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With the mainstreaming of homosexuality, some gays are starting to pull back the curtains on gay life, giving the rest of the world a look inside. The picture isn't rosy. Last March, the Huffington Post ran an essay titled, "Together Alone: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness." In an exposition that runs nearly 7,000 words long, 34-year-old Seattle journalist Michael Hobbes describes the struggles, travails, and deep-seated feelings of emptiness, alienation, and depression he's seen, both in the lives of his friends and as reflected in gay literature and LGBT-related research. Along the way, he drops enough hints to reveal his own existential distress. "I've also been in and out of therapy more times than I've downloaded and deleted Grindr." (Grindr is a widely used mobile app for gay men that hooks them up with nearby available sex partners.)
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He cites several studies showing that, despite massive social changes to their liking, epidemiologically, gays aren't faring any better today than they were decades ago. Rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and risky behaviors are no lower and in some cases may be even higher. And this is not just an American phenomenon. The Netherlands and Sweden, nations years ahead of America in legalizing same-sex marriage, show similar "unbearable statistics" regarding men married to men in comparison to men married to women.
He references gay Canadian epidemiologist Travis Salway, who found that it's not just a mental illness gap, either. Gay men of all ages everywhere show higher rates of physical illnesses, too: cardiovascular disease, cancer, incontinence, erectile dysfunction, allergies, asthma—all in addition to the already known disproportionately high levels of STDs. Relationship problems, career problems, money problems—"you name it," writes Hobbes, "we got it."
None of this fits the picture of the life he was raised to expect in an LGBT-affirming era. For some time, psychological maladies in gays were attributed to the "loneliness of the closet" or, once out of the closet, the trauma of family rejection or homophobia in society. But, Hobbes writes, neither he nor many of his friends were bullied by peers or rejected by their families. The son of PFLAG parents, he grew up in a "bright blue city" and never experienced direct discrimination.
According to everything he'd believed, once gay men came out and got comfortable with themselves, they would go about building normal, happy lives within a community of people like them who'd gone through the same process. But now, not only is gay life as he's observing and experiencing it demonstrably dysfunctional, gays have the added perplexity that the old theories about what's causing it are failing in the light of new data.
"Marriage equality and the changes in legal status were an improvement for some gay men," says Christopher Stults, a psychotherapist at New York University who specializes in LGBT mental health. "But for a lot of other people, it was a letdown. Like, we have this legal status, and yet there's still something unfulfilled."
So the question Hobbes and other intellectually honest gays are starting to wrestle with is, Whence cometh all this malaise? And, What are we to do now?
The rest of us should be asking these questions, too.
Mixed Pursuits of Gay Wellness
First, let's review how we got to where we are. Back when the reigning paradigm said gay distress was caused by straights' "anti-gay" beliefs, well-meaning efforts to change those beliefs emerged, first in secular culture and then in religion.
From the secular standpoint, a lot of societal ills were already traceable to "outdated" beliefs, many of which were odious to secularists anyway. And so when the admittedly propagandistic designs of Harvard ad team Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, media strategists of After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90's, started rolling out, the secular public needed little persuading to take up the cause of "oppressed" gays and insist that "heteronormative" society change. The campaign has been so successful that, today in pop culture, coming out is seen as courageous, and "being gay" is cool.
As pressure to affirm gay sex mounted, church responses followed. One religion-based attempt to alleviate gay ills was to modify church teachings on sexuality. This eventually resulted in churches changing the definition of marriage to accommodate same-sex couples and then affirming same-sex sex within committed relationships. Matthew Vines has been a youthful poster child for this evolution, as have a number of popular millennials such as Brandon Hatmaker and Rachel Held Evans, and it has been officially implemented by several mainline Protestant denominations. Like the secular approach, this affirms both the gay identity and gay sex.
A second religious approach, taken by more conservative Christians and church bodies, honors the plain reading of the Scriptures and holds that, to be faithful to biblical principles on sexuality, gay Christians should remain celibate. One leading voice of celibate gay Christianity is biblical studies professor Wesley Hill, author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality and Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. This approach sees homosexuality as but one of the many manifestations of human brokenness. It affirms the gay identity but not gay sexual expression, instead exhorting the gay Christian to live by the power of the gospel, saying "no" to same-sex intimacy because of having said "yes" to faithfulness to God.
A Natural Alternative
Wesley Hill is to be commended for prioritizing the difficult path of staying true to what he believes over capitulating to what his libido demands. And Michael Hobbes is to be commended for throwing open the closet door on the tragedies of gay life. But there's a way to pursue sexual health and wellness that neither of them seems to have considered. They could reject the premise that they have a fixed sexual orientation and question their gay identity. This approach has shown good results in both secular and Christian contexts.
First, a secular voice: Dr. Charles Socarides practiced psychiatry in New York City from 1954 until his death in 2005. He primarily saw homosexual men, and he was an early and persistent advocate for their civil rights. But by that, he only meant putting a stop to targeted persecution and violence against them. He unequivocally opposed the political agenda to promote same-sex sex as a healthy alternative.
In Homosexuality—A Freedom Too Far: A Psychoanalyst Answers 1000 Questions About Causes and Cure and the Impact of the Gay Rights Movement on American Society (1995), he simultaneously: advocates compassion for homosexuals as suffering human beings; explains homosexuality as a result of misformed psycho-sexual identity; discusses his treatment model, which he describes as "partly like detective work and partly like gardening;" and sharply criticizes as wrong-headed the social movement to normalize homosexuality. Remarkably, he manages to do all that in simple Q&A prose.
In his professional opinion, the seeds for a homosexual orientation are planted during a person's early years, often without the child's conscious awareness. The goal of therapy, therefore, is to get to the bottom of a patient's self-identity disturbance so that he can "get on with that healing and repair, and in many cases, find happiness in marriage and a family." He reported a success rate of about 35 percent, which is consistent with psychiatry's success in treating other psychological disorders.
Socarides categorically rejected the notion of gay identity on the grounds that gender identity should be rooted in biological reality. He co-founded the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) in 1992, largely because the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had abandoned sound science on the treatment of homosexuality.
Now, a Christian voice: Ron Citlau, who has struggled with same-sex attraction all his life, also sees it as a symptom of misformed sexual identity. In Hope for the Same-Sex Attracted: Biblical Direction for Friends, Family Members, and Those Struggling with Homosexuality, he recommends a combination of therapy rooted in biblical psychology and Christ-based friendships situated in what he calls cruciform community, which he defines as "community centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus."
He speaks from hard experience. When he was nineteen and "a complete and utter mess," some Christian friends took him to Charlie, who was then in his early thirties. "From the very beginning Charlie embodied for me the gospel hope. I was in real darkness and sin, and I had never let anyone into the mess before." Through Charlie and a small group of young adults that began organically coming together regularly, deep friendships began to form. "There was brokenness everywhere. We were sin-sick men and women and we all knew it. It was our focus on Jesus and our need of him that made our friendships beautiful." In this healing community, he learned to engage in healthy relationships, and he learned appropriate boundaries with other men.
Citlau is now happily married and father to four sons. But neither he nor Dr. Socarides sets heterosexuality as a goal for the same-sex attracted. Rather, the goal is a healthy, integrated sexual identity. For Socarides, this comes through successful psychoanalysis, while for Citlau, it's rooted in one's relationship with Christ. In both cases, wellness is defined as a healthy alignment of mind, soul, and body. And for many, it has indeed led to satisfying marriage and family.
Although Dr. Socarides didn't espouse any religious or moral viewpoint, his approach to the problem of gay distress is consistent with Judeo-Christian anthropology, which says that humanity was created male and female but that sin has damaged us in a myriad of ways. Yet while sin is usually thought of in terms of actions or behavior, it has also been explained as "disordered love," the idea being that, for health and wellness, one's loves must be properly ordered: God first, others second, and finally, self.
Bringing this back around to the gay/straight wellness gap and how it might relate to love, sex, and marriage, Hobbes observes sadly that while the straight half of his social circle has moved on into relationships, kids, and suburbs, the other half has struggled through isolation, anxiety, hard drugs, and risky sex. Why might this be?
New theories attribute gay struggles to "minority stress" or "internalized homophobia," but could we at this juncture pose a few delicate questions? Could it be that same-sex and complementary-sex relationships aren't exactly the same? Could it be that all loves aren't the same? If so, then might gay ills be a result of doing life, love, and sex in ways counter to sexual realities?
If that is so, then we love our struggling neighbors best by letting them in on the secret that identity realignments are possible. •
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