My second shrink, a kinder man, practiced a form of behavioral therapy, and he also seemed to believe that I was probably straight, either because I fooled him into thinking I was or because I wanted so badly to be.
After a few sessions, he made a suggestion. “You might do well by seeing a sex surrogate.” He then explained that if I got the motions right, the rest would follow.
I didn’t understand.
“You mean, you want me to have sex with a woman? And then I’ll be straight?”
“It’s not quite that simple,” he said. He went on to explain more. But I wasn’t listening well, as I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that therapy was now going to entail having sex with a woman on a regular basis. My heart sank. What if I failed? What if I couldn’t do it?
Not that I hadn’t been trying already. I’d gone to bed with a number of women. Each of them meant something to me. They were attractive, smart, funny, kind. I wasn’t sexually attracted to any of them. But I wanted so much not to be gay that I was willing to keep trying. The shrinks kept telling me that I had to do it.
Here’s how it went: When she moved to New York, a close college friend, Mary, wanted to date. I passively agreed. We saw movies, had dinners, but after pecking her on the cheek, I’d rush off. One night, however, she had me meet her in her apartment. It was a setup—candles, music, low light. We started making out, taking off clothes, and soon were in bed. I was fond of her, but I wasn’t able to get aroused, and the fumbling that took place under the sheets would have verged on comic if either of us had had a sense of humor about it. The humiliating evening was then followed by the abysmal breakfast where we both pretended nothing was wrong and wished the other weren’t there.
I’ve talked to other gay men of my generation about this scenario, as many of us tried at one point or other to have sex with the women to whom we felt closest, and most of us still feel something between shame and embarrassment for the horrible disappointments we left behind in our wake.
In my case, these women stopped talking to me. They married or moved away or were too angry. However, many reappeared in my life, including Mary, and we have become friends again. One of them, 30 years later, still tells people I am a terrible person. Maybe I was. I let them all believe that there could be sexual attraction, which I now look back on as wildly insensitive. But whenever I mentioned these affairs to my therapists, they kept telling me this was good. I was straight. Or I could be. I should keep trying. If I just could get the motions down right …
The dread that I brought to that first session with Tiger did not clear up any more than the weather. I sat down, she offered me a drink, I refused. She explained the protocol: We’d spend an hour talking, and then an hour in the bedroom, which I could see down the hall, along with the massive bed, which had all the appeal of a dentist’s chair.
I was relieved to hear that my psychiatrist and Tiger had discussed my case, so I wouldn’t have to explain my presence. I wasn’t the first man sent to her to get straightened out, she said. Before she finished the sentence, I jumped in. “Did it ever work?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “My job isn’t to change people’s sexuality. It’s to help them have good, healthy sex.”
That wasn’t the answer I wanted.
“Has any guy ever come here in my position and left straight?”
“I can’t answer that,” she said.
Tiger then asked me about my habits, my fantasies, what sex meant to me. I answered her more truthfully than I had any therapist. For the first time, I was telling my story to someone I intuitively knew had not already made up her mind as to what I was or what I should do. And she held power over me. No matter what I said or did, at some point I was going to be naked next to her, a confused novice with a sexual pro.
When the hour of chatting ended, she took my hand and led me into the bedroom. To my great relief, she wasn’t expecting me to have sex. She just wanted to see if I could masturbate in front of her. Of course I can, I thought. I must have masturbated several thousand times already. I did it without thinking. I did it half-asleep.