Orientation vs. Addiction

Ex-gays often compare homosexuality to alcoholism, in order to demonstrate a moral point. They’ll say things like: “An alcoholic can’t reverse his alcoholism. But that doesn’t make it okay for him to drink.” The comparison is as inapt as it is annoying. Homosexuality is, plainly, not an addiction, and shouldn’t be seen as one.

1. Whereas alcoholics, by definition, are addicted to drink, not all homosexuals are addicted to gay sex, entrapped in “the lifestyle”, or obsessively immersed in gay thoughts and fantasies.

2. To be an alcoholic, one must already be addicted to alcohol. This is plainly not the case for self-identifying gays. Aaron Taylor (in response to comments on a post of his) puts it perfectly:

Hmm. There are plenty of gay Christian virgins, but probably no alcoholics that never drank a drink, or porn addicts that never looked at porn. Sex can be an addiction. Sexuality can’t, I don’t think.

I would add that many individuals who self-identify as gay confess they were aware of their orientation at early age, sometimes well before puberty, certainly before any sexual activity later in life. And of those who only discovered they were gay later in life, plenty choose to remain celibate. To liken either group to drunkards is to misrepresent them grossly: it unfairly stigmatizes the innocent (in both cases, but especially that of prepubescent gays), while dismissively downplaying the efforts and commitments of the faithful (in the case of gay celibates).

3. The rehab treatment/support group culture attached to alcoholism doesn’t readily lend itself to the situation of many gays. Unfortunately, though, this is essentially the model used by ex-gay ministries like (by what was formerly) Exodus International. Homosexual orientation, on this picture, is a problem that needs to be mitigated, controlled, managed. Hence, the euphemism of “unwanted same-sex attractions” (a mouthful compared to the easier “gay celibate”). This is what comes to mind for many conservative evangelicals who are faced with having to deal with gays in the Church: they reference them to a local ex-gay ministry.

One of the first things I was recommended, when I finally came out to a church leader back in college, was to join a “Celebrate Recovery” group. Naturally, I was confused. What did I have to “recover” from? I never asked, but my best guess (today) would be that he was presupposing the conventional ex-gay wisdom of the time that a developmental model of the root causes of homosexuality was largely correct, and therefore my homosexual tendencies, which owed their origins to some sort of family-of-origin wounds, were in need of healing (a process, I suppose, succeeded by “recovery”).

4. A “rehab” attitude toward homosexuality casts it in purely a negative light. Alcoholics see alcohol as their demise–a reminder of old hurts and mistakes, a continuing source of temptation, and a likely cause for relapse. There is nothing good about their addiction; only bad. This sort of hatred for the object of one’s addiction, when applied to homosexuality, can only produce internalized homophobia–hatred of one’s own sexual preferences. Taken to heart, this erodes one’s sense of self, of which orientation is an undeniable part. Perhaps the only positive thing that can be said about it is the opportunity it presents for further growth and sanctification: how it enables God to work through one’s weakness. I’m not denying that this is a very real and important aspect of the experience of many gay Christian celibates, who do see their homosexuality as their “cross to bear” or “thorn in the flesh”: the means of their sanctification. I don’t think we have to see it that way, however. And to see one’s homosexual desires as just that, in my judgment, is a rather limiting view. I much prefer the idea (articulated here) that one’s homoerotic attractions need not express themselves sexually, but can nevertheless enrich one’s friendships and enable one to love those around him in a deeper, fulfilling way.

True, some Christians who “struggle with same-sex attractions” liken themselves to alchoholics, insofar as they desire something they know to be ungodly and immoral, just as many addicts drink despite not wanting to. But this is true of plenty of other situations, like those wanting to leave an unhealthy relationship but stuck out of fear of change; or those finding it nearly impossible to break away from their involvement in certain cult groups, given how heavily invested they are. To fixate on this one aspect of homosexuality–the prohibition–is to lose sight of the potential good in it all.

For these reasons, I support dropping this tired “alcoholism” analogy altogether. It’s inaccurate. It’s reductionist. It’s unhelpful. But worst of all, it prevents us from seeing the good that our gay brethren have to offer.