I then went two full days and nights without masturbating. The third night, I gave up. But it did make me think: If I don’t have sex with men, I’m not gay. So, I decided, I better not have sex with men. That should make Dr. F. happy. And prove I’m not a pervert.
In retrospect, all I ever got from Dr. F., besides more fear and self-hatred, was that ad with the male model, which I tore out on my last visit. I still have it.
That spring, back at school, feeling suicidally depressed but still determined to be straight, I went to the Stanford University Medical Center and asked to see a therapist. Soon I was talking to Dr. K., a sweaty, overweight man with an unruly mop of dark hair. I supplied him with some of the details given to Dr. F.
“I don’t think you’re gay,” he said. He then went through the same litany as Dr. F.—he didn’t believe I was a pervert, he just felt I was lost and confused and needed to be set on the right path. Dr. K. believed in behavioral modification. He told me to place a rubber band around my wrist. Every time I had “gay thoughts,” I was to snap the rubber band, causing pain. Eventually I would associate the thoughts with the pain.
Imagine a 20-year-old gay surrounded by a campus filled with handsome young California boys. Imagine him not having gay thoughts. After all the snapping, my wrist hurt so much that when the third rubber band broke, I decided not to replace it.
During my junior year, I left the campus to study overseas, where I had sex for the first time with an older man. It was clumsy, and both of us told the other we weren’t gay. We continued to have sex on and off, but neither of us really wanted to. He was engaged to a woman, and I was convinced I wasn’t gay, so why would I have sex with a man when I was simply confused, lost, and waiting for my heterosexuality to affirm itself?
In 1973, I returned to the East Coast to get a Ph.D. in English, and promptly checked in at the university medical center. There I met the preternaturally thin Dr. T.
Once more, the same story. “You’re not gay,” Dr. T. said. He had another litany of reasons, but what I really picked up from him was his own abject horror of homosexuality. This was 1973, the year that the new edition of the DSM declassified homosexuality as a disorder. Dr. T. wasn’t onboard with the change.
“Homosexuality is a crippling mental disorder,” Dr. T. told me. “But it’s more than that. It destroys a person’s life. Imagine going through life knowing that the most basic act of a human being, sexual intercourse, is something you can never do right.” The narrow features on his face contorted as he talked.
This is a paraphrase of his comments, because at this point it became almost impossible for me to pay attention as my level of fear skyrocketed. I had two choices in life: become straight or become a pervert.
So I lied to him. He asked me about my feelings toward women. I wasn’t going to tell him that I didn’t have many, for that would make me a homosexual. I told him that they were there; I just had a hard time finding them. Or something like that. When you’re a closeted gay, the truth is hard to tell from fiction because you’re never honest with anyone. There was no reason to treat a shrink differently.
In psychology, the term internalization refers to the process of adapting as your own the values and attitudes of other people, especially those who have a powerful influence over your life. For children, that usually means their parents. For the vulnerable and frightened, it can mean anyone. All these therapists I had consulted were authority figures who shared a unified vision of homosexuality, the world, and me. I wanted desperately to join them, to cross some invisible border and stand alongside their team, joyous, fulfilled, sane.
Miserably unhappy, at the end of the year I left graduate school and sought out the same refuge so many other gay men of my era found: I joined the Peace Corps. Two years in Africa did a world of good for me in terms of growing up, although I’m not sure it did much good for Africa. When my term was over, I decided to return to America and try again. In 1976, I was in Manhattan, working as an editorial assistant in book publishing, still determined to put a stop to my gay thoughts. The DSM’s reversal on homosexuality was now three years old, but it didn’t pervade the profession (40 percent of the APA had voted to keep homosexuality a disorder). My new shrink was so virulently homophobic that it was too much to bear.