Can Someone Be Homosexual and Not Gay?

It depends on the culture in which you find yourself.

Posted Apr 01, 2016

Words are powerful.

They come with a truckload of baggage from the thousands of times we have heard and used them in various settings and cultural contexts. So when we therapists are confronted with male clients, often married ones, who come to us with deep conflicts about their sexual attraction to other men, we often find that they are willing to use the word “homosexual,” but eschew the “gay” label.

Why? Because “gay” implies an embracing of the gay lifestyle — gay bars, gay pride parades, perhaps multiple sex partners, or even anonymous sex. Such clients often are in committed relationships with their wives, are fathers, and are members of a religion that labels same-sex attraction, especially if acted upon, as a sin. Unfortunately, much of our nation’s politics have long exacerbated the problem as well, shaming and vilifying homosexuality, leading legions of men struggling with sexual identity to internalize their homophobia.

For example, gay men in the Mormon faith are in moral conflict. Their only option if they want to remain active and “worthy” (meaning they can participate in Mormon rituals) is to stay celibate or enter a mixed-orientation marriage (which the church no longer officially recommends). 

Appropriate Therapy

How, then, should we seek to help these men who are mired in such internal conflict, whose religious or cultural identity trumps their sexual identity? During the’90s, I became a “gay-affirmative therapist.” That is, I pressured men—even religious men like this—to come out of the closet. I warned them of the pitfalls of keeping their sexual orientation secret: a life of increased depression, pursuing a secret life in the gay underground with the danger of being caught, how attempting to suppress urges can often cause them to become even more obsessed with them.

However, by doing so I eventually realized that by pushing them to come out, I wasn’t helping them. Being a gay man, I was trying to bring them to where I was at. But as my experience with such men grew, I realized that there is nothing wrong with them choosing to live in a way that doesn’t bring chaos into their family life. These men often tell me that coming out would result in them leading a life of depression, not staying in the closet. I still make them aware of the research that addresses the chance of depression and the dangers listed above, and often advise them to tell their wives, but most find that the risk is too high.

Some of these men are in the early stages of coming out. During this time, a man doesn’t see himself as gay, only homosexual. The term gay is too affirmative, and they are not ready to accept it. I warn them that if they choose to stay in the closet and get married, over time their sexual orientation will continue evolving and the coming-out process will move to the acceptance stage, making it more of a struggle to keep a heterosexual life going.

I have treated many men who are of Mormon, Orthodox Jewish, Catholic, and other religions who think of homosexuality as a pathology. I have helped some to come out, and some have had to leave their religious affiliations either because they were kicked out or the pressure to go back into the closet was too strong, bordering on emotional abuse.

This is a very difficult and traumatizing road for them. They often do lose their families and become cut off and alienated. Therapy, then, becomes about helping them grieve the loss and start to build a new life, living in integrity within themselves. Their pain is excruciating, but I honor their bravery in risking losing everything to ensure they have a quality life as a gay man.

They may need, from time to time, to seek further therapy, but with the right therapist, one who has thoroughly understood the dangers of such practices of “reparative therapy” in which the therapist seeks to change the client’s sexual identity from gay to straight. Now outlawed in some states as well as condemned by most national mental health organizations and accrediting bodies, it has an abysmal record: 100 percent recidivism and too many suicides.

Because the labels “homosexual” or “gay” carry such a stigma, some of these men seek help for their “sex addiction” and see their homosexuality as an acting out of same-sex urges. Some therapists make the mistake of diagnosing them with sexual addiction because either the client or the therapist considers the term to be more acceptable. They push the client into the sex addiction model, which all too often treats men who struggle with “unwanted same-sex attractions” as a pathology rather than understanding from a sexual health perspective that they might be dealing with an unwanted sexual identity or are simply sexually fluid—neither of which are pathological. Being homosexual, gay, or having same-sex attraction is not sex addiction, and should never be treated as such. This puts the client at odds with their sexual orientation and only makes things worse.

I warn these men about any therapist who would try to change their sexual orientation or label it as an addiction, and to tell their therapist upfront that they are not interested in either of these directions. If the therapist is unwilling to honor that request, then ask for a referral to another therapist.

Hetero-Emotional and Homosexual

The truth is that many men with “same-sex attractions” are successfully walking the narrow path between internal cultural and religious identification, and have good marriages. I think of them as being hetero-emotional homosexuals. Though they know they are sexually attracted to men, they are emotionally drawn to women. They fall in love with their wives, and because of that, the expression of love through intimacy allows them to have great sex and intimacy with their spouse.

Their fantasy and masturbatory life is geared toward men, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t have sex with their wives. Some people may label them as bisexual, but they are not because they not attracted to women sexually. They are attracted to one woman, their wife.

Men who identify as having sexual and romantic interest in other men but choose to live heterosexually deserve the right to self-determine how they want to live. It is a therapist’s responsibility to block their own bias and support these clients—or any clients for that matter—in the direction they want to go, not the direction we think they are supposed to go.

The bottom line is that there is an incredible range of human sexuality, and we are increasingly recognizing myriad ways to negotiate the sometimes confusing pathways our urges put us on. The words we use to define ourselves can help us to come to terms with and more fully embrace our identity.