although it needed improvement in terms of objective measures and scientific rigor, he believed that reparative therapy was a useful concept. I walked away for a while, thinking about my gay friends, the battles they had faced in school, and with their families, chewing over the old outrage at the notion that anybody would make a “lifestyle choice” that would lead to exclusion, depression and judgment at the hands of complete strangers. Plus, there was the religious component – I could not reconcile a loving Christ with a belief that “love one another” really meant “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I was well aware that homosexuality was viewed as a violation of the divine plan in most orthodoxies – certainly the “big three” of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, but I had always viewed that as a reflection of religion based on insularity and dogma rather than an attempt to put faith to work in the modern world. I could, maybe, understand homophobia among orthodox jews who also believe the notion that menstruating women are “unclean,” but how to explain such a belief in a young man living in the “real” world? Was it wrong to keep reading, to try to help him, believing with all my heart that if he actually became a counselor he would be inclined to participate in, or at least support a practice that I believed to be backwards and destructive?
I kept reading. I kept making suggestions for better ways to turn a phrase, attaching Post-its with re-constituted sentences, assiduously avoiding any commentary about substance. I was doing what i had promised to do.
Towards the end, Jon raised a question that I couldn’t easily dismiss: what about people who are genuinely miserable because they believe their homosexuality to be a sin? Not, he was careful to explain, young people who are propagandized by the adults in their lives, including church leaders, but people of age who rightly or wrongly believe that their faith is at odds with their sexuality. Should those people have no choice other than mainstream therapy aimed at helping them to accept themselves with no more than a brief nod to, and dismissal of the religious beliefs so critical in their lives? Shouldn’t there be a place where people in that kind of pain can talk about their troubles, explore alternatives and make decisions under the guidance of someone who understands and possibly shares their religious beliefs? I have been around the block enough times to know that religion of any kind is viewed with great suspicion and disdain by many highly intelligent and well-educated types (including most of my family of origin) and I think it might be fairly difficult to locate a traditional psychologist, psychiatrist or M.S.W. willing (and permitted) to include religion in a discussion of mental health. Chaplains can cross that line, but I have spoken to both psychiatrists and psychologists over the years who feel that, even if there is no clear, ethical prohibition against discussing spiritual matters with patients, it is simply “not done.”
Of course I don’t really believe that my gay friends or any gay person in the world should have to see a therapist at all, let alone for purposes of changing their inherent selves; I keep thinking about the spouses and children of “repaired” homosexuals, and what their lives must be like. I think that we are all precious and unique and not fungible widgets to be re-shaped into some objectively acceptable form. If we went down that path, how many other essential parts of ourselves might profitably be re-tooled based on some highly selective human interpretation of the Bible, or the Constitution or the DSM -IV (Revised)?
But if I am not in the judging business, if I believe what I say I believe about showing compassion and refraining from judgment, who am I to say that a person cannot be genuinely torn between a sustaining and meaningful faith, and an inherent love for and attraction to members of the same sex? Why is my bias against religious fundamentalism “better” or “righter” than her belief that it is the truth, even as she batters herself against it trying to fight her sexuality? How do I know, how can I even imagine what role religion has played in her life, what she has seen and felt? How can I assume that because I am a left-leaning ecumenicist, that she is less intellectually able to make her own decisions and understand their consequences, even if she chooses for unfathomable reasons to sublimate her sexual feelings forever? I can think she’s making a mistake, I can bristle at the idea that anyone would ever ask my gay friends to be “repaired,” and I can dislike an institution that would make her feel like a walking sin, but since I haven’t walked so much as a millimeter in her shoes, I can’t judge.
So I read it all, and put it away, and the day came that Jon dropped by the house to Talk Thesis. We watched the DVDs of his recent wedding, oohing and aahing over the bride, laughing at the candids, asking questions about which brother went with which side. When it was time, Jon and I sat at the dining room table and I told him I had struggled, that I disagreed with his thesis, but that he had made me think.
“Yeah,” he said, “after I sent it to you I was thinking you might not agree with it.”
I couldn’t help but ask if he really believed homosexuality was a sin, and he said he really did, but that he struggled with it. He had a cousin who was gay, and when he thought about his cousin, who he loved, he wasn’t sure that it wasn’t okay if he found someone to love, and had a lasting relationship. He said his mom, and other relatives had asked him to write about something else because it might hurt his cousin to know that he had written such a thing. I told him about the gay couples we know, married for decades, and he allowed as how he’s “heard about things like that.” It was pleasant with the late afternoon sunlight slanting into the room, talking peacefully about such deeply held beliefs, the kinds of beliefs that break families apart and start wars. We were listening to each other intently, speaking honestly, abandoning everything knee-jerk and leaving only what was so much a part of us that we couldn’t separate ourselves.
I told him that, although I would probably never be able to like the idea of “reparative” therapy, or view it as a legitimate form of psychotherapy, I saw a place for it in supporting people of faith who had made an independent, adult decision that they could not reconcile religion and sexuality. I told him that I could only, ever see it as a Church-related service that might provide great love and care to a suffering soul, but that I would always hope that such a person could, some day, at least find a Church (and there are many) that could accept him and love him for who he truly was. Taking a deep breath, I told him that to me, that was what Jesus stood for, and that a religion or denomination that raised people to view anyone as a “sinner” based on an immutable characteristic had strayed so far into dogma and away from Christ’s teachings that I could not respect it. He nodded, and told me that he “got” that, but that in his church gay people were welcome, but had to understand that homosexuality was a sin. We had reached an impasse. A gentle, respectful impasse that left us both feeling that we had been thoroughly heard and understood, and (at least on my end) that a window had opened into a previously unseen universe. I didn’t want to live in that world, but I knew that I had done the right thing by remaining soft and open, rather than leaping atop my soapbox. I told him that, aside from my personal issues, the writing was strong, and that he had done a great job.
Jon got his Masters degree, and is now working as a counselor in a secular setting. He is very young, and I admit to hoping that as he grows older and sees a variety of clients, he will change his beliefs about homosexuality. He has a rare gift for listening and understanding, and approaches humanity with deep compassion; it is hard for me to imagine that he will not moderate eventually. If he doesn’t, though, if he remains firm in his beliefs, even if he personally sets out to create “reparation therapy” clinics across the world, I will be grateful for the time I spent reading his thesis, struggling over it, and talking religion and sexuality with him in my dining room. How can we hope to change anything in this world if we can’t spend an hour listening thoughtfully to ‘the enemy” explain ideas that are different from our own?
Freedom from Homosexuality: http://www.stephenblack.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/freedom-1024×717.jpg