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.”

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. 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 1129 articles for us.


  1. 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

  2. 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’.

  3. 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.

  4. ….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.

  5. 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.”

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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.

  11. 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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