Hello, Dr. Olson,
I am a thirty-year–old man who only recently realized that I am gay. I come from a very, very conservative Christian background, so every sense of being attracted to other boys was shut down until recently when I met a guy who rocked me deeply to my core. I have come out to a few family members who’ve told me that Satan has found a breach in my soul and entered, and he is now trying to destroy me and my family. I am reading the Bible and praying that God can change me, but I know deep down that I don’t want it to work. Do you think that I can be changed?
First let me say that I cannot counsel you about your religion, but what I can tell you is that dealing with the conflict between religion and sexual orientation is often the most difficult issue we must confront. Fortunately, one of the advantages of growing older is that we can think for ourselves.
As we grow older, we begin to recognize that reality is not as black and white as it once seemed, and we recognize nuance and ambiguity where we didn’t see it before. Our capacity for rational thought allows us to deconstruct our old value system and reconstruct a new one based on a broader range of information and experience.
But many religions don’t allow such freedom of thought. Most religions are based on dogma, a set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. In other words, when a dogma proclaims absolutes of right or wrong, someone else has done your thinking for you. Faith groups determine religious truths from the content of their holy books; Christians look to the Bible, Jews study the Torah, and Muslims use the Qur’an, but these “truths” are often interpreted differently by different people.
When you wrote that you have been taught that same-sex attractions are because “Satan found a breach in my soul and he entered” and he’s now creating this turmoil for you, this confusion is created because of a struggle between who you believe you are and the dogma you were taught. This conflict is between who you believe you are and who someone else says that you are. But you have the power to examine this and decide whether to adopt the dogma as your personal belief. Many religions discourage this kind of independent thinking. For this reason, many LGBT people have abandoned their religion.
I was raised a Lutheran, always expected to be a Lutheran, and never questioned what I had been taught. We prayed the Apostles’ Creed, but as I matured, I began to feel I had to skip over some prayers that followed the words “I believe.” No matter how I tried, I just couldn’t make myself believe some of those words. Being unable to deal with that conflict, I withdrew from the church, but I came back to a church when I found one that said, “We don’t do dogma!” What a refreshing idea that was; I could be involved but without being told what I must believe.
Seeing as you were raised with a “very, very conservative Christian background,” I feel finding resolution to this conflict is central to resolving this anxiety you are feeling, and if you resolve it, the course you need to take will become obvious. The task is further complicated by the fact that you are surrounded by people you love who are not questioning this dogma. And even if you shed the dogma, those you care about likely will not shed it, no matter what you say to them. Then it becomes a question of whom do you satisfy: your loved ones or yourself? Therein lies the risk.
Most of us who are gay don’t feel like the abomination that others tell us we are. We feel like we are good people who just see the world a bit differently. Believing we are sinful as the dogma declares creates much of the guilt and shame about who we are. Without resolving this issue, the shame and guilt will continue to control the way you see yourself.
I cannot resolve this for you. What I can tell you is that not all religions are dominated by such rigid definitions of right and wrong, and you don’t need to give up being a Christian (or a Jew or a Muslim or any other religious follower).
Many religions will preach that they have the only truth and any departure from their dogma is sinful. They try to maintain an iron fist over your spiritual beliefs. The church I attend says “God is still speaking,” suggesting that not all truths have been revealed.
The question is whether you can step away from that belief system. It is my belief that the same-sex attractions you feel are never going to go away. You may try to bury them again as you did for the first thirty plus years of your life, but that is probably not going to happen. The struggle will continue.
You do have a choice about whether to respond to those same-sex attractions, and you may be successful in not responding to them. But you will remain tormented, and during moments of weakness and vulnerability, the struggle will be profoundly difficult.
You will probably never be completely successful in “turning off the gay,” especially now that you have experienced a new sense of authenticity that you had never experienced before.