TV review: I woke up gay

This documentary (officially available only for the next couple of hours here, but if you want to watch it after the iPlayer version’s been taken down, it seems to be on you tube) focuses on Chris Birch, a young man who believes that a stroke at the age of 21 changed him from straight to gay.  The documentary makers arrived only after his story had received media attention elsewhere, and so the programme they made only follows Mr Birch once he is well established in his new life.  It contains a mixture of one-to-one interview and video diary footage of Mr Birch himself, joint interviews with him and his fiancé Jak Powell and others with old and new friends, and also follows him as he consults with a number of medical and academic experts, as well as another man who experienced significant personality changes as the result of a stroke.

Let me begin by saying that I am a lot less upset than some people seem to be at the suggestion that a stroke might change someone’s sexual orientation.  So far as I am concerned, we are our brains (you’ll find no Cartesian dualism here, thank you very much…).  I therefore have no difficulty accepting the principle that something which changes the underlying physical structure of the brain (which is what a stroke can do) might alter any aspect of the self that emerges from the brain, even aspects of the self as fundamental as sexual orientation.  This is an idea that can be quite unsettling – even many non-religious people who argue against the concept of the soul still have a tendency to think of their authentic selves as in some way independent of and distinct from their physical bodies – but it’s one that becomes less bizarre with increased familiarity.*

I think the discomfort with that idea partly explains the intense scepticism – even outright hostility – that Mr Birch says he has experienced from many people.  (Truthfully, the thought that a bolt-from-the-blue event like a stroke could cause me to be attracted to women is one that I still find disconcerting, even as I accept the intellectual argument that such a thing is entirely possible.)  I also think that Mr Birch is a victim of the intense politicisation currently surrounding questions of sexual identity.  At a time when many of us are arguing quite strongly that so-called ‘ex-gay’ therapies are ineffective and hugely damaging to the people who undergo them, there is in some quarters a matching determination to assert that sexual orientation is not subject to change.  This is not my view – I think that sexual orientation can and does change for some people, although I think it’s somewhat unusual, and that the deep-seated stigma and ignorance surrounding bisexuality accounts for some of the times when sexual orientation apparently changes (I’ll come back to the issue of bisexuality in due course).  Acknowledging that sexual orientation is sometimes subject to spontaneous change is not, of course, the same as saying that it can be changed by the consciously-willed process ‘ex-gays’ go through.

Given everything I’ve written to this point, you won’t be surprised to see me say that I am inclined to believe Mr Birch when he says that his stroke ‘turned me gay’.  To be honest, my default position anyway is to assume that when it comes to their own emotions and desires people are the experts on themselves; Mr Birch, after all, is in a considerably better position to know about his innermost desires both before and after his stroke than I am – or, for that matter, than any of the friends or experts he spoke to in the course of the documentary.  That said, I think the programme did a fairly poor job of exploring the topic, and left a whole series of fairly fundamental questions not only unanswered but also unasked.  Perhaps the most fundamental of these was the issue of precisely what ‘being gay’ means, and, specifically, what it means to Chris Birch.

Some of us, when we use the word gay to describe ourselves, use it to mean that we are romantically and sexually attracted to people of our own sex.  This definition is not universal, though.  Some people use the word purely to describe sexual behaviour – so they may say that they have ‘gay sex’, but without meaning that they, themselves, are gay.  This group of people obviously includes bisexuals (and, again, more on bisexuality later), but also a surprising number of people who only ever have gay sex but remain certain that they are straight.  This group of people therefore overlaps with another group of people who use the word gay to describe a particular social identity.  This usage is fairly widespread, and there are many people who assume that a gay person is someone who has a certain personal demeanour (i.e. effeminate for gay men, butch for lesbians) and a specific set of cultural interests.  Most people who use the word this way use it because they believe that there is a connection between ‘acting gay’ (the social identity) and ‘being gay’ (the sexual orientation), but there are also those who see gay as nothing more than a social identity.

This confusion surrounding the terminology was not directly explored in the programme, which was rather a shame.  Clearly Mr Birch’s statement that he ‘woke up gay’ would mean something rather different depending on whether he meant that he had adopted a new set of social mannerisms and cultural interests, or that he experienced same-sex desire for the first time in his life, or something between those two positions.  Watching the documentary, I was struck by the fact that, when he was making the case that he had turned gay, the alterations in his social role – from a ‘19-stone typical rugby-playing lad’ to a hairdresser interested in personal beauty treatments – seemed rather more significant to Mr Birch than did the fact that he used to have relationships with women.

He mentioned the latter – indeed, one part of the film followed his successful attempt to make contact with an ex-girlfriend in the hope that she would validate his claim that he used to be straight (she was rather more equivocal than he might have wanted, saying that at the time she believed him to be straight, but that hearing he was gay now hadn’t particularly surprised her).  It was notable, however, that Mr Birch seemed to place less emphasis on this aspect of the change than he did the changes in personal demeanour revealed by old photos which showed him to be too ‘chavvy’ (his word) to be gay.  I also noticed something similar when Mr Birch discussed experiencing same-sex attraction after his stroke.  Again, he mentioned it (though it seemed this was in response to a question from the filmmakers rather than information he had spontaneously volunteered), and was clear it had been an absolute change from being attracted to women to being attracted to men, but didn’t seem to dwell on it, or to regard it as particularly significant when compared to the changes in his social identity and personal mannerisms.

From all of this it seemed to me that, while Mr Birch doesn’t understand gay as being purely a social identity (he obviously uses the word to refer, in part, to his romantic and sexual desires), the socio-cultural aspects of being gay are very significant for him.  This in turn raises the possibility that the dramatic changes in his social identity and personal mannerisms that followed his stroke may have seemed to him more like ‘turning gay’ than they might to someone whose personal understanding of the term gay allowed for a greater distinction between ‘acting gay’ and ‘being gay’.

In light of this, I found something that emerged during one of Mr Birch’s conversations with his fiancé, Jak Powell, to be quite interesting.  Mr Powell expressed his own view that Mr Birch had always been gay, and that his stroke had simply caused him to become aware of his feelings for the first time.  What was interesting was that Mr Birch didn’t dismiss this out of hand, but acknowledged that it might well be the case – and that this would still mean the stroke had turned him gay.  Although they didn’t pursue the discussion (I got the impression they didn’t want to argue on camera), it seemed that Mr Birch’s position was that, without the stroke, he would never have realised his feelings, while Mr Powell took the view that, even without the stroke, something else would have caused them to rise to the surface.  (Mr Powell was generally of the view that Mr Birch’s experiences were identical to those of other men who have come to the view that they are gay later than is typical, but without having suffered a stroke.)

The thing that most interests me about this is that if Mr Birch’s understanding of having ‘turned gay’ is compatible with the belief that he discovered feelings that had always existed within him, then his view that his stroke turned him gay is a lot less controversial than it would at first appear.  Most gay people will have little difficulty in accepting that a particular event might cause someone who had assumed they were straight to recognise for the first time that they were not.  Indeed, a lot of gay people have had just such an experience themselves, but most of them would describe the experience as causing them to realise they were gay, rather than saying it had turned them gay.  This is not to argue that Mr Birch is wrong to describe having ‘turned gay’, or that others are wrong to describe a similar process as ‘realising I was gay’, but simply to acknowledge the possibility that different words are being used to describe very similar experiences, and that this may make the gulf between the two positions seem greater than they actually are.  It’s a shame that, because it didn’t examine questions of terminology and identity, the programme missed an opportunity to explore the possibility that Mr Birch’s experiences are less unusual than they seem to be.

My biggest criticism of the programme, however, is that it failed to even mention bisexuality, and proceeded on the assumption that there are only two possibilities in sexual orientation – straight or gay – and that anyone who experiences a variation in their sexual orientation must switch from one to the other.  I’m not bisexual myself, and I hesitate to speak on behalf of people who are because of the danger that I will inadvertently say something ignorant, or even insulting (and if I do, sorry in advance).  However, it’s my understanding that this strong either/or way of thinking is one of the biggest obstacles bisexual people face, both in terms of having their sexual orientation taken seriously by others and also in terms of recognising the truth about themselves.  When there is a very strongly held view that a person can be either gay or straight – and that the question of whether they have a boyfriend or a girlfriend definitively determines which they are – it’s not surprising that some people may seem to be switching from straight to gay, and may even come to believe it of themselves, when they are in fact remaining true to their own bisexual nature throughout.

(I’m well aware that, while there are some people who embrace the term bisexuality, there are others who reject it.  In this case I’m trying to use the term in as loose and wide-ranging a way as possible, as a catch-all description for people who form sexual and romantic relationships with people of more than one sex.  As mentioned above, my default position is to assume that people are the experts on their own desires and feelings, and when I use the word bisexual I’m not trying to insist that everyone whose desires don’t fit into the either/or model of gay or straight must be bi.  I’m simply trying to make the point that the either/or model is not adequate to encompass the whole of human sexuality, and using bisexuality – as the best-known and most widely understood term for ‘neither gay nor straight’ – to that end.)

Now I have, of course, no idea whether bisexuality – how ever it’s described – plays any part in Mr Birch’s experience.  He seems, based on what he says in the documentary, to be certain that it doesn’t (although, since the issue was not specifically raised, I’m having to infer that from comments he made about experiencing an absolute shift in his attractions), and I’m happy to accept the truth of that.  However, even if it’s not relevant in Mr Birch’s case, bisexuality is one thing that can explain how a man can be genuinely attracted to a woman (or women) and then genuinely attracted to a man (or men) without having at any point ‘turned gay’.  As such it would seem to be something that would have been worth including in the programme, and something that the programme-makers might have liked to discuss with Mr Birch, since it was a possibility it seemed he had not given much thought to.

As a whole, the documentary felt to me like it straddled different genres in a rather uncomfortable way.  Parts of it seemed like a documentary aimed at detailing the lived experience of Mr Birch’s life – the sections following him as he attempted to re-establish contact with his mother and focussing on his relationship with his new friends fitted in with this pattern – while others seemed more like a science/ medical documentary aimed at investigating the current state of knowledge surrounding the events experienced by Mr Birch – the sections following him as he spoke to another stroke survivor and consulted with various experts fitted in with this pattern.  This attempt to be two different things simultaneously meant that, for me, the documentary failed at both, and this was most particularly problem with the science sections of the programme.

The most notable problem in this regard was Mr Birch’s consultation with Dr Qazi Rahman, who was described as being an expert in human sexual orientation.  When Mr Birch travelled to visit Dr Rahman, the narration suggested that he had developed a suite of tests that enabled him to determine whether a person had been born gay or straight – regardless of the kind of lifestyle they were currently living.  I must, as always, stress that I’m not a scientist and have no expertise or authority in this area, but this seemed to me to be a bold claim.  Even as a layman, I’m familiar with the idea that structural differences have been observed between the brains of gay and straight men – and in particular that gay men have brains that are more like those of women than their straight counterparts.  I’m also aware that these structural differences are quite wide-ranging, and cover attributes that seem quite far removed from sexual attraction (for example, gay men are supposedly worse at map-reading than straight men).  What seemed to me to be a new claim was the assertion that the kind of brain a person has would indicate whether they had been born gay or straight.

Given my earlier comments regarding my willingness to accept the principle that our ‘selves’ are the products of our brains, it’s no surprise that I see nothing out-of-the-way or exceptional in the observation that gay men have ‘gay brains’ – of course they do, the gayness in their selves must correspond with gayness in their brains.  My understanding, though, was that the direction of the causal relationship had not yet been established – i.e. that it was not yet clear whether gay men did things typical of gay men because they had gay brains, or if they developed gay brains because they did things typical of gay men.  (The brain, as I understand it, develops in accordance with the way it’s used – hence how we’re able to develop new skills – which makes the second scenario as plausible as the first.)  If Dr Rahman is able, as the narration suggested he is, to determine whether someone was born gay or straight then this implies that he has been able to determine the direction of the causal relationship, and thus to develop a diagnostic test which can determine a person’s sexual orientation.

To be honest, if there is a reliable diagnostic test – one that can prove beyond doubt that even someone who thinks they’re enjoying a satisfying sexual relationship with a person of the opposite sex is actually gay without realising it – then this would seem to me to be fairly major news, and I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of it previously.  My suspicion is that the reason I haven’t heard of it is because Dr Rahman has no such test, and very probably doesn’t even claim he does.  In his own comments – as opposed to the claims made on his behalf by the narration – Dr Rahman seemed to be simply restating the (as I understand it) prevailing scientific view that sexual orientation is the product either of genetic factors or antenatal hormone exposure (or perhaps the interaction of both), and that it is correlated with a range of characteristics that do not seem to be directly associated with sexuality.  Noting this – and noting that Mr Birch’s results in a suite of tests designed to examine some of the non-sexual correlates of sexual orientation coincide with the pattern expected of gay men – is of course very different to asserting that Mr Birch or anyone else was born gay.

My overall response to this documentary, then, was mixed.  Unlike a lot of people who have watched it, I’m not inclined to doubt Chris Birch’s central assertion that a stroke turned him gay.  (And I certainly don’t agree with the suggestion that even to contemplate the possibility is ‘offensive and discriminatory towards the gay community’; how can it be when at least one member of that community is certain that this is precisely what happened to him?)  That said, and while I warmed very much to Mr Birch personally (and his fiancé: they seem like a lovely couple), I thought there were a number of fairly significant problems with the documentary as a documentary.

I thought it was a shame that there was no detailed exploration of what precisely Mr Birch meant when he said that his stroke turned him gay, and the extent to which he considers social and sexual factors the most important in determining whether a person is gay.  I also thought it was a shame that the programme-makers didn’t investigate further his apparent willingness to concede that his stroke brought to the surface something that had always existed within him, since this would again suggest that Mr Birch’s understanding of the phrase ‘turning gay’ is not quite the same as many people’s.  I was disappointed that the programme did not include – as I recall – a single mention of either the word or concept of bisexuality, or note that it is perfectly possible for someone to be genuinely attracted to the opposite sex and then genuinely attracted to the same sex without ever ‘turning gay’.  And last of all, I worry that the programme – and specifically the narration – came close to misrepresenting the scientific understanding of sexual orientation, most notably in the implication that an ‘expert in human sexual orientation’ was able to perform a diagnostic test which could determine whether a person had been born gay or straight.  Unless I’m even more ignorant about scientific matters than I thought, I’m pretty much sure that there is no such test – or even universal agreement that such a test is even theoretically possible.

* – In the process of previewing this post – which brings it up on a mocked-up blog page complete with the blogroll at the side – I noticed that Neuroskeptic has a recent post discussing the relationship between ‘the brain’ and ‘the mind’, and the tendency for people to regard the latter as independent of the former.

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4 Responses to TV review: I woke up gay

  1. Kapitano says:

    The interesting thing is not that someone claims to have woken up homosexual. The interesting thing is that he claims to have woken up camp. With ambitions to be be a hairdresser, and interests in interior decor. And taste in brightly coloured expensive shirts worn with white jeans. And the kind of nasal voice with a slight lisp we associate with west end gay men.

    I’m quite prepared to believe that someone could go to sleep with one sexuality and wake up with another. But this man says he’s gone to sleep being one stereotype, and has woken up being another. And has sold the story to the newspapers several times.

  2. Hey Kapitano,

    Thanks for commenting, and sorry for the delay in it appearing. :o)

  3. Chris says:

    Interesting opinion, I enjoyed reading it. In response to Kapitano, I neither have a lisp, own white jeans nor wear any expensive shirts and can assure you, I definitely don’t have a lisp and if I did have a nasal quality to my voice, it could be because it was filmed during the snow in January! I would therefore assume you watched the wrong programme! Aethel: You maybe also interested to know that there is a further documentary due to be released on an Australian Network this June.

  4. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for commenting. :o)

Comments are closed.