Religious (specifically, Christian) conversion involves claiming one’s identity as a child of God, as one who is “born again.” The actual experience usually comes as the conclusion of a process of inner questioning. For some, it is an easy and natural transition to a state they now recognize others have been talking about for some time; for others, it is only reached following a lot of rebellion and inner torment – the Prodigal Son finally coming home and finding peace. In either case, the experience of conversion resolves all doubts (at least, for now) and answers all outstanding questions. It seems to provide meaning for one’s experience in such a tight fit that many things seem simply self-evident: no proof is needed, for revelation has brought one immediately to the truth, and all the steps of reasoning in between have become irrelevant.
This state of exaltation may last for quite some time. During that time, any attempts to argue with the converted about his new-found identity will be futile, since all outstanding questions are either answered or deemed irrelevant. It usually takes a good while before the converted can see the weaknesses in one’s own case; some never do.
Conversion is not a phenomenon restricted to Christianity. Any new-found enlightenment will provide a similar experience. One can be converted to another religion, to a new political ideology, to an aesthetic or philosophy, or to a sexual identity. “Falling in love” is often a conversion-type experience. Canadian military historian Gwynne Dyer, author of War, even says that boot camp – the induction program of all armed forces – is designed to produce a conversion experience: the inductee goes in a Civilian and comes out with a new identity as a Warrior.
So, the person who discovers – or constructs – or struggles to find – a sexual identity and who eventually “comes out of the closet” is in much the same case as these others. To confess “I am gay” requires a similar boldness and provokes a similar relief and wonder as to say, “I am saved” or “whaddya know, I’m a Republican,” or in the old song’s words, “Tears and fears and feeling proud/to say ‘I love you’ right out loud.” Meanwhile, the new Marine chants his bloodthirsty marching cadence and knows that he is now (at least on his best days) able to do all the impossible things that a real Marine can do – no doubt about it.
This means, of course, that if your friend’s new-found sexual identity is problematic for you, you’re probably not going to be able to talk him or her out of it, no matter what excellent arguments you have and how convincing they are to you. He or she has gone beyond argument, into the realm of the revealed. “God made me this way.” “It’s who I am.” Which doesn’t mean that he or she will forever stay that way. Conversions sometimes come undone.
Sometimes they just burn out. “It was a phase,” people say of a period of religious passion. Conversions of all kinds are very common; most people have probably had such an experience, one way or another. They don’t necessarily stay at the same level of intensity, however, and sometimes their performance is less than reliable. We call this backsliding in religious parlance. Still, they probably still claim an identity close to what they once did, even if they’re not real passionate about it. But sometimes, they convert to something else. It may be rare, but even those who are well and truly converted to A are later sometimes well and truly converted to B. People’s identities and opinions are more malleable than most people are comfortable admitting.
Gay people are notoriously hostile to this idea. Just as some theologies would say, “Once saved, always saved” (the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints), so most gay activists would say, “Once gay, always gay.” They insist that they did not become this way, still less choose this identity; they were born this way. So when someone safely ensconced in a heterosexual marriage suddenly says, “I just discovered I’m gay” and dumps one’s spouse in order to claim a new identity (and partner), they see that not as a betrayal of an important promise but as a release from a (perhaps unwitting) lie. If they have always been gay, but only just now discovered it, then of course they should be released from any commitments that get in the way of their newly-revealed identity, since the revelation trumps all.
But what happens when someone who has been very firm and vocal in one’s gay or lesbian identity decides to become heterosexual? The other gay folk can get very ugly at this point. They either smear the deserter as someone who was never truly gay – a poseur, a fraud – or as someone whose self-loathing has caused him to do violence to his own psyche. It can’t be – it just can’t be – that someone could be gay, and then undergo an experience of conversion to heterosexuality! This is the sexual version of declaring the apostate to be anathema.
But, again, people’s identities and opinions are more malleable than most people are comfortable admitting. Siegfried Sassoon was as reliably gay as one could be, right up until the time he declared he was in love with a woman, whom he married. That relationship later foundered, but Sassoon didn’t think he was wrong to switch to heterosexual love – he just thought he wasn’t much good at relationships. Then there is Anne Heche, the quondam lover of Ellen DeGeneres, now in a relationship with James Tupper.
In the same way, people who are as securely Christian as can be sometimes convert to other religions. Even the co-president of the atheistic Freedom from Religion Foundation is a former Christian evangelist. We who talk about “assurance of salvation” (Wesleyan-Arminian lingo) or “signs of grace revealed” (Calvinist-Puritan lingo) are uncomfortable with that idea, but it happens. Likewise, people sometimes have dramatic political conversions. Several of my friends and colleagues have gone from far right to far left (or the other way) in the course of their lives; I even have one friend who has gone from far left to far right and back to far left in the space of thirty years. So, it may be rare, but it does happen.
True believers of all stripes are uncomfortable with the idea of de-conversion or over-conversion because it means that their revealed truth isn’t as inevitable as they thought it was. If you’re gay, and you’ve built your whole defense and rhetoric for inclusion on the inborn nature of your sexual identity, then the idea that some people change their sexual identities means that the inborn nature of your identity is not a given anymore. Which means it could be changed, at least for some people. Which means that you really could choose to be other than you are. Which means you’re responsible for your behavior. And that means that others aren’t necessarily bigots for criticizing the behavior you say is appropriate to your sexual identity. As Admiral Ackbar said, “It’s a trap!”
Well, I don’t intend it to be, but I can see why gay people resist the idea.
Now that I look over this essay, I find it interesting how Calvinistic gay rhetoric is. I mean, I’ve seen parallels here for Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. All I need is a sexual parallel for Total Depravity and Limited Atonement and we’d have the whole TULIP! Which brings up weird memories of Tiny Tim singing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” on the Johnny Carson show. Time to quit while I’m ahead. I promise I'm done with this topic!