We're here, we're ... uh ... straight?

Many gays believe sexual orientation is defined at birth. Conservative Christian groups that want to help them 'return' to heterosexuality insist it's a choice. They're both wrong.

Published September 11, 1998 8:28AM (EDT)

John Paulk used to be gay. So was his wife, Annie.

In a supposedly growing wave of success, conservative Christian groups
calling themselves Exodus and Transformation and Courage use prayer and
therapy to help unhappy gay men and lesbians "return" to heterosexuality.
John and Anne Paulk are the poster children of this movement, posing stiffly
in front of two incongruous plates of fried eggs and bacon in media all over
the country. Gays supposedly can convert to heterosexuality because
homosexuality is nothing more than a misapprehension of emotional needs caused
by one's parents and Satan, in that order. (Conveniently set aside is the
concurrent belief that gays can also convert heterosexuals to homosexuality --
the well-known phenomenon of "recruiting" -- which would seem to indicate that
heterosexuality is also a rather malleable condition. When Anne Heche,
after years of sexual relationships with men, fell in love with Ellen De Generes,
everyone from Newsweek to CNN decided she had "become" a lesbian.)

The techniques used are not the height of sophistication; in Exodus
workshops, gay men are encouraged to play sports and gay women to wear makeup.
At least some of the converters don't really expect prayer, therapy and makeup
to work for everyone. They don't all claim to end homosexual attraction or
create heterosexual attraction; the most many hope for is an end to homosexual
activity. Their "patients" are simply sentenced to abstinence and frustration,
and conservative politicians can point to the vast minority of people involved
as "proof" that being gay is choice, not chance.

I first had sex with a man when I was 16. But I wasn't heterosexual -- I
was still attracted to women. Mad about them, actually. I first had sex
with a woman when I was 18. But I didn't come out of the closet,
hurrah! I thought about it, anguished about it. But the terrible fact was
that I was still attracted to men. I was just a mess, loving men and women
both, and so I spent about 10 years wondering what the hell was wrong with

One word: bisexual.

No one, bisexuals included, loves the word. It sounds divisive when it means
inclusive. It has a laboratory ring to it. What it means to me and to the many
bisexual people I know is simply the ability to find emotional and sexual
satisfaction in people of both genders. This broadly based sexuality, one
enjoying but not bound by gender, explains much.

I do, in fact, believe it's possible for a person to spend years in sexual
relations with people of one gender and then find true happiness in the
other. What I find sad is how many times people feel they need to either repudiate the past or deny the present. Whether a woman who considers herself a lesbian but occasionally sleeps with a man continues to call herself a lesbian, or a long-married woman still in love with her husband finds herself also in love with her best friend and then thinks she has to call herself a lesbian is
something of the same thing. Closets are closets no matter what they're

The mainstream media lately has accepted and used the phrase "converted gays" as if it were a statement of fact. Newsweek devoted a recent cover story
to the conversion movement without using the word "bisexual" once. I believe
it is bisexuality that allows any so-called conversion -- or recruiting -- to
take place, because what is happening is only the awakening of something
dormant in many people.

I'm not one of those obnoxious people who go around saying, "Everyone's
bisexual," either. I think most people are actually mostly heterosexual, and
some portion of the population is exclusively so. I also think a significant
percentage of people are mostly homosexual and a portion of them exclusively
so. It's the mostly that interests me, because within that lies the
possibility of surprise and change and something not at all like conversion.

I suspect there is a genetic template of sexual orientation made unique by
environmental details. People don't change their sexuality. Sexuality just
changes, period. Sometimes in big ways; more often in small, slow ways,
throughout each person's life. But stark change is rare.

I am concerned with the sudden visibility of the conversion movement because
I think homophobia should interest everyone. But I'm especially concerned
that the response of the gay community not be one of increasing rigidity
inside itself. Misunderstanding isn't the special province of the
conservatives and the converters. The gay community sometimes acts a little
like the "reparative therapists" in its insistence that sexual orientation is
defined at birth and we are all sentenced to one side or the other of a fence
too high to climb. In that worldview, there is nothing in between; in-between does not exist. On one side of this fence, your sexual and
psychological intimacies are met by people of one gender, and on the other
side, those same intimacies are met by people of the other gender. All or

Many gay activists see any talk of bisexuality as diluting the coherence of
the community, particularly damaging in a time of attack. James Collard,
editor of OUT, recently tried to start a discussion of what he calls "post-gay" sensibility -- a community identity not based entirely in sexual
orientation -- and was met with anger. We have met the enemy, and it could be
us if we're not careful.

Others simply don't believe in bisexuality, seeing through the lens of their
own difficult coming-out experience. To those who've claimed their own
sexuality the hard way, bisexuality sometimes looks like internalized
homophobia, confusion, shame -- or sexual opportunism. Bisexuals hear the
same things from straights and gays, friends, lovers and perfect strangers:
You can't be both. You can't be neither. You just haven't faced the truth.
You're secretly wishing for A or B. Insert gay, insert straight, and it
comes out the same -- something essential is denied.

The conversion movement claims to be big and growing bigger, but Exodus
International (why does that name sound so much like a swinging singles club
to me?) has had to close 13 chapters because the directors returned to
their gay "lifestyles." Two of the founders of Exodus -- men who had left
homosexual relationships, married and had children -- fell in love with each
other. And yes, they ran away together and seem to be living happily ever

It is normal to me to have a flowing and unpredictable sexual orientation, although in my case it hasn't been entirely unpredictable -- there are patterns of who and when and
how I am attracted to people, of who populates my dreams, and there are patterns
in what I've chosen to do and not to do about those patterns. But my
experience of attraction is nothing like a fence between opposing camps. My
sexual self feels more like a winding river, going only vaguely in one
direction, with gentle curves here and there, fast water and slow, occasional

I have often wished to be another way, to "convert" fully and completely into a person whose community would be obvious -- and welcoming. But there is
something wonderful in this, too. The only limit is how tiny the word "bi"
sounds, as though I lived in a world of two and not billions. What I live in
is a world where sexual attraction can surprise me in the middle of doing the
laundry, where I have discovered myself drawn to a person who didn't meet a
single one of the multiple criteria by which I had previously judged partners,
where sexual attraction can disappear without notice and reappear where it is
least expected, where in the course of the many decades of my life I have come
to expect a library of possibility. I don't know where the converters would
even begin.

By Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is "Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom" (Harper San Francisco, 2006). She contributes to magazines such as Harper's, Tricycle, and Antioch Review.

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