Closet therapy

The latest cover of the New York Times Magazine looks at religion, gay orientation/identity, and therapy, and the reporting from Mimi Swartz is pretty straight forward.

However, there were a few strange elements in the piece, especially the headline, “Living the Good Lie.” The piece looks at how therapists are trying to deal with how to affirm a client’s sexual identity while acknowledging religious beliefs that might condemn homosexual behavior. There’s nothing that explores that people are “living a good lie” since as far as I can tell, the therapists are encouraging their clients to acknowledge and even tell their significant others about their orientation/identities.

Also, let’s look at this strange paragraph LeBlanc style for a minute.

Christians of the kind who earnestly believed that the Bible deplored homosexuality were particularly troubled as they tried to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation. The more Flanigan studied this conundrum, the more he came to see it as intractable. Some gay evangelicals truly believe that to follow their sexual orientation means abandonment by a church that provides them with emotional and social sustenance — not to mention eternal damnation. Keeping their sexual orientation a secret, however, means giving up any opportunity to have fulfilling relationships as gay men and women.

There’s something weird about the clause “Christians of the kind who earnestly believed …” as though they are a species in the zoo to be examined. Further, do gay evangelicals believe that churches would particularly pinpoint sex as the specific key for “eternal damnation” or is that just an expression?

The reporter doesn’t dive too far into the whole “conversion therapy,” when some tend to simplify, but the following paragraph could be confusing to those who don’t know much about it.

As Katz wrote in “Gay American History,” gay men and lesbians “were long subjected to a varied, often horrifying list of ‘cures’ at the hands of psychiatric-psychological professionals.” These included lobotomies, castration, hysterectomy, clitoridectomy, hormone therapy, LSD, sexual stimulants, sexual depressants, shock treatment, aversion therapy, electroshock and so on. That changed, of course, as mainstream attitudes about sexual orientation changed. But even as Flanigan was beginning his professional life as a counselor in the late 1990s, groups on the religious right, like Narth (then called the National Association of Research and Treatment of Homosexuality) and Exodus International were advertising that they could cure homosexuality.

We’re back to the “cure” word again.

If you don’t know much about Narth or Exodus, you might conclude that they engage in the more drastic therapies mentioned right before the references to the actual organizations. Perhaps the piece could have used a sentence or two explaining how they try to “cure homosexuality” and then explain the American Psychological Association has outlined. Then again, the story could also mention that these groups reject the “cure” label and insist that this word is too simplistic.

Obviously, I realize you can’t include everything. Nevertheless, in a 6,000 news piece, this crucial subject might deserve a little more explanation.

As a whole, the piece did a nice job for what the writer set out to do, as she focuses mostly on the interviewees’ experiences and words. The basic gist is that therapists in the piece seek to embrace the client’s sexual orientation without necessarily forcing him or her to identify as being gay.

The American Psychological Association has said, “Acceptance of same-sex sexual attractions and sexual orientation may not mean the formation of an L.G.B. sexual-orientation identity; alternate identities may develop instead.” For example, a therapist might accept a client’s sexual orientation as gay, while acknowledging their sexual identity as being straight. Overall, the story does a pretty nice job of dealing with the complexities of the potentially explosive topics of religion, sexuality and therapy.

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  • Bill P.

    Many of these pieces seem to view homosexuality as something far, far outside of Christian theology—as if it’s a form of sin that Christ did not die for and for which no salvation is offered.

    Now, one might argue about the ontology of homosexuality as being the result of sin (as well as it being sinful when acted on), but once you discuss homosexual orientation within the context of mainstream Christianity, should it really be seen as something that sets homosexuals apart from everyone else? After all, in the Christian worldview—one that sees the world as fallen—we’re all tainted by sin in one way or another, and then some.

    It would be refreshing to read a reporter savvy enough to place Christian/homosexual issues within the context of sin, the Cross and salvation in general, with the understanding that the “cure” is ultimately the promise of redemption from all sin by Christ. And in that regard, we’re all in need of, and are promised, the very same cure.

    Isn’t that a story worth covering?

  • Mike O.

    Bill, I think you’re incorrect. There have been numerous stories about how believers have either set up programs or advocated prayer to remove what they believe is a sin from homosexuals. While I haven’t seen any article frame it in the form of overall redemption as you have, many of them come from the idea that there is nothing that can’t be accomplished through prayer, even changing one’s sexual orientation.

  • Matt

    I wasn’t offended by the phase “Christians of the kind,” as it’s true enough that not all Christians agree on this issue. I do have a problem, though, with the idea that “to follow their sexual orientation means abandonment by a church that provides them with emotional and social sustenance — not to mention eternal damnation.” This is yet another example of the MSM (like much of the world) seeing Christianity as fundamentally about rewards for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior, rather than about forgiveness and redemption and loving God. Three aspects:

    1) As Bill P. already said above, homosexual acts do not uniquely mark a person for damnation. Like any other sin, there is always repentance and forgiveness.

    2) A serious Christian struggling with homosexuality would be primarily concerned with pleasing and honoring God in what he does, out of a spirit of love and gratitude, none of which is even hinted at in either of the stated concerns about abandonment or damnation.

    3) The assumption that the church would immediately abandon a gay member needs examination. While examples surely exist, there are many churches out there that would (and do) stand with their members and help them work through these difficult issues in an environment of love.

  • CS

    I was particularly struck by this: “Keeping their sexual orientation a secret, however, means giving up any opportunity to have fulfilling relationships as gay men and women.”

    Really? If you can’t have sex, fulfilling relationships become absolutely unobtainable?

  • Mike O.

    CS, I think you’re seeing something that isn’t in the quote from the article. The quote doesn’t mention sex, but sexual orientation.

    I would guess that it would play out in two ways:

    1) Hiding your sexual orientation makes it difficult to find people to have relationships with. When you can’t announce your orientation for fear that this knowledge will get back to someone you know, it’s likely to make starting fulfilling relationships extra challenging.

    2) If a person manages to find someone of their interest for a relationship there is the constant strain of keeping the relationship hidden. A lot of the things that we heterosexuals take for granted like holding hands (and other displays of affection), talking to others about our relationships, making plans to go out with that person at a public place are either harder or impossible.

    So again, while you quoted the article correctly, you completely misinterpeted it and assumed it was all about sex.

  • Frank

    Mike O,
    I would go a little farther to say that meaningful relationships of a non-sexual nature necessarily depend on sharing of personal though innocent details. Concealing those details generally requires lying or avoiding people.

    Funny how much the closet door looks like the entrance to a priest hole.

  • Caspar

    Mikew–the piece implies that fulfilling relationships are impossible if sexual orientation is not made public. Only sexual orientation is irrelevant to familial and friendly relationships. It really doesn’t matter to your friends, to your family, your neighbors, etc. what your sexual orientation is. To lovers, yes, this is an important point. But to have satisfying relationships with people of all sorts, you don’t have to be public about orientation. Hence the comment.