Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Eye of the Beholder

It can get downright exhausting having to constantly battle the stereotypes that most Christians still hold about gay individuals. There was a time when I (however naively) hoped that the rising profile of the ex-gay movement would lead to a greater understanding of homosexuality among churchgoers, but instead all that groups like Exodus and Focus on the Family (and, by extension, the poorly named Love Won Out) have done is to reinforce those old stereotypes and guarantee that no meaningful dialogue will take place over this issue in the foreseeable future.

Even the ex-gay testimonies that these organizations promote deal in stereotypes. Without fail they involve an individual finding deliverance from a self-destructive lifestyle that they equate with being gay. There are individual ex-gays whose testimonies don't fit that pattern, certainly, but the ones that get the most press time inevitably include the same basic refrain: "Being gay caused me to become promiscuous/alcoholic/unhappy/etc. until Jesus saved me and took away the gay." Seldom is there an acknowledgment that the individuals' own poor choices played any significant role in their self-destructive behavior, or that being gay in and of itself does not compel a person to engage in anonymous sex or develop a drug addiction or whatever.

Of course, most (not all, but certainly the majority) of the men who enter ex-gay programs seem to fall into one of two categories: those who engaged in a lifestyle of self-destructive activities (promiscuity, anonymous sex, heavy partying), and those who largely or entirely avoided the gay world due to a strong conviction that anything even associated with being gay was a sin. For these individuals, there's nothing more to the gay world than the portions they personally explored (or heard about from other ex-gays). And those who do know better are rarely given permission to say so, even within their local ministry.

Given this, it's not difficult to see where ex-gay advocates get the assumption that there's no such thing as a stable, healthy gay relationship. If the only straight people you knew were individuals you had met in singles bars, strip clubs and sex parlors, how many stable, healthy heterosexual couples do you think you'd meet? But monogamous gay couples don't hang out in bathhouses and public parks any more than monogamous straight couples hang out in brothels and pick-up joints.

Likewise, the majority of lesbians who seek help through ex-gay programs are women who have been sexually abused. But is it any big surprise that people (male or female) with abuse in their backgrounds would be more highly motivated to seek outside help? So again, we see how ex-gay advocates can keep a straight face (pun intended or not at your discretion) while claiming that all (or even most) lesbians have been sexually abused. Not because their assumption truly takes the real world into account, but because by the nature of their work they simply aren't going to cross paths with very many emotionally healthy gays.

And it is true that there's a lot of dysfunction within the gay community. If nothing else, the rate of alcoholism and the number of people seeking psychiatric treatment are reportedly higher than in the population as a whole. But why should that come as a surprise, given the emotional abuse that most gay individuals experience growing up? It may not be directed at them personally, but a lifetime of hearing gays referred to in derogatory, condemnatory and outright hateful terms takes its toll. The horror of coming to the realization that you are one of those terrible, hopelessly depraved gays is no small matter to try to reconcile; for many it leads to years of denial, self-loathing and any number of attempts to be something (anything) else.

Given that self-esteem issues lie at the root of addictive behaviors for many heterosexuals, why would it be any different for homosexuals? It's interesting that the same people who believe that a single 'defensive detachment' in early childhood can fully explain a phenomenon as complex and multifaceted as homosexuality can so adamantly insist that the deep psychological pain I just described is somehow inadequate to explain the dysfunction found in the gay community.

Personal experience does a lot to color one's perspective. My own experiences have recently led me to conclusions vastly different than those reached by the ex-gay spokespersons in question, but at the end of the day my experience only carries so much weight with those who have had different experiences. The problem lies in the fact that ex-gay advocates have chosen to universalize their personal experiences while simultaneously invalidating the experiences of anyone who disagrees with their conclusions.

But then, we evangelicals are prone toward the conceit that anyone who disagrees with us on anything of substance is simply rebelling against the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and that deep down inside they know that we're right and they're wrong. It's a very convenient way of ensuring that we can dismiss those who disagree with us without ever having to seriously consider anything that they might have to say. And it would be just as wrong for me to accuse ex-gay advocates of ignoring the Spirit's conviction as it is for them to assume the same about their opponents.


Anonymous said...

AMEN! How horrible the faith journey would be if it were directed by others other than the Spirit. How exciting when we allow others to experience their faith apart from solely the "momentum" of the faith of their fathers. Only then is the body of believers whole. Currently, it would appear there are far too many mouths and not nearly enough eyes and ears.

Peace of Christ.

Dwight said...

Excellent post!

I work with people who have abuse in their backgrounds (just finished a six month closed group for Survivors of Abuse) and I cannot even begin to tell you all of the stuff that happens when abuse is a factor.

What is interesting to me, since you bring up defensive detachment, is that technically speaking the only reason a child would have for defensively detaching from a parent, or peer would be from abuse (this includes neglect). Once that takes a hold of someone and they start to react differently to kill the pain from the abuse people will be very dyfunctional and since most homosexuals growing up in America (though not as bad today then when I was in High School) are at the very least emotionally abused by their peers for coming out (if not physically abused, which is what happened to one of my friends in high school) then of course there is dyfunctionality.

Unfortunately, that is the way of abuse. It destroys the person's identity and causes too many problems in a person's life to go into here.

Eugene said...

technically speaking the only reason a child would have for defensively detaching from a parent, or peer would be from abuse (this includes neglect).

Good point. No doubt that fact helps fuel the common ex-gay myth that most (if not all) gays have been physically abused - which in turn would be an example of allowing ideology to shape one's conclusions instead of letting the facts speak for themselves.