Peter Gajdics is the author of The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir. He can be found in Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads. Here we plumb the depths – as the cliché goes – about conversion therapy, his life and experience, and book.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: As you struggled with the identification of your homosexuality as something deviant in your 20s, how did you feel? How did others feel about you - loved ones, friends, colleagues, and strangers.
Peter Gajdics: It’s true that in my 20’s, even before then, I struggled with the sense that I was somehow “deviant.” Popular culture throughout that time, the late 1960’s through to the 1980’s, reinforced this belief not only in what it said about homosexuality but in what it did not say. Silence produces its own variant shame, and the invisibility of gays in popular culture throughout my formative years—except, as I say, when homosexuality was presented as deviant and homosexuals as terribly unhappy and suicidal—imbued in me a kind of shame, or negative self-image. I experienced shame as a sort of dirtiness within my very being, my soul, which could never be washed away. This “dirtiness” or unworthiness manifested in eating disorders, for example. I think this is why we often see images, say in films or books, of people who’ve been sexually violated taking a shower immediately after the attack, because the trauma of rape and sexual violence penetrates through to a person’s core self and leaves them feeling disgraced, and violated, “dirtied” in some fundamental way. In my 20’s, I also experienced enormous rage, because the flip side of shame is often outrage. On some level, intuitively we know that shame is unnatural, not part of who we were meant to be, so our systems fight to exorcise it from our beings, just as our immune systems fight to heal us from the invasion of disease. Neither side, the shame and its opposite, is balanced, but I think the rage is at least an attempt at healing. Rage first propelled me into writing about my own experiences in the “conversion therapy,” but rage is not a sustaining force in any person’s life. Eventually, rage will turn on itself and become counterproductive.
As far as how “others” felt about me back then—I can only say that some friends were incredibly accepting of me as a gay person in my 20’s, and yet the shame and self-loathing within me persevered. I had great difficulty accepting who I was, largely because of the lie that I’d been raised to believe, which said the sexual abuse from my childhood had “created” my homosexuality. I could not find my way out of that lie, no matter how hard I tried, because the fact was I had been sexuality abused, and I was, now, homosexual. The two issues intermingled in my mind, just as the shame of sexual abuse and the shame, especially back then, of being gay, intermingled and coexisted. I could not tell one from the other. I grew up hearing my church condemn homosexuals, and that kind of hatred was parroted through my family, each time like hammering a nail into my heart. Ultimately, my own identification as a “deviant” was something I had to unlearn, just as a knot done up must absolutely be undone. I think the “problem” for many is that they don’t even see these “knots” because culture or religion still reinforces many of them as truth. If your whole community tells you that a lie is truth, how will you ever learn the difference? Knots like these strangle the life out of people, and must be undone.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How do you build fortitude in your sense of self and personal sexuality?
Peter Gajdics: The question of fortitude, I think, extends far beyond a person’s sexuality, or perhaps is inclusive of one’s sexuality in as much as we are first and foremost sexual beings. The nature of character, and personality, and a stern belief in who we are as individuals, is not really something that anyone can give us—we have to develop those things within ourselves. Building this kind of fortitude has something to do with resilience, and introspection, humility, using our hardships as life lessons in our fight to become more ourselves, even distancing ourselves from the noise of popular culture long enough to find our own voice, instead of just constantly pushing back against other voices. Forgiveness is instrumental to this development, because I think we are always being called on to forgive ourselves for not living up to our ideals, and then of course to forgive others. We forgive to set ourselves free, never to condone anyone else’s behavior. Without forgiveness we are always trapped in the past, treading upstream. Anger at being violated is reflexive, but I think that if we get blocked by or imprisoned in these kinds of reflexive emotions, like anger or revenge, we are never going to progress; rather, negative emotions like these are meant to move us to the next step, not lock us into their malevolence. The question of fortitude has a lot to do with a life well lived, but what does that mean, really? We are all, all of us, making mistakes and saying and doing things we later regret, but I think that recognizing the humanity in our endeavours also helps us build this very fortitude.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What have been the damages of conversion therapy to scores of homosexual over time?
Peter Gajdics: When we talk about the damage inflicted on scores of people as a result of this thing called “conversion therapy,” I think it’s important to remember that these “therapies” occur across a spectrum of treatments aimed at making a gay person “not themselves,” and that these kinds of attacks long pre-date the 20th century. Even before gays were called homosexual, which is still only a relatively recent phenomena, there were always people who experienced same-sex attractions, and those people also faced alienation and isolation; sometimes they were forced to live out their lives not as themselves but as the society dictated, which has been typically driven by opposite-sex pairing and desire. Of course, at different times in history, same-sex desire also has been celebrated, but the point is “conversion therapy” is a latter 20th century invention, and the persecution of people that we call gay today is not limited to the 20th century.
In terms of actual “damage”—I am not sure we can ever quantify the pain and lost lives that have resulted from these sorts of bigotry and hatred. How do we quantify this kind of “damage”? People end up killing themselves because of familial rejection, ostracism from their religion, hate crimes perpetrated by others as a result of misinformation about what it means to be gay or homosexual. This kind of “damage” is too enormous, I think, to quantify. Besides, long before anyone ever attempts suicide, many of these “therapies” can result in a person ending up living out the rest of their lives in a state of complete despair, a shell of their former self. “Shell shocked” is how I’d describe myself after my own six years in the “therapy,” and I think it’s often similar for a lot of survivors. Thankfully, I began to heal, but not without great effort.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Have there been any positives to come out of this conversion therapy movement in your opinion, even ironic or unexpected ones?
Peter Gajdics: Obviously, I would never advocate or endorse anything remotely close to “conversion therapy”. That said, one thing that often does happen during or even after these kinds of “therapies” is a sort of forced “disidentification,” to borrow language from writer Eckhart Tolle, with mainstream sexual identity. Conversion therapy—the act of stepping outside one’s sexuality and becoming more the observer, then attempting to become “the other”—this very act often forces a person outside of mainstream sexual identity, in this case, gay sexual identity, much in the same way that gays were historically forced outside of whole societies. Forced alienation and isolation like this can produce enormous distress; at the same time, an over identification with the culture of one’s “sexual orientation,” I think, is also largely ego-driven and can end up producing more of an obstacle than a vehicle toward ultimate freedom, because in attempting to be more of ourselves, which is always the goal of “coming out” and declaring one’s homosexuality, we often become trapped in the illusion of a subculture. We leave the closet only to enter an even larger one, known as our “sexual identity.” I’m not sure this is as big of a problem for those identifying as heterosexual, rather than gay, simply because straight people are the normative and so to them their culture is largely invisible—they don’t necessarily over identify with any of it. For gays, however, because we have in effect forced our way into visibility, the unfortunate tendency is to then over identify with our newfound visible culture, in effect to “become” what is largely an illusion. Conversion therapy has the potential to basically disrupt this over identification, and in a backhanded or “accidental” way to create an emotional and mental space within a person that can then present an opportunity to replace an ego-focussed lifestyle with something much deeper and resonant, call it spiritual, or closer to our essence. Again, I would never advocate the use of conversion therapy, I’m not even saying that this “forced interruption” that results from these therapies produces anything beneficial, but for me at least, this has been one positive outcome—but one that has been hard-earned.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Where does the demonizing and reasoning behind killing homosexuals, especially gay men, source itself?
Peter Gajdics: I think that this demonization of gays can be largely attributed to the forced or unnatural medicalization and moralization of homosexuality. Nothing much is new about any of this, since these kinds of judgments have been occurring for centuries, but I do think that specific events in the 20th century alone, as progressive as many have been for gay liberation, have also produced extreme trauma to scores of homosexual people. Psychiatry, as just one example, and its pathologizing of homosexuality as an illness in need of a “cure,” caused in some cases irreparable harm. Trauma like this does not end after a few decades; it can take generations for this kind of venom and lie to weed itself out of a culture. Attacks against gay men in particular, I think, can be correlated to great distress and confusion around gender, the nature of what it means to be a “man” in our culture, which homosexuality seems to provoke in many straight men. For many men still living today, homosexuality represents all that is vile about a loss of manhood—submission, sensitivity, gender variance. Images such as these can become overwhelming to some men (who in many cases may actually be closeted homosexuals), and the instinct to eradicate “the other”—to physically kill them—predominates. We are often scared of “the other”—this is what xenophobia is all about. I think that many hate crimes are committed in the name of these kinds of lies, and fear. The degree by which we could say that gay liberation has succeeded, and continues succeeding, can be directly attributed to the severity of how bad it became for gay people everywhere. But I do not think the war is over; lies, fear and shame are all shapeshifters. Gay people everywhere, each and every one of them, need to speak their own truth—not just collectively, as “a people,” but each person as their own individual. Truth is on each person’s side.