He came to see me as a struggling young man. He was suffering from social anxiety. As we worked through his fear of connecting with others, a significant, unidentified issue emerged - he was conflicted about his sexual identity.
Jeff had never dated, nor established a meaningful, intimate relationship. His social anxiety was broader than the issue of meeting new friends. Rather, he cautiously disclosed that he never had shown an interest in associating with women. Jeff was not sexually attracted to them and chose to avoid intimate encounters with females.
As the pronouncement of his aversion to female relationships was articulated, Jeff became aware, for the first time, that his true identity was characterized by an affinity to men. Although he felt troubled and guilt-ridden by viewing it, male pornography excited him. This had been the case since early adolescence.
Social anxiety was a cover for a more deeply rooted dilemma. The anguish borne out of his transparency was evident in his expressions and demeanor. Jeff’s energy was permeated with a host of feelings including shame, confusion, a desire to retreat into denial and sadness. He wondered how he could get through three decades of his life without acknowledging the essence of his identity. However, as I expressed to him, denial is a powerful coping tool that had served him well in keeping the truth in check. It had anesthetized him from the reality of his sexual identity until he was tired of his self-deception.
Now was Jeff’s time to come to terms with his true self. This meant that he would have to rethink old ways of viewing the world as he knew it. His father would constantly make derogatory comments about gays, and my patient began to feel conflicted, angry and mortified by such behavior. His sister and alcoholic mother were too detached to be concerned about his image or lifestyle.
This gentleman recalled telling a priest during confession about his erotic feelings toward men. He was granted forgiveness for his sinful thoughts and was told to find himself a nice young lady. The burden of other people’s feelings came crashing in. What would his parent’s think if they knew about his sexual orientation? What about his church that ironically looked down on same-sex relationships?
It is one thing to know who you are and another thing to validate it. When I explored various scenarios that would connect my patient into the gay community, he appeared frozen. I knew what he was thinking. "If I attend gay-related activities and develop friendships among them, it affirms what I already know to be true. I'm not sure I'm ready to do that." His real anxiety was not about developing social relationships, but about pursuing those contacts that cemented his sexual identity. It was the doing of it that would forever derail his denial. He could no longer hide behind his confusion, but came face to face with an identity that seemed strangely unfamiliar to him.
For the first time, Jeff had admitted that he was not comfortable in his own skin. Can you imagine what that must be like? He experienced the total weight of cultural betrayal foisted on him through religious and social sanctions. He felt inhibited from experiencing the full impact of his genuine self.
As a therapist, it was my role to guide him toward being authentic, wherever that might lead. It was my responsibility to help him learn to make meaningful choices based upon his real self. It was a lonely, long journey as my patient strived to re-create his life based upon integrity and authenticity. Over time, in my counseling practice, I have personally witnessed the anguish and suffering experienced by patients as they explored the essence of their sexual orientation. I have also observed the courage that many patients have demonstrated in the process emerging from their silence about the narrative of sexual conflict and identity.
Although there is insufficient evidence to support its usefulness, many counselors and clergy continue to espouse reparative therapy for gay clients. These misguided providers continue to falsely believe that gays have a choice regarding the very nature of who they are. This is wishful thinking. Counselors, who many times attempt to disguise their intentions, subscribe to the archaic notion that sexual orientation is learned behavior rather than a life-long identity. Reparative therapists view the gay individual as deviant and disordered and in need of transformation. Often, counselors who conduct reparative therapy for gays look for deep-seeded traumas as the causative factor in the "identity conflict" of those they serve. Counselors and clergy who insist on touting reparative therapy for gays have constructed an elaborate system of bias regarding homosexuality. They carry these distorted notions into treatment with gays and negatively impact the self-worth and integrity of those they counsel. Their insistence in curing gays by stripping them of their fragile self-identity creates a climate of self-doubt and defectiveness among those who seek help.
Personal bias and religious beliefs are at the core of those who betray the gay community. Many in the religious community are unable to reconcile their beliefs with experience and are reluctant to accept those who are gay. Unfortunately, this fact plays a role in why many gays reject their faith or live in a constant state of religious turmoil. Ironically, it was Jesus who admonished the religious establishment that the law of love took precedence over the letter of the law. Jesus denounced the injustice, corruption, hypocrisy and exclusiveness demonstrated by many of the religious elite.
It is the role of the clergy and professional counselors to lead people to their authentic self. We must not fix that which is not broken, but help gays explore that which is in need of healing. This calls for encouragement, affirmation and guidance. Those in the gay community have the right to define themselves in a way that fits their true image. We counselors have an obligation to help people who seek our assistance to explore and discover their inner truth. Anything less is betrayal.
Note: This case is a composite drawn from my practice as a psychotherapist. It has been altered to protect the individual’s right to confidentiality and privacy.