The guys on the TLC special My Husband’s Not Gay, which aired Sunday night, don’t identify as gay. Sure, they read as gay, they acknowledge that they are attracted to guys, and they go out together to check out other men, but they also repeatedly emphasize the ways they differ from people living a so-called “gay lifestyle” because of conscious choices they have made. Despite the network’s assertions that the show “solely represents the views of the individuals featured,” there are repeated suggestions that gay men can be attracted to women and that homosexual orientations are not fixed and unchanging but fluid and negotiable. This ought not to be surprising given that some of the show’s subjects are active ex-gay evangelizers. This ex-gay mindset is what makes the show so odious, and its focus on orientation change ought to be distinguished from other, less harmful efforts to reconcile traditional faith backgrounds with LGBTQ identities.
Although My Husband’s Not Gay attempts to stick to the personal experiences of its subjects, a group of Mormons who live around Salt Lake City, the ideology of orientation change slips in around the edges, particularly when the show’s subjects define what it means to be gay. The careful distinctions they make between “experiencing same-sex attractions”—or SSA—and being gay would be enough to impress the most ardent devotee of politically correct linguistic parsing. “Gay, to [the SSA Mormon men], is a lifestyle choice,” Tanya, one of the wives, explains. Later, she notes, “[My husband] is definitely more attracted to men than women,” which, she says, is “what some people might call gay.”
The men themselves also frame the difference between themselves and gays as a matter of choice. Pret, one of the men with a history of ex-gay activism, explains how, growing up, “I thought for a long time that I was gay. I thought that these feelings defined me.” Later he says: “If it was accepted to be a homosexual in the church, would I be gay? Or would I live that lifestyle? Maybe eight or nine years ago, 10 years ago, the answer would be yes. Today? No.” Clearly, these are people who believe that if they had made different choices, they would be gay men, not people who believe that being gay is categorically distinct from their experience of same-sex attraction.
There are ways that a gay orientation could be reconciled with heterosexual marriage that wouldn’t rely on the belief that changing one’s sexual orientation is possible. They could, for example, believe that sexual attraction is unnecessary within a marriage. However, this is not the case for the men and women profiled. Every one of them goes out of their way to stress that the guys do, in fact, experience sexual attraction to their wives, and occasionally to other women. The possibility that they might simply be bisexual is given only the briefest consideration before being dismissed. None of the men mentions identifying as bi, and when Curtis, one of the married men, is asked if his attractions to both women and men mean that he is bisexual, he doesn’t really answer, instead referencing studies showing that “sexuality is fluid. It changes. But, ultimately, when it comes to our faith and our belief, what matters is how we act.” He thereby suggests that sexual fluidity is universally experienced, implying that a gay orientation can be waited out, as if it were a bad case of the measles.
The fact that most gay men do not experience attractions to the opposite sex, or feel that their sexuality is fluid, is not addressed. It is, however, referenced briefly by a guy identified as Shaun, who spends a few seconds acting as a pro-gay foil for the show’s protagonists. Shaun says that he feels no attraction to women, only to be told that his lack of ”familiarity with the equipment” doesn’t mean that he could never learn to enjoy sex with a woman. In that moment, when a gay man’s assertion that he is not and could not be attracted to women is challenged, the pretense that the show deals only with these particular men’s individual experience evaporates. They do not believe that they are different from gay men because they are also attracted to women; they believe that it is possible for gay men to become attracted to women, and they explicitly say so.
In the past, I’ve written with some sympathy about traditional Christians who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, and about their attempts to reconcile these identities. These attempts are surely necessary—after all, Christianity and its emphasis on traditional sexual morality has been around for a long time, and even if those mores are changing, they’re likely to persist in many places for the foreseeable future. However, I believe that there’s an important distinction to be made between approaches that irresponsibly promote orientation change (in spite of all the evidence against it), as opposed to those that affirm the existence of persistent, unchanging sexual orientations in most gay men and many lesbians.
The friendliest of these reconciliation strategies is a belief that same-sex marriages are valid and should be blessed by traditional churches, and gay and lesbian people of faith should eschew sex outside such unions in exactly the same way that heterosexual men and women are expected to. Still, even the more hardline position that gays and lesbians are called to be celibate if they are unable to participate in a heterosexual marriage is an improvement on the denial and coercion of ex-gay ministries, which promote conversion “therapy” leading to eventual orientation change.
The expectation that gays should forgo sexual and romantic intimacy altogether is a tough one—I certainly would never want to live that way—but at least it doesn’t deny the existence of certain people whose orientation is fixed in the direction of same-sex relationships, and it recognizes that such people are being asked to do something unique and difficult. The audacity of the expectation that gays and lesbians must go without romantic love means that celibate gay Christians in such traditions can counter with their own demands for spiritual support and nourishment and hold their churches accountable if their special needs are not met. While imperfect, this at least allows space for gays and lesbians to speak the truth about themselves while remaining within a faith tradition that they see as too central to their identities to let go of—or too important to let go of all at once, in cases where celibacy serves as a way station on the way to a Christianity that is more affirming of the need to form romantic partnerships.
The men featured in My Husband’s Not Gay have the right to live in whatever way makes sense to them. If it makes sense to go around in a gang of fellow “same-sex-attracted” individuals, scoping out other men’s bodies while reaffirming the rightness of their choice to marry women and have babies, more power to them. I certainly would never abridge their right to do so. However, by ignoring the possibility that most gay men will never feel enough attraction to a woman to have the sort of intimate, romantic bond people expect out of a marriage, these men are doing far more than sharing their personal experience—they’re suggesting that orientation change is a viable alternative for gay men and lesbians more generally. As a strategy for reconciling homosexuality with Christianity, this one is the most toxic. It is the one that destroys lives, breaks apart families, and endangers vulnerable young people. Anything, even an expectation of lifelong celibacy, is preferable to the lies and half-truths of proponents of the ex-gay movement.
While those of us who do not share a traditional sexual ethic may find it hard to make distinctions between two equally alien approaches to homosexuality within traditional religions, it behooves us to give some credit to those strategies that validate LGBTQ people’s identities, in contrast to those that actively encourage self-deception and raise false hopes of one day experiencing heterosexual attraction.