In what you’d have to call a major scoop for any local British newspaper (and a bonanza for the nation’s infamous tabloids), Scott Purdy, an unemployed 23-year-old of Louth, in Lincolnshire, is claiming that a prescription painkiller turned him gay. He reportedly broke it off with a girlfriend of six months and is quite content. “It’s made me feel very open. It’s liberating,” he’s said, adding that “people should know about” this potential side effect of Pregabalin, also known as Lyrica, manufactured by the drug giant Pfizer.
While Purdy’s story makes for a clicky headline, there’s no good reason to believe it. LGBT groups and activists were quick to denounce the idea that sexual orientation can be toggled as if by flipping a switch — this canard being the basis of widely debunked “conversion therapy” practices and other harmful attitudes toward non-heterosexuality.
“To state that painkiller medication has an altering effect [on] sexual orientation and/or gender identity is damaging for people who are going through what can be a very difficult and challenging time,” Rosella Nicosia, head of mental health at LGBT Foundation, told indy100, while a representative from the LGBT rights charity Stonewall said: “There have always been attempts to suggest that there is ‘something in the water’ causing same-sex attraction. But we know that while sexual orientation can certainly be fluid, it cannot be forcibly changed by external influences.” Within the community, it’s a mostly unspoken assumption that guys like Purdy are coming to grips with their place on the Kinsey scale by framing it as a sudden neurochemical reversal instead of an inborn trait. Purdy’s case invites further controversy because he claims that temporarily going off Pregabalin restored him to straightness — he says he’s choosing to be gay.
Meanwhile, “____ turned me gay” is a punchline for people in the community who have appropriated the conservative fear of queer-friendly pop culture. Everything and everyone from Bruce Lee to High School Musical is jokingly “blamed” for one’s “transformation,” inverting cause and effect; we understand they were drawn to these personalities and entertainments as a result of the gradual self-recognition that comes with puberty and further development. Lady Gaga “turned” kids gay to the extent that she provided an outlet to explore and express that embedded identity. In a curious way, the unscientific theories of orientation-switching offered by Purdy and others recapitulate that understanding — but through a unironic lens of fragility and dissonant denialism.
How else to interpret the tale of a Michigan man who insisted he became homosexual after he was, ahem, rear-ended in a car accident? That story survives thanks to a jury that, against all odds, actually bought it — and awarded him $200,000 in a bizarre lawsuit against the truck company whose driver rammed him. “Although his only physical injury was to his back, he said the accident had a jarring effect on his personality and altered his sexuality,” as Ann Landers would later summarize. “The litigant’s attorney told the jury that his client left his wife, moved in with his parents and started hanging around gay bars and reading homosexual literature.” The pairing of a spurious lawsuit and an articulation of gayness as some pathological syndrome says it all: a single inciting element meant he was entitled to a huge cash payout and had an excuse for flirting with other men, as if that behavior — and not the motivating attraction — was now involuntary.
Or what about Chris Birch, the formerly macho rugby fan who doggedly maintains that he turned gay following a stroke? Critics argued that this interpretation of his personal history, blurred by the neurological event itself, does a disservice to the equality movement by lending ammunition to anti-gay factions who think sexual orientation has no genetic foundation. Not even Birch’s fiancé was convinced, telling the BBC in 2012, “I’ve still got the same opinion that it was just something that was always there.” Like Purdy, Birch is said to be happy in his new life, yet he’s unwilling to let go of the dubious origin myth that supposedly explains it — substituting one involuntary factor for another. He accepts that being gay is not a decision, but not how it’s probably determined.
The trouble is, that line of thinking opens the door to viral hoaxes like “The Unicorn Frappuccinio From Starbucks Made Me Gay,” self-published sham research that connects same-sex intercourse and transgender identity to fatty foods including chicken nuggets, and the mind-bending horseshit of evangelicals who preach that “masturbation can be a form of homosexuality because it is a sexual act that does not involve a woman.” Once a substance, experience, or person can turn you gay, anything might. The actress Ruby Rose chided straight fans who say they would “go gay” for her, whether the comment is tongue-in-cheek or not: “It sounds like I did something against their will in the middle of the night, as if I crept into their brain and pushed the gay button, then did an evil laugh and left them to fend for themselves — newly gay and alone in the world,” she’s said, noting the platonic sentiment that straight female celebrities elicit: “I want to be your best friend” or “I want to be in your squad.”
Describing the nature of sexual orientation and gender identity is fraught enough without these cultural and environmental pseudo-theories in the mix; studying the biological antecedents of homosexuality poses considerable risk in and of itself. But attributing it to cultural and environmental forces is more dangerous by far, as humankind is presently far more adept at censorship and brainwashing than it is at manipulating DNA. Scott Purdy has no legitimate grounds to conclude that his interest in men is pharmaceutically induced. Still, his easily repeated nonsense perpetuates a climate where homophobic conspiracists warn of the “gay agenda,” “gay recruitment,” and, of course, in nutjob Alex Jones’ timeless phrase, chemicals that are “turning the friggin’ frogs gay.” Why feed that fire to assuage your own insecurities? The only answer is that this same society puts significant hurdles on the path to an openly gay life, then won’t accept that many are waylaid by this callous interference, made to suppress the truth of their thoughts until they see a chance to have the epiphany so long withheld.