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The Tiger Cure

At a time when gay-conversion therapy is losing its last shred of credibility, I’d like to share some fond memories of my sex surrogate—the woman who set me free.

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With M. in New York (2007), an image from the series “Other People’s Dirty Laundry.”  

Fall 1980. Six thirty on a cold, rainy Monday evening. I’ve taken the 86th Street crosstown bus from the West Side to York Avenue, a part of New York I’d never seen before, and am looking for an old tenement building where I’m supposed to ring No. 3. I find the place and pause. I am too terrified to go any further. My hands are shaking, and a mixture of rain and sweat covers my forehead. Gathering my strength, I walk into the tiny entrance, the floor covered with Chinese-restaurant menus and grime, and stand motionless for a full minute.

No other options, I realize, so I ring the bell. Nothing happens. I’m ready to leave. But then an angry buzzing noise means the door is now unlocked, and so I open it and climb the desolate stairs up to the third floor. The door to No. 3 is closed, but she knows I’m in the building, so it’s too late to run away. I knock.

The door opens. A very attractive Asian-American woman with long, dark hair invites me inside. It’s a strange apartment, not at all like the gentrified apartments of the late seventies that I know, filled with oak furniture, antiques, and ferns. This place is all clear plastic tables, sectional furniture, showy fabrics, and stuffed tigers, in random disorder. It resembles a garage sale, except for the enormous pink dildo on a shelf.

“I’m Tiger,” the woman says. She looks about my age—mid-­twenties. I introduce myself. She asks me if I want something to drink. I’m too nervous to say yes or no, because, sometime in the next two hours, I am supposed to have sex with her, and I don’t want to, I know it won’t end well, but my psychiatrist told me I had to.

I remember the exact moment I realized that I was gay. When I was young, I knew I was attracted to my own gender but I didn’t know what that meant, or what other boys felt, or what sex was all about. My parents slept in separate rooms, and sex was never mentioned in our household (I found out later that my mother encouraged my father to have affairs to avoid going to bed with him. Once, when he was seeing a famous actress, my mother arranged to have dinner with the two of them so she could meet the celebrity.) The first time I ejaculated, fantasizing about Robert Conrad in The Wild Wild West, I had no idea what had just happened and wondered if I was the only person in the world who ever had this experience. I told no one and instead scrubbed the bed until the sheets had holes. I did not think I was gay. I thought I was messy.

Then one morning when I was a junior in high school, I woke up and thought, I’m a homosexual. I don’t know what cognitive process had transpired, how the various pieces of knowledge had fallen into place so that my subconscious announced the truth to my conscious self. But there it was, and I subsequently plunged into a spiral of depression and anxiety that has recurred sporadically throughout my life.

By the summer after my freshman year in college, I was so dejected that I snuck into my mother’s medicine cabinet and swallowed the contents of her bottle of Valium. As it turned out, ten Valiums don’t kill you. My parents found me in my room a while later, crying and drowsy, and sent me to a doctor who lived in our Manhattan apartment building. He administered an emetic, and I vomited up my mother’s stash.

Two days later, I was sitting in the office of Dr. F., a well-respected Park Avenue psychiatrist recommended by our neighbor. As I waited, I noticed a stack of Playboys on the magazine rack. Hoping to find a woman who would excite me, I picked up a copy but spotted a feature on men’s swimsuits instead. One of the models was absurdly handsome. I was about to tear the page out when the office door opened. I blushed.

Once I was inside, Dr. F., a tall, sallow man, came right to the point. Why had I attempted suicide? I told him I suspected I was gay and was miserable about it.

“Have you ever slept with a man?” he asked.

I shook my head. I was a virgin.

“Then you’re not a homosexual,” he explained.

“What about all my crushes on guys, my fantasies, my dreams?” I asked.

“If you were a homosexual, you’d be having sex with men. All the time. That’s what they do.”


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