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Words are powerful.
They come with a truckload of baggage from the thousands of times we have heard and used them in various settings and cultural contexts.
So when we therapists are confronted with male clients, often married ones, who come to us with deep conflicts about their sexual attraction to other men, we often find that they are willing to use the word “homosexual,” but eschew the “gay” label.
Because “gay” implies an embracing of the gay lifestyle — gay bars, gay pride parades, perhaps multiple sex partners or even anonymous sex.
Such clients often are in committed relationships with wives, are fathers, and are members of a religious community that labels same-sex attraction, especially if acted upon, as sinful. Unfortunately, much of our nation’s politics have long exacerbated the problem as well, shaming and vilifying homosexuality, and leading legions of men struggling with sexual identity to internalize their homophobia.
For example, gay men in the Mormon faith are in moral conflict. Their only option if they want to remain active and “worthy” (meaning allowed to participate in Mormon rituals), they must either remain celibate or enter a mixed-orientation marriage (which the church no longer officially recommends, but nonetheless).
How, then, should we seek to help these men who are mired in such internal conflict, and whose religious or cultural identity trumps their sexual identity?
During the ’90s I became a “gay-affirmative therapist.”
That is, I pressured men — even religious men like this — to come out of the closet. I warned them of the pitfalls of keeping their sexual orientation secret: a life of increased depression, pursuing a secret life in the gay underground with the danger of being caught, attempting to suppress urges which often cause them to become even more obsessed with their fantasies.
I came to realize that by pushing men to come out, I wasn’t helping them.
Being a gay man, I was trying to bring them to where I was at. But as my experience with such men grew, I realized there is nothing wrong with their choice to live in a way that doesn’t bring chaos into their family life.
These men often tell me that coming out would result in them leading a life mired in depression. I still make them aware of the research that addresses the risks for depression and the dangers listed above should they choose to remain closeted, and I often advise them to at least tell their wives, but most conclude that the risk of coming out is just too high.
Sometimes these men are in the early stages of coming out.
During this time a man doesn’t see himself as gay, only homosexual. The term gay feels too affirmative, and they are not ready to accept that yet.
I warn them that if they choose to stay in the closet and get married, over time their sexual orientation will continue evolving and they will reach a stage of acceptance stage — which will then make it more of a struggle to keep a heterosexual life going.
I have treated many men who are Mormon, Orthodox Jews, Catholic and adherents of other religions that think of homosexuality as a sin or a pathology. I’ve helped some to come out, and some have had to leave their religious communal affiliations — either because they were kicked out, or because the pressure to go back into the closet was too strong, even bordering on emotional abuse.
This is a very difficult and traumatizing road for them. They often do lose their families, and become cut off and alienated. Therapy, then, becomes about helping them grieve the loss and begin to build a new life, living in integrity within themselves.
Their pain is excruciating, and I honor their bravery in risking losing everything to ensure they live a quality life as a gay man.
They may need, from time to time, to seek further therapy with the right therapist — one who has thoroughly understood the dangers of such practices of “reparative therapy,” in which the therapist seeks to change the client’s sexual identity from gay to straight. Now outlawed in some states as well as condemned by most national mental health organizations and accrediting bodies, it has an abysmal record: 100 percent recidivism and too many suicides.
Because the labels “homosexual” or “gay” carry such a stigma, some of these men seek help because see their homosexuality as an acting out of unhealthy, unwanted same-sex urges.
Some therapists make the mistake of diagnosing them with sexual addiction, because either the client or the therapist considers the term to be a more acceptable option. They push the client into the sex addiction model, which all too often treats men who struggle with “unwanted same sex attractions” as pathological, rather than understanding from a sexual health perspective that they are dealing with an unwanted sexual identity, or are possibly simply sexually fluid — neither of which are pathologies.
Being homosexual, gay, or having same-sex attraction is not a sex addiction, and should never be treated as such. This puts the client at odds with their sexual orientation and only makes things worse.
I warn these men about any therapist who would try to change their sexual orientation or label it as an addiction, and suggest they tell their therapist up front that they are not interested in either of these directions. If the therapist is unwilling to honor that request, they will be better served by asking for a referral to another therapist.
The truth is, many men with “same-sex attractions” successfully walk the narrow path between internal, cultural, and religious identities, and are able to have good marriages.
I think of them as being hetero-emotional homosexuals. Though they are sexually attracted to men, they are emotionally drawn to women. They fall in love with their wives, and because of that, the expression of love through intimacy allows them to have great sex and intimacy with their spouse.
Their fantasy and masturbatory life is geared toward men, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t have sex with their wives. Some people may label them as bisexual, but they aren’t, because they are not attracted to women sexually.
They are attracted to one woman only — their wife.
Men who identify as having sexual and romantic interest in other men but choose to live heterosexually deserve the right to self-determine the way in which they want to live.
It is a therapist’s responsibility to block their own bias and support these clients — or any clients for that matter — in the direction the clients want to go, not the direction we the therapist think they are supposed to go.
The bottom line is that there is an incredible range of human sexuality, and we are increasingly recognizing myriad ways to negotiate the sometimes confusing pathways our urges put us on.
Better understand the words we use to define ourselves can help us to come to terms with and more fully embrace our identity.