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For as long as she can remember, Jacqui Wyles hasn't felt like one of the girls. At high school, she struggled to remember clothing labels and she could barely suppress her boredom when girlfriends obsessed over gossip magazines.
She had "crushes" on older girls, but she had "normal, puppy love" boyfriends as well. As her relationships with boys became more sexual, though, they became more demeaning. "I had a lot of boys in the back seats of cars using me."
At 17, she was raped while hitchhiking in the South Island and, she says, after that experience she was even more ill-at-ease with men. The following year, she was seduced by a married woman in her mid-20s. "She invited me over for tea and said she was attracted to me and I just felt myself melt inside. She was very gentle and careful . . . She knew I was young and I was in deep trouble."
A short time later, Wyles declared herself a lesbian. It was the mid-1970s and she immersed herself in the lesbian separatist movement in Wellington. "Basically, we wanted men exterminated from the planet," she says. She smoked a pipe, wore a T-shirt with the slogan "Lesbian Nation" and became a bus driver. "It was a good job for a dyke. You got to wear shorts and drive a big bus although it wasn't that hard since I think they had power steering."
These days, Wyles, 47, is keen to find a husband. "I have no sexual attraction towards women now. I have no erotic feelings towards women and I know that's one thing God has changed for me. I'm really interested in getting married and I'm looking forward to the sexual side of marriage."
Wyles is one of a low-profile group of former homosexuals and lesbians who believe that they have changed their sexual orientation. Mostly Christians who found that their homosexuality was in conflict with their faith, some of these "ex-gays" are married and have children. Their claims — rubbished by gay groups — are supported by the findings of a new study by Dr Robert Spitzer, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York.
The study, reported in the US journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour, concluded that homosexuals who undergo "reparative" or "reorientation" therapy can change their sexuality. The findings have created even more of an impact because Spitzer was head of the committee that deleted homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association's list of official mental disorders in 1973. That decision lent authority to the claim that homosexuality is the result of nature, not nurture, and it is not possible to "choose" one's sexuality.
Of the 200 former homosexuals in Spitzer's study, 78% of males and 95% of females who voluntarily underwent therapy reported a change in their sexuality. And of the 143 men and 57 women, 66% of males and 44% of females had achieved what Spitzer described as "good heterosexual functioning". That meant they were in a loving, heterosexual relationship, having heterosexual sex at least once a month and never — or rarely — fantasizing about someone of the same gender during heterosexual sex.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, 93% of the participants described themselves as "devoutly religious" but Spitzer says that while that made them "highly motivated" they nonetheless met his definition of heterosexuality.
"I came to this study a skeptic," Spitzer says, "I believed a homosexual, whether born or made, was a homosexual and that to consider their orientation a matter of choice was wrong. But the fact is that if I found even one person who could change, the door is open, and a change in sexual orientation is possible." Gay rights campaigners have accused Spitzer of being a "cultural conservative" but Spitzer has insisted his only interest in the subject is scientific truth.
An editorial in the American magazine Psychology Today earlier this year defended the right of therapists to offer sexual reorientation therapy. Psychologists, the magazine's editor-in-chief Robert Epstein noted, recognized a disorder characterized by distress over one's sexuality. "Both gays and straights have a right to seek treatment when they're unhappy with their sexual orientation and some choose to try and change that orientation. It would be absurd to assert that only heterosexuals have that right." According to Epstein, sexual reorientation is successful in about a third of cases.
In New Zealand, "reorientation therapy" is shunned by the majority of mainstream psychiatrists and psychotherapists.
"It is dangerous and harmful," said Dr Gavin Stansfield, a psychotherapist who works with gay men, "because what it does is reinforce the shame and self-loathing that some people have about their homosexual feelings." Indeed, the New Zealand Association of Psychotherapy issued a warning last year that such therapy was "harmful" and its members should not attempt to alter sexual orientation.
However, some Christian groups offer counseling services to gays who want help to change. Local branches of international ex-gay groups such as Courage, a Catholic group, and Exodus are approached by several hundred men and women a year.
Many of those will take part in a 32-week Living Waters program for people with a range of sexual and relationship problems, such as addiction to pornography and difficulty with intimacy, to restore their "brokenness" and achieve a "wholesome, Godly sexuality". Some in the counseling program do not seek to reorient themselves but merely want help to abstain from homosexual sex. Others set out to become fully-fledged heterosexuals.
Andrew Verissimo, director of ex-gay group Exodus, says he was a homosexual for a decade before he married and fathered a child.
"I grew up in a Christian home and got involved in the lifestyle as a bit of a rebellion and, when I was trying to give up all these things I'd grown up with, there was this little voice inside me that knew that this was not right."
As well as the conflict with his Christian upbringing, Verissimo says most of the gay relationships he observed were superficial and fleeting. "I looked around the people I was involved with and I didn't see a lot of happiness there."
Verissimo believes that no one is entirely gay or entirely straight. Instead, sexuality exists on a continuum and it is possible for people to move along it in either direction.
"I definitely believe that people can change totally," he says, "Sexuality is fluid and I believe people can move along the spectrum from almost exclusively homosexual to almost exclusively heterosexual."
Jacqui Wyles' journey along that spectrum has not always been smooth. She was living as a lesbian and driving a bus in Wellington in December 1980 when she had a "supernatural experience". "I was driving down the Brooklyn hill and the most amazing presence of God came into the bus. He showed me parts of the Bible . . . and I felt completely forgiven."
Although Wyles immediately cut ties with the gay community and became a Christian she has "fallen" three times since joining the church — once with a man and twice with women. For a long time, she saw herself as an "abstaining lesbian" but she now feels straight.
Perhaps one of the most disorienting things for ex-gays is that when they "came out" 20 or 30 years ago they were flouting social norms and now they claim to be straight they find themselves in a deeply unfashionable position again.
"I know the gays are angry at people who say they can change. They will say 'oh you were never a lesbian' or 'you're denying it' but I think I can choose, just like an alcoholic can choose to go back to drink. But it's not like I'm fighting it. I've got so far along now that I don't feel like a lesbian any more. I just keep on praying and choosing to be a heterosexual."
Now, Wyles who dresses in soft, feminine shirts and wears makeup, is ready for a husband. "I'm trusting that God will bring the right one to me. Until recently I've been doubtful that I could be a good wife but I'm OK about it now."
And although most ex-gays are Christian, for some that was only part of the problem and part of the cure.
Hastings man Aaron Ure, 42, was a gay transexual before he met his wife, Lois, 17 years ago and fathered four children. "I believe I had a conversion of sorts," he says, "My change of lifestyle was never based on my religious preference. It was based on the fact that people loved and supported me."
Ure says he always felt different growing up. When he played rugby Ure wasn't focused on the scoreline.
"I liked the fact that I got to hang on to other guys but I didn't want to be thrown on the ground and stood on."
By the age of 14 he was an "active" homosexual and by 16 he was dressing as a woman. At 18 he started hormone therapy to give him a feminine appearance.
But it did not last. "By my 20s it just wasn't working," he says. "The whole emphasis for me was not on sex but on being loved and held and supported by a male . . . the casual sex bothered me. There was nothing lasting or permanent in the lifestyle."
Two women invited Ure to their church meeting in Hamilton and although he initially thought they were "weird" he was won over by the non-judgmental nature of the people he met through the church.
"By that time I was out of drag but I still liked my silk tracksuit," he laughs. "It was quite obvious who and what I was and they still wanted to spend time with me."
Crucially, Ure says, he formed relationships with men in the church that were warm and loving but without being complicated by sex. When he met Lois, Ure says the attraction to her was immediate, but not sexual. "I met her and I thought 'this lady is kind of nice.' She was a very, very big woman but she had a real sweetness in her heart. There was no sexual attraction for either of us but over the next few years we began to develop a companionship."
Four years later, they were engaged. Before they got married, Ure had a double masectomy to remove his breasts. However, both faced resistance from family and friends who opposed the union.
"I had to go through a process with my family saying I was gay and just needed to accept it," he says. "They said 'this won't work. You're only marrying her because she's the next best thing to a man'."
Since his Christian faith forbids sex before marriage Ure had no idea whether he would be able to perform sexually. "I had to say to my wife what happens if we get into bed and I feel sick'?" And while he does not pretend it has always been easy, Ure says they have a healthy sexual relationship. They have four children aged between 16 and six. "When we're not tired, we're active. But we both have jobs and teenagers with big ears," he says with a belly laugh. Besides, he says, he places less value on sex and more on physical affection.
Although he has had the opportunity more than once, he has not had sex with a man for more than 20 years. "I could have stuffed this up at any time but I choose not to because when I look at what I've got in comparision with what (gay life) offers there's no contest. I've got a faith life, I've got a woman that loves me, I've got children who love me and I've got peace of mind."
But what does he say to gay lobbyists who will, inevitably, suggest that he is suppressing his natural sexual feelings?
"The only thing I would say to the gay entourage is that life is a series of choices. Some of them are very hard choices but they are choices nonetheless. I choose to live this lifestyle."
Lauren Quaintance. "Going straight." Sunday Star Times (New Zealand) 9 November, 2003.
This article reprinted with permission from the Sunday Star Times.
Copyright © 2003 Sunday Star Times