JesuiticalJune 06, 2021
Photo by Daniele D'Andreti on Unsplash

On a recent episode of the Jesuitical podcast, Eve Tushnet spoke with hosts Ashley McKinless and Zac Davis about conversion therapy and the harmful effects the practice can have on the mental and spiritual well-being of gay and lesbian Catholics. Ms. Tushnet spoke with nine people who had undergone this type of therapy for a feature in the June issue of Americaand in this conversation she shares their stories and suggests ways the church could better accompany and guide gay Catholics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Ashley McKinless: Can you first just define for us what conversion therapy is?

Eve Tushnet: It’s any form of therapy which views as its goal change of orientation. The purpose of the therapy is to turn you straight.

Zac Davis: What are some of the philosophical underpinnings behind this?

One of the things that I realized as I began talking to people who had had this experience of formal therapy to change their orientation was how much of it resonated with stuff I and other gay Catholics who had never tried therapy or counseling of any kind has heard. The underlying assumptions are pretty widespread in Catholic circles. And they include things like the idea that people become gay because of negative experiences, especially in childhood. So, if you didn’t get along with other boys or other girls that may have alienated you from them, and later you become gay, or you have a bad relationship with your parent of the same sex. There’s a bunch of different theories that people put forward.

I think that idea of the origin story is one of the biggest ones because it gives an explanation of how therapy could help, how the fixing might work.

People who had had this experience of formal therapy to change their orientation was how much of it resonated with stuff I and other gay Catholics who had never tried therapy of any kind has heard.

But there’s a deeper underlying assumption, which is that the experience of being gay is purely negative and that there’s nothing that experience can teach you about yourself. There’s no gift that it can offer to you or to the church. If you do therapy and it works for you, you will kind of dissolve into the straight majority. And any gay feelings or experiences you had before, that can be sort of pushed to one side, leaving no trace in what it means for you to be Catholic or your experience of God.

And I think everybody I talked to for this article went through a process of ultimately —regardless of where they ended up at, if they stayed Catholic, if they were still practicing the church’s teachings on sexual ethics, or if they were in a different church in a different way of life—I think they all ended up working through that underlying belief and coming to say: “No, there’s something valuable here. There’s something that I’m actually being told in the experience of being gay, that I can be grateful for. And that I don’t need to think of as purely something to reject or flee.”

AM: When a gay Catholic goes through conversion therapy, what are they being told about themselves and what are kind of the dangerous effects that that can have on their self-worth?

One of the things that several of my interviewees said was that part of the power of the conversion therapy narrative is that it often it draws on real experiences that lots of people have had. [But] not everybody. I would not say that I felt particularly in conflict with other girls. I have a good relationship with my parents, but as it happens, lots of people of all sexual orientations have troubled relationship with their parents or with their same-sex peers.

Part of the power of the conversion therapy narrative is that it often it draws on real experiences that lots of people have had.

People are told some stuff that often can resonate because it’s drawing on common experiences and one interviewee even pointed out that you can argue that for some people, it’s the timeline that is backward. You began to realize that you’re different from other boys or that you’re different from the model that your parents want for you, and that is what causes the conflict. But the conversion therapy model explains that the conflict is what causes the gayness. And so people hear that and they’re like, well, I do have both of those things. That kind of reinforces an idea of themselves as essentially lacking and the conflicts that they have are unique to them because they’re part of this stigmatized group, which they’re often pressured by their therapist to keep secret. It becomes a focus of a deep feeling of inadequacy.

ZD: What happens then? So you’ve done all these things and you’re still “broken.” Where does that leave a person?

Several people said basically the same thing, which was: “I tried all these things. I went to therapy. I dated somebody of the opposite sex. I pursued a religious vocation. I tried developing stronger bonds with people of the same sex, maybe that would help. And like, none of it made me any different in my sexual orientation. I’ve tried everything.”

And at that point, people either fall into complete despair and contemplate suicide often, or they kind of give up in the other direction. They’re like, well, whatever is right for me, it’s not going to be what these people are telling me.

All of the people I interviewed had to kind of rebuild their spiritual lives pretty much from the ground up, including the ones who were still practicing Catholics.

All of the people I interviewed had to kind of rebuild their spiritual lives pretty much from the ground up, including the ones who were still practicing Catholics. Because the thing that they had been told, that the Catholic faith required of them, had completely failed. And at that point it’s either like, well, I’m not capable of being obedient. And therefore I’m just cut off from God without any hope of going back.

Someone commented on your article, “You can’t call somebody intrinsically disordered and then expect nothing bad to happen.” Then she said that she was lucky, [since] she came out relatively undamaged. Do you think there is something that fundamentally needs to change about the way the church talks about homosexuality, both from official magisterial sources but also on a more day-to-day level?

I would say there’s really two things in particular that would be most helpful. One is the language of “disorder.” Catholic intellectuals will be like, “Oh, this has a long and varied history, this word is actually about natural law and bringing your desires into order.” But when people hear it, especially with homosexuality, which has been treated as a psychiatric disorder so much in the modern past, they hear psychiatric terms. We use the word disorder primarily now to talk about stuff like substance abuse disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, things that can be psychologically treated. And because that’s true of how Americans and many Westerners treated homosexuality for quite some time, of course it gets interpreted in that context. And of course, people hear it as, this is a disorder to be fixed.

The second thing I think would do a lot of good is rescuing models of same-sex love, of saying same-sex love is good. And the church has ways to guide you in it.

The second thing I think would do a lot of good is rescuing models of same-sex love, of saying same-sex love is good. And the church has ways to guide you in it. The church is not just going to say, “Have you tried loving somebody of the opposite sex?” But we’ll say we actually have some guidance and some wisdom to share with you about loving someone of the same sex.

I think of biblical models like David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus and all of the disciples but especially his intimacy with John, the beloved disciple. These are images that are deeply woven into salvation history. They’re incredibly rich with theological resonance, and they’re love between two adults of the same sex. They’re not marital; they’re not sexual. They’re something else. There’s something beautiful, holy, open to everybody. It was sort of revelatory when I was like, wait, all this stuff is actually already there.

What do you say to people who would be happy for the language to change but who feel deeply called to a relationship that involves sex with someone of the same sex?

I don’t pretend to have some kind of argument as to why the church teaching is the way it is. Why is this stuff in Scripture the way it is? I think ultimately it’s, for me at least, it very much comes down to a question of trust for so many gay people. Christians have deeply damaged the trustworthiness of the church’s witness here. And so I’m not going to blame anybody who’s like, “Well, I don’t trust the church the way you do on this stuff, sorry.”

Christians have deeply damaged the trustworthiness of the church’s witness here. And so I’m not going to blame anybody who’s like, “Well, I don’t trust the church the way you do on this stuff, sorry.”

I’m wondering if you have any constructive advice for someone who is gay and struggling with a lot of these things, or if there’s someone who’s a friend and is noticing that their friend is really struggling with how to fit all these puzzle pieces together.

Some of the biggest things were simply finding other people who had been through some of the same experiences, or who were simply gay and Christian, I think, especially for the people who I talked to who were still trying to live out the Catholic sexual ethic or [were] open to it. One thing that was absolutely crucial for them was that they were able to find people who are not ashamed to be gay, who were themselves practicing Catholics.

I knew of nobody who was gay and was Catholic and was actually going to try to do this stuff the way they tell you to do it. And I made a lot of mistakes because of that and did a lot of stuff that I regret. And I think for a lot of my interviewees, too, finding community is so crucial.

There’ll be a point in your life where you will be grateful to be gay and maybe asking yourself: What would that mean? What would that look like? What are the things in this experience that I can be grateful for? Regardless of what happens to me, whether I find the things that I think I’m looking for, whether my beliefs change—what are the things that I will be able to look back on and say, “O.K., there’s something good here; this is something that I can just be grateful for”?

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