sexuality

“Ex-Gay” as Via Negativa

"Gay," rather than being denied, becomes paradoxically privileged in the ordering of one's reality.

In his latest big reveal, Milo Yiannopoulos has now come out as “ex-gay.” I have my own cynicism-informed-by-reality views of the situation. It’s been a while since Milo has done something outrageous to get people talking about him. So the announcement is a bit overdue, in my opinion. But as someone inclined towards half-baked epiphanies myself, I’ll accept his latest as sincere.

One thing that is interesting is that it’s not clear exactly what he means by “ex-gay.” The man he had married a few years ago while still an active conservative provocateur “has been demoted to housemate.” He once said that sex between a 13-year-old boy and an adult man can be “life-affirming,” but now he counts the number of days that he has been “sodomy free.” (He shared in yesterday’s interview on LifeSite, “In the last 250 days I’ve only slipped once.”) He hasn’t shared details about any sexual interests in women, whether old or new, though he wants to “rehabilitate what the media calls ‘conversion therapy'” and says, “It does work, albeit not for everybody.”

Yiannopoulos’s last statement is one worth elaboration. Most claims about the successes “conversion therapy” are overblown or outright falsehoods. I often look to the research of Mark Yarhouse, whose respected studies on “conversion therapy” have found limited movement along some spectrums, but nothing close to claims that one can be changed from “gay to straight.” When considering homosexual and heterosexual attractions on separate spectrums, some in his studies reported a decrease in homosexual attractions, but no significant increase in heterosexual attractions were observed. The claims of “conversion therapy” success are usually based on limited self-reporting, and are often found later to be false. Pushes for “conversion therapy” have also been accompanied by anthropological ideas in conflict with those held by the Christian tradition, but these are often also overlooked.

The term “ex-gay” itself should be examined, however, not just for the ways in which it might denote a change in attractions, but also for the ways it can form dispositions and lifestyles. Those who identify as “ex-gay” tend to think of themselves as liberated from “the homosexual lifestyle” or “the gay community.” The term, however, betrays them. The term requires the opposite of what its users claim to seek.

When one identifies as “ex-gay,” one is still identifying oneself in relation to gay-ness. One does not identify with an alternative reality, but centers an identity in opposition to “gay.” When this occurs, a sort of mimetic opposition can ensue, where the spirit of the thing opposed necessarily attaches to the person claiming to act in opposition. “Ex-gay” needs gay for its existence. Because of this, “gay” can take on an elevated significance in the ordering of “ex-gay” lives, identities, and self-conceptions.

In the adoption of an “ex-gay” identity, a perverted sort of via negativa can arise. When considering God, the via negativa seeks to understand the divine by stripping away things that are not like God. We can better seek an understanding of who God is, if we can identify who God is not. But in this via negativa, God is the primary subject, and the pursuit is safeguarded by keeping attention focused on God. We can then proceed to ascend towards an understanding of God by holding on to analogies that remain after the others have been replaced. But even these analogies have limitations. While we can understand how certain things are like God, we must also recognize that the analogy does not go both ways. The sun is like God because of its brightness, but God is not like the sun. God so much transcends created reality that it does not befit God to analogize God to reality; only vice versa.

“Ex-gay” can function in a somewhat similar way, except that the stripping away of an “ex-gay” person requires that “gay” always remain in place. It is the necessary comparison point, and in some way becomes the transcendent reality, something for which one seeks analogy. “Ex-gay” enshrines “gay” as the significant category, the comparison point. “Gay,” rather than being denied, becomes paradoxically privileged in the ordering of one’s reality.

Because of this, we can recognize the oddity of the position now adopted by Yiannopoulos. In his ordering of his new “ex-gay” world, the gay community becomes the primary reality, and his own identity becomes conditioned by his relationship to it.


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

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