Philosopher Unsure If The True Self Is Gay

If there’s one news story that it seems like we’ll be able to rely on until the end of time, it’s that of the “evangelical Christian/religious conservative who is secretly gay.” Just a few quick examples, off the top of the internet’s head:


+ Ted Haggard, anti-gay evangelical pastor

+ George Rekers, anti-gay Baptist minister

+ John Paulk, head of the ex-gay movement, fired from Exodus International after continuing to meet men at bars

+ Reverend Dr. Lonnie Latham, senior pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church, arrested for propositioning a plainclothes officer

+ Matthew C. Manning, who became un-gay in 1989 but has been arrested for public sex at least three times since ’98

+ Roy Ashburn, who came out after being caught in a gay bar despite his decidedly anti-gay voting record

And there are plenty more. Need to hear more? There’s plenty where that came from.

There’s a pretty standard party line on these kinds of stories. You have the otherwise uberprivileged middle-class (usually) white male who, conflicted between a sexuality he didn’t ask for and a faith he was born into (or that makes him a lot of money) (or just plain fear). Unable to reconcile the two, he chooses to attack the gay community and, by association, his own identity. It’s a sad story of trying to deny who you really are because of what you’re told you have to be. Or is it?

Joshua Knobe writes about the story of Mark Pierpont, who fits pretty much all of the criteria described above. He was a key figure in the evangelical Christian movement to ‘cure’ homosexuality, a prominent ex-gay himself. He continued his commitment to the movement despite the fact that he was aware his desire for other men had never really gone away, and he had to constantly struggle to try to suppress them. In the end, he stopped trying; today, Pierpont is a member of the “ex-ex gay” movement. He was even featured in a 2006 documentary, Protagonist, about “obsessive need for control” and giving it up. So, this story has a happy ending: Pierpont was ultimately able to acknowledge who he really was, and can now live an honest and genuine life.

Knobe thinks it’s more complicated, though. In an uncharacteristically philosophical take on the question of sexual orientation, he asks: is being gay really any more “authentic” than being religious?

One person might look at his predicament and say: “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden.  If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”

But then another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion: “Fundamentally, Pierpont is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values.  If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what was is most essential to the person he really is.”

Or, put another way, the question is this: ultimately, is the person we really are about the way we’re born, or the choices we make? For most people with some level of common sense and awareness, it’s understood that sexual orientation is relatively innate from birth or at least early on, while religious affiliation is a choice. But especially in America, where the ex-gay movement thrives and where making choices about your own destiny is a foundational national principle, it’s perhaps a worthwhile question to ask. Is it fair for us to decide that we as a culture know who someone ‘really is’ because of who they want to sleep with, if they’ve spent their whole life pursuing a totally different life?

There’s a lot of talk about the animosity of the conservative Christian community towards the gay community, and for good reason. Conservative Christians (especially Mormons) are one of the most socially and politically powerful groups in America, and our entire national history has been testament to how effectively they’re able to use the political process to work for their religiously based values in what is technically a secular country. But this has a countereffect; the animosity of the gay community towards Christians. For those in Mark Pierpont’s position, people who can no longer deny their sexual orientation but have a genuine sense of faith and devotion to a culture they grew up in, it can feel very much like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Which to throw in your lot with, the group that promises to love you like family as long as you never let down your guard against your slightly-extra-sinful nature, or the group that might accept you as one of their own but may never give up their derision of your faith? It’s not that queers don’t have good reason to be mistrustful and angry at the religious establishment, but gay Christians, even those who are willing to accept their sexual orientation, also have good reason to feel like the two might be mutually exclusive. When choosing either means giving up something that you truly feel is basic to your nature, the line between which one is the “real you” is pretty justifiably blurry.

It’s a complicated issue, and Knobe chooses to untangle it with politics. In an effort at “experimental philosophy,” they spoke with a sample of 200 people, along a wide political spectrum. Some identified as liberal, some as conservative; all were given anecdotal examples of  human behavior and choices, and asked to identify which represented the person’s “true self.” For instance: “Ralph used to make a lot of money and prioritized his financial success above all else. However, now Ralph works in a job where he does not make a lot of money and benefits others. How much do you agree with the following statement? At his very essence, there was always something deep within Ralph, calling him to stop prioritizing his financial success above all else, and then this true self emerged.”

The result? The answers split pretty neatly along political lines. Liberals tended to believe that the more socially liberal actions (deciding to make less money and help others) were when people were being true to themselves, and conservatives tended to believe that socially conservative actions (renouncing homosexuality) were more authentic. So! That solves the case, no? Everyone thinks they’re right, in philosophy as everywhere else in the world.

Maybe that’s true; maybe what matters are our opinions more than our choices or our biology. But while I may be biased, I can’t help but think that the long, long history of blood and tears that defines being gay in America (and also that of religion, if we’re being honest) that this is a little more complicated than elephants and donkeys. Maybe it’s not very sound experimental psychology, but I have to wonder: has anyone ever questioned whether being straight was their “true self?” Not to be overly simplistic, but I feel like if the issue at hand were the conflict between being heterosexual and being, say, a theater major or a rugby player, the answer to this question would suddenly seem a lot clearer.

Or, to put it another way, there’s Mark Pierpont, who now says of himself: “It took years of painful struggle, but I have learned: You may be able to change your behavior. You might even be able to valiantly gain control over your thoughts. But you can never change who you really are.”

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. “For most people with some level of common sense and awareness, it’s understood that sexual orientation is relatively innate from birth or at least early on, while religious affiliation is a choice.”

    I would say that religious beliefs can be pretty solid and non-choice based too – from what I’ve seen there’s little choice about it for most people. For me it’s impossible for me to see any rationale to it, and just start believing in something that is to me akin to fairies. I can see why it’d be nicer in some ways to believe in an after-life/purpose-for-humans etc, but I can’t chose that. Similarly religious people seem to be wired up differently (although upbringing definitely plays a part in that – eg wrt to which religion they take on)

    I have no idea how much sexual orientation is determined by genetics or environment, and why it can change through-out life, but that’s really a question for scientific research.

    I’m not altogether sure that it matters though, whether someone does something because it’s “predestined” (as genetics/born-with-it implies) or choice. The action is still the thing that’s wrong, right or neither. I guess if someone knows that something they’re doing is wrong then that makes them morally worse off than someone who’s unaware.

    Gee this is a ramble

  2. Rachel, you summed up my feelings on this in the second to last paragraph. I tried to expand on them, but its not coming out right.

    • Yup. Religion is based on so many arbitrary ideas that it seems ridiculous to claim that a person is hard-wired or pre-disposed for that specific religion, or at least have equally weighted merit as being biologically pre-disposed towards a non-conforming sexual orientation. If that were the case, then no conservative and/or religious people would be gay. You can take the Jesus out of a Christian, but you can’t take out the gay.

      Different tangent: I think to further expand on the question, you’d have to ask if being a homosexual (or someone who is attracted to the same-sex) is the same thing as being gay (the cultural identity that acknowledges same-sex relations), and whether or not it matters. We shouldn’t dwindle down our personal attributes to only biological characteristics. Most people certainly don’t consider being “straight” their most defining trait, so why should we on the flip-side?

    • everything is a social construct, actually.

      that doesn’t mean that there isn’t underlying biology/physiology/whathaveyou that we inscribe those constructions upon, but gay IDENTITY is not automatically more “authentic” than any other kind of socially constructed kind of identity because it’s grounded in your own body rather than being the outgrowth of thousands of years of tradition.

      even if you think that’s bullshit (and like, fair enough, most people do), telling people that they have to choose between their religious and sexual identities is, like, a pretty bold thing to say, and that choice can drive people to the edge of suicide, so you should probably think about that issue with a little more scrutiny than you did just there before you make such blatant existential claims.

      • All due respect but identity (in the sense I think you’re referring to) is a metaphysical state of being. One’s identity is not something that one BELIEVES in, it is simply something they ARE. Religion on the other hand is a set of beliefs like being a liberal or a dog lover etc. These kinds of social constructs of identity are not the same as the metaphysical definition of “I am.” What it means to “be you” is another thing altogether from having a set of beliefs, whether ingrained due to society or not. In other words, what someone VALUES is not the same as what/who someone IS. You can argue whether or not being gay or straight comprises “I am” or “I value” but it’s important to acknowledge the distinction.

        • um, no, i don’t think that distinction actually applies. do you feel differently about being gay/queer (assuming you are) NOW than you did when you first realized you were gay/queer? of course you do, because identity is not actually an abstract metaphysical “are-you-or-aren’t-you” thing; identity is what you BELIEVE about who you are, which is influenced ENORMOUSLY by your social setting in a way you’re really not acknowledging.

          on the flip side, christians don’t see christianity as just something they believe, but as something that they are and do. that is why baptism is so important. if you’re not religious, obviously you can say that’s bull, but you’re not going to convince anyone by defining the social construction of religion in a way radically different from the way that believers see it.

          • Mk I was just quoting the metaphysical facts (which haven’t been proven or disproven but that notion of identity is in fact widely accepted). Anyhoo, enjoy your beliefs.

          • yep, that notion of identity is pretty much what i was taking issue with.


          • Ohhhhhh as in “identity” precludes language, logical systems and beliefs etc.? My bad, I misinterpreted your starting point. Yep I’m with you there, postmodernism FTW :P

        • “You can argue whether or not being gay or straight comprises “I am” or “I value” but it’s important to acknowledge the distinction.”

          Historically speaking, homosexuality as “I am” is a very recent phenomenon. In the past, people didn’t define themselves so stringently on their sexual-object choice. There was same-sex behavior rather than same-sex identity, for the most part. That’s the problem with saying that sexuality is a biological fact, rather than socially constructed. It’s both.

          As far as the question at hand goes, well… I’m an atheist, but I do think religion could be fundamental to some people’s identities. Beliefs may change and evolve over time, but the core kernel of faith could be an identity issue. It seems to me the answer here should be encouraging religious people to rethink their standpoints on religion, rather than advocating religion be abolished because it’s nothing more than a “choice.” Religion has been responsible for a lot of bad, but also for a lot of good (the US Civil Rights movement, liberation theology, etc).

          • That behavior vs. identity thing is also one that needs to be acknowledged when dealing with Christian conservative attitudes about LGBT people. Most of them still see it as an issue of behavior, not identity. For example, most ex-gay ministries now claim they can’t change sexual orientation, they just encourage people to not *engage* in it. And then there’s the whole idea of “hate the sin but love the sinner,” where people say “I’m not homophobic, I just don’t like the lifestyle.” Translation: “I’m fine with the idea of a girl being attracted to girls, just not girls having sex with other girls.”

            After all, the Bible itself was written at a time when people still thought of it as behavior, not identity, and the specific verses that people cite when justifying their homophobia have to do with action. It’s all “A man shall not lay with another man as with a woman” not “No homos.”

          • ‘It’s all “A man shall not lay with another man as with a woman” not “No homos.”’

            Hmm. I’ve read in a couple of places that it’s all about the translation. Apparently, in the original it actually says: “A man shall not lie with a *male prostitute* as with a woman” (where ‘male prostitute’ is implicitly understood to mean ‘male *temple* prostitute’). This reading would make it an injunction against a particular pagan religious practice rather than an issue of personal morality. I can’t find the references right now, I’m afraid, but couldn’t swear to how reputable they were in any case.

          • Forgot to say: I totally agree with your point about it being thought of as behaviour rather than identity. In several ancient cultures, nobody cared too much about same-sex activity per se: it was a disgrace if people failed to reproduce (fulfill their duty to the family) as a result, or when it was with ‘forbidden’ classes of people (e.g. when a Roman citizen was the ‘receptive’ partner in anal sex, which upset Roman notions of ‘manhood’).

    • An easy mistake to make but not quite accurate. Humans are biologically “wired” to be religious or have some capacity for faith. Most people anyway, as there are obviously exceptions to the rule (for example, myself). Studies have also shown a strong genetic link in religious behaviour. So, while you’re maybe not born “Evangelical Christian” the way some people feel they’re born gay, they’re still born with the capacity and tendency to have a strict faith that gives them guidance.

      • I wasn’t referring to faith but to dogmas like religion as a particular set of beliefs. Politics is another example. Faith is what allows people to engage in a certain religion (whether that’s Christianity or veganism or believing in the Rapture lol) but religion is merely an outline/structure of rules and values which require one’s personal faith in order to commit to it. Faith is not necessarily a part of religion but (as you said) it is a part of the person intending to adopt that religion. Perhaps you mistook me for speaking f religion in the sense of the whole experience (beliefs + faith + imposed values)?

      • “Studies have also shown a strong genetic link in religious behaviour.”

        As far as I know, there haven’t been many studies. Dean Hamer wrote a popular book that suggested that his findings were much stronger than they actually are. His data basically says “MAYBE THERE IS A GENE I DUNNO” and Hamer himself says “YOU GUYS A ‘MAYBE’ IS BASICALLY THE SAME AS ‘ABSOLUTELY.”

        Just FYI.

        • “‘Studies have also shown a strong genetic link in religious behaviour'”

          I don’t doubt that one bit. Thing is, there is a strong genetic link to being gay, there’s also a strong genetic link to having mental illness.

          You can be gay AND mentally ill AND religious, or none of those, or any combination of the three traits. They are not mutually exclusive.

          Also, I do think that religion is much more of a social construct than being gay, genetic predisposition or no. After all, you can observe gay animals in the wild and in captivity, whereas you cannot observe religious behaviors in animals.

          …Then again, perhaps we just can’t see it, since we aren’t of the same species and can’t fully communicate with them. Maybe that’s what all the poop-flinging’s really about.

        • Oh, for clarification, I didn’t mean to suggest that being religious is more or less “innate” than being gay. The research on homogays and genetics has been just as nebulous with that hopeful “WELL MAYBE” attached to it (Mustanski et al, 2005). Talking about genes and identity is basically unproductive.

      • To be fair, though, this isn’t quite the same as using the “born this way” thing with gay people, since studies just show orientation toward religion/spirituality in general, not a specific religion. So picking a homophobic faith or subset of one (as is the case with homophobic Christians), over a more welcoming faith, is still a choice.

    • Haven’t you heard? It’s definitely the chicken. Hens produce a protein in their ovaries necessary for the formation of eggshells.

      • but where did those hens come from, huh huh?

        no but really it all depends on your definition of ‘chicken’ and ‘egg’

        • Yeah, if you’re talking eggs in general, those obviously came first, since there were other egg-laying beings long before there were birds.

          If you’re talking chicken eggs specifically, then it’s chicken first.

          The stupidest answer came when my dad the pastor posed this question as part of a children’s sermon about paradoxes, and some dumbshit fundie guy in the congregation who is at about a child’s level of understanding the world himself answered with “Chicken, because God created all the animals.” I think everyone in the room did a mass facepalm.

  3. I think that people try to fit the mold that society tries to put out for them. It’s just the human nature of trying to belong; and where do you get your fist taste of that, at home. Then as we grow up and start do discover more we start giving shape to how we see the world (it’s not the stuff our parents are telling us about, but what we experience) and other people.
    It take your exposure and reaction to different situation to mold you into the person you are. Nature and nurture go hand in hand, but ultimately it is our choice of what life we live. Sort of a “we create our own happiness” thing.

    • also the way genes work is sort of like a percentage booster. like one guy may have a gene that makes him much more likely to cheat than the person sitting in front of him. does that mean he will definetly do it? not really, he could have more self restraint than the other person

      alright im stopping there too early for a biology lesson

  4. This is really excellent Rachel. Thank you for always writing such intelligent things.

  5. Well, Dumbledore once said: ‘It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are’ but then again he was gay, so…

  6. To me the answer can be found if you look at which one requires the philosophical journey.

    Coming out as gay is a largely a philosophical journey, as it requires internal and external rejection of the status quo: you see the straight people as dominant paradigm when you’re a child, then at whatever age you have a spark of realization that you are against the grain on this one, you differ from that paradigm, and then you go through the various stages of coming out to yourself (denial is often one of these) and others, etc. And even when we get here, in a space of homogay acceptance, we are told: go with the flow, you do you, sexuality is fluid, etc. This is a constantly changing notion of the self, which instead of serving to alienate, serves to liberate.

    On the flip side, I do not see the same markers of philosophical journey/development. With the exception of religious conversion, I wouldn’t say it’s a generalization to posit that the large majority of people (particularly the Christian sort of people discussed in the article) are exposed to religious dogma and exegeses at a very young age, and instead of being objectively examined and then either rejected or assimilated into the worldview, it simply slips under the radar as something that -must- be admitted, something so sacrosanct, and truthful, as to be unquestionable. Whenever you’re not asking questions, you’re not on a philosophical journey. It bears repeating: whenever you’re not asking questions, you’re not on a philosophical journey. And if you’re not on a journey, you’re like a rock in the middle of the road, unopen to change. You clearly think you have all the answers; there is no room for flexibility… You have to tick all the boxes or you’re a bad person, etc.

    Last year I read M. Scott Peck’s Choosing a Map for Life from his book Road Less Traveled (1978), and it made sense to me, a lot of sense indeed. A particularly insightful excerpt:

    “What happens when one has striven long and hard to develop a working view of the world, a seemingly useful, workable map, and then is confronted with new information suggesting that that view is wrong and the map needs to be largely redrawn? The painful effort required seems frightening, almost overwhelming. What we do more often than not, and usually unconsciously, is to ignore the new information. Often this act of ignoring is much more than passive. We may denounce the new information as false, dangerous, heretical, the work of the devil. We may actually crusade against it, and even attempt to manipulate the world so as to make it conform to our view of reality. Rather than try to change the map, an individual may try to destroy the new reality. Sadly, such a person may expend much more energy ultimately in defending an outmoded view of the world than would have been required to revise and correct it in the first place.” The rest can be found here (really worth it imo)

    • interesting… why are identities that are formed in opposition to the status quo more “true” than others?

      i think most religious people would take issue with the idea that faith is not a philosophical journey. as a child growing up in a predominantly (slash nominally) christian society, you see the outward signs of christian faith expressed (e.g. you get dragged to church or you see a nativity scene at christmas or you hear the expression “I’ll keep you in my prayers” &c.), and you pretty much accept them until you reach a point where you’re like, hold up, is jesus like santa claus because MOM i totally knew you were lying that whole time? and then you make a choice to either reject the faith tradition, or you realize that this narrative is uniquely compelling in a way you don’t really understand but it is definitely worth keeping in your life.

      obviously not all people go through those stages, because many “christians” in america are really only nominally christians and most of the nutjobs you see on tv would be radical islamists if their parents raised them muslim, etc. but a whole lot of people actually DO go through an authentic faith journey, and sometimes those journeys lead them to different places and sometimes they are almost certainly brought to the WRONG sorts of places, but that doesn’t make their journey and identity less “real.”

      • For your first point: I think that if your identity falls into the status quo, you never have to question it, so that’s why you never really hear about anyone “coming out as straight” because (for most people) that’s the default. Because of that, the “true” self never needs to be examined or put to the test.

        And your point about religion is not in conflict with terracottatoes’. Once the religious person realizes/understands that there are challenges to his viewpoint, then the philosophical journey commences. A “conversion” does not necessarily mean a falling-out of the first religion; rather, the conversion can refer to a ‘converted’ way of interpretation or comprehension.

        • i disagree; people don’t use the “coming out” vocabulary to refer to things that are in line with the status quo, but i’m certain there’s a time in every straight person’s life when they go from not being sexually attracted to the opposite sex to being sexually attracted to the opposite sex, it’s called puberty. and while that’s obviously a very different transition than departing from the status quo, it’s still a pretty radical change in how you relate to the world, even if it’s completely “normal.”

          my point about religion comes into conflict with terracottatoes’ because i think “conversion” from a childlike faith to an adult faith is actually something pretty much every person of faith goes through and not an anomaly.

          • Umm, on what grounds do you believe that “every straight person” develops attraction to a member of the same sex during puberty? I think you might be mistaking admiration for attraction. Or, you know, the ability to assess someone’s aesthetic value whether desiring them romantically/emotionally/sexually.

          • I think you misread me/I was unclear: puberty is when straight people go from not being sexually attracted to anyone to being attracted to members of the OPPOSITE sex.

          • *facepalm* Yup, totally misread that. My point still stands though – most kids don’t have to evaluate themselves once they become sexually attracted to the opposite sex because that is taught as “what’s normal and expected”. It’s the ones that experience that attraction for the same-sex that have to go through a self-examination trial to discover the “true self”. I have never heard of a straight person having to question their sexuality.

          • Also, what you ascribe to puberty doesn’t really correspond to what I was saying about why people don’t need to question their status quo identity. Hypothetically, let’s say your “every person is attracted to the same sex at some point” statement is correct. That is the status quo. To feel that is not to be different, therefore it does not need to be challenged as the “true self”, ergo my point still stands.

          • What I meant by bringing up puberty is that it is “normal” for people’s identities to change. For a prepubescent straight person, “not feeling sexual attraction” is the status quo. During puberty, that changes, and all of a sudden people have to deal with being sexual beings. (If they are.) Via my powers of observation of middle school students, I deduct that this is not always the smoothest process.

            What I wanted to draw from that was that status quo identities are not unchanging, i.e. not just something that you fall into unless you have compelling personal reasons not to (like being a homoqueer), and that people who fall within majority groups still face identity issues; it’s just that we consider the identity crisis of puberty “normal” because straight people go through it and the “OMG I’M A HOMO?!” identity crisis abnormal because not everyone goes through it.

          • Hmm. This, I can agree with, but then I think that this contradicts your original statement of: “why are identities that are formed in opposition to the status quo more “true” than others?”

          • This holds water, but I think what I meant in my original post is that a homogay, in addition to going through puberty (upsetting the status quo) is also feeling attraction to same-sex individuals (not the hetero paradigm in most of the rest of society).

            So you’re claiming, if I understand you correctly, that

            no attraction –> attraction (puberty)

            is a journey, which I think is valid and true, but it’s kind of a moot point for most people, excluding asexual people. Straight people have a sense of “developing normally”… I expect that when a straight person goes through puberty, they are largely comforted by the underlying assumption that they are simply developing normally, and, yes, it’s a difficult time but things will settle down and those zits will go away. But what I meant was,

            no attraction –> homosexual attraction (in a world of predominantly heterosexual attraction)

            is a larger shift, as it entails all the complications of puberty felt by that age group, as well as the complicating factor of otherness in homosexual attraction. Does this mean that why are identities that are formed in opposition to the status quo more “true” than others? Not necessarily. I think straight people are straight, and that is just as true as gay people being gay. That is true and valid and perfectly okay. But what I’m saying is that philosophically, there exists a journey in (most) homosexuals that is not present in heterosexual individuals.

          • right, i don’t think that just because a straight person’s pubescent sexual identity crisis is part of the status quo or “normal” means that it’s not a less authentic or “true” identity crisis than a homogay’s. obviously different types of identity crises affect people’s lives differently, but they’re both legit, and we shouldn’t pretend straight people/christians/members of other powerful groups are boring automatons who never grapple with identity questions.

          • Alright, your point is much clearer now. I was wondering if your comment was tinged with sarcasm…

    • that is a really good point. many many many conservative people that i know will totally ignore common sense factual statements and just shrug their shoulders (usually followed by a “that’s just the way I grew up”). I view it as ignorance is bliss, ignore it and live comfortably. the other choice is to face it truthfully and access the situation honestly. I guess this is like fight vs. flight. ultimately not being true to yourself is sacrificing happiness.

      yeah so you choose either to live safely in a world that is already familiar and sacrifice happiness or you can live with a blank canvas, expose yourself to new situations/ideas and draw out your own conclusion. Make your own path

    • “Whenever you’re not asking questions, you’re not on a philosophical journey. It bears repeating: whenever you’re not asking questions, you’re not on a philosophical journey. And if you’re not on a journey, you’re like a rock in the middle of the road, unopen to change. You clearly think you have all the answers; there is no room for flexibility… You have to tick all the boxes or you’re a bad person, etc.”

      It really does bear repeating, because you don’t know how many Leviticans (the “Christians” who are fundamentalists and follow the Old Testament more than what Jesus actually said) I know talk about their faith like it’s a “walk with Jesus” or some other journey. How are you journeying if you’re not going anywhere? What they’re doing is deepening their roots in one spot, not exploring and learning and asking questions.

  7. While I tend to agree that organized religion is basically a social construct, I have to draw the line in terms of faith. My belief in a “higher power/G-d/Creator/Awesome Omnipotent Being” is as innate in me as my gayness. I can’t be “cured” of one any more than the other.

    Basically what I’m saying is I’m here, I’m Christian/Queer, and while it’s been at times a very confusing mix, I like it.

    • I really like this comment. I’m not religious and have no religious faith to speak of – but several people I know who are and who do have struggled with it almost as much as a queer person struggles with hir queer identity. It is something they cannot ignore. And I think it’s a really beautiful and human process.

  8. Actually, I find this kind of refreshing. I spent most of high school defining my religious identity– I had a number of spiritual experiences starting at the end of middle school which I spent the next few years obsessed with defining. I ended up deciding to convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity my junior year. I knew I was gay at the time (I’ve known for sure since I was 13.) This eventually caused a crisis with regards to my sexuality, and I ended up leaving the Church because of it. While the religious environment of Orthodox Christianity was totally toxic to my well-being due to its attitude towards my sexuality, I also found it very discouraging when other LGBTQ people viewed my attempt to reconcile my spirituality and my sexual orientation as a waste of time or as unimportant or even as a betrayal of who I was. I don’t regret anything about my conversion– my discovery of my religious identity was every bit as important in my self-definition as discovering my sexual orientation. The fact that historical circumstance had conspired to make those two things arbitrarily conflicted didn’t change that. It took me a long time to weigh those two categories of my being and find a space where I could be my fullest self both as a lesbian and as a fundamentally religious person. The fact that I’m now out and I left a spiritual home because ultimately those two things were irreconcilable for me doesn’t change the fact that my spiritual identity is every bit as important to me as my queerness. Because of this, I can understand completely the attitudes of religious people who struggle against their queer identities in favor of their religious ones. It’s not just cowardice, or ignorance, or cultural brainwashing (although of course all of those things are present), and it bothers me when it’s treated as such by other LGBTQ people. And while I completely agree that hypocrisy should be exposed (if someone is ruining the lives of other queer people while they’re secretly acting on their own queer desires, that’s pretty despicable), professing a belief to which you ultimately can’t conform isn’t necessarily hypocrisy. We all spend our lives trying to reconcile our experiences and varied sources of meaning– it’s just that when it comes to sexual orientation and religious identity, we’ve been handed a faulty script from the beginning that presumes a conclusion of irreconcilable difference.

    • I wish I had something substantive to add, but you pretty much said it all perfectly. So, yes. This. Exactly.

  9. It’s an interesting question, but I think Knobe’s approach is all wrong. He’s wondering if the “true self” is the rational self or the emotional self, so he takes 200 lay people who don’t know much about philosophy and gives them a questionnaire? Well no shit they have inconsistent answers! What was he expecting? From a sociological perspective I guess this is interesting, but philosophically I think his findings are totally useless.

    • Not to mention what he’s comparing: biological impulses vs. cultural constructs. Apples and oranges make not a good pair of variables. It’s like finding a correlation between hair colour and favourite type of music.

      • I don’t think he’s comparing biological impulses to cultural constructs. He’s asking whether your biological impulses or your rational decisions represent your true self. Your rational decisions may be based on cultural constructs, but they aren’t themselves cultural constructs.

  10. Just my two cents but I’m skeptical about the possibility of a “true self” anyway. I don’t think there’s some set of characteristics ingrained in each of us that we spend our life “discovering”. We are what we think we are and what other people think we are. If sexuality is fluid, so is our personality/personhood. I’m gay now — but that doesn’t mean I was gay when I was younger and doesn’t mean any experiences I had with men were lies.

    But yeah, our circumstances and environment have such a profound impact on a person I think the very notion that the truest things to our senses of self is biologically based/determined at birth and unchangeable is simply ridiculous.

  11. I don’t think belief is as choice driven, because I tried so hard to be one thing, and ended up being something else. Religious affiliation may be a choice, but then so is calling yourself “part of the gay community”

  12. “Is being gay really any more ‘authentic’ than being religious?”

    Yep. It’s certainly more innate, natural and immutable. And by “more” I mean “actually is as opposed to not.”

    • Believing that there’s something more powerful than myself is just as an innate, natural and immutable part of myself as is my attraction to pretty ladies. Yes, I choose to express that belief through the social construct of religion. I go to (a super gay) church, I teach Sunday school, I pray, I have favorite psalms, etc. But strip all that away and I’d still have my belief.
      In the same way, I express my gayness through my frequently professed crush on Ellen Page, my lack of hesitation to leave the house in basketball shorts and a deep-v t-shirt, the amount of Brandi Carlile and Holly Miranda on my iPod, and basically by everyone knowing I’m gay. Strip all of that away, though, and I’d still be attracted to pretty ladies.

      • I’m not so sure I agree with that. I think people are born with the capacity and perhaps propensity to adhere to faith-based systems, but certainly not with innate belief. That you believe in something more powerful than yourself is the manifestation of personal burdens of proof being satisfied for you, to whatever degree they exist. That is, the narrative/events/phenomena you’ve been exposed to have been enough to justify for you your belief in God, but such a shift, I argue, is not innate. No child falls out of their mother believing in God; atheism is the default position.

        • We can’t know if atheism is the default position. Infants don’t represent our ~*true nature*~; they represent humans that aren’t developed enough to speak or not crap all over themselves.

          Be careful with your universal claims. They make your butt look big.

          (I’m kidding, your butt looks fabulous. But srsly about the universals.)

          • Sorry: I should have added that, according to this research, older children are more likely to ascribe deliberate, communicative agency to an ‘invisible being’ than are younger kids.

          • You’re welcome! I found it fascinating myself, though I’m not sure there are any concrete conclusions to draw from it. Perhaps the older kids have been exposed to more magical/religious-type concepts, or perhaps this a natural tendency in humans which arises at a specific developmental point. Hard to say from the evidence, I think. Even kids who’ve been raised in a defiantly secular tradition would have been exposed to other kids’ religious beliefs in school, to fairy tales, and/or will have watched fantasy films or TV series.

      • I’m not going to argue about religion. My view is my distaste for heavy metal music feels innate and not chosen, but much less so than my sexuality, which permeates how I talk, dress, feel, perceive. I think one is something I have fit into my life based on my experience whereas one IS my life. That’s why the world has a history of Muslim countries or Jewish countries, etc. whereas gay people are just kind of everywhere throughout history, even if not fully embraced. I don’t see anything at all inherent about religion. I see it as a philosophical question — an opinion, a perception — whereas sexuality is a biological one — who someone is. And as someone raised Catholic, religion bewilders me, but I’ve also learned that arguing with someone’s religious beliefs is rather futile. Plus, you seem nice Beez and not like some asshole using religion as an excuse to spread hate, so I don’t want to come off rude to you! :) I’m sorry if my original comment offended you. I was speaking for my own thoughts. I fully realize most of the world sees it differently than I do.

          • Me, too. As a music snob (I’m a classical composer) I have noticed that this particular dislike puts me at odds with a lot of my fellow music snobs. But whatever, I just can’t bring myself to like metal, no matter how hard I try.

  13. Not gonna lie, the Muslim stance on homosexuality scares me far more than the Christian one, considering being gay under traditional Shariah law is a more serious offence than murder and a lot of Muslim countries still have the death penalty for male homosexality.

    Otherwise, people have already said everything I want to say. I always feel sad when people feel the need to deny either their religion or their sexual identity though; people should be able to have both.

    • There’s not really any such thing as “traditional Shariah law.” Historically there have been countless interpretations of shari’a, and countless ways of enforcing what traditional Quran’ic scholars have interpreted as injunctions against male homosexuality. The most traditional schools actually rule out the death penalty. And I wouldn’t say that there is any basis for homosexuality traditionally being considered a worse offense than murder within the confines of shar’ia. In fact, historically, it’s theoretically supposed to be treated with more lenience than adultery.

      The history of Islam, like that of Christianity and other major religions, includes societies both relatively open to homoerotic/homosocial bonds and behavior and those vehemently opposed to them.

      Modern Islamist attitudes towards male homosexuality have a complicated context that has to do with reactionary ideology as a response to European/American colonialism. They aren’t based in the Qur’an or even in the foremost traditional legal systems of Islam.

  14. “Which to throw in your lot with, the group that promises to love you like family as long as you never let down your guard against your slightly-extra-sinful nature, or the group that might accept you as one of their own but may never give up their derision of your faith?” This reminds me of the time I heard of this site: for gay nascar fans, and one of them mentioned in an interview that the nascar fans were cooler with them being gay than the gays were with them being nascar fans XD

  15. This comment thread is full of so many smart people and anything I might have said has been said very intelligently. So I think I just wanted to say this is an interesting article, thanks for writing it up Rachel. I’m definitely enjoying reading all the responses too. The amount of intelligence we have on AS makes me so happy :D

  16. Ironically, a Christian dating website ad popped up on this site while I read this article… ooo… autostrad/fail.

  17. My issue with ex-gay Evangelicals is not that they’re ex-gay…it’s that they’re often hypocrites and want me to be ex-gay too.

    Evangelicals can argue that they were born with an innate propensity for faith/religion, and I respect that, but I’d like to point out to them that they were certainly NOT born hating gay people, so they should shut-up about my life. The often touted anti-gay interpretation of the bible is the product of formal scriptural study, not innate spirituality. If ex-gay evangelicals would stop trying to make sure everyone else was also ex-gay, It would be easier to respect them.

    No one has the right to tell anyone “who they truly are”. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how someone arrives at their “true self”. While it’s fun to discuss this, and it’s fascinating to hear everyone’s point of view, when it comes to acceptance and respect, it doesn’t really matter why I am gay or someone else is a Christian. It’s 2011… We all should embrace one another’s romantic and religious desires, regardless of their origins. And THEN we can continue talking about nature vs. nurture while we’re all loving each other.

    In closing, I wish we could all take a class together and talk about ideas over lunch. You’re all smarty-pants’.

  18. Well… I’m no philosopher and some of the comments I’ve read make my brain start to ooze out of my ears, but I’m gonna give this a go. I do know a thing or two about psychology, at least.

    So, the way I see it, both gayness and religion can be fluid, both have been argued to have genes “causing” them and both are often argued to be mutually exclusive (one cannot be reconciled with the other, blah, blah, blah).

    The thing is… both of these things are also intensely personal. As any psychology student will tell you, reality is perception. Some people very truly cannot reconcile their faith and their sexuality – it’s just the way they perceive the constructed boxes of gender/sexuality and religion. Then there are those of us who choose to smash the boxes and make a way for ourselves because we perceive it to be possible.

    I don’t believe there will ever be a universal way to talk about this conundrum. My “true self” is who I perceive it to be, regardless of society, doctors or philosophers telling me what I “should” be thinking. There will always be as many opinions as there are people… each as different as the people themselves.

    Anyway… my thoughts. Hope they make sense.

  19. ….so…..this philosopher has not read foucault, i guess lol. ANYONE???

    seriously though, something doesn’t have to be100 percent innate or learned in order for it to be a behavior that feels most authentic. my favorite color is purple. not sure how that came about but i’d be lying if i said my favorite color was not purple.

    sexualty is complicated, non-linear and manifests itself in different ways. to be honest, asking whether we were “born this way” just feels like the wrong fucking question. who really cares? chances are there’s not a gay gene, and even if there is, why the fuck do you need that to justify my identity as a lesbian? even if i chose this life (for the record, i don’t think i did), what difference does that make? we’ve obviously proven homosexuality exists in thousands of species, and that should really be enough. actually, basic concepts of justice and decency should be enough.

  20. And I think this is precisely the reason why pro-gay Christians need to speak up more. By telling people that they CAN have it both ways, that they don’t need to choose between Christianity and their sexual orientation, and that the pro-gay position is a perfectly legitimate interpretation of the Bible, that is the best way to destroy the popularity of these ex-gay groups. Because even though I’m an agnostic, I understand how important faith is to some people and how difficult it can be to choose between those things.

    Then again, some people do have a strangely rigid hold on the *particular* subsection of Christianity in which they were raised. It cuts both ways; my dad is a pastor and currently having difficulty with a member of his congregation who is way, WAY too conservative for mainstream Presbyterians and is holding their congregation back in some ways (since he’s an elder), but stays in it because that’s his “family church.”

  21. On a lighter note, even money says the girl in that PFOX ad is still a total lezzer.
    Also? That website is crazy. I just reset my browser so I don’t have to come across it in my history ever again.

  22. everything but everything is phenotype = genotype + environment, so who’s to say that anything is more or less innate? my opinion is that the social constructs of organized religion fuck everything up.

  23. Exactly. Knobe’s model is all wrong. He’s assuming that people have a true self that one day emerges and undoes a false self. As if the “true self” is only innate, and the socially created self is automatically false. Wrong and wrong. Read the research and you’ll find that virtually everything about humans is both nature and nurture together. Nearly all human behavior seems to start as a genetic predisposition or possibility, which combines with environmental circumstances, something outside the person that introduces an influence; which in turn leads to a certain outcome, like being gay, or religious. None of that has anything to do with authenticity. The only “test” of whether something is “the real you” is if it feels that way to you in the privacy of your own heart and mind. Whether Pierpont (or anyone) is more authentically gay or Christian (or both) is for Pierpont to say, and no one else. If we understood as a culture how to have respect for one another, maybe we could stop asking all the wrong questions, and let the Pierponts of the world be who they are, contradictions and all.

  24. Why is it always assumed that if someone could choose their sexual orientation, they would always choose “straight”? In my opinion, the whole “I was born that way” assertion is actually counterproductive. So you were born that way. Well what if you weren’t exactly– if your sexual identity was perhaps equal parts biology as social construction? Is everyone so self-loathing that they would immediately jump onto the “straight” boat given half the chance? No wonder a lot of people unfairly distrust bisexuals.

    Another thing– everyone knows that social construction is not fixed, but the funny thing people forget is that neither is biology. Your environment can influence your genes and vice versa.

    There is a value in being queer that extends beyond “welp, I don’t have a choice, so might as well find the value in it.” People who are religious over being gay think that’s more valuable. Consider also straight religious people who abstain from sex because they consider their religion to have a greater value. I think they’re all silly as hell, but whatever.

    *cough* So in conclusion: cute straight girls of the world, you’re sooooo missing out

  25. wow. reading mr. knobe’s column gave me a terrible headache. thankfully, i’m apparently not the only one, based on some of the comments i’ve read at the source.

    i’m not convinced that his question – “Is it our desires or our values that determine who we ‘really’ are?” – is really even a worthy question to ponder here.. esp. in the context of Pierpont’s predicament. the ‘just be your self’ advice is obviously too simplistic & platitudinous to give to somebody as deeply torn as Pierpont was. that said, shouldn’t dealing with conflicting desires & values be much simpler and less ‘philosphical’ than what Knobe is saying? yes, you should be honest with yourself, but shouldn’t we, as humans, be more concerned with the pursuit of what’s ultimately right & just, rather than with ‘the expression of the true self’? will searching for his ‘true self’ really ease Pierpont’s suffering or solve any problems?

    why should one’s ‘authenticity’ be placed at a higher value than doing right by oneself and others? because clearly, you should not & do not have the right to pursue your ‘true self’ if that entails breaking the law, or if it means harming yourself or others. even if you’ve stood for certain values your entire life, it does not necessarily mean you have the right to forever hold on to them, especially if their justness/justifiability is questionable.

    also, does Pierpont’s true well-being (incl. his sexual health) not matter? how about the people being hurt by his ‘gay-curing’ ministry? i don’t think anyone in Pierpont’s shoes should be wasting time trying to find out whether ‘the gay’ or rather the gay-renouncing ‘Christian’ is really his authentic self. not to mention: is a ‘true self’ even searchable? does a ‘true self’ even exist? how much does it even matter? [samiam elaborated on Knobe’s view of the true self much better than i ever could upthread.]

    if people like Pierpont would just educate themselves on the real facts of human sexuality, as well as the variety of perceptions & interpretations on the biblical sources which the belief ‘homosexuality is immoral’ is supposedly derived from, (perhaps start by watching “For the Bible Tells Me So”,) instead of spending huge amounts of time, energy & resources to ‘pray away the gay’, (or to try to answer pseudo-philosophical questions like whether ‘his sexual desires are the real him’,) they will probably soon see that what’s objectionable & problematic here isn’t their sexual orientation, but rather the dissemination of ‘homosexuality is a sin according to the bible’, and thus save themselves a great deal of unnecessary distress and suffering.

    sorry this is rambly and long, english is not my first language.

  26. I’ve been contemplating if it’s worth commenting on an article that is over two years old; but the title was just so interesting to me, I had to read it when it popped up from the archive. I wish I would have seen this at the time of its publication. I wish I would have been doing a lot of things different at that time.

    In June 2011, I had just finished my junior year of college. I was attending a private Christian school that was very gay friendly. None the less, I was still fighting to stay closeted at the time.

    I had just finished a senior seminar on Buddhist philosophy. This means I just finished writing a paper comparing the Five Aggregates to the Cartesian Ego and Hume’s concept of the self as a bundle. Most of my career as a philosophy major, and even as a student of language was spent in some effort examining what is the true self; and if it wasn’t that then it was spent fixated on ethical issues. I had other interests but the real questions for me were always, who am I and what is the cause of right and wrong.

    When I was a teenager, I had to come out to my parents as being non-Christian. They assumed I was atheist. When I said I wasn’t that either, they then assumed I just didn’t understand my faith in Christ. As long as they could believe that I was Christian; they were fine. I wasn’t. It is still a struggle to deal with religion around them. Despite not following an organized religion, the concept of sin, or unnatural behavior, had settled deep within me. I just couldn’t deal with the feelings I had. I became convinced that I could “fix” myself. I tried desperately to do so. At the same time I became obsessed with trying to find what is the True Self and Right and Wrong. I wanted to know what to do.

    In college, I learned new and exciting things: atman, anatman, ego, cogitans, the divided line, deontology, the categorical imperative, the philosophical I, and other terms that my spell-check doesn’t know. I still didn’t know who I was, or what to do.

    A year and a month after this article, I finally came out after literally collapsing in despair. I told my mother that I was transgender. She didn’t know what to think. She asked me what gender I’m attracted to. I said women. She said okay and sent me out the door–the plan was to stay away for a weekend in case my parents reacted poorly. Most people have questions about this making me either gay or straight. It happens so much I don’t even know anymore. It’s just as elusive to people as my religiosity; I can’t have any if I’m not Christian. As far as they are concerned: I can’t have any sexuality as long as I’m trans.

    Sometime last winter, my father asked me, “Wouldn’t it be easier if you just went back to the way you were before all this?” I didn’t know what to say. It would be easier, I guess. I was gifted a life as a straight, white, Christian male and except for the white part I reached adulthood not matching any of those descriptors. “If I go back, I will kill myself,” I half sobbed into the phone. I finally knew who I was and what to do.

    Knobe’s point that we tend to see our own values as being closer to the true self is valid, yet it doesn’t address the cognitive dissonance that so many members of LGBT experience when they can’t fight the truth that is simply being gay. It’s important that the discussions about being a member of the LGBT community and a member of a community that doesn’t support being LGBT remain open until all communities are open to each other.

    There, I said my piece. Maybe someone else will stumble across this in the archive and feel the need to read a comment over half as long as the article itself. And thank you Autostraddle for being there for me this last year whenever I get bored or sad.

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