The recent release of the movie “I am Michael” again has raised the question of whether sexual orientation can be changed. I haven’t seen the movie, but the storyline is that of a man who comes out of the closet and then goes back in again. The premise of the religious right is that sexual orientation is a choice, and with proper treatment and prayer it can be changed— although no one has ever claimed to make a straight person gay.
Let’s start with a few definitions: gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexual expression are not synonymous. Gender identity is how we view ourselves as male or female. Transgender persons suffer cognitive dissonance in that their psychological identity does not match their physical characteristics, and so they undergo physical and psychological treatments to change their gender. They are not gay.
Sexual orientation was perhaps best explained in the Masters and Johnson’s historic study on human sexuality in which they surveyed hundreds of people to discover that only a small percentage is exclusively gay or straight. Most fit in the bell curve and have some gay and straight inclinations and/or experiences, which seems to explain the concept of bisexuality. For years gays thought that bisexuals were simply closeted gays, but experience has shown that people can respond to a variety of sexual stimuli and/or experiences. While we may be inclined in one direction more strongly than the other, circumstances and social pressures can influence our decisions and behavior. Prison is a good example. For decades, most gays got married to “pass” for straight, had children, and lived so-called normal lives. The experience varied widely, and some were more successful than others. Most eventually came out as gay, but they might or might not get divorced.
Sexual expression is how we express our sexuality. For gays that is primarily masturbation (mutual or otherwise) or anal intercourse. The “kinky” sex of sadomasochism or leather appears to appeal to both straight and gay, and seems to reflect an early experience of conflicting pain with pleasure in creating arousal. People can choose to remain celibate and repress their sexuality, but that frequently results in distorted personality and psychological problems such as pedophilia.
Conversion therapy was practiced for decades in the US and is still legal in some states even though it has been banned in a few. All of the professional organizations have disavowed the practice as creating more problems while still not creating a cure for homosexuality. In most cases, the regimen simply uses aversion therapy to repress sexual feelings. The largest group, Exodus International, closed its doors two years ago and apologized for misleading people that it could provide a cure.
Opponents of gay civil rights claim that because a gay gene has not be proven, then gays have a choice and can change since it is not genetic. On the other hand, you can’t prove a negative so there is no proof that is not genetic. Clearly the trait does tend to run in families, but life experiences also can determine how it is expressed. Because of the changes in social attitudes in our society, many people are now coming out later in life as they have learned how to lift their repressions and to be able to more fully express their inner personality and true self.
Homosexuality is not a disorder nor is it criminal behavior. That has been settled by professional organizations and the Supreme Court. The continuing debate is whether or not is a sin. Those who proof text the Bible claim that it is a sin, and others who interpret the Bible differently claim that references refer to prostitution and sexual domination. In ancient times male rape was the ultimate form of submission.
The issue has been debated endlessly, and it probably will continue to be depending upon your assumptions. If you make certain assumptions, then you can make a case either way. Unfortunately, the continuing debates lead to more suicides, violence, and discrimination based on homophobia.