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.”
“But I think about it.”
“That’s not unusual. But you’re not a homosexual. I’ve never met a homosexual who hadn’t had numerous partners.”
“I’m a teenager,” I said.
“They start young,” he said. He then went on to explain the wretched perversion of homosexuality. I listened, horrified. Some of what he’d said had run through my mind, but nothing this articulate and slick had ever occurred to me. Homosexuality was sick, evil, and wrong.
Psychiatry had not always been like this. Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, did not consider homosexuality pathological, nor did he believe in conversion (homosexual to heterosexual) therapy. Freud’s clinical practice confirmed his belief that humans were born “polymorphous perverse” and that homosexuality was in large part a variation of sexual function resulting from faulty psychosexual development, i.e., it occurs when someone’s natural, bisexual disposition is not sufficiently repressed. As Freud once wrote: “Homosexuality is … nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness.”
As I unfortunately discovered throughout my early years of therapy, organized psychiatry disagreed with Freud. The first (1952) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) listed homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.” (Homosexuality wasn’t removed from the list of disorders until 1973.) A typical argument was that of the highly influential psychoanalyst Sandor Rado, whose theory of adult homosexuality—that it was a phobic avoidance of heterosexuality, often created by faulty early parenting—widely supplanted Freud’s. (Many of Rado’s followers believed that homosexual men were raised by distant fathers and smothering mothers, which was a fair description of my own family, and later gave my therapists much ammunition to prove their points.)
Given psychiatry’s brutal view of homosexuality, various forms of conversion therapies were widely practiced to “cure” homosexuals. In what I think is the best book on the subject, Gay American History, author Jonathan Ned Katz outlines many of the reparative therapies used—including hypnosis, sex hormones, therapeutic castration, aversion therapies, and even lobotomies. The surgeon best known for the last was Walter Freeman, whose modus operandi was to enter the brain through the patient’s eye socket, using an instrument resembling an ice pick. A recent article in The Advocate noted that up to 40 percent of the 3,400 lobotomies that Freeman performed were on gays. (Freeman later became notorious for botching his work on John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary, leaving her with permanent mental and physical disabilities.)
Between the thirties and the sixties, many thousands of men (and a lesser number of women) were treated for homosexuality, sometimes with devastating techniques that ruined patients’ lives. Luckily for my generation, ice picks were discarded and conversion therapy centered on methods ranging from behavioral modification and sex therapy to prayer and even exorcism and other ineffectual and sometimes downright frightening techniques.
Unluckily for everyone, conversion therapy hasn’t been eradicated. According to Wayne Besen, founder and executive director of Truth Wins Out, the organization that battles anti-gay extremism, there are no exact numbers on how many conversion therapists are practicing. They don’t advertise. But to prove many clinics exist, and that influential people are running them, Truth Wins Out led a 2011 undercover sting operation at the one headed by, of all people, Marcus Bachmann, the often-rumored-to-be not-quite-so-hetero husband of former Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann, where it turned out the patient was given clear instructions on how to change from gay to straight.
In a year of enormous gains for gay men and women, conversion therapy seems increasingly likely to be shoved into a closet for good. One of its chief proponents, Exodus International, closed earlier this year when its president, Alan Chambers, apologized to the gay community for the group’s 37 years of promoting “sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories.” As he noted, “99.9 percent” of his clients didn’t change. And because professional groups such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association contend that conversion therapy is not only ineffective but can significantly harm youth, California banned it for minors in 2012. Since then, New Jersey has followed suit, and other states, such as Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, are considering doing the same.
Back in 1970, homosexuality was still a disorder, as Dr. F. made clear to me that terrible summer. He insisted I wasn’t gay. I was just going through a phase where I was crushing on men. That would all fade. Anyway, he said, look at me. I was masculine. I loved sports. I played football with friends. It was ridiculous to think I was a pervert. Did I want to be a pervert?
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.
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.
Nothing happened. I was too nervous. I couldn’t even get mildly erect. I felt impotent and laughable. She told me to get over it.
We talked more, and I took off, leaving $125 on the coffee table. It was still raining outside. I walked to the bus stop, letting the water pour over me, cooling down my inner turmoil.
How long is this supposed to take, I asked my psychiatrist. He shook his head. There is no schedule, he said. I was disappointed. I so wanted to please him, and the world, by changing. It only now occurred to me that change might not come. I shook the thought away. It will happen. It has to.
The next sessions followed the same routine. The first hour was talk. Tiger was a good conversationalist, and we chatted easily about everything from current events to psychology, but most of all we were both avid sports fans, although she was an inveterate bettor, and I was more of a statistics freak. Sometimes I talked about work, but my job as an editor at a book-publishing company held no interest for her. “You work with a bunch of snobs, right?” she once asked. I nodded.
The second hour was sexual conditioning. To acclimate me to being with a woman, Tiger had me take off my clothes, and then hers, and I lay down on the bed next to her, where she lightly caressed my thighs, stomach, chest, then my balls and my cock. My chest was strangely numb, but my stomach, thighs, and balls were electric.
I was still having difficulty getting an erection and masturbating. I was convinced I was doing it wrong because I preferred humping the bed, the way I had learned when I was young. I expected her to find this odd.
“Odd?” she snorted. She told me that few of the men who came to see her knew how to masturbate in a way that she believed was healthy. She elaborated (she never gave out names of her clients but often told stories about them): the teacher who lay on his stomach and stroked himself with the knuckles on the back of his hand, a habit he had adopted as a child to hide the act from his parents. The jeweler who masturbated while picturing himself as a snowman as a woman drives her car into him. During winter storms, he kept his shades down to avoid a perpetual erection. Another man wouldn’t take off his clothes—he made Tiger wear surgical gloves. And another man was legally blind—he couldn’t reach orgasm until Tiger stood next to him and said “Ah.” She did, he came. His sexual fantasies involved human orifices and their sounds, like a fart, a burp, or a sneeze.
But these men were seeing Tiger for different reasons. They were trying to have healthy sex. They weren’t trying to change their sexual orientation.
On the third session, I was finally able to come, filling me with joy. It only occurred to me on the bus going home that sex with Tiger was not transferable—few women were going to welcome a man into their bed who needed an hour of conversation followed by another hour of caressing to reach orgasm.
“Small steps” was my new mantra. Small steps.
By the sixth session, Tiger decided that to familiarize me with a woman’s body, we would shower together. I took off my clothes, undressed her, and then we went into the shower. First I washed her hair. Then I lathered her body. Next I had to give her a douche. I hadn’t a clue what to do. She told me to put my finger into her vagina. I didn’t know where it was. She suggested gently that I do it by feel. I first found her clitoris, a frightening discovery—this piece of the female anatomy, something I had heard about, almost mythologically, with no more reality than a unicorn, and here it was, so foreign to my own being, so important in the world. Then, I found her vagina, and pushed my finger inside. I shut my eyes and put in the douche and let the water run in and out. Then she soaped my body all over while I shivered.
After toweling each other, we returned to the bedroom, where she lay down on the bed and told me to rub lotion over her body. She lay on her stomach, and I smoothed the cream over her back, rear, legs, stomach, breasts. Then she told me to lie down and rubbed the lotion onto my body, instructing me to fantasize.
“What about?” I asked.
“Anything that makes you hard,” she said. She then started to massage my body with her hands, again, lightly, until she started playing with my cock. Her hands caressed me in a much lighter and gentler motion than I ever did. I fantasized, I strained, I concentrated, I sweated, and, eventually, I came. It was not satisfying. Then I put on my clothes, but the bell rang before I could leave, so she asked me to hide in the bathroom. The next patient walked into the living room, and I slipped away unnoticed.
I continued to see Tiger every two weeks or so for the next few months. Reaching orgasm was now routine. But I couldn’t connect the feeling of the personal pleasure I received from the body contact, the lotion, the massaging, with sexual pleasure.
She had me try different positions. She taught me ways to masturbate that she thought were healthier (there were several instructions, including the primary rule: Do not ever use lubricants, or you’ll become overly reliant on them to reach orgasm). She worked on my fantasies: I had a tendency to think about other people; she encouraged me to include myself in my scenarios. She was still insisting I refrain from masturbating between sessions, but I didn’t have the willpower.
One evening, we got into a terrible fight over it. She called me an idiot. I said she was cruel and heartless. She said I was weak. This continued for half an hour until, again, we showered, I douched her, we went to bed, I fantasized—including myself in them—and she then told me that she would masturbate as well. I was fascinated. I knew women masturbated. I had never thought about the mechanics involved. I ended up rolling over on my side to watch. This wasn’t sexual to me. It was more like watching a nature documentary.
By the end of winter, I was becoming impatient. My psychiatrist was not very helpful: “Why do you feel impatient? What does that mean to you?”
Tiger was more empathetic.
“I wish this were going faster,” I whispered.
She looked at me, and then she took off all her clothes, rather than have me do it, pushed me onto the bed, and began to suck my cock with the kind of force my hands could barely muster. I got hard. Then she suddenly straddled me, and sat on my cock. Me inside her. The thought thrilled me. I kept pumping for a few minutes and then lost my erection.
She slipped off me and asked how I felt. I said it was good. “I think this is the night,” she said. She starting sucking again, and when I got hard, she thrust her body onto my dick, and I worked it so intensely I was sweating and panting like a long-distance runner. Then I came. I had done it! I had sex with a woman! Isn’t that what all you men wanted, all you shrinks in your reclining leather chairs in your wood-paneled offices with the beige sound machines whirring outside? Wasn’t this the goal?
From then on, over many seasons, each time I visited Tiger, we had sex. For the first few times, she was on top. Then she coached me on how to mount her, how to best insert my dick into her vagina, how to keep a woman involved. I don’t believe she ever had an orgasm—there were days when she saw five men, and I doubt she was sexually attracted to any of them or me—but she kept her feelings so remarkably private that I wouldn’t have known.
As the sex progressed, our personal relationship changed. Often we’d gossip, or play word games, like Boggle, which she generally won. But sometimes she’d lash out—telling me that she was bored and tired of me, that I wasn’t doing anything to help myself, that I was still masturbating too much, that I wasn’t including myself in my fantasies. I’d respond with a rush of anger, calling her narcissistic and uncaring. Sometimes our fights were feverish. But I never knew how serious they were, because at the end of the first hour, she always led me into the bedroom, where we would have sex. Were the fights part of the therapy? Did she mean them? I had no idea. I knew little about Tiger, although I did eventually piece together much of her background.
She fell into sex surrogacy by accident. She had been a bartender, she’d run a boutique, and she’d been a call girl. Then a friend wanted to learn how to have sex with women and wondered if Tiger could help. (Actually, one of the first things I learned about Tiger was that her name wasn’t Tiger—she never told me her real name.) She agreed, the work went well, and the friend related this to his doctor, who was Helen Singer Kaplan, one of the country’s leading authorities on sexual dysfunction. Kaplan had founded the country’s first clinic for sexual disorders connected to a medical college and served as the director of the Human Sexuality Program at New York Hospital–Cornell Medical Center.
The two women met, liked each other, and soon Kaplan agreed to train Tiger, although it was questionable who was really training whom. “I was the only one there with hands-on experience,” Tiger said. “For instance, if a guy had retarded ejaculation, Helen’s people would tell the guy to go to the bathroom and jerk off. But I said the woman should leave and the man stay, so he can learn to have an orgasm in bed. I was right, and they were wrong.”
Tiger never hid from her line of work. She gave well-publicized lectures at hospitals and colleges around the country, which led to many new clients. But although sex-surrogate therapy was widespread in the seventies, its popularity faded in the eighties with the advent of aids and issues of illicitness (it’s a highly disputed point as to whether sex surrogacy is legal). However, it’s recently been in the news again with the success of the film The Sessions, about a sex surrogate working with a polio survivor in an iron lung who desperately wants to lose his virginity. With her help, he does.
The next step, I learned to my horror, was to have sex with other women. I protested—my previous experiences with my women friends had been disastrous.
She laughed. “You’ll be seeing call girls.”
I looked blank.
“You need to have sex with professionals. You’ll start with Amanda. Next week. Instead of seeing me.”
Another week of waiting in terror. But I had no choice if I wanted to continue the therapy, so I dutifully showed up at Amanda’s fancy apartment building on the Upper West Side. In the lobby, I felt as self-conscious as a felon publicly announcing his crime, but the doorman glanced at me, yawned, and sent me up.
Amanda was a voluptuous blonde with a sweet smile and a sultry voice. We sat and talked for about fifteen minutes, then she motioned toward the bed. I tried to fake nonchalance, lying on top of her, kissing her, letting her rub her body against mine, but if a penis can be highly apprehensive, mine was. It wanted nothing to do with any of this.
Amanda was prepared—Tiger must have filled her in. “Relax,” she said. “Let me do all the work.” Which she then did, using her mouth and her hands to soften and ease every part of my body. She was talented. After about five minutes, I was able to get an erection, which the two of us treated gingerly and affectionately, as though it were a newborn baby. She then sat on top of it, I fantasized about men, and, a few minutes later, I came. Amanda seemed relieved. I had the distinct impression that Tiger had made her promise that we’d succeed. She asked me to stay for a drink, and we ended up chatting for another half an hour. I liked her. She was putting herself through school. We talked about college.
I saw Amanda many more times, reporting back to Tiger all the while. She was pleased with my progress.
Once Amanda and I had established a rapport, Tiger switched me to another call girl, Susanna, this time a doe-eyed brunette. The same routine: slinking past the doorman, finding the apartment, having a drink. Going into the bedroom. Letting Susanna do the work: caressing me, stroking me, making me feel at ease until my erection was strong enough to have sex. With Susanna, whom I saw many times, the process was becoming less daunting. She was a smart, funny woman, the kind of call girl you’d only expect to see in a movie. She suggested we take a vacation together (although I wasn’t quite sure if she meant simply that I should take her on a vacation).
I didn’t. At this point I had started seeing a woman in my nontherapeutic life and was desperately trying to make that work. I was doing better than before Tiger—I was able to get aroused, but only with enormous concentration. This relationship ended. So did the next one, and the next.
It was inexorably dawning on me that the therapy had not succeeded. Yes, I could have sex with a woman. But being able to have sex with a woman wasn’t the same thing as wanting to have sex with a woman. I didn’t. No matter how much I wanted to be straight, how much I wanted what I then considered to be a normal life, I wanted to have sex with men. Just men.
The net result of all this behavioral modification: I didn’t become a heterosexual. There is no proof whatsoever that sexual orientation can be changed, not through sex-surrogate therapy, conditioning, lobotomies, electroshock therapy, or prayer.
But the behavioral conditioning did work in one aspect: The hectoring from all the therapists who told me, over and over, that homosexuality was bad, that it was perverted, that I should do anything I could to be a straight man—that’s what rooted in me, and what I internalized as my own belief system for many years.
It was Tiger, the woman given the task of making me straight, who helped me undo all that conditioning. “You’re gay,” she finally said. “I think we know that now. It’s not that big a deal.”
I didn’t believe her—I’d spent too many years thinking it was.
“Just come out,” she insisted.
So I did, in 1986. I was 34 and living in L.A., where I had moved, or run away to, because I could never come out in New York, home to my family, my profession, and my make-believe life that was driving me back to thoughts of suicide. A friend threw me a coming-out party stocked with handsome young men. I picked one and had sex with him. We went out for a while, then we broke up, I found another boyfriend, and at last I was on my way.
I’ll never be a whole person. I don’t suppose most of us are. We start out life with the potential to be our 100 percent true self, but slowly percentages are whittled away from us by, say, a cruel parent, an unexpected death in the family, an accident, an illness, until pieces of us are missing, leaving us less than who we could truly be. Like most people, I lost part of my full self through my parents, I lost some to the natural disasters of life, I lost some through my own mistakes. But I believe it was my early therapy that took away much of my potential to be my best self—all those authority figures whom I so much wanted to please.
Tiger was the first authority figure who encouraged me to accept not just my sexuality but myself. She was also the one who taught me to disregard authority figures. We remained friends for many years afterward. When I had my first long-term relationship, I introduced her to my boyfriend, and the three of us went to a baseball game together. She and I stayed in touch for some years after that. But then, for no particular reason, because one of us forgot to return a phone call, because one summer I went away and lost contact with a lot of people, or because maybe she fell in love and had no time … we lost contact with each other. I think about her often. She had more of an effect on my life than she realized. She gave me back some of those lost percentages. I still have festering wounds that hurt, but I also have come to understand that I am gay, and that a battalion of therapists in gray cardigan sweaters armed with machines, ice picks, or prayers can do nothing to change that. Best of all, I don’t want them to.