In retrospect I could see that I had always objectified my sexuality; for nearly six years I had talked about “leaving homosexuality” as if “the gay world” was a thing in itself, some “thing” that I could leave behind, move beyond. But if my experiences taught me anything it was that a change to the “map” of my identity from homosexuality to heterosexual would never change the “territory” of my experience from same-sex to opposite-sex desire. A map is not the territory it represents. “Chasing symbols is like settling for the map instead of the territory,” Deepak Chopra once wrote. “It creates anxiety; it ends up making you feel hollow and empty, because you exchange your Self for the symbols of your Self.”
Reparative therapy confuses the map for the territory: The patient erroneously believes that by changing their map of identity they will also, perhaps through an act of providence or magical thinking, change their territory of experience. They don’t. What they do experience while in treatment is cognitive dissonance (identifying as heterosexual while experiencing same-sex erotic desire), and they often leave treatment dissociated, depersonalized, depressed, and, at times, suicidal.
The idea that reparative therapy “repairs” anything, let alone changes erotic desire, is, to paraphrase author Joan Didion, a story we have told ourselves in order to survive. When we talk about reparative therapy we are really talking about suppression of desire, about dissociation, depersonalization — we are talking about the incommensurable trauma that lives on in the person who has undergone what I now consider to be psychic lobotomy, where the “surgeon” probes into the psychosexuality of the individual, cutting and scarring their way toward the establishment of a “different” sexuality, while the “patient,” severely undermined by lifelong messages of heteronormativity, becomes co-conspirator in their own loss of agency.
Enacting laws to make it illegal to practice reparative therapy on anyone under the age of 18 is only a start. Reparative therapy may be a lie, but the lie begins not with the idea that we can change from gay to straight, but with the belief that we are who the culture tells us we are, that a change to the map of our identity is a change to the territory of our experience. And no one, no matter what age, is safe from that.
PETER GAJDICS lives in Vancouver, Canada.