Could TLC's My Husband's Not Gay Be Secretly Revolutionary?

February 11th 2015

Aron Macarow

TLC's My Husband's Not Gay has been roundly criticized in media as promoting so-called reparative (or ex-gay) therapy for LGBTQ people — an idea that somehow just won't die despite being dismissed by every major medical and mental health association as ineffective and dangerous. According to TLC, the show "follows four men living in Salt Lake City, Utah, who don't identify themselves as homosexual despite having an attraction to men." No mention of reparative therapy equals no problem, right? Not quite.

Many have come out against such therapies — from ex-ex-gays to leaders in the field itself — most notably the former head of Exodus International Alan Chambers, who issued an online letter explaining the decision to disband his organization in 2013 after admitting that such therapies didn't work, apologizing "for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced."

Despite all the controversy, the show premiered on January 11th. But is the series promoting anti-gay ideals or something a little bit more progressive than all that? We've taken a look and broken it all down for you.

What's the fuss?

You might know conversion therapy via jokes about "praying away the gay." They purport to change sexual orientation or gender identity through adverse physical stimulus — like inducing vomiting or providing electric shocks while showing images of gay sex. Other practitioners provide makeup lessons to lesbians or make gay men play football, in the misguided belief that extremely stereotypical gender-appropriate behavior will make them straight.

The problem is that some people do take these therapies quite seriously. Last week, The Christian Post printed the first of three articles as part of an "investigative series into reparative/conversion therapy." It defended the practice, giving voice to a prominent ex-gay activist Chris Doyle under an image declaring "ex-gay pride."

But there are far more cases that prove the opposite. Seventeen-year-old transwoman Leelah Alcorn was also one of those with family who took reparative therapy seriously. Shuttled off to dangerous sessions that denied her gender identity, such therapies directly contributed to her death in December 2014, even garnering mention in her suicide note, starting a national movement to ban such harmful treatments.

Media watchdog GLAAD also had strong words about the show, labeling it "downright irresponsible" and calling out TLC for "putting countless young LGBT people in harm's way."

So should we all be lining up to protest TLC?

Not so fast.

Mormon scholar Taylor Petrey proposed last week that critics of the show were "operating on a strict homosexual/heterosexual binary." Petrey argues that the show challenges "gay and queer politics to affirm self-determination and to acknowledge the complex ways people negotiate their religious and sexual lives." He went on to conclude that the LDS "not gay" husbands featured on the show may have been unwittingly supporting concepts of sexual fluidity and agency.

In a nutshell, Petrey is saying that the show isn't about reparative therapy or being ex-gay. It's about rejecting sexual orientation as identity — that these men acknowledge their ongoing attraction to other men, but reject the other trappings that go along with the label. By being in "mixed-orientation relationships," the men emphasize their agency, choosing to be with a woman despite the lack of sexual attraction, over their sexual orientation, coincidentally breaking down binaries like straight/gay along the way.

How very postmodern.

Millennials are also moving away from binaries as a whole. According to Fusion's Massive Millennial Poll, half of all Millennials believe gender exists on a spectrum. So should Millennials, who increasingly see both sexuality and gender identity in non-binary ways, support My Husband's Not Gay for its expansion of the dialogue?

Maybe, but it's probably too soon.

With the immense torment and damage done to the lives of so many who've undergone so-called reparative therapy, it's perhaps too complex and nuanced an issue to adequately discuss on national TV in this format. Just as some conversations make more sense among family or friends, the wounds brought up by this conversation are still too fresh (and sometimes ongoing) to have external to the community that's most affected. In a Queer Theory course? Yes. On national television? No. 

The problem is compounded by TLC's lack of honesty during the show: All three of the married couples featured have ties to the ex-gay therapy movement, which didn't come up once.

There is a ray of light, however. Ex-gay organizations, like the now defunct Love Won Out (which later rebranded as pro-gay Truth Wins Out), have touted for years that "homosexuality is preventable and treatable." And this show displays exactly the opposite.

The featured men do not take on the mantle of gay - and so it would be wrong to label them as gay, despite their continued "same-sex attraction." (That would also undermine their accidental subversion of the straight/gay binary, which is the other powerful takeaway from the show: personal agency and a kind of sexual fluidity.) The men of My Husband's Not Gay are "not gay" by self-definition. But what of their openly admitted attraction to other men, even as they promote the ex-gay movement?

In that case, there's an alternate read on the show: It's an hour-long PSA depicting the ultimate failure of reparative therapy to turn even its most public supporters straight. Giving a mouthpiece to that particular message is something Millennials can definitely support.