In spite of the closure of ex-gay organisations, the defection of ex-gay leaders and studies showing that conversion therapy is rarely “successful” and often harmful, Catholics and other Christians still try to make gay people straight. Obviously “gay” and “straight” are social constructs, and only one way of organising our kaleidoscopic array of longings. Proposed alternatives like “same-sex attraction”, while resonant for some, tend to define our experience as sexual temptation. For many gay people who choose celibacy to live in harmony with Church teaching, using “gay” connects us to a community and helps us trust that there are holy expressions of our longing for same-sex love.
Instead, gay Catholics often find themselves isolated and seek out guidance and therapy directed at changing their orientation. We can’t understand the harms done by conversion therapy’s failures without understanding why people so desperately want it to work.
In my opinion, based on about a decade of working with gay Christians (and 20-plus years of being gay and Catholic), conversion therapy persists because it promises a future. When the only paths people see for holiness in the Church are marriage and religious vows, and when “achieving” either of these states seems to rest on straightening out one’s sexuality, conversion therapy seems like the only hope. When it fails to make people straight – as it usually does – the resulting despair is crushing. People who have tried everything they were told to do in order to become pleasing to God find themselves still (apparently) disobedient against their wills. At this point many people leave the Church, in anguish and betrayal. Others consider or attempt suicide.
The alternative to conversion therapy is not a better psychiatric theory or a more traditional prayer regime. The alternative is offering gay people a Catholic future that doesn’t depend on becoming straight.
This means supporting gay Catholics who come out. Right now gay people are often advised not to come out, and many people employed by Catholic institutions fear (or have faced) being fired if they say they’re gay – even though they accept Catholic teaching and are trying to live it out. So kids growing up in the Church can’t name even one gay adult who accepts Church teaching. It’s hard to imagine a future completely without precedent.
Often gay Catholics are treated with suspicion, as if anything we hope for must be disordered. The secular world tells us our longings for same-sex love, kinship, and commitment can only be fulfilled in gay marriage. Fellow Catholics often fear our longings – or, at best, encourage us in “disinterested friendships” as saltpeter for our sex drives, urging us to flee these friendships if they start to feel too good.
Scripture, by contrast, shows us holiness in the covenant of David and Jonathan, the promises of Ruth and Naomi. Gay Christians are rediscovering these models of same-sex love, nonmarital and nonsexual but as beautiful and committed as marriage, and offering them as gifts to everyone.
If we want gay people to stay Catholic – and to stay alive – we need to support them in giving and receiving love. Some will take religious vows. Most will take other paths: living celibate lives in intentional community, godparenthood, devoted friendship, and more. The more practical support for these paths, the easier they are to envision.
The conversion therapy model required only gay people to change. Moving beyond this disastrous model will require all of us to change – and grow in love.
Eve Tushnet (pictured) is the author of several books, including Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, and the editor of Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church