Health & Wellness / Identity / Life

I Was Not Born This Way: A Response to Conversion Therapy

Adrienne Rich. Photo credit: Coldfrontmag.com

Adrienne Rich. Photo credit: Coldfrontmag.com

My undergraduate students react with surprise and horror when I announce that reading the lesbian feminist poet Adrienne Rich made me gay. Students recognize that this statement is an anathema to contemporary LGBT politics. “We were born this way,” they insist, citing Lady Gaga. And they have a point: the belief that sexuality is congenital has won important gains for LGBT rights and acceptance. Students are therefore understandably surprised to learn that, for the most part, scholars in LGBT and queer studies generally refute such theories.

Notwithstanding, last spring, the congenital model gained prominence once again. In April 2015, President Obama called for the ban of therapeutic practices that attempt to convert young people into gender conformity and heterosexuality. The President began his plea with a story. “Tonight,” he stated, “somewhere in America, a young person, let’s say a young man, will struggle to fall to sleep, wrestling alone with a secret he’s held as long as he can remember.” When the young man comes out, he will be vulnerable to rejection and disapproval. President Obama asked, instead, that we accept him. This narrative frames the young man’s sexuality or gender identity as deep within him. It is a truth that he has known since he was a child. The secret is waiting to be revealed. The young man should not face discrimination based on who he is.

While I agree with President Obama that conversion therapy is often harmful, I am worried by the prominence of the story he told to back up his argument. We do not need to fall back on the belief in an unwavering sexual or gender identity, one that is inherently part of each of us from an early age, to counter such therapeutic practices. And we should not, either.

therapist couchThe problem with conversion therapy is not the conviction that sexuality and gender are mutable. Instead, it is the notion that heterosexuality and gender conformity are best. Obama’s statement does not provide much ammunition in this regard. To assert that one’s sexuality and gender identity are deep seated does not necessarily give value to queerness. Rather, this belief can place LGBT people in a second class, a group that ought to be tolerated (or eliminated). In this model, it can appear unfortunate that one identifies as LGBT.

Another problem with congenital models is how they stabilize heterosexuality and gender conformity. They make it seem as though those with the “problem” are a minority of individuals, who have long held a definite secret. Everyone else in this narrative is clearly straight and cisgender. From the perspective of congenital models of sexuality and gender identity, we are left with little place to consider how many of us inhabit fluid sexual and gender identities. Many of us, at times, do not conform to the gender role we have been assigned. We see how this role has been socially constructed, and we understand that this construction is limited. Similarly, many of us, at times, find someone attractive or become aroused by a sexual fantasy in a way that does not neatly align with our sexual identity. Understanding LGBT identities as deep seated and long lasting cordons off queerness into a manageable minority. Heterosexuality and gender conformity become immutable and defined. For those who believe that straight is best, this must be a relief.

Quite simply, conversion therapy is wrong not because it seeks to transform the immutable, but rather because it pathologizes human creativity and love. It suggests that the cure to discrimination is to change oneself, not the world. It substitutes for our freedom a narrow model of the good, and it does not recognize how we are all becoming.

Stephanie Clare head shot 3Stephanie is a professional gay: she teaches and publishes in feminist and queer studies at the University at Buffalo. She loves a pregnant woman, and together, they hope to meet their first child three months from now. Their dog, however, remains unsure about this plan. Is she not their one true love?

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One Comment

  1. Love and sex really shouldn’t have boundaries that revolve around gender. Yes, a person might be more physically or emotionally attracted to the same or opposite sex, but it’s not a math equation, with a+b always equaling c. Being classified as heterosexual, simply because I’m in a hetero relationship, doesn’t portray all of who I am, or all of who anyone is.

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