The Problem with Post-Gay

In what has been widely known as The Ex-Gay Movement, some folks have been trying for years to come up with a term that adequately describes their experiences and identity and is NOT the term ex-gay. I remember when I was ex-gay, I never used that term to describe myself. Instead I would say, “I am struggling with homosexuality.” I was a struggler, a former homosexual (although I had never been “out”), and for a few years a man in a heterosexual marriage, so to others I was simply straight.

One of the problems with using the term ex-gay is that people who promote or provide ex-gay ministry and reparative therapy based on the premise that being gay is somehow bad or wrong (sinful, whatever words they use) often feel reviled by some folks who are gay and gay-affirming. It’s one thing to no longer want to be gay and instead pursue a straight life or a non-gay identity. It is quite another to say that this is God’s chosen course for all gays.

No all ex-gays are the same. Some can be more thoughtful and reasonable and open to listen than others. Peter Ould has recently been willing to listen to ex-gay survivors and in this post acknowledges some of the injustice that has happened by individuals in conservative and traditional churches towards gay (and even ex-gay) identified people.

Glen & Peterson in South Africa

Glen & Peterson in South Africa

Peter Ould, like Randy Thomas of Exodus International, has recently adopted the term Post-Gay as a possible replacement to ex-gay. In conversations I had the other day with Glen Retief, the man I am dating, I mentioned this new term and how it is being used in parts of the ex-gay blogging world. He seemed surprised because during his studies he first ran into it as a term used by gay-affirming queer theorists some time ago.

He sent me a reflection on the term that he also submitted as a comment to one of Peter Ould’s posts. I thought I would share it here too. Glen Retief works as a professor at Susquehanna University and is currently writing The Jack Bank, a memoir about about growing up in Apartheid South Africa

Peter [Ould], are you aware that the term “post-gay” is already a well-known one in queer studies and in contemporary philosophies of sexuality?  Also in certain kinds of experimental science fiction, like in works by Ursula le Guin.

In this context it means something very different to the way you seem to be using it.  What it means is that sexual orientation is no longer seen as important to psychological self-definition, because the equality and legitimacy of same-sex and opposite-sex intimacies, physical and emotional, have become so taken for granted that sexual orientation is not even worth noticing anymore.

The key point is here is that until you let go of heterosexism (not just homophobia), you can try as hard as you like to be “post-gay” but you won’t succeed.  Let’s say, for example, same-sex attraction is a temptation to sin, whereas an opposite-sex attraction is not a temptation to sin when it occurs in the context of heterosexual marriage.  From this it follows there is no way same-sex desire can be equally valuable to a human being as opposite-sex desire.  Let’s be real here: one can be channeled into God’s form of expression, while the other cannot; one may help you fulfil God’s will, the other will never do so, at least not in the same straightforward way.

Now let’s draw on another useful concept from Aristotle, who said character is desire.  Know a person’s desires, claims Aristotle, and you know his/her character.  It is not possible to devalue a desire associated with a class of people without also devaluing their character in relation to another class of people with “better” desires.  You are left with two kinds of people in the world, those with substantual temptation to a particular kind of sin, and those without: in other words a world where straight is better than the alternatives.

Thus, however hard you may try to not notice sexual orientation, the reality of diverse patterns of sexual desire in the world–patterns noticed as far back as Plato in his Symposium–will pull your attention back to it.  Sorry, but you are not “post-gay” in the slightest.  To the extent it’s important to you to react differently to same-sex and opposite-sex attractions, you are in fact deeply, fundamentally, unavoidably focused on gayness vs. straightness.  You are right in the middle of the thing you want to move beyond!

I could yack away for hours about the interesting academic research focusing on sexual identity and how it’s constructed.  You might want to look at John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, which argues that until the twelfth century the Christian tradition was indeed “pre-gay”, as you claim, but not in the sense you seem to imagine: in fact the early church was unbothered by same-sex intimacies, physical or otherwise, and even sanctified same-sex, marriage-like unions.  To them, this wasn’t in any way important to the Christian message.  I assume you are also familiar with the large and (to me) overwhelming persuasive body of Biblical scholarship suggesting the condemnations of “homosexuality” are generally no such things.  I wouldn’t exactly call Biblical sexual morality “post-gay”–”pre-modern” is more like it–but I actually think it’s closer to my definition of post-gay, where the sex/gender of one’s partner is ethically irrelevant–than it is to your idea that we should all be moving “beyond” same-sex attractions.  I don’t think Jesus cared about moving beyond same-sex attractions a single iota!

In the meantime, how about picking a term that more accurately describes your philosophical position, like “anti-gay”?

Glen added a postscript to his comments to Peter Ould:

P.S. On second thoughts, Peter, I’m not sure we really need to be debating this–my above comment about “ad hominem” arguments notwithstanding. (Maybe I should have rather used a metaphor from soccer, er, football? And talked about yellow-carding ;-)). Really, probably both you and I are strongly invested in each becoming “post-gay” in our own ways, and maybe it’s unfair of me to try to persuade you that my understanding of the term is more accurate and helpful, while yours is futile and contradictory (even though I actually believe this, and worry about young lives you could be damaging with these notions grounded ultimately in self-hatred).

Glen in Lesotho

Glen in Lesotho

As a parting statement, though, I genuinely would like your readers to understand that can be real joy, peace, love, and happiness in becoming “post-gay” in the way I describe. I can fully humanize myself, because I can accept my romantic and physical attractions just the way a straight person would. Just like a straight person, my romantic and physical attractions can be a doorway to joy, intimacy, and companionship, something I am privileged enough to experience right now with a special guy. I can leave behind internal struggles and pain: I have really become tremendously at peace with myself. Deep in my heart I feel nestled in the love of God and the love of humanity. And yes, for the most part my life is “post-gay.”

Because I happily accept myself, including my sexual desires, almost everyone I meet happily accepts me and my relationships. They do so instinctively, because my joy is palpable. My gayness therefore becomes irrelevant to almost everyone. I wish to leave your readers with the following quote from Robert Louis Stevenson:

There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world… A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than a five pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of goodwill, and their entrance into a room is as though another candle had been lighted.

May your readers be such candles in the world, Peter.

This post has 11 Comments

  1. shirley on February 4, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    love that quote. that one’s going on the wall!

  2. lower case paul on February 5, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    They may be close in finding a new way to label themselves. How about postal gays?

  3. Whittier on February 5, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    That was a powerful message–thanks to Glen. Happiness is very difficult for me, not entirely, but partly because of how I struggled with my sexual identity. Maybe someday I’ll find it, and my orientation will be as much a second thought to me as my handedness.

  4. Joe G. on February 5, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    lower case paul wrote:

    How about postal gays?

    Or “postmortem” gays?

    Or Post cereal gays?

    Or Emily Post gays?

    There’s a lot of options here, folks…

    BTW, Peterson, your man has a cute smile AND quotes Ursula K. LeGuin in a rebuttal to the ex-gay stuff. Impressionante!

  5. Joe S on February 5, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    Unfortunately the term “anti-gay” is a post-ironic variation of “post-gay” and is queerer than anything found in Queer Studies (which attracts individuals who are faily conformist in their gay outlook/identity – although they prefer to believe they are “transgressive”)

  6. Fg68at on February 7, 2009 at 10:57 am

    “You say post-gay. Do you mean gay-post-gay or ex-gay-post-gay?” 🙂



  7. KJ on February 20, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    How about “not at peace with and/or not acting upon same-gender attraction” — NAPWA/ONAUSGA?

    Maybe not; It looks like it was hobbled together by a committee.

  8. Mike G on February 28, 2009 at 2:20 am

    Thanks for this post. I have been coming to this point as well as I get more comfortable in my own skin being a gay man. I was married for 20 years, fathered 2 kids and fought being gay for 35 + years (almost to the point of suicide 2 times). I am finding God loves me regardless. It seems to not be a big deal to God, so, it should not be a big deal to me. The voices of condemnation for being gay are hopefully dieing in my head. I am who I am, and since coming out, have never made it something I have to tell everyone. I am who I am and if they ask “are you gay?”, I truthfully answer. There is alot more to Mike than who or what gender of person I go home to.

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