The In­her­i­tance of Shame

Gay Times Magazine - - Contents - WORDS jonathan shiel

Fol­low­ing a trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence of child sex­ual abuse, and a strongly re­li­gious up­bring­ing, writer Peter Ga­jdics found him­self in the hands of an abu­sive doc­tor with ex­treme plans to ‘cure’ him of his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. His new mem­oir, In­her­i­tance

of Shame, tells the ex­tra­or­di­nary story of the years-long or­deal that fol­lowed. Here, he talks to Gay Times about why he needed to speak out, and how

to stop this hor­ror from hap­pen­ing to oth­ers.

THE HOR­RIFIC EF­FECTS OF CON­VER­SION THER­APY ON PETER CAN BE SHOWN IN HIS SE­RIES OF SELF-POR­TRAITS. THE FIRST, TOP LEFT, WAS COM­PLETED IN 1988, ONE YEAR BE­FORE HIS CON­VER­SION THER­APY. THE SEC­OND, TOP RIGHT, WAS COM­PLETED IN 1990, ONE YEAR INTO CON­VER­SION THER­APY. AND THE LAST PIC­TURE, BOT­TOM, WAS COM­PLETED ROUGHLY TWO YEARS INTO CON­VER­SION THER­APY.

All forms of con­ver­sion or repar­a­tive ther­a­pies start with some ver­sion of the same lie – that to be gay is a dis­ease, an er­ror, or the re­sult of sex­ual abuse. That lie cre­ates an in­ter­nal logic that car­ries you down a road that can go for years. Any ev­i­dence to the con­trary – sci­ence, books, movies, doesn’t mat­ter – when you be­lieve in that in­ter­nal logic, you live it.

An un­healthy pat­tern es­tab­lished it­self early in my life – a groove of shame that I walked. Ev­ery­thing re­lated to my body, my sex­u­al­ity, my child­hood sex­ual abuse, and went back to the fat man in the bath­room who abused me. Ev­ery time I had sex, I grav­i­tated to­wards men that looked like my abuser, or the dy­namic felt sim­i­lar.

This com­pounded my shame, like a rep­e­ti­tion compulsion. It was very rare that I would have sex at that point where it felt free, lib­er­at­ing, joy­ful and bliss­ful.

Like a rip­pling ef­fect in the ocean, you throw one rock into the ocean of time and it rip­ples through the years – it seemed to me that the rip­pling was the grad­ual de­vel­op­ment of my ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity that stemmed from this one event, my abuse. I was so fright­ened of my­self, be­cause I thought I was the re­sult of abuse. I grew up fear­ful of what I was, fear­ful of what

I was be­com­ing, and with the ide­ol­ogy that sex­ual abuse makes ho­mo­sex­u­als; that gays are re­cruited, that if you think you’re gay, it’s only be­cause of the sex­ual abuse – the world of the 70s.

I went into con­ver­sion ther­apy with this mind­set, which was com­pounded by my par­ents’ be­lief, and it was para­mount in the me­dia dur­ing my for­ma­tive years. It was also the doc­tor’s logic. Af­ter I met him, early in my ther­apy, the fo­cus was not on the cor­re­la­tion be­tween abuse and be­ing gay, but just ex­press­ing my anger.

For some­body who was never al­lowed to raise their voice or ex­press any type of anger, that was hugely cathar­tic. For years I had been frozen, I couldn’t even cry, and sud­denly I was cry­ing.

But within a mat­ter of months, the doc­tor was analysing my ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, talk­ing about help­ing me cor­rect it. He re­framed my anger and grief and mourn­ing to my ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity: ‘You’re an­gry be­cause you think you’re a ho­mo­sex­ual, you’re an­gry be­cause you were abused – that made you think you’re ho­mo­sex­ual, but re­ally you’re het­ero­sex­ual.’ The med­i­ca­tion was trau­matic and toxic, and I al­most died.

It was af­ter I left the ther­apy that I could

ask my­self fun­da­men­tally ba­sic ques­tions which would never have been al­lowed be­fore, like why are straight peo­ple who’ve been sex­u­ally abused not gay, or why are there gay peo­ple who weren’t abused? To see that I was en­trenched in so many lies gave me so much free­dom. I started work­ing in the gay com­mu­nity, es­tab­lish­ing friend­ships there, and run­ning gay groups.

I still couldn’t process what had hap­pened, and I needed to speak the truth of it, and un­der­stand why it hap­pened – not just that my doc­tor had acted abu­sively, but why had I placed my­self in this cir­cum­stance? Why had I stayed? Did I learn any­thing? What did it mean to me? I started to read a lot, to un­der­stand as a gay per­son, the his­tory of this legacy, that it had hap­pened to so many peo­ple, that it was continuing to hap­pen, and it just seemed that speak­ing the truth about it was one way to hope­fully pre­vent it from hap­pen­ing to other peo­ple.

The doc­tor just went on – they didn’t take his li­cense away, I don’t even think he was fined. This was rep­re­hen­si­ble to me – I’d ex­pected some form of le­gal vin­di­ca­tion, and didn’t re­ceive it, which was heart­break­ing. Af­ter be­ing si­lenced grow­ing up, and si­lenced in the ther­apy, I was si­lenced through the le­gal process. I de­cided I was go­ing to speak out by writ­ing my book. I’m not a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, but I think writ­ing is a form of po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism.

My goal is to write about what hap­pened, get it into the world, and then hope­fully it will make a dif­fer­ence to in­di­vid­u­als and po­lit­i­cally, and laws will be cre­ated. Get­ting pub­lished has been ar­du­ous, with com­ments like ‘this type of book won’t sell, the mes­sage isn’t as im­por­tant today, this doesn’t hap­pen any­more,’ but I just had to push through – that’s been my fight.

I want to make an im­por­tant caveat: con­ver­sion, repar­a­tive, what­ever you want to call it, is an um­brella term that in­cludes many types of ther­a­pies aimed at chang­ing sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. Through the years we’ve had the most ex­treme: decades ago, lobotomies, elec­tric shock, aver­sive stim­uli, and then the more be­nign talk ther­apy, and the re­li­gious ‘pray away the gay’ ther­a­pies. It’s dan­ger­ous to get at­tached to the la­bel ‘con­ver­sion ther­apy’, be­cause then you look for some­thing that calls it­self that, which is mis­lead­ing. I’d never heard those words when I was in my ther­apy.

In my case, it was one-on-one ther­apy, although there were group ses­sions. Even though these things are hap­pen­ing in large numbers in groups and gay camps, my fear has al­ways been about the more sub­ver­sive en­coun­ters that hap­pen be­hind closed doors, one-on-one with a ther­a­pist. When you’re young, or any age, and you’re de­pressed, and strug­gling with is­sues of sex­ual abuse or con­fu­sion, you need help, and you’re so vul­ner­a­ble that you’ll al­most lis­ten to any­thing. When an author­ity fig­ure, a li­censed psy­chi­a­trist, says ‘I can help you stop your pain’, you just jump on ship.

It’s re­ally im­por­tant that the tide’s turn­ing against this ther­apy, and I’m pleased to see so much of it be­ing out­lawed. In the US, there are bans be­ing passed al­most monthly, es­pe­cially for mi­nors. As they emerge, more sto­ries arise about in­di­vid­u­als who have gone through it. In the UK, there’s been an out­cry in the Church of Eng­land. Jayne Ozanne, a high-rank­ing ac­tivist there, who’s been through the ther­apy and suf­fered the af­ter-ef­fects – trauma, break­down – has la­belled it spir­i­tual abuse. These things per­me­ate the body, they touch on your soul, es­pe­cially when you go through them over a pe­riod of years. They break down ev­ery part of you: your spirit, your de­fences, your morale and your self-con­fi­dence, and that is spir­i­tual abuse.

But here in Canada, On­tario passed leg­is­la­tion ban­ning it, and Man­i­toba has a weak health reg­u­la­tion which ba­si­cally says that it’s a red flag if they see doc­tors billing for con­ver­sion ther­apy. Well doc­tors won’t do that – my doc­tor didn’t. And that’s it – just two prov­inces. Here in Canada, a lot of peo­ple hear the words con­ver­sion ther­apy and they say, ‘That doesn’t hap­pen here, that’s just the States, the Bi­ble belt.’ But I don’t live in the Bi­ble belt, I’m Cana­dian, I live in Vic­to­ria, and that’s where this ther­apy hap­pened.

A ban on con­ver­sion ther­apy is not a ban on dis­cus­sions around sex­u­al­ity. The op­posers say we can’t ban ther­a­pies, be­cause what if some­body needs to talk about their sex­u­al­ity? But I don’t think those bans in­fringe on that, they’re de­signed to pre­vent the abu­sive re­la­tion­ship where the coun­sel­lor tor­tures the pa­tient into be­com­ing some­thing that they’re not through some­times ex­treme means. How­ever, you can ban ther­a­pies, but the im­por­tant thing is to change peo­ple’s hearts, or there will al­ways be some­body else who tries to do this. It’s a mind­set that says every­one is straight, and if they aren’t, they should be.

It still strikes me how het­ero­sex­ist this world is. When I grew up, it was so pro­nounced that ev­ery­body is, or should be, in an op­po­site sex re­la­tion­ship, and of course it’s bet­ter now. But the stuff that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily get writ­ten about is the preva­lence of this mind­set (per­haps even among some gay peo­ple) that be­ing gay is the re­sult of abuse. Although I still be­lieve in God, that ho­mo­pho­bic at­ti­tude is of­ten, sadly, shrouded in re­li­gion. It makes me crazy, it’s hor­ren­dous that these hate­ful words – to be gay is an ill­ness, that with treat­ment you could be ‘helped’ – are in the name of God. You turn on the news, or a re­li­gious pro­gramme, and they’re con­stantly con­demn­ing ho­mo­sex­u­als – love the sin­ner, hate the sin. Not much has changed since I was a kid.

But how­ever hate­fully these peo­ple may be act­ing in the name of God, they are not God.

“Con­ver­sion ther­apy per­me­ates the body, touches on the soul, breaks down

ev­ery part of you...”

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