"My Ex-Gay Friend" (Reprint from NYT)

Below is a fascinating reflection-story by a pro-gay author recently appearing in the New York Times. It gives us deep insight into the transforming nature of Christ's love and vision, and the human person fashioned in His Image. It is well worth the read.


Published: June 16, 2011

One Saturday afternoon last winter, I drove north on Route 85 through the rolling rangeland of southeastern Wyoming. I was headed to a small town north of Cheyenne to see an old friend and colleague named Michael Glatze. We worked together 12 years ago at XY, a San Francisco-based national magazine for young gay men, back when we were young gay men ourselves.

Though only a year removed from Dartmouth when he arrived at XY, Michael had seemingly read every gay book ever written. While I was busy trying to secure a boyfriend, he was busy contemplating queer theory, marching in gay rights rallies and urging young people to celebrate (not just accept) their same-sex attractions. Michael was devoted to helping gay youth, and he was particularly affected by the letters the magazine received regularly from teenagers who were rejected by their religious families. “Christian fundamentalists should burn in hell!” he told me once, slamming his fist on his desk. I had never met anyone so sure of himself.

Many young gay men looked up to him. He and his boyfriend at the time, Ben, who also worked at the magazine, made a handsome pair — but their appeal went deeper. On weekends we would go to raves together, and I would watch as gay boys gravitated toward the couple. Michael and Ben seemed unburdened (by shame, by self-doubt) and unapologetically pursued what the writer Paul Monette called the uniquely gay experience of “flagrant joy.” But unlike some of our friends who rode the flagrant joy train all the way to rehab, Michael and Ben rarely seemed out of control. There was a balance — a wisdom — to their quest for intense, authentic experience. Together they seemed to have figured out how to be young, gay and happy.

I thought about those times as I pulled my rental car into the Wyoming town where Michael now lives. A lot had happened in the decade since we last saw each other: he and Ben started a new gay magazine (Young Gay America, or Y.G.A.); they traveled the country for a documentary about gay teenagers; and Michael was fast becoming the leading voice for gay youth until the day, in July 2007, when he announced that he was no longer gay.

“Homosexuality came easy to me, because I was already weak,” he wrote in the opening line of an article for the far-right Web site, WorldNetDaily.com. He went on to renounce his work at XY and Y.G.A. “Homosexuality, delivered to young minds, is by its very nature pornographic,” he claimed. In a second WorldNetDaily article a week later, he said that he was “repulsed to think about homosexuality” and that he was “going to do what I can to fight it.”

At our appointed meeting time in Wyoming, I parked my rental car in front of a red, saloon-style grocery store and cafe that sits across the street from the Bible school where Michael was in his first year. A minute later I spotted him in my rearview mirror. He was walking toward the cafe, holding something that I couldn’t make out. I stepped out of my car and waved to him. He looked the same as I remembered — tall, lean, blond, boyish and handsome in a Nordic ski instructor kind of way. I was nervous, but as he approached I decided to lean in for a hug. Michael, though, pre-emptively stuck out his right hand. “Hello, Benoit,” he said, standing stiff and upright, clutching what I could now see was a Bible.

Though Michael had agreed to let me visit and write about him, he was skeptical about my motivations. “Why are you here?” he asked minutes after we sat down in the cafe, which was decorated with Christmas lights and staffed by a young waiter attending the Bible school.

It was a good question. Had part of me come to “save” my old friend from the clutches of the Christian right? Though I don’t doubt that sexual attraction can evolve, I was skeptical of Michael’s claim of heterosexuality — and I rejected his argument that “homosexuality prevents us from finding our true self within.” Besides, I had a hard time believing that Michael’s “true self” was a fundamentalist Christian who writes derogatorily about being gay. But whatever aspirations I had about persuading Michael to join the ranks of ex-ex-gays, they were no match for his eagerness to save me.

“God loves you more than any dude will ever love you,” he told me at the cafe. “Don’t put your faith in some man, some flesh. That’s what we do when we’re stuck in the gay identity, when we’re stuck in that cave. We go from guy to guy, looking for someone to love us and make us feel O.K., but God is so much better than all the other masters out there.”

Michael, who is 36, now often refers to gay life as a kind of cave — or cage. In an open letter to Ricky Martin, published on WorldNetDaily after Martin came out, he wrote, “Homosexuality is a cage in which you are trapped in an endless cycle of constantly wanting more — sexually — that you can never actually receive, constantly full of emptiness, trying to justify your twisted actions by politics and ‘feel good’ language.”

Had Michael been secretly unhappy as a gay man, and was he now projecting that onto all gay-identified people? I broached the question later that night at his small off-campus apartment, where we sat in his barren kitchen eating Oreo cookies. “Well, you can’t see how dark it is in a cave when you’re in it,” he said. “But, no, at the time I didn’t consider myself unhappy.”

Michael didn’t begin to question his life path, he told me, until a health scare in 2004 that led to what he calls his “spiritual awakening.” That year, when Michael was 29, he experienced a series of heart palpitations and became convinced that he suffered from the same congenital heart defect that killed his father when Michael was 13. (Michael lost both his parents young; his mother died of breast cancer when he was 19.) After tests eventually ruled out his father’s illness, Michael felt that he had escaped death and found himself staring “into the face of God.” In a published interview with Joseph Nicolosi, a leader in the controversial field of reparative therapy, which seeks to help people overcome unwanted homosexual attractions, Michael said that he became “born again” in that moment and that “every concept that my mind had ever entertained — my whole existence — was completely re-evaluated.”

Michael was as surprised as anyone by his sudden faith. Though his mother was Christian, his parents rarely took him and his younger sister to church and didn’t try to suppress his skepticism of organized religion, which grew into outright disdain during his years at Dartmouth. But by the end of 2004, after his health scare, Michael was devouring books by openly gay theologians like Mel White and Peter Gomes and trying to integrate his sexuality and spirituality. He was initially drawn to a liberal interpretation of the Bible and argued against a fundamentalist approach to Christianity. “People have been raised incorrectly to believe that the prejudices they’ve been taught by their pastors are God’s word,” he wrote in a 2005 Y.G.A. issue devoted to spiritual questions. “The only Truth is Love.”

But even as he rejected anti-gay theology, Michael’s political views began shifting rightward: he spoke glowingly about Ann Coulter, and in a Time cover article in 2005 about gay teenagers he said: “I don’t think the gay movement understands the extent to which the next generation just wants to be normal kids. The people who are getting that are the Christian right.”

Michael’s friends and co-workers didn’t know what to make of his religious fervor or his shifting politics. Neither did his boyfriend, Ben, but Ben was more concerned with saving their floundering relationship. They had been together nearly a decade, though for the last few years the relationship had a third member — a young man they met in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they moved in 2001 after leaving XY. (Ben had family there.) The three lived together, and Michael had at first so loved the arrangement that he started to write a book about it.

But by the end of 2005, Michael told me, everything about his life was starting to feel wrong — his unconventional relationship, his gay friendships, even his magazine devoted to lifting up gay youth. “For a year I struggled to think of every other reason except for the obvious one,” he said. “Then it just came up, clear as day. The problem was my sexual identity. But that was really scary. I thought to myself, Seriously? That’s ridiculous. I’m a homosexual. I struggled trying to understand what was happening to me. I’d always been told that if you had doubts about the rightness of your homosexuality, which I had been having for a while but was trying to silence, that it was because you just hadn’t worked through all your internalized homophobia. But that didn’t feel true now.”

Sitting in his Y.G.A. office toward the end of that year, Michael wrote three words on his computer screen: I am straight. They felt true, so he typed a few more: Homosexuality = Death. I choose Life.

Then he stood up and left the building.

Michael soon moved out of the Halifax house he shared with his boyfriends and sequestered himself in an apartment across town. He said he then briefly joined the Mormon Church, heartened by promises from several Mormon men he befriended that they would help him “find a wife.” (Michael left the church a short time later after deciding that Mormons “didn’t agree with the Bible.”)

Alone and needing a job, Michael made a counterintuitive choice for a newly minted ex-gay: He took an editing job in San Francisco. His sister lived there, and he hoped to find and immerse himself in a Christian church community. But soon after arriving, Michael decided to visit the Castro — San Francisco’s gay neighborhood, where XY had been headquartered — to see “what I would feel.” Would he experience desire? Revulsion? Anger? “I ended up not feeling any of those things,” Michael told me, “but I did feel the humanity of the people in the Castro. I started to doubt what I’d written in those articles. I thought, Well, maybe none of this is true. Maybe I’m wrong.”

Unsure of what to do, a tearful Michael called Ben. “He said that he was sorry, and that he wanted to take it all back,” Ben recalls. “I said, ‘O.K., I’ll help you draft a statement.’ He said he would call me back the next day, but I never heard from him.”

Michael chalked up that call to a moment of weakness. “I wasn’t reading my Bible, and I was in a very lonely place, but it’s not like my same-sex attractions had returned,” he explained on the morning of my second day in Wyoming, as we sat in a padded wooden pew in a small church near the Bible School. There were about two dozen of his fellow Bible-school students in attendance, and before and after the service I watched Michael’s friendly, easygoing rapport with them.

As we drove back to his apartment, Michael told me that his desire for men had lessened in frequency and intensity almost immediately after writing the words “I Am Straight” on his computer screen at Y.G.A. When he did feel an erotic pull toward another man, he said he tried to “sit with it and unpack it,” a technique he learned during a stint at a Buddhist retreat, where he went after leaving San Francisco. (Michael, who meditated regularly for a couple of years, said he was asked to leave the community for “talking too much about the Bible.”) “I observed it instead of just acting on it, and I began to see it as an aspect of my own brokenness, not as my identity,” he said. “The more I did that, the less I felt the desire,” he went on, adding that he has never undergone reparative therapy or attended an ex-gay ministry.

In a WorldNetDaily article, Michael wrote about why he believes he mistakenly took on a gay identity: “When I was about 13 I decided I must be gay because I was unable to handle my own masculinity.” He went on to blame his father for that, which is consistent with the ex-gay narrative that same-sex attraction among boys is often a result of a deficit of masculinity, usually caused by a fissure in the father-son bond.

Michael told me that he has no same-sex sexual desires today, a claim that I found hard to believe. Many ex-gays admit to struggling with same-sex attraction years after they’ve rejected a gay identity, and a handful of high-profile leaders in the movement have been humbled by public slips or “relapses,” a word borrowed from the language of addiction recovery. (Many ex-gays see same-sex attractions as a kind of addiction, one with no “cure” but with the possibility of freedom with God’s help.) In our XY days, Michael told me that he had no sexual attraction to women. Had he learned heterosexuality?

Yes, he insisted, adding that he has dated two women since coming out as ex-gay (both before enrolling in Bible school). Michael didn’t want to divulge much about the sexual nature of those relationships, saying only that neither had been “particularly godly.” “There was a part of me that was like an excited teenager,” he told me. “Whatever God has in store for me next will hopefully involve courtship and getting married.”

I asked Michael if he’d heard the news that Ben had recently married in Canada. He blinked twice, and his body tensed slightly. “No, I didn’t,” he said. “To a man, or to a woman?”

“To a man. Were you holding out hope that he would marry a woman?”

“You have to understand something,” he said, leaning forward in his chair. “I don’t see people as gay anymore. I don’t see you as gay. I don’t see him as gay. God creates us heterosexual. We may get other ideas in our head about what we are, and I certainly did, but that doesn’t mean they’re the truth.”

A week before my trip to Wyoming, I traveled to Halifax to spend a weekend with Ben. I was hoping he could help me fill in the puzzle of Michael Glatze.

“You have to see his poetry,” Ben told me, searching through a bookshelf in his home office. He eventually found what he was looking for — a small bound yellow portfolio titled “Shelves,” which contained the poems for Michael’s senior thesis at Dartmouth. Sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floor, with old issues of XY and Y.G.A. strewn around us, Ben read aloud from several of Michael’s poems exploring sexual identity. In one Michael wrote of “people scrambling for a home amidst the labels,” and in another he hoped for the day when “men who love women wave flags for identification.”

It all sounded very much like the Michael I knew at XY, a young man who was fascinated by queer theory — namely, the idea that sexual and gender identities are culturally constructed rather than biologically fixed — and who dreamed of a world without labels like “straight” and “gay,” which he deemed restrictive and designed to “segment and persecute,” as he argued in a 1998 issue of XY. Though he conceded back then that it was important “to stay unified under a ‘Gay’ political umbrella” until equality for gays and lesbians had been achieved, Michael preferred to label himself queer.

As Ben and I reminisced, I couldn’t help wondering if Michael’s new philosophy might, in a strange way, be a logical extension of what he believed back then — that “gay” is a limiting category and that sexual identities can change. Ben nodded. “A radical queer activist and a fundamentalist Christian aren’t always as different as they might seem,” he said, adding that they’re ideologues who can railroad over nuance and claim a monopoly on the truth.

Ben went on. “To me, Michael is a victim of this insane society we live in, where we grow up with all these conflicting messages and pressures around sexuality and religion, and where we divide into these camps where we’re always right and the other side is always wrong. Some people are susceptible to buying into that, and I think Michael is one of them.”

Though Ben acknowledged that Michael’s anti-gay writing is a slap in the face to all the gay teenagers who looked up to him, he preferred to remember the 21-year-old version of Michael he met in a San Francisco coffee shop. “He devoted a decade of his life to helping gay youth, and the work he did saved lives,” he told me. “What he claims to believe now doesn’t take that away.” Like most of Michael’s former gay friends, Ben insists he isn’t angry with him. “I’m worried about him,” he said.

Before I left Halifax, Ben showed me one last poem, titled “The Boy Scout Pledge.” “The Michael who wrote this is the Michael I fell in love with,” he said.

I Solemnly Swear,/Never to tell the Scoutmaster./Never to tell the others. Never to let such/Knowledge leave this tent, Never to acknowledge you/Again, Never to tighten your handkerchief again, Never to/Look in your eyes again, Never to race soapbox derby in/The sand with you again, Never to read Whitman as you/Cuddle till you sleep, Never to creep, carefully to the lake/With you again, Never to take wildflowers/To your tent again, Never to cry for you again, Never to tie/Knots in each other’s hair,/Never to breathe your air,/Never to touch your inner thigh,/Never to catch your stare./Never to be two boys together, clinging./Never to dare.

At the end of my Wyoming visit, I drove Michael from his apartment to the Bible school. He had finals the next day and was running late to a study group. At an intersection I asked him if I should turn left or go straight. “Straight,” he said, pointing the way.

“It’s funny to hear you say that, because in our XY days you used to always insist that I say ‘forward’ when we drove,” I reminded him. “You corrected any gay person who said ‘straight’ in a car.”

“I said a lot of silly things back then,” Michael said with chuckle.

“Do you regret that time?” I asked him.

“I think God had to take me to a lot of different places, and let me study many different perspectives and religions, for me to finally know the truth,” he said. “XY was just a part of that journey.”

I told Michael about a recent conversation I had with our former boss at XY, Peter Ian Cummings, who surprised me by wondering aloud if Michael was ever truly gay. “In retrospect, more than you or me or anyone else who worked at the magazine, his sexuality almost felt more theoretical than real to me,” Peter told me. “At a very young age, he had all these very well thought out theories about identity and sexuality. Maybe this gay or queer identity that fascinated him, and that he had taken on, wasn’t really true for him. It doesn’t explain why he says such ridiculous things about gay people now, but maybe, just maybe, he’s not in denial about his own sexuality.”

Michael looked at me. “Do you think I’m in denial?”

“I don’t know for sure what you are,” I said. “I just wish you wouldn’t write such inaccurate things about gay people.”

“They aren’t inaccurate,” he said, sounding annoyed.

As we approached the school, I asked him what he thought about last year’s highly publicized gay teenage suicides and the ensuing It Gets Better campaign, in which gay people from across the country — and high-profile political leaders, including President Obama — recorded encouraging video messages aimed at gay youth. He didn’t hesitate. “I think it’s stupid,” Michael said. “It doesn’t get better if you’re gay.”

It doesn’t get better if you’re gay? Michael would have punched me in the mouth if I said that back when we worked together. I never would have, of course, because it’s a lie. But also dishonest, in retrospect, was our claim in a 1999 issue of XY that “everyone is happier” after coming out. Michael insisted that we include that line, but it was wishful thinking, and ex-gays are living proof of it.

As I drove back to my hotel that night, I wondered if I would ever hear from Michael again. Might he call me someday to say that he was gay after all, and that his years as an ex-gay were just another pit stop in his lifelong pursuit of truth? It’s possible, but I doubt it will happen anytime soon. For an ex-gay intent on staying that way, there are few safer places in the world than a Bible school in Wyoming. The country’s least-populous state — where Matthew Shepard was murdered and left to die on a rural fence post, and where two fictional cowboys fell in love on Brokeback Mountain but never allowed themselves a life together — is also a state without a gay bar. My old friend, it seems, has picked the perfect place to go straight.