The gay man who wants to go straight

David Akinsanya is gay- but now he wants to reverse his sexuality. Why? Natasha Courtenay-Smith meets a man on a quest for fulfilment
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The Independent Online

After 24 years of living as a gay man, Akinsanya is becoming deeply perturbed by what he sees as the constraints of his sexuality. He wants children, and he doesn't want them by any of the methods open to him, which he perceives to be both compromising and contrived. What Akinsanya yearns for is heterosexuality with all its implications, especially a wife and family.

To go from gay to straight is something many would deem impossible. Yet over the past year, Akinsanya has embarked on an extraordinary mission - both to understand why he is gay and to determine whether his sexuality can be reversed. As part of his quest, he has travelled to the United States to attend a programme claiming to achieve reversions of sexuality, and he has undergone a battery of tests to determine such aspects as the predominant gender of his brain on a male to female spectrum.

It is something he had to do, he says. "There's this perception that it's great fun to be gay. But I'm tired of the lifestyle and have been single for years. I don't want to sound ridiculous, but I simply don't want to be gay any more. And it's not as though I don't fancy women at all - I do find them attractive - but just think I've got into the habit of dealing with men."

I meet Akinsanya on his barge, moored at Mill Meadows in Henley-on-Thames. He comments wryly on his "gay leopard-skin patterned slippers" and the glorious bunches of lilies in every nook of the barge. There are dozens of snapshots on the walls of his friends' children, as well as those teenagers for whom he is a respite foster-carer.

On the floor, a jumble of books about sexuality and the nature/nurture debate highlight his inner turmoil. "I know I'll come under fire from members of the gay community, but if there is any way I can change my sexuality, I would like to do so," he says. "I've never felt ashamed of being gay, but what I long for is a nuclear family - wife, kids, the lot. I just want to be normal.

"In my present way of being, no one relies on me, no one depends on me and I, myself, have no one to rely on. When you have a wife and child, they're yours and you are theirs. There are gay couples who have children, but I don't want to be one of them, as I don't think it's fair on the child. I will not bring a child into a situation where he or she may be ridiculed, whether that's the politically correct thing to say or not. The only way it would feel right for me to have a child is if I'm in love with their mother."

Akinsanya is not alone in his confusion. In the United States, attempts to go from gay to straight are increasingly common. The religious ministries that run such courses claim that 400,000 people requested information last year. The country's largest organisation, Exodus International, was formed in 1976 to help 62 people affected by "unwanted sexuality"; it now has 125 ministries. Last month, 1,000 people turned up to its annual "Freedom Conference".

But both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association have repeatedly condemned so-called "reparative therapy", which seeks to change sexual orientation as ineffective and harmful to those who try it, resulting in depression and confusion. The movement was dealt a huge blow in 2000 when its most famous graduate, a former drag queen called John Paulk, whose success with Exodus had seen him featured on the cover of Newsweek, was photographed by paparazzi apparently enjoying the delights of a gay bar.

In the last few weeks, the contentious issue of reparative therapy was again in the spotlight, with a debate sparked by a gay Tennessee teenager, Zach Stark. Stark had recorded his suicidal feelings in his online diary after his parents forced him to attend Love in Action, an organisation affiliated to Exodus.

In spite of such controversies, Akinsanya remains resolute. "One of the reasons I want my own family is because I never had one as a child," he says. "I was born in 1965 when mixed-raced relationships were frowned upon, and my mother, who is white, split from my Nigerian father before my birth.

"She had me in secret and, hours after I was born, I was taken from the hospital to the children's home. I don't believe that I was necessarily born gay - I think it's more likely to be something I learnt growing up in that strange environment. It wasn't desperately unhappy, but it certainly wasn't a normal childhood. We were cared for by one very dominating woman and I'm aware some studies show a link between a matriarchal mother figure and homosexuality.

"My first sexual experiences also took place in that house - usually playing doctors and nurses with older boys. Also, I idolised my father, a university lecturer. His visits were irregular and when I knew he was coming, I would sit on the front doorstep waiting for him. As a result, I believe I grew up craving male attention."

By the time he was 16, Akinsanya was describing himself as bisexual. Since the age of 19, when he moved from Essex to London, his relationships have been exclusively with men. Akinsanya had two long-term relationships, which he describes as "very fulfilling" and "definitely love", but he has been single for the past seven years.

In 2003, he began to question whether he would ever find long-term happiness as a gay man. "The doubts that led to this fundamental transition in my thinking started when I was away filming. A colleague observed how great it must be to be gay because I didn't have to phone home and I could pursue my career without worrying about a family," says Akinsanya. "I went back to my hotel room and sat there with no one to phone and I thought, 'Being gay is not that bloody great.'

"I don't like one-night stands, because I've never enjoyed sex without love. I find a lot of gay men shallow - once they've had sex, they're not really interested in you as a person."

Akinsanya discovered an abundance of sexuality courses run by religious ministries in America. "The courses aren't cheap - about £400 a week - but I was prepared to try anything. I wasn't sure how God could make you straight. As I'm not religious, it might seem a far-fetched method to consider, but I wanted to see whether or not what they offered actually worked. I don't think I truly thought that I could be converted from gay to straight after a few days on some religious course, but at least there I wouldn't feel that my desire to be straight was bizarre."

Akinsanya travelled to Love in Action's headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee. The workshops advocate the hypothesis that homosexuality is a result of damaged childhood relationships. "I couldn't see how prayer would change my sexual preference, but I went in with an open mind," Akinsanya says. "But the course was very difficult for me because I did have a troubled childhood, and going over everything in a group therapy situation felt like hauling myself over the coals.

"At one stage, we were told to draw time lines of the positive and negative things in our lives, and present them to the rest of the group. When I saw how negative my life appeared, I cried. I didn't expect it to be so emotionally draining. And I found it difficult to understand some of the organisation's rules. I had to remove all my personal items such as jewellery and shave off my beard. We were completely cut off from the outside world and couldn't even do a simple task like take the rubbish out without an escort."

Four days into the course, Akinsanya walked out, realising that without the religious conviction of the other participants, he could go no further. "Even the course organisers, who claim to have been converted, admitted they still struggle with homosexual feelings," he says. "They seemed to be in some strange no man's land."

But he says his time there wasn't wasted. "I have more control over the choices I make. I feel empowered to choose celibacy as a result of the course, at least for the time being. Added to which, although I forgave my father six years ago and have had a good relationship with him since, the importance of that bond has really hit home. Growing up, I never knew whether he loved me or not, but now that I know he does, I've felt a reduced desire for physical contact with other men."

Once back from the United States, Akinsanya pursued another line of investigation: that his sexuality was determined before he was born, and that the unusual events of his childhood were incidental. He attended the laboratory of Dr Qazi Rahman at the University of East London, whose work on foetal development and testosterone levels is renowned. Akinsanya underwent a number of tests, including measurement of his response to sudden loud noises and assessment of such spatial skills as his ability to rotate cubes conceptually. Both types of tests differentiate strongly between heterosexual and homosexual subjects. Akinsanya says he came out as "gay, gay, gay!" in every test.

For the time being, Akinsanya has accepted that changing his sexuality may be impossible, but is open-minded and optimistic about the future. "It will be a real sadness if I don't have a child. But I have to accept that you can't have everything in life.

"The whole journey I've been on has led me to think that sexuality can and does change over time. I can't necessarily force a change at the very moment I would like it to happen. I'm not unhappy about taking a break from sex and relationships while I wait for the right person to come along. Whether that's Mr Right or Mrs Right, I've yet to discover."

Sad To Be Gay will be shown on BBC2 tomorrow at 9pm