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Listening to The Enemy

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?

Photo Credits

Freedom from Homosexuality:×717.jpg


About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

23 responses »

  1. Ann,

    Hearing what I thought I already knew…….. We are all larger than any single idea that we may have. Lucky Rob….

    • Thanks; I may lose some of my lefty cred for this one, but if we’re right, it matters more to think about what we all have in common than what separates us.

  2. I doubt that I could have done as well. Congratulations!

  3. Pingback: Tackling the hard questions… « CrackerBoy

  4. I knew I’d read something related to this recently, and b’gosh I found it!

    • Nothing I hadn’t suspected, but interesting to have it confirmed. Thanks for an interesting read – and something to keep in my mental arsenal.

  5. Such an important blog here. I wish I could say I was as thoughtful as you are to the other side of the debate.

    Keep writing, Ann. You make me think every day. And, given that I spend my days with a two year old and four year old, I really like that I get to use the old brain sometimes! 🙂

    • Thanks; I think you might be surprised at how you would react if “the other side” came at you as mildly and reasonably as my young friend did. As for your brain; I think it’s okay from what i see. 🙂

  6. When I started reading this, my first thought was “I bet Jon is gay.”

    I bet Jon IS gay.

    Those who are the most fascinated by the subject are often the most conflicted about it, just as those the most in need of counseling often become counselors.

    • I can see how that could happen, but Jon wasn’t writing about this because he wanted to practice in that area – he admits that he has pretty serious doubts about its efficacy. He just needed a thesis topic, and was advised to choose something “controversial.”

      Also, I have rarely seen a guy so genuinely smitten with his brand new wife.

  7. Ann,

    Good job! Bravo that you could be so open. You know where I stand on this issue. I is my hope that these so-called “reparative” theories will be consigned to the same wastebasket that blood-letting was in the Dark Ages. The key sentence, for me, was “he is very young”. He has time to have life experience and then “moderate” as you describe. As for the Big Three, someday these religions may see the light, too. I’m not holding my breath, however.

    • That means a lot, coming from you. I’ve been a little heart in mouth that I might have “let the side down.” He is young, he has a HUGE heart, and I say we give him the benefit of the doubt and expect to see him become a wise, and broader-minded care provider. Even he knows it doesn’t really work; I think he was just struggling to find a way to solve a problem, and gravitated towards the blunt instrument.

      There are segments of the Big Three that are pretty evolved; it’s just the squeaky orthodoxers that get all the grease. 😉

  8. I’m here at floridacracker’s behest, and I really like this essay and this train of thought. If there are homosexuals out there struggling and caught between their true nature and a faith that labels them as sinners, perhaps reparation therapy, even and especially if it fails, can be a piece of the puzzle as they figure out who they are and what is right for them.

    • Thanks Julie; I always do what the cracker says. 🙂 You got this exactly right – if it fails, if it is the first step towards a more tolerant faith, it could be a (painful) life saver. Thanks for reading.

  9. Annie,

    As you know, I’m French so sorry in advance for my weird English.
    First, you’re an amazing story teller !
    Secondly, I admire your open-mind and your calm; I’m very impressed by your ability to manage a real debate with someone you don’t share the believes.

    Perhaps, Jon choose you as a rewriter and adviser, consciously or not, because you was clearly at the other side of this difficult belief he struggle against (because of the love he has for his cousin) ?

    Anyway, I hope he is a real help and hope for people in pain, gay or not…

    • I think your English is pretty good!

      Thank you, but i am not always so calm or so open-minded. It was a rare and beautiful thing, my experience with Jon.

      Maybe that is why he chose me. I may never know, but it’s an interesting thought.

      I am happy to have you as a reader. ma cherie.

  10. A lesson for us all as we trudge forward in trying to make sense of the world. Really listening and trying to understand may be the only thing that moves us in a more positive direction. I’ll try and remember your story when in discussions with my more conservative friends and family who don’t agree with me on certain topics (practice, practice, practice). Kudos to Jon, too, who trusted you with this. Your openness, respect, and restraint in this situation are admirable. Wow! Great work!

    • Thanks, Theresa. I think that may be tough with, uhm, certain members of your family…but not impossible. You have the necessary compassion and openness in spades.

      Kudos to Jon, indeed. He’s a nice, nice boy. Well, grown up married boy. 🙂

  11. Ann, thank you for yet another thought-provoking blog post.

    In one of the comments above, Bill links to an article that discusses how people only watch or read news that confirms their biases, and I think most of us agree that that’s true. I want to confess one of my own biases and see if any of your other readers share it (or will admit to sharing it). In my experience, left leaning thinkers are a little more likely to be open-minded than those on the right. I’m sure everyone recognizes that this sounds, and probably is in itself very biased. Lest anyone think I’m boastful or arrogant here, I actually think this is problematic for the left. I think it is why Democrats and progressives have such trouble being effective. They are slowed down, and weakened even, by their attempts to really understand all points of view, instead of focusing, laser-like, on an agenda that’s in keeping with their core beliefs. Republicans, correspondingly, get more done because of their unwavering commitment to their core beliefs and relative disinterest in taking into account all perspectives. They know the other side has a different perspective, but they don’t see any point in understanding it, unless it is in the service of attacking or undermining that point of view.(Think Frank Luntz).

    Of course there are ideologues on both sides of the fence, and I’m making sweeping generalizations here. But I think in general, progressives are somewhat more likely to be interested in attempting to see the other side’s perspective.

    Why am I confessing something that must sound so obviously biased? Obama, and his obsessive commitment to bipartisanship, which I’m really tired of (of which I’m really tired). Show me a Republican leader who has been so interested in bipartisanship, unless they were, like Nixon, working with a Congress held by the opposition party. I’m no fan of Nixon, but the few good things that came out of his administration were the result of being forced to work with a Democratic Congress.

    Okay now I’ve strayed pretty far from the topic of your message, so I’ll try to bring it back. A lot of people may respect Obama, in part, I think, because he is good at “listening to the enemy”–it comes off as rational and fair-minded. But now it’s time for him to move forward and and DO stuff (Democratic stuff). Let’s start with reversing don’t ask don’t tell. How’s that for coming back to the original topic?

    (Maybe someone should take away my voice recognition software, so I don’t write blog comments this long all the time.)

    • Amy, you are welcome. I can’t totally agree with your premise, mostly because I fear that any belief that one side of an argument “listens better” or “empathizes better” is the beginning of the slippery slope that leads to categorizing the other side as, well, “other” and less deserving of consideration and a hearing. I also have to say that, in some parts of my life, I deal with liberals who are so knee-jerk in their response to anything that might possibly be conservative that I find it unlikely that they are actually doing any thinking (or listening) at all. I agree with them politically, but find their reactionary nature no more admirable or productive than I find the Right.

      It may be true on a macro scale that as a party Dems are more likely to be conciliatory and Republicans more focused, but I find that no general conclusions work on a person-by-person examination. It is hard, hard, hard to re-orient oneself to deep engagement and listening to the person actually sitting in front you when they say things that make you want to hit yourself in the head with a board. As you know, I have a “home laboratory” for such experiments, and I can honestly say that neither one of us, liberal or conservative, is consistently better at actual listening vs. staying quiet until we can attack the statement we just heard. There are good conversations and tough ones. I find my own lefty self saying things because they are “the party line” rather than my own real thoughts and beliefs, and I find that the middle ground, where minds meet, occurs when I try to figure out what we beliefs are genuine and shared so that we can use that common ground as a base for explanation of why we branch off as we do, in different directions.

      Also, I have to say that my favorite thing about Obama is his “obsessive bipartisanship.” I think he made a commitment and he’s sticking to it because he believes it is morally, ethically right and in the ultimate best interests of the country. I agree that it’s frustrating (!) to watch, but I would think less of him if he gave up and did what was expedient. That is probably why I am not in politics in real life; I am a dreamer and an idealist, more interested in “people stuff” than in policies or pragmatism.

  12. I feel the same way about Obama as you do (same favorite thing).

    Btw, where did Michelle’s “I’m with Tammy…” comment go?

  13. Claudia Kerbawy

    Ann, I so appreciate your willingness and ability to really listen, even in the face of true disagreement and concern. It is that listening and acceptance (not agreement) that can allow dialog, understanding and love to flourish. That is something so lacking and that we all need. It is inevitable that we will have different perspectives and beliefs; however it is not inevitable that these must lead to arguments and violent resistance. It is only through acceptance of the fact that we have so many differences that we can find through our commonality a collaborative way forward.


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