Rebekah Moffett, Communications Officer at Christian Concern, interviews Sam Salter to find out what changed his mind about being ‘born gay’ and his experiences of receiving counselling for same-sex attraction.
Since first sharing his story of finding freedom from homosexual desires with X-Out-Loud Europe, Sam Salter has been vocal about his experiences of what others label ‘conversion therapy’ and the need not to ban it.
Less than three years ago, Sam was in a relationship with another man, believing he’d been ‘born gay’ and – at least on the surface, he tells me – quite happy with the life he was living. So how does an educated, 30-year-old man, quite happy in a homosexual relationship, go from believing he was ‘born that way’ to seeking counselling and therapy for unwanted sexual desires?
“Often, the idea of change freaks the LGBT crowd out – because it is an identity thing,” he says. But there is no denying that Sam is a completely different person, with a completely different identity now to the one he’d assumed three years ago.
‘Set up for homosexuality’
“I used to assume I was ‘born gay’ because I knew from a young age that I was different, and as soon as I understood the word ‘gay’, I knew it applied to me,” Sam explains.
Yet initially, Sam came out tentatively as bisexual at the age of 15, saying he was also romantically attracted to girls at that point. “But I put that on the backburner,” he jokes.
He now believes that a “chain of events” in his childhood set him up for “becoming homosexual” – that growing up in the environment he did led him to assume a homosexual identity.
“My dad abandoned me when I was four or five. I had my mum around, and my step-dad. Essentially, I grew up in an environment where I felt like I had to hide away a lot. I wasn’t a very trusting child. I often felt like my needs were inconvenient and/or threatening.
“My extended family was very female-dominated too, so I just didn’t have a male role model in my early years. I learned to hide away my own needs and instead cater to the women to fit in with them.
“By the time I got to school, being with other boys in school, it seemed like they had an edge that I didn’t. I think I’d missed out a bit. Boys to me were a bit foreign; I found them inconsiderate, I thought they were rude, critical… I didn’t relate to the way they played, I didn’t get it.
“And by the time puberty hit and sexual attractions developed… Well, I’d been rejected a lot by girls romantically, so instead I began seeking to be complemented by boys – they felt ‘opposite’ to me and I thought that being with them might make me whole.”
That doesn’t exactly sound as if he was ‘born gay’, I suggest, even if he did identify as ‘different’ from a young age. It almost sounds as if he’s saying that his homosexuality was a symptom of his upbringing – is that right, I ask?
“I used to say I was born gay because it is such a deep feeling. Even as a young boy, I could relate to Jasmine more than I could relate to Aladdin, for example. It feels like it’s all you’ve ever known because it’s all to do with identity. And children from around four to six-years-old are developing their sense of gender that young. They’re learning about what it is to be a boy or a girl at that young age. But there’s just no proof that people are born gay.
“As children, I think we need to relate to our own gender to develop a stable sense of self; it’s part of that developmental stage. Homosexuality was a way for my body to reconcile the fact that there was a kind of split in my personality, in that sense.
“Of course, sexual attractions don’t manifest until puberty, but I identified strongly with the girls instead of the boys. The fact that I knew I belonged in the ‘gay’ box without having experienced any real sexual attraction is testimony to the fact that our sexuality is strongly linked to our identity and how we see ourselves.”
So how did Sam see himself? Surely our sense of self comes not just from our childhood and bringing, but also our cultural context, our beliefs, our education…
Creating gay culture
“The thing is, for gay people – the LGBT identity, a lot of it is about pop culture, what kind of media do you consume, what music do you listen to? We think of certain pop music being ‘gay’, certain TV shows being ‘gay TV shows’ – that’s testimony to it being an identity problem and not that you’re born that way.
“So much goes into your identity: where you live, the furniture you’ve got, the car you’ve got, the music, the TV shows. I think there are things that appeal to gay people because of the interactions between the characters. For example, gay men typically love Golden Girls; they love seeing these women being dominant, catty and messing around because that’s the environment they know.
“But also, some TV shows deliberately try to not only appeal to gay people but also to create gay people.”
That’s quite an accusation. In fact, isn’t that a sort of opposite ‘conversion therapy’ he’s describing?
“After I started therapy, I became angry. I was angry that certain information had been hidden from me. It felt like the media had been very manipulative, especially with the popularity of people like Lady Gaga, who came on the scene about 10 years ago, really launching a political campaign through pop music. I was a huge fan at the time, but I find it sick now…”
Surely change can’t be as simple as changing the music you listen to or the TV shows you watch though?
Sam assures me it isn’t, but he calls these things ‘identity markers’ – little clues and indicators that feed into a person’s identity. “That’s one of the things in my process that’s a little bit harder to deal with. And it’s something that makes people doubt, as well. It’s a big change in lifestyle – it’s not just about not being able to have sex or have a relationship. Some people might see it as ‘what kind of music can I listen to, what can I watch on TV’, but it’s more than that. It’s working from the inside out. As I’m going through this process, I’m learning to let go of those identity markers, like music.”
Perhaps we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves, I suggest. I want to know what made him change his mind about wanting to ‘be gay’ and seek counselling in the first place.
“I very much had a typical ‘gay life’ of having boyfriends and going out drinking. I had a few significant relationships. My last relationship lasted four and a half years, with a guy I thought was perfect for me. And we had so much fun,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“On the surface, our relationship seemed healthy, but I knew deep down there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction. I would look at other men, I was always looking for something else, for something better around the corner. I felt that my life was on a steep decline and I was just losing a grip on life.
“Ultimately, I felt this gay identity was… I felt like I was regressing in life. Like a helpless child.”
So what was it that made him seek help?
“One day I happened to come across Dr Joseph Nicolosi on YouTube. He’s a well-known psychologist and psychotherapist who studied and helped people with homosexuality for a few decades. What he said blew my mind, because not only was he able to describe my family dynamic with profound accuracy, he was also able to explain why I had so many other issues, like narcissism, low self-esteem, minor OCD tendencies, eating disorders – because homosexuality is a symptom of shame, not the other way around, like so many gay activists have us believe.
“It made me realise that the reason I was struggling to mature in my twenties was because there was a child within looking for something it didn’t get, but I was feeding it salt water when it needed something purer than that. I didn’t need sexual relationships with men – I needed healthy platonic ones.”
‘Revealing who I really am’
Since seeking therapy, Sam has also become a Christian. I ask if becoming a Christian had any effect on his decision to seek change – or if one led to the other.
“No, not really. I wasn’t a Christian at the time, and I wasn’t religiously motivated to seek help. It was purely psychological information that I’d found and couldn’t argue with. I’m a Christian now, but with years of experience being homosexual – I’d been in long-term relationships and even though I thought I’d found the perfect person, I realised that the relationship wasn’t fruitful, it wasn’t helpful.”
So how did he become a Christian? And has that had any impact on his sexual identity?
“I became a Christian shortly after ditching the ‘gay’ label. I’d believed in God for a few years, but I got caught up in new age philosophies which spoke a lot into ideas about gender.
“When I finally sat down to read about Jesus, I couldn’t argue with anything he said. I realised that Jesus had been with me all these years, graciously waiting for me to let him in. Since then, Christianity has helped me see which way is up. The more I read about God in the Bible, the more I come to understand who He really made me to be, and I can take steps to let that person out. I don’t think my journey is about becoming something, so much as it is about revealing who I already am.”
This is the reason Sam has sought help to change. He explains that in reality, ‘conversion therapy’ is a misleading term: “There are many different therapeutic techniques that we can explore,” he tells me. “God gave me exactly what I needed when I needed it. I began by doing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is essentially about positive thinking, but is very surface-level stuff, and very much NHS-approved.
“After that, I met a more traditional, analytic therapist who helped me understand how much I can project my fears onto people who don’t deserve it. He played a very fatherly role, listening to my traumatic memories and helping me navigate relationships with spiritual wisdom.
“Since then, I’ve moved on to Reintegrative Therapy, which is about learning to father myself in a way. It has taught me that my sexuality is very much based on shame, and not love.
“Therapy always sounds ‘woo woo’ but it’s boosted my confidence dramatically over the past couple of years and helped me to stop assuming the worst in people. From a spiritual perspective, it’s helping me practise being more Christ-like, whilst simultaneously learning how to receive Christ’s love.”
But what would he say to those who argue that he’s suppressing his ‘true identity’? Even if we accept that he might not have been born gay, surely that’s who he is now, right? Isn’t it unhealthy to try and suppress those urges, those desires, that attraction? Perhaps he’s in denial about who he really is, and is just experiencing some internal form of homophobia?
“I’m sure there are people that would say I was being inauthentic by making this decision to try and deal with the trauma that caused my homosexuality, but I believe this is the most authentic thing I’ve ever done for myself.
“I don’t see it as suppression. It’s not about pushing anything down; it’s about taking these feelings and realising that they are a symptom of a deeper issue and then working through them.”
But there are those who say it’s immoral for someone to be helping you to change away from homosexuality. Those who advocate for a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ call the practice ‘abhorrent’ and ‘harmful’. Some even compare it to torture. And to be honest, re-living childhood trauma doesn’t sound too fun, I suggest.
“The therapy is quite a stressful process at times. But it’s like counselling drug addicts, for example. They’ve built their lives around drugs: getting drugs, taking drugs, finding the money to buy drugs, planning where they’re going to take the drugs. It’s not necessarily all about the drug itself but the whole life that surrounds it. So when you take drugs away from those people, it’s not necessarily going to be about the physical withdrawal – although that may happen too – but about dealing with their lifestyle in general.
“Let’s say a heterosexual sex addict seeks help. Their desire to use sex as an affect regulator, their addiction – it’s a psychological, emotional problem. So, you might help that person by helping them to establish healthy relationships.
“That’s all I’m doing, really; I’m taking a symptom and filling it up with healthier things. That’s all therapy is – that’s all rehabilitation is.”
So, it’s as simple as swapping out sexual desires with men for sexual desires with women? Does that work?
“It’s not about sex and sexuality,” Sam tells me. “The sexuality is a symptom of a broader problem, like a fracturing of the mind that needs to be patched up and mended through healthy relationships with men.
“A big part of my sexuality is about boredom. So, I replace thinking about sex with men with thinking about sports, for example. I never did sports when I was young, I never had that time to be around boys my age and do those sorts of activities, and now that’s what I really crave.”
Has he experienced any change in his sexual attractions, I ask.
“Since beginning Reintegrative Therapy in particular I’ve come to learn that my sexual attractions are not about the man I’m looking at, and not how he makes me feel, but rather about how I make myself feel about me when I see him.
“I have a bad habit of shaming myself. A general example might be like this: ‘He’s got big arms, I don’t, therefore I’m weaker than him.’ And that feeling in itself is what creates arousal. I’m learning to recognise that shame and let go of it, which then eliminates the arousal. It’s fascinating stuff, really!
“In terms of my identity, all I can say right now is that I have a much healthier sense of who I am. I’ve gone from identifying as gay, to ‘an embittered sufferer of unwanted same-sex attraction’, then to ‘a normal guy who’s just got some stuff he’s trying to work out’, all in the space of two and a half years!”
So therapy works?!
“Yes, I can say for sure that it’s working for me. Obviously I can’t just swap one sin for another – I’m talking about lust, obviously – but those attractions have been there. It’s very much dependent on how I feel and what I’ve been doing, and my level of assertion. For example, at a conference for people who wanted to talk about the topic – we were just talking for three days in a row about all the trauma, and on the plane home, I noticed that my body wasn’t even reacting to men around me – I just saw them as people. But my body was reacting to women. Maybe it sounds like I’m jumping the gun, but to me, that was God’s way of saying you can feel a healthy attraction to women.
“I’ve had several of those moments over the years. So I do believe change is possible, and I’m excited to see what happens.”
Recently, the government has moved forward with plans to ban so-called ‘conversion therapy’. This would obviously affect Sam’s ability to seek the help he wants. I ask him what kind of effect a ban would have on him.
“For me, it would be quite easy to go to a therapist and say, ‘I need help with childhood trauma’. But I think the effects would be slightly more subtle than that, and actually more sinister. It could mean that churches can’t counsel their own members, and that would affect what they can and can’t preach on a Sunday.
“It would mean that the government would have a foot in the door of religious institutions and would be able to dictate what they can and can’t say. And I think that’s very dangerous.
“For me, therapy is about growing as a man of God and learning to anchor myself with other men. And help and support from people is so necessary for that to happen.”
What would his response be to those within the church who argue we shouldn’t try to change a person’s identity, but might object to banning things like prayer?
“I’d say, isn’t change in identity a fundamental principle of Christianity? Dying to self, shedding the old to make way for the new, beating the flesh and receiving the spirit, on our journey back home to the father..?
“Such a radical idea is hard to keep a grip on because of the changes in attitudes in secular society, but this is the fun of being a Christian – we know the real truth, a truth that exists beyond time and space, and we have authority under God to speak it, to bring others back to the Father with us. Why do so many great Christian testimonies come from people who used to be criminals, or drug addicts, or alcoholics? It’s because they used to be one thing and now they’re another, which reinforces our belief in God’s existence and Christ’s transformative power.
“The LGBT condition is about a deeply-held unconscious belief that we are not allowed to be healthy heterosexual men or women, an idea implanted from negative childhood experiences. We don’t need to shame LGBT people and coerce them into change efforts they don’t want to make, but we can knock at their door until they answer, by building them up and showing them how to be that man or woman God made them to be, and more importantly showing them that it is good.”
Is a ban really the right way to go?
So what are we to make of all this? While it’s true that the ‘gay gene’ theory has been largely debunked, the ideology that a person is born with an innate sexuality that can’t be changed, but that they come to terms with over time, is one that the LGBT lobby heavily relies on. Yet Sam’s experience seems to be the opposite: he appears to have gone from identifying a bisexual, then to homosexual, then to unwanted homosexuality, and now to exploring feelings of heterosexuality. But if people are really born with an innate sexuality, how does one square with that? Is it possible that sexuality might be able to change? And if it can change, then what’s the cause?
The change in Sam’s identity is remarkable. He seems to be proof that change is possible – and wanted, at least for some people. His experiences don’t seem to match up with those from the LGBT lobby of ‘survivors’ of ‘conversion therapy’ – Sam is open and honest about the counselling and therapy he has received, and furthermore is very blunt that counselling on the issue of sexuality is secondary to dealing with past trauma and issues from childhood.
Surely there are more people out there like Sam, maybe even suffering in silence, unsure where to seek help, struggling with issues of identity. To put it back to the LGBT lobby, if we ban counselling and therapy for unwanted sexual attractions, isn’t that akin to subjecting them to torture, forcing them to live with undesired attractions? Just as in Sam’s example with the drug addict, would we really expect those who are struggling to come out of addictive behaviours to have to deal with it all on their own?
You can watch more of Sam’s story on Round the Table: