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Gay by Choice? The Science of Sexual Identity

If science proves sexual orientation is more fluid than we've been led to believe, can homosexuality still be a protected right?

| Mon Aug. 27, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

When he leaves his tidy apartment in an ocean-side city somewhere in America, Aaron turns on the radio to a light rock station. "For the cat," he explains, "so she won't get lonely." He's short and balding and dressed mostly in black, and right before I turn on the recorder, he asks me for the dozenth time to guarantee that I won't reveal his name or anything else that might identify him. "I don't want to be a target for gay activists," he says as we head out into the misty day. "Harassment like that I just don't need."

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Aaron sets a much brisker pace down the boardwalk than you would expect of a doughy 51-year-old, and once convinced I'll respect his anonymity, he turns out to be voluble. Over the crash of the waves, he spares no details as he describes how much he hated the fact that he was gay, how the last thing in the world he wanted to do was act on his desire to have sex with another man. "I'm going to be perfectly blatant about it," he says. "I'm not going to have anal intercourse or give or receive any BJs either, okay?" He managed to maintain his celibacy through college and into adulthood. But when, in the late 1980s, he found himself so "insanely jealous" of his roommate's girlfriend that he had to move out, he knew the time had come to do something. One of the few people who knew that Aaron was gay showed him an article in Newsweek about a group offering "reparative therapy"—psychological treatment for people who want to become "ex-gay."

"It turns out that I didn't have the faintest idea what love was," he says. That's not all he didn't know. He also didn't know that his same-sex attraction, far from being inborn and inescapable, was a thirst for the love that he had not received from his father, a cold and distant man prone to angry outbursts, coupled with a fear of women kindled by his intrusive and overbearing mother, all of which added up to a man who wanted to have sex with other men just so he could get some male attention. He didn't understand any of this, he tells me, until he found a reparative therapist whom he consulted by phone for nearly 10 years, attended weekend workshops, and learned how to "be a man."

Aaron interrupts himself to eye a woman in shorts jogging by. "Sometimes there are very good-looking women at this boardwalk," he says. "Especially when they're not bundled up." He remembers when he started noticing women's bodies, a few years into his therapy. "The first thing I noticed was their legs. The curve of their legs." He's dated women, had sex with them even, although "I was pretty awkward," he says. "It just didn't work." Aaron has a theory about this: "I never used my body in a sexual way. I think the men who actually act it out have a greater success in terms of being sexual with women than the men who didn't act it out." Not surprisingly, he's never had a long-term relationship, and he's pessimistic about his prospects. "I can't make that jump from having this attraction to doing something about it." But, he adds, it's wrong to think "if you don't make it with women, then you haven't changed." The important thing is that "now I like myself. I'm not emotionally shut down. I'm comfortable in my own body. I don't have to be drawn to men anymore. I'm content at this point to lead an asexual life, which is what I've done for most of my life anyway." He adds, "I'm a very detached person."

It's raining a little now. We stop walking so I can tuck the microphone under the flap of Aaron's shirt pocket, and I feel him recoil as I fiddle with his button. I'm remembering his little cubicle of an apartment, its unlived-in feel, and thinking that he may be the sort of guy who just doesn't like anyone getting too close, but it's also possible that therapy has taught him to submerge his desire so deep that he's lost his motive for intimacy.

That's the usual interpretation of reparative therapy—that to the extent that it does anything, it leads people to repress rather than change their natural inclinations, that its claims to change sexual orientation are an outright fraud perpetrated by the religious right on people who have internalized the homophobia of American society, personalized the political in such a way as to reject their own sexuality and stunt their love lives. But Aaron scoffs at these notions, insisting that his wish to go straight had nothing to do with right-wing religion or politics—he's a nonobservant Jew and a lifelong Democrat who volunteered for George McGovern, has a career in public service, and thinks George Bush is a war criminal. It wasn't a matter of ignorance—he has an advanced degree—and it really wasn't a psychopathological thing—he rejects the idea that he's ever suffered from internalized homophobia. He just didn't want to be gay, and, like millions of Americans dissatisfied with their lives, he sought professional help and reinvented himself.

Self-reconstruction is what people in my profession (I am a practicing psychotherapist) specialize in, but when it comes to someone like Aaron, most of us draw the line. All the major psychotherapy guilds have barred their members from researching or practicing reparative therapy on the grounds that it is inherently unethical to treat something that is not a disease, that it contributes to oppression by pathologizing homosexuality, and that it is dangerous to patients whose self-esteem can only suffer when they try to change something about themselves that they can't (and shouldn't have to) change. Aaron knows this, of course, which is why he's at great pains to prove he's not pulling a Ted Haggard. For if he's not a poseur, then he is a walking challenge to the political and scientific consensus that has emerged over the last century and a half: that sexual orientation is inborn and immutable, that efforts to change it are bound to fail, and that discrimination against gay people is therefore unjust.

But as crucial as this consensus has been to the struggle for gay rights, it may not be as sound as some might wish. While scientists have found intriguing biological differences between gay and straight people, the evidence so far stops well short of proving that we are born with a sexual orientation that we will have for life. Even more important, some research shows that sexual orientation is more fluid than we have come to think, that people, especially women, can and do move across customary sexual orientation boundaries, that there are ex-straights as well as ex-gays. Much of this research has stayed below the radar of the culture warriors, but reparative therapists are hoping to use it to enter the scientific mainstream and advocate for what they call the right of self-determination in matters of sexual orientation. If they are successful, gay activists may soon find themselves scrambling to make sense of a new scientific and political landscape.

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