Are we sure that being gay isn’t a choice?

Patrick Strudwick has written a powerful expose of Lesley Pilkington, the psychotherapist who tried to cure his homosexuality.

She told him that childhood wounds were responsible for how he felt, that he was experiencing mental illness and an anti-religious phenomenon. She prayed that he’d remember being sexually abused, even though he wasn’t. She told him to become more heterosexual by playing Rugby.

Most will agree that Ms Pilkington has more issues than she’s qualified to treat. Colleagues are outraged. The BACP has suspended her accreditation and ordered her to re-train.

Yet the furore isn’t really about an old woman behaving unprofessionally; her suspension only made the news because collectively we’re holding onto the myth that people are born either heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual – that we have no choice.

Is it really true that we have no choice?

I’ve been in a relationship with another man for 13 years (which is all my adult life). I fought in the European Court to get the age of consent equalised at 16 for everyone and I think all consenting adults should be free to enjoy themselves in peace and privacy.

I’ve also spent years exploring how we build ourselves as people – how our bodies work, how we adopt and maintain beliefs, how we link together our thoughts to construct our personalities, and so on.

I now think we create ourselves as gay or straight the same way we create ourselves as confident characters or shy ones, artistic or sporty, optimistic or pessimistic. We create thoughts about ourselves that we hold to be true, we attach to them and filter our experiences through the network of assumptions they generate.

I used to think I wasn’t artistic. I couldn’t draw anything that looked like something. I had no sense of how colours complemented each other or how to express my feelings on canvas. One day I was challenged on it. How did I know I wasn’t artistic? Why was I making an identity out of a lack of ability? I thought about it for a good 20 minutes without saying anything and I remembered all those times in art class when I didn’t pay attention because I didn’t think I was artistic. I didn’t doodle when I was bored because I wasn’t artistic. I didn’t use the paints I got for Christmas because I wasn’t artistic. So of course I wasn’t very good at art. I’d never learnt, practiced or associated good feelings with the process. When I changed that and began painting for fun, soon I got good at it. Now I think I’m artistic. Now I can paint well.

I also grew up in care where the other boys were much older and more scary than me. I learnt to hide and be invisible as a way of staying safe. Before long I thought I was a shy person; then I went to therapy and had that confirmed. One day someone challenged me on it. I thought about this one for even longer than 20 minutes and over time I began to realise all the ways I’d learnt to think of myself and therefore taught myself to be. I had beliefs that I thought were truths. When I began to realise I was more than my thoughts about myself, I began to be free. I don’t think of myself as a shy person any more and my behaviour has changed too. I make new friends and chat to people wherever I go.

I love being around new-born babies because they don’t see us as men or women, gay or straight. They don’t have those concepts yet and there was a time when we didn’t either. Then we began to think, and our thoughts began to define us and our relationships with others. Most of us never explore this. We’re too busy. We’re too distracted. Or it’s too uncomfortable.

I was extremely uncomfortable when people said I could be less shy. It felt like they wanted me to be something I wasn’t. I distracted myself by getting angry.

I know a lot of people will feel the same when I say you can choose who you’re attracted to and who you’re propelled to seek relationships with. I don’t mean it’s a simple and conscious choice like how you want to have your steak cooked. I mean that you’re a human being and you’re capable of anything human beings are capable of, and the labels we use to feel secure are also the fences that keep us penned in.

There aren’t many Lesley Pilkingtons around these days and they shouldn’t be allowed to set the tone for conversations we have around sex and sexuality. It’s no longer about which way is right or wrong, normal or abnormal. The next step is about bringing awareness to our own choices.

Who would you be, without your story about who you are?

I work with people who want to explore what else they’re capable of. We explore their potential from the perspective of fascination, not desperation. It’s about expanding, not changing. My experience is increasingly that we can be whoever we choose to be, from the inside out. I think that’s real freedom and the next stage in human evolution.