27 September 2010

Evergreen is not an asylum of crazies

In relation to my recent post about my first time attending the Evergreen Conference, I want to make one thing clear: the therapists and presenters are not a bunch of total kooks, they are not liars, and they are not self-loathing shells of human beings. They believe what they preach, I think, and are sometimes surprisingly and disarmingly rational about their approach. It's taken me a long time to come to my current opinions and perspectives about reparative therapy theories and efforts to live the heterosexual lifestyle. Along the way, I've listened to those whom gay activists dismiss outright as dangerous quacks, and I found that the supporters of what I call "the Evergreen way" had more of a basis for their arguments than they're typically given credit for, even if they overstate certain things, mask or gloss over certain realities, make certain foundational assumptions which I consider to be leaps or with which I simply disagree, and too often present theories (though not completely unfounded) as facts or absolutes. They're often, in fact, happy-seeming and energetic, charming people, particularly the ones placed up front as the faces of the issue at the Evergreen Conference who aren't as much there to convey psychological research as their own personal experience. Whatever glossing happens, such sins are not unique to Evergreeners. Leaders and speakers for all kinds of organizations, whether political, fraternal, religious, etc, tend to overstate support for their positions and downplay and discredit those who don't agree, and they often do so with emotionally moving passion and zeal which appeals powerfully to many.

So before you act all shocked that someone could be seduced or convinced by Evergreen Conference presenters' philosophies, or you think your friend is a total dupe, read Evergreen's "Myths" page to find documented responses to many dismissive, pop-culture claims made by opponents of re-orientation therapy or behavioral conformity to heterosexual lifestyles, information you're not likely to see in many places partially because it's not widely accepted by experts in the field of psychology, and partially because it's just not "politically correct":

http://www.evergreeninternational.org/Myths.htm

There are counterarguments or clarifications for some of what is said here, sure. I think North Star's leadership would take dispute with their claim that "Evergreen International is the only known organization that supports Church teachings and practices 'without reservation or exception,'" even if it's not so specifically worded. Also, most people who've been around a while know that the words "change" and "homosexuality" have somewhat specialized uses in these circles which allow them to honestly make the claims they do. And I could swear that, four years ago or so, Evergreen used to deny that certain aversion therapies were ever even used more than incidentally and attempted to personally discredit people who claimed they'd gone through such programs (but I may just be projecting what certain individuals heavily involved with Evergreen said, rather than the organization itself). But most of what they point out on this page cannot be summarily dismissed, and I never have done so.

I do believe everyone should be free to make the best of their life given their beliefs, values, orientation, etc. I agree that to say "change" is not possible is disingenuous, as there are people who claim to have changed, and I may question what they mean by "change" (the only people I've met who have claimed to actually become heterosexual are those who make their living from insisting so), but who am I to tell them they're lying if they claim a full or partial change in sexual orientation? I fully believe that even a relapse (like John Paulk getting caught in a gay bar) does not completely negate a person's efforts or ideas. If that were true, there'd be a lot of gay guys whose relapses into their conservative religious cultures and heteronormative lifestyles they find so familiar and comfortable could never claim to be truly "gay" or "ex-ex-gay".

I believe that when one's beliefs leave no room for same-sex relationships of any romantic or sexual kind, they should have opportunity to work within their boundaries towards fulfillment and happiness in ways alternative to "the norm", as long as those efforts do not negatively affect other people. I think that, though it may not be ideal to have to "work" at loving someone of the opposite sex in a way most people take for granted, on top of all of the usual issues of a relationship, a lot of life isn't ideal or fair, and this is one more (probably big) way that's true, and if two people have assessed the risks and weighed the pros and cons and decide to take them on, or if someone decides to find fulfillment as a single man or woman, we should wish them the best and support them in doing it as healthily as possible. I may not "be interested" in doing what it seems to take to get there--permanent involvement in support groups, regular experiential weekends, holding activities with other (usually "SSA") men, persistent mentorship, etc.--but if it's a choice between "whatever it takes" and "being alone", I definitely see (now more than ever, believe me) why so many make the effort, and many even eventually succeed in building the life they wanted according to the options they allowed for themselves (or believe God allows for them), if they tough it out.

When I first went to an Evergreen Conference in 2006, even though I didn't buy into everything I heard or saw, I could see that it was possible to "deal with it" in ways I could be satisfied with for myself, assuming my beliefs dictated it, and it was refreshing to hear others affirm and support the notion that I could hold my beliefs and determine my own destiny. Since I tended to believe my beliefs did prohibit a same-sex romantic relationship, I was among supporters, and I felt energized and uplifted.

I knew that, for me, it came down to what I believed. Did I really believe my only viable options were the church's doctrinally proclaimed options: to live as a single man or with a female partner? Did I really, truly believe I was not to have a male partner? I wanted to be with a man but have it be socially acceptable and consistent with the gospel. But that wasn't an option in my mind, so I lived by the church's policies and believed I would be blessed for doing the right thing, and all else would be compensated beyond all comprehension in eternity. But I also knew that if it weren't for the strictures of my beliefs, I would clearly want to be with a man and believed it was possible to do so happily and healthily. I didn't have a desire to date women except as a show of obedience and sacrifice and to have the family I always wanted, but I knew that if I thought it was possible to have a fulfilling, committed, family-building relationship with a man, that was what I really wanted, if it was consistent with God's will, assuming God existed and gave a rip about which sex my partner was, which I really did assume and believe. Since I had felt naturally inclined, magnified, motivated, brightened, animated, and enriched by a same-sex relationship, more so than I had felt in a mixed-sex relationship, I knew that if I didn't believe the gospel precluded same-sex romance, that is exactly what I wanted, social and reproductive challenges of it aside. But the religious, social, and reproductive factors did, I had to admit, exist--I did believe a same-sex relationship was not an option--and I saw my best option, given that framework, as being the pursuit of a possible future mixed-sex marriage or fulfillment as a single man.

My perspective has shifted and evolved over time as I've had my own experiences and talked with others who have had a wide range of their own. The religious factor has changed. The social factors are still admittedly tiring and daunting. Even though most people closest to me say they just want to see me happy and are willing to suspend their perceptions of the way eternity is to accept that we'll wait and see how it all turns out, I just feel a tinge of sadness, like they'd think, "We're happy for you, but..." even if they'd never say so. But so it is also for an LDS couple from evangelical families getting married in the temple: their families might be happy they've found companionship even while quietly believing they're damning themselves by following a false religion. You deal with that and rely on your own convictions of what is right.

This is the kind of perspective I want to know a future same-sex partner has faced honestly and candidly. I couldn't feel right about being in a relationship with a guy if I felt like I'd steered him away from even looking at that for fear he might choose a different kind of happiness at the expense of my own. My personal philosophy is that if I love someone truly, his happiness matters more to me than my own comfort or security. So it was and is. I may doubt whether what he's choosing can really make him as happy as he could have been with me or some future great guy he might meet, based on our conversations and what I saw in him while we were together, but to deny him the opportunity to choose or to coerce him away from even seeing the option would have felt selfish and wrong. These are the risks one takes in having conviction in principles rather than in doctrines or dogma: losing people to the seduction of "certainty" to which so many seem to claim exclusive rights.

I cannot judge or see what is in anyone's heart. While I may tend to believe he is more likely succumbing to social and familial pressure to conform to an artificially or arbitrarily limited set of options for happiness, I certainly understand that if his personal beliefs have been re-circumscribed to exclude a relationship like ours, or he was only with me as a consolation to a perceived inability to have a more standard life, or he had never even considered the ideas presented to him, or if he was secretly harboring discontent in our relationship and looking for an 'out' anyway, then if he's going to honestly consider the ideas at Evergreen's conference, that means not dismissing them unnecessarily because they're as-of-yet not proven or are socially unpopular in many circles. It's not craziness. It's being open. It's experimenting on their words. It's...still hard for me to accept because of the happiness I had with him and thought he had, and the even greater happiness I was confident we could have found together in time.

And yet, if he had refused to go to Evergreen out of a stubborn or rebellious refusal to even hear what they had to say, I might have lost some respect for him for not even being open. Unlike many gay men my age, I don't believe they are complete nutjobs denying reality because I've seen them in action firsthand. They are working within a framework of beliefs and options. I just don't believe the same fundamentals they believe (and didn't think he did, either, but I was apparently very wrong about that), so even though I can see benefits and happiness in a mixed-sex relationship, and consider that option potentially viable for myself (and increasingly attractive when feeling hopeless about finding a guy with whom I can expect to have the kind of relationship I want), I also have had my best (and most painful) experiences with men so far, and I'm willing to do what's hard for a relationship which is worth it, whether the "hard" stuff is struggling against my attractions and refocusing my thought patterns in order to find a woman, confronting social stigmas and legal limitations, facing fears of rejection, or risking losing someone because I love them too much to keep them locked in my philosophical tower, away from reasonable ideas built on premises I just don't agree with.

However "wrong" this break-up has felt to me (and oh, has it felt wrong), I don't think he's crazy for pursuing what he believes will bring him happiness, and despite my doubts about his motives or rationale, I truly hope he finds the happiness we wants (apparently a better kind than he believed he could find with me) because...what can I say...I love the cuss, and I think it'll be easier for me to move on if I believe at least one of us is truly happier this way.

8 comments:

Aaron said...

PART ONE
I have an emotional confession to make and that is:

Before I read your full post I read the link to the "MYTHS" page at Evergreen and I was absolutely furious. I mean, throw things shout obscenities furious. (I didn't actually, just wanted to.) After that, thank goodness, I read your blog and I calmed down. Honestly I agree with you and commend you for a well thought out and reasoned perspective on a very emotionally charged situation. I am sure it was a few days in the making and I am very sorry for the intense frustration and pain you must still be feeling sometimes, regardless of how you think you should feel.

But this got me thinking why I got so upset in the first place at the mere notion of reading an opinion that I thought different then my own? Especially since there was much there that was probably innocuous and even true. It wasn't because I was that clandestinely sure I was correct, it wasn't righteous or rational at all, it was purely emotional. It just hurt and so I was lashing out. I believe there are three reasons.

One, I am still unsure about the choices I have made and where I am at in my life. I have a plan for what I would like, but it hasn't really panned out yet and so I don't know for sure if it is possible, although I believe it is. Also I have put a great deal of thought into my current beliefs obviously and, now that I finally think I really know how I feel about a lot of things, when someone challenges those beliefs it brings back a lot of uncertainty and pain that I would rather not have again and I want to push back defensively.

Aaron said...

PART TWO
Two, I can remember when I was living under a similar construct of beliefs and the word play of "change" and "homosexual" was something I was trying to live and justify and, having now chosen a different set of views, in retrospect I feel manipulated. I feel like when I came to reparative therapy I was vulnerable and mislead by being told only one side of the story. This manipulation was not intentionally malevolent of course, and to many practitioners of "change therapy" there is only ONE real side to the story to share. But the fact that those teaching me thought they were telling the truth doesn't give me much comfort now when I feel like they only told me what they wanted me to know. The idea that they could be wrong, or that it might not be right for me was never discussed.

Aaron said...

PART THREE
Third, I feel like I know people who are still struggling to make this dichotomy of their lives work where they wish to be with a man, but wont because they believe that it is wrong. Why? Because someone is telling them it is wrong and that they can change. In these cases these people are in nothing but pain. When it is causing someone so much pain and it is rather evident that change therapy is not working for them, then I feel it is somewhat unethical for the change therapist to pile on the, "Just work harder." The implication of phrases like, "some motivated individuals have been able to make significant change" is that, you can't because you are not motivated enough. There is inherent in the idea of change therapy a superiority that is propagated where there should be an idea of, "this might be right for some people, and may be wrong for others." Of course that superiority is present because of the heavy religious influence in reparative groups where it is believed that heterosexuality is the higher moral choice. And I think it is that presumption that also causes me to lash out with anger.

Despite these three reasons, I feel like the amount of anger I have about the subject is completely irrational and actually embarrassing for me. I'd be interested to know if you have this irrational anger or if you manage to let it go fully.

Ned said...

First of all, my condolences on the loss of a loved one. I recently lost a loved one through death and it is not easy to have someone you love no longer in your life.

I participated in Evergreen many years ago, and I know individual mileage may vary considerably, but it did offer me hope. It provided some stepping stones. I am in a different place now. I am more self-accepting and more questioning of authority. I don't see any institution as offering all the answers. I think organizations, generally, are as flawed and wonderful as the human beings who are involved in them.

Granted I am still in my first "starter marriage" and in our three decades together we have faced more than a few challenges. But somehow we have been blessed with wonderful offspring and the ability to keep trying even though we are far from a perfect match.

One the other hand, I don't know of ANY marriages that are easy. Better marriages than mine have failed. Couples with greater problems than ours have succeeded. Mortality is filled with paradox and I suspect there will be plenty in the next world as well.

I do not endorse Evergreen but for me it was an available port in a storm and I'm glad I have lived to tell the tale. I wish you well on your journey. Thank you for your voice. I hope we will continue to hear your honesty, candor and questioning.
.

Lee said...

I haven't read a great deal about homosexuality, but I've read a fair number of articles, and the bottom line is that there is conflicting "evidence" for the causes of same sex attraction, and no absolute proof for either philosophy yet exists. I believe there is a strong biological component, but I also believe in the probability of psychological components. I'm convinced that reparative therapy can work for some and not for others. Maybe the ability to "change" has something to do with the strength of same sex attraction (SSA) vs that of opposite sex attraction (OSA)in individuals who have both tendancies to one extent or another. Maybe it's influenced by the strength of a person's faith and/or his/her willingness and ability to make a commitment to accept and live a hetero lifestyle (mind over matter, so-to-speak). For others, reparative therapy doesn't work even with commitment, hard work and a strong desire to succeed. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, and people on both sides, as OMO points out much more eloquently than I, should give the opposing side its due rather than villainize it.

Accepting a devastating loss with such empathy and generosity in spite of the pain is healthy. This is one of life's trials that almost all of us experience at least once in our lives, and it ultimately strengthens us.

Continue being who you are, and move ahead with strength, grace and dignity.

Original Mohomie said...

Aaron & Ned, thanks for sharing. Ned, I'm sorry to hear you lost someone. I wish you well in your mourning process. And in response to your post, do cry if you can. Sounds like you need to.

Aaron, your point #2 is one I have intended to post about. I think part of what's been so painful and difficult for me to accept is that I, who cared enough to insist (based on what he told me about what he believed, rather than what I wished he believed) he hear out the different perspectives and make his own decision, have been completely discarded in favor of the first group to insist he now close his mind to other options and listen only to them. Maybe he felt he'd finally heard enough to make such a decision, but he certainly didn't give anyone a chance to respond to their claims and perspectives before shutting us out. Those who think he's doing the right thing probably admire his conviction and commitment, so he has found a group in which he is praised and patted on the back, which feels really good and is hard to give up.

It's been really, really hard for me to know the friends I introduced him to are now his confidants and back-patters while I have been completely and utterly expelled from his life and they express their sympathy for my loss. It's a tension I've not come to terms with yet.

blj1224 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Original Mohomie said...

blj1224, I didn't make the assertions you seem to be responding to, and I'm not asking for personal problem-solving advice in this post. People's attempts to "solve" or "explain away" what I'm feeling makes me want to throw things across the room and bash walls in right now.