Identity Theft

Earlier this week, I was emailing with my dad and he told me about how this last name that we share, Bilbrey, has made for some comical moments among strangers. It turned into quite the anecdote. Here’s what he wrote:

In my former career in international trade, I traveled a good deal. I recall once, upon checking into a hotel in New York City with my colleague, I was asked by the clerk, “Do you prefer Bill or William?”

Somewhat surprised by her question, I responded,“Do I prefer Bill or William who?”

“Mr. Brey, shall we call you Bill or William?”

“I’d prefer you call me Dan, since that is my name.” It was now her turn to be surprised and slightly embarrassed.

I relate this comical incident years later, as it makes this point: identities are our unique possession. We share our identity with no one else.

Consider how inappropriate it would be, upon introducing yourself to someone for the first time, if your new acquaintance should say to you, “But you don’t look like a Dan. I’m going to call you Bill.” Or, “Let me tell you how properly to say your last name, because you are mispronouncing it.” Or, “Have you considered that you may be misspelling your name, because it sure sounds different than you spell it.”

There’s nothing quite as audacious as a stranger or mere acquaintance claiming to know more about you than you yourself.

Who in this life knows you better than you know yourself? Maybe a best friend? A parent? A significant other? It’s generally only one or two trusted individuals who occupy that sacred place in your life, if anyone at all, right?

It takes years to build this kind of relationship, the kind where you can hear and take to heart statements like, “I think those are just your insecurities talking.” Or, “You’re lying to yourself about this.” Or, “This has always been a blind spot of yours.”

It’s rare–and a total treasure–to have this kind of trusted voice in your life. But that’s not to say other people don’t try to inhabit that role every once in a while, particularly if your sexual orientation or gender identity puts you in the minority. Too often in our conversations surrounding faith, gender and sexuality, we hear statements that project one’s own limited understanding and experiences onto the other. Unlike the insight of an intimately acquainted friend, these unsolicited statements come from a place of one’s own beliefs about a given issue, not a knowledge of you as an individual.

This happens on many different spheres. Within some conservative Christian circles, any identity that falls outside the bounds of cisgender (identifying as the gender one was assigned at birth) male or female, or a heterosexual orientation, is unacceptable. An outsider to that rigid narrative of what it means to experience gender and sexuality often has their story retold in a way that distorts reality in order to fit within the narrative (e.g. “Your same-sex attraction is just like any other temptation,” or “You just haven’t met the right [opposite-sex love interest] yet.”)

But even in more progressive circles, certain stated identities are often called into question. I’ve heard more than one bisexual individual, for example, recount conversations with gay or lesbian friends in which they were told to “pick a side” or “fully come out already.” The same with individuals who don’t necessarily fit into a rigid gender binary of male or female.

When we fail to recognize an individual’s agency in being able to interpret their own experience and determine their own identity, we rob them of them of their humanity. We say that what exists within someone cannot or should not exist. In the most extreme cases, we suggest that God cannot accept a person as they are. That’s not only damaging and unloving, it’s flatly untrue. We should be convinced, as the Apostle Paul was, that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ. That includes the breadth of human experience, however foreign it appears to be to our own.

 

Note: This post first appeared on Love is an Orientation, here.

Repairing Our Therapy

A few months ago I sat across the table from a guy whose eyes searched the room and voice broke when he asked me one of the most heartbreaking questions I’ve ever heard: “How do I become straight?”

Two years into my work here at The Marin Foundation, this was the first time I had heard that question pointe blank. Though the pain in his eyes was all too familiar. As the Director of Pastoral Care, I had sat at that table opposite many, many individuals who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual (LGB) or same-sex attracted. I had heard so many stories of how the forces of shame had led to brokenness, alienation and despair.

The stakes are high with these conversations. The stigma and dispute surrounding sexual orientation within the Christian community leaves churches disbarred from their denomination, families disenfranchised by their faith communities, and, of course, LGB individuals disowned by their loved ones. Studies have shown the devastating effects that this ostracization has on the community’s most vulnerable members:

These statistics are startling, though widely publicized and cited. Here’s one more that you may not have heard, one that hits close to home for me:

  • LGB individuals who received counseling services from a mental health provider were just as likely to attempt suicide as those who did not seek help. Those who received counseling services from a religious or spiritual source were actually MORE likely to attempt suicide than LGB individuals who did not seek help.

It’s hard to argue that the Church is engaging with sexual minorities well when those looking for help walk out of its doors more despairing than when they entered.

Which brings me back to this individual who walked through our doors and now sat across the table from me asking how he could become straight. This is what I told him:

Throughout the last few years of doing this work I’ve met dozens, if not hundreds, of individuals who told me some version of this story: ‘Ever since I first knew I was gay, I prayed every night and asked God to ‘cure’ me. I tried every program, followed every prescribed step, renounced every supposed ‘sin.’ I believed a version of my childhood and family that wasn’t true. I pursued an opposite-sex relationship as a kind of perverse test of faith. I acted like the poster child for change they so wanted me to be. But it was a lie. I didn’t change. I learned to bury my sexuality and hide my true identity until the day that I realized it was acid eating away at my soul. So I’m not going to pretend anymore. I’m gay.’

And over the last few years, I’ve met one person who reported that reparative therapy worked for him and that he’s no longer gay. One guy.

This heavy imbalance that I’ve experienced anecdotally aligns with what we know about the efficacy of reparative therapy programs from studies. A 2002 study found that only 3% of those who had undergone a reparative therapy program now identified as heterosexual. In recent years, most major reparative therapy or conversion therapy programs, like Exodus International, have closed their doors. Former leaders in these organizations are stepping forward in greater numbers to apologize for their involvement and fight for legislation banning the practice of so-called reorientation efforts, already condemned by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association and most other medical and social science organizations.

I watched the young man across the table wrestling with how seriously to take this information and whether to give himself over to what was clearly a mounting sense of hopelessness. Was I yet another pastoral care provider who left people more despairing than when they came?Was this conversation leaving him more likely to attempt suicide?

“I want to suggest something kind of bold, and I hope it’s ok,” I said.

He nodded.

“I don’t think ‘how do I become straight?’ is your real question. I think the question behind that question is ‘Am I acceptable?.’ And the answer is yes. The answer is always yes. You’re absolutely, unequivocally worthy of love. Whether in the end you pursue a same-sex relationship, anopposite-sex relationship or no relationship, I stand with you and beside you. So does The Marin Foundation. And everything I read in the Gospels tells me, so does God. You’re fearfully and wonderfully made, in his own image. And nothing in all creation can separate you from his love. I believe that quite firmly.”

Our conversation ended shortly after that. I haven’t heard from him since. But I trust that he’s finding his way.


 

Note: This post first appeared on Love is an Orientation, here.

Empathy Can Backfire

I spend a lot of my day championing empathy. At the intersection of sexual orientation, gender identity and faith, where we at The Marin Foundation operate, I frequently hear myself saying things like,

“Just imagine having the body of someone who’s not your gender. That’s what your friend may likely be experiencing.”

Or,

“You didn’t come to peace with your sexual orientation overnight, so your parents will probably need the same kind of space to process this new reality.”

Or,

“Your husband grew up hearing this promising narrative that marrying a woman would cure his unwanted same-sex attraction. You have every right to feel hurt and deceived--and so does he.”

It sounds trite, but empathy really is the cornerstone of fruitful conversation. In practicing empathy, you take the hurt, fear and anger of the other seriously. You take a risk also. Empathy, in the context of what is often termed a “culture war,” can feel like you’re lowering your defenses and ceding ground. You stop seeing the other as the enemy and start seeing them as a fellow human. Empathy restores humanity.

But this blog post isn’t about the merits of empathy.

Empathy can backfire. It can have the unintended, reverse effect of being unhelpful, disconnecting and dehumanizing. This is misguided empathy, as we teach in the Culture War Curriculum:

Often our best intentions of trying to connect cause us to say things that minimize or trivialize what makes the other person different. This tends to have the opposite effect of what we intended (i.e., it makes people feel less heard and understood). This is especially problematic when someone from the majority diminishes the experiences of someone from the minority.

Some examples:

  • “Your desire to sleep with other men is no different from my temptation to cheat on my wife.” Comparing a same-sex relationship to whatever other actions one finds objectionable might come from a place of genuinely wanting to relate or be consistent in one’s ethical code, but those comparisons tend to overlook the ways lesbian, gay and bisexual experience is unique. Not to mention, it reduces that individuals orientation down to sex. In general, using your knowledge of LGBTQ issues to understand an LGBTQ individual is dangerous because your knowledge may be wrong or reductive of this person's experience.

 

  • “I know what you’re going through. I questioned my faith when my son came out to me too.” I’ve written previously about the experience of parents in the wake of a child coming out as LGBTQ. Yes, many parents do describe it as a sort of grief process, but no one experience is prescriptive. Emotional highs and lows, questions of faith, relationship journeys all differ widely between families. As helpful as it is to connect with other parents of LGBTQ children, there isn’t any blueprint for finding peace.

It’s incredibly important to be able to recognize that people react to experiences with the same fears, insecurities, hopes and desires as we do. That’s empathy. But it’s equally important that we recognize and respect that those reactions and experiences are, on the whole, entirely unique to them. It’s not helpful to compare.

In these misguided attempts to empathize, I think we make the mistake of trying to understand and address the issue more than the individual affected by it. We risk making a parody of the other when we stop seeing them as individuals and instead project our own understanding of the issue onto their story.

It may be well-intentioned. It may ultimately lead to deeper connection or understanding. But in the end, it’s a twisted form of empathy that seeks to reinforce one’s own perspective, not learn from the other’s.

 

Note: This post originally appeared on Love is an Orientation here.