It is a rare event for anyone to say “I have no secrets” and mean it.
But my friend Rick insisted on including his real name, Richard Stern, in describing his life as a “baby boomer” and the early therapeutic guidance he received as he struggled with his sexual identity.
Here are Rick’s words, lightly edited. I’ll say more about his remarkable career later.
I was in therapy with a somewhat analytically oriented psychologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan from 1965 to 1967. At the university there (and well before), I felt miserable with what I believed to be my homosexual orientation.
To say we were “stuck” was putting it mildly. The doc recommended countless approaches to “curing” my homosexuality, much of which focused on my childhood. Among them, he encouraged “experiments” in going out with females.
I feel sorry for the young women I dated, surely an unfairness to them. C, Z, P, E, N, and several others served as objects of the “study,” but in no case did my sexual fantasies or realities change.
With Z, I reached the stage of attempting intercourse. Despite using imagined males to excite me, the encounter failed.
I invited P to spend a weekend in Chicago at my home, and the counselor prescribed a small dose of Valium to alleviate my anxiety. The visit did not go well, and we never saw each other again.
This torture ended with my graduation. I am not suggesting I disliked the doctor. Moreover, I desired the treatment, very much wished to change, and foresaw only a bleak future in society as “one of those,” meaning gay men
Recognizing the absence of progress, I later engaged a well-known Chicago therapist, Eugene Gendlin. He agreed to my proposal to accept my sexual nature and begin relationships with men.
Until then I had only furtive sexual contacts with males of my evident preference, overwhelmed with guilt after each one, vowing never to repeat such an act. These impersonal encounters lacked even a complete exchange of names.
The new doctor persuaded me to go to a gay event at a coffeehouse he’d heard about.
I worked up the nerve to try this and it was a turning point for my whole life.
At first, I became friendly with other college-age, same-sex fellows: D, F, B, and P (and later many others) in a platonic context. From that moment, without regrets, I began to come out to “straight” friends, dabbling in gay activism.
At last, my sexuality could combine with emotional intimacy.
I’ve long wondered how my Ann Arbor doctor might have reacted later to the news of my hard-won comfort with my identity. Was he capable of acknowledging my situation and encouraging me to accept myself as I was?
Now, almost 50 years later, we know so-called “conversion therapy” doesn’t work. Equally futile are the Freudian-based approaches of the first half of the 20th century, creating far more misery than they alleviate.
Apparently, my homosexuality was genetic, or, if not, still unamenable to alteration, like changing the color of my skin.
I don’t blame the Michigan counselor. He practiced an approach he learned in school and believed to be proper. I was not coerced into anything.
Still, the question lingers. What if I found a practitioner while in college who suggested I experiment with homosexual friendships? (Clandestine places existed to meet gay men in the area).
Was I ready for it?
Would the “turning point” have arrived earlier?
Richard Stern is an AIDS activist in San José, Costa Rica, coordinating a Latin American COVID-19 vaccine access group. Among other efforts, he was instrumental in obtaining free government-supported treatment for people living and dying with HIV/AIDS in Costa Rica and elsewhere.
Thanks, first, to Rick Stern.
All but the second image come from Wikiart.org. The top painting is The Blue Bird by Jean Metzinger, 1912. Next is Wolf Moon in Wyoming, January 2022, the work of the magnificent Laura Hedien, with much appreciation for her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website. Finally, The Limbourg Brothers, a detail from a supposed self-portrait, 1390-1415.