When I submitted the manuscript for my second novel, Thinking Straight, to my editor at Kensington Publishing, he read it and then asked me, “Are you sure parents would actually do this to their own kids? How much of this is fiction?”
Thinking Straight tells the story of a gay teen whose parents send him to a religious “ex-gay”* camp for the summer of his sixteenth year. It was inspired by the story of a real boy, Zack Stark, whose 2005 MySpace blog shone a light on what was happening and resulted in major protests. As soon as I read Zack’s story, I knew I had to write about it. And while the “ex-gay” camp I created for my novel was fictional, the answer I gave my editor was, “Yes. Lots of parents do this to their own kids. And only the names have been changed.”
In fact, in creating my fictional camp, I leaned heavily on the counselor’s handbook from the camp Zack was sent to. One reviewer, after reading Thinking Straight, called the situation “Kafka-esque.”
It’s amazing and appalling to me that these camps, and centers like them, still exist. It’s disgusting to know that despite lots of efforts by many different people, only four states and Washington, D.C. have, to date, outlawed the practice. It’s shameful that only this year has the Federal government taken any steps to protect minors from the horrors of isolation, electroshock therapy, exorcisms, and other techniques I won’t mention here. But the most troubling question is why this practice is still going on and, in fact, why it needs to be outlawed—that is, why it exists at all.
In a recent Huffpost Gay Voices article, Senior Media Editor Gabriel Arana said that when his parents pushed him into therapy, “they thought they were doing the right thing. They thought they were helping me.” He added that less was known about the practice and efficacy at the time.
While it’s true that we know more now, it was more than 40 years ago that the American Psychiatric Association declared that sexual orientation was not, and should not be treated as, a psychiatric disorder. And in 2005, the same year that Zack Stark’s story was being told, the National Academy of Sciences reported that in a study of self-identified gay and straight men, tests showed that it was the hypothalamus—that gland buried deep in the mammalian brain—that was responsible for determining how the subjects responded sexually, and to whom. And while shepherds have known since the year dot that nine out of every hundred rams will chase the other boys around, scientific studies going back to 2004 and perhaps earlier report that homosexuality has been documented in hundreds of non-human species, and they’re still counting.
I had an email from a young gay teen who read Thinking Straight and said that it didn’t make any difference to him to hear that science had proved that homosexuality is a natural, normally-occurring phenomenon. “I don’t need anyone telling me why I’m gay,” he told me. “I know who I am.”
This kid was lucky. Too many young people have been told they’re destined for a lonely, depraved and deprived, perhaps even damned life if they don’t change. Most of this urging comes from religious sources. But that would mean God is telling a fourteen-year-old: “I’ve made you into something I can’t love. Fix it.”
Perhaps Gabriel Arana’s parents didn’t know about the declassification of homosexuality as a disease or condition to be treated. Perhaps parents today haven’t heard about the hypothalamus and its control over sexual response. Perhaps they don’t know about the growing number of species in which homosexuality is found to occur naturally. But there are a few things they should know without being told.
Assuming they’re straight, these parents should know that if they pray as hard as they can, they can’t force themselves to be attracted to someone of their own gender. They should know that no matter how much hypnotism, exorcism, or shock therapy they receive, they’re always going to be attracted to people of the opposite sex. They should know that they didn’t choose to be straight, and they can’t choose to be gay. They should know that they aren’t straight only because they haven’t yet met the right person of their own sex. They should know that nothing caused them to become straight. And they should know that if they were forced to live as though they were gay, they would be horribly, miserably unhappy.
There were a couple of reasons why I decided on the title Thinking Straight for my story. The most important one is in the first word. Thinking. I want people to think. I want them to understand that when a straight person has an instinctive negative reaction to homosexuality, instinct is the opposite of thought. I want them to think about what it would be like to have the same reaction to heterosexuality that, as straight people, they have to homosexuality. I want them to imagine this issue from the position of a gay person.
There’s no question that someone who disagrees with me is as entitled to their opinion as I am to mine. But here’s the thing: They’re condemning an entire segment of humanity based on nothing substantial, nothing that science hasn’t disproven, nothing that isn’t narrow-minded and thoughtless.
Thinking. Is it too much to ask? And can we coin the term "ex-ex-gay" and get rid of the whole ugly mess?
* “Ex-gay” is always in quotes when I write it, an idea I got from reading Jeremy Hooper’s Good As You (GAY) blog.