What makes a person heterosexual? Can heterosexuality be measured in the body? In the brain? Is it discerned and practiced through sexual acts? Emotional attachments? Self-reported desires? Can it be chosen or is it innate? In modern Western culture most individuals are presumed to be heterosexual until they convince us otherwise through acts or affiliations; once the world understands an individual to be homosexual (in the hetero/homosexual landscape bisexuality is routinely elided) — once that individual has crossed “the straight line” into gay or lesbian identity — can that individual return? In The Straight Line: How the Fringe Science of Ex-Gay Therapy Reoriented Sexuality (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) sociologist Tom Waidzunas (Temple University) explores these questions through the lens of ex-gay reorientation therapy status and practices in the United States.
Today, reorientation therapies — a collection of practices that seek to shift a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual toward heterosexual — exist on the fringes of established scientific communities, broadly understood to be both ineffective and often also harmful to patients. Yet seventy years ago, in the postwar period, reorientation therapies were considered to be a cornerstone of treatment for those experiencing homosexual desires or engaging in homosexual acts. How, then, did a collection of practices once considered standard practice get pushed to the edges (if not off the edge) of legitimate scientific understanding? And, perhaps more importantly, how did the journey of reorientation therapy from the center to the margins of psychiatric care in the United States change how Americans understand the nature of human sexuality?
Waidzunas sets out to answer this question using a blend of sociological, historical, and queer theoretical methods. Drawing on archival research and interviews with key figures, he traces how the political agitation of gay-affirmative and anti-gay social movements struggled within and around the mental health professions succeeded over the course of half a century in redrawing the boundaries of accepted scientific knowledge. In response to the reorientation community’s belief that sexual orientation can be changed, gay-affirmative therapists and activists have increasingly relied on notions of fixity: the notion that one’s body carries an innate true orientation that can be measured and remains stable throughout one’s life even as personal identity and community affiliation may change. While effective in marginalizing reorientation practices hostile to homosexual desires, the notion of a fixed sexual orientation is scientifically fraught (how to measure it?) and problematically cis male-centered (most assertions of sexual fixity are rooted in studies involving penises and porn). Ultimately — without discounting the harms done to individuals in ex-gay therapy — The Straight Line challenges gay-affirming readers to re-examine their assumptions that the demise of reorientation science is an untempered win for LGBT rights. Continue reading “Book Review: The Straight Line”