Don't Clown with Sexual Orientation: Understanding HOCD's Spikes and Lies

clown mit spiegel.jpg


Imagine you are walking on your favorite street. It is your day off—or perhaps you have just finished working and everything at the office went perfectly. The people around you are taking in the beautiful weather, and soft music is coming from… Well, does it matter? You are free, there is music, there are people, and life feels great.

Then suddenly you see two clowns walking hand in hand. Your body tenses as your mind races: "Clowns? Clowns?!!!!! What are they doing here? What if they are trying to tell me something? What if the way they look and speak means I am going to become a clown? What if I leave my job and everyone I love to… to join the circus?"

The perfect day is forgotten. You no longer hear the soft music. You no longer see all the other people who are not clowns. Your reality is now the clowns, and your heart is pounding in terror.

In OCD Internet talk, this is known as a "spike": sudden high anxiety based on obsessional thinking and fearful, illogical thoughts. Spikes have nothing to do with clowns and everything to do with OCD. Unless it is your dream to join the circus, there is no reason to think you will. There are professionals who delight in being clowns and cannot think of anything else they would rather do, but if you are not one of them why would you worry about turning into a clown? It is illogical to think that a clown sighting means anything more than a chance meeting with a person or people in heavy make-up and strangely-colored clothes. But as you look at their round red clown noses, you fearfully touch your own, afraid of what you may find.

OCD, the voice of your earlier clown fears, chimes in again: "Your whole non-clown life has been a lie. You have always had a clown orientation."

"But I've never wanted to be a clown," you tell OCD, trying to argue with it. "I don't have anything against clowns, but that's not me."

And then the fearful thoughts get worse. As those of us who have had OCD for a long time know, arguing with it, no matter how logically, feeds it. "Your life is a lie," it says again and again and again. "You will leave your loved ones." And you obsess, obsess, obsess.

You might as well buy oversized clown pants. After all, you must have always wanted to wear them. It's time to come out of the closet and admit your true clown identity. And then you can marry a clown and wear one pair of oversized pants together at the altar.

I hope you hear how ridiculous this sounds.

Now substitute whatever sexual orientation scares you for "clown," "clown orientation," and "clown identity." If you are straight (heterosexual), use words like "lesbian" or "gay man." If you are homosexual, use "heterosexual." If you are bisexual, substitute whichever monosexual orientation your obsessions are about. How interesting that the previous paragraphs can suddenly change from ridiculous to scary in the minds of people who have what Internet support groups call HOCD (Homosexual OCD), SO-OCD (Sexual Orientation OCD), or SI-OCD (Sexual Identity OCD). In truth, these sexual orientation fears are just as ridiculous as clown fears.

I do not mean to sound insensitive by writing that. To a person with any kind of intense psychological fear, it "feels" very, very real no matter how many others find it ridiculous. Coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) affects Johnny Depp, Carol Burnett, and Daniel Radcliffe, among other celebrities. On the TV show Supernatural, the character Sam Winchester is coulrophobic. An attack of coulrophobia may include nausea, intense sweating, racing thoughts and heartbeat, and feelings of terror or helplessness. You may not be afraid of clowns, but that does not mean others want to be near them.

My own OCD obsessions about natural disasters and scrupulosity (perfectionism and extremist religion) had similar effects on me before I got professional help. I went through much of my youth ashamed and untreated because I was bullied regularly and knew how many people thought I was ridiculous. To this day, I deal with self-esteem issues as a result.

I call HOCD and the other acronyms ridiculous because that is what the thoughts and fears surrounding them are. Sexual orientation issues are still taboo in many regions and religions, and many who suffer from HOCD are too ashamed to speak out or get help. They too may be bullied (certainly by OCD, but perhaps by people as well); they too may have self-esteem issues. That is the main reason I am writing this article. I want my brothers and sisters in OCD to see that they are not alone, that their issues have nothing to do with sexual orientation and everything to do with OCD.


Neverending hand-washing may be easily recognized as OCD, but as I write this article in October 2013 false sexual orientation fears continue to be underdiagnosed and misunderstood. There is room for hope, however. Mental health professionals have begun to research and write about this illness. Many who specialize in treating OCD realize that fears can be about absolutely anything.

I am not a mental health professional, and I cannot diagnose or treat any form of OCD. I also cannot divine a person's sexual orientation based on what people write, the photos they send me in hopes that I can see something in their faces, the size of some fingers in relation to other fingers, or anything else. What I do is enter into dialogue with people who need to recognize their symptoms as OCD and find professional help.

Beginning with the publication of my first OCD article ("I'm Gay and You're Not: Understanding Homosexuality Fears") back in 2005, I have been contacted by hundreds of men and women in the U.S., Mexico, Thailand, Morocco, the Czech Republic, South Africa, India, Venezuela, Greece, Ireland, and many other countries. Some people of color who contact me speak of specific cultural issues that make their sexual orientation fears worse and appropriate therapists harder to find. Europeans belonging to certain ethnic groups and people who practice certain religions express similar concerns.

HOCD is widespread. In addition to not discriminating based on race or region, it pays no attention to sex, sexual orientation, religion, lack of religion, age, or income. Those who contact me come from all walks of life and have widely differing educational backgrounds. Some heterosexuals with this type of OCD admit to being homophobic while others have close gay friends and are outspoken allies of the LGBTQ (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer) community. The bulk of them lie somewhere between.

Heterosexuals with false gay or bisexual fears make up more than 95% of the people who contact me. Men greatly outnumber women (perhaps because I am male?) while teens and twentysomethings greatly outnumber the 30+ crowd. Still, everyone is well represented.

Others who contact me are lesbians and gay men who falsely fear they are or will be or could be or may be heterosexual. About half a dozen bisexuals, men as well as women, have contacted me; they falsely fear monosexuality. One asexual (a person with no sexual drive) has also written to me; he falsely fears he is about to start having sex. I suspect that as knowledge of HOCD grows, more asexual and LGBTQ-identified folks will come forward.

Is It This Way—or Does It Merely Feel This Way?

They will come forward, I believe, because they will understand what they are experiencing and no longer be slaves to what OCD "feels" like.

In a recent message to me, a heterosexual OCD sufferer wrote that it "feels" as if he wants to do something with the same sex.  What a perfect choice of words! As I explained to him, OCD only "feels" as if… it can make you believe what you know to be false and doubt what you know to be true. In Brain Lock, an excellent OCD book by Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, there is a story about a married man who falsely believes knives are attached to his fingers. He is afraid to touch his wife and baby for fear of injuring or killing them. He can see there are no knives, and everyone, including his therapist, tells him there are no knives. Reassuring him does not allow the logic to click; reassurance feeds OCD as much as arguing does. Proper OCD therapy is what helps him.

Similarly, I once received a panicky message from another straight male who feared he no longer had a penis. He would look at himself naked in his full-length mirror yet doubt it was there. OCD made it "feel" as if it were missing even though he could see it and touch it.

What can possibly make a person believe in finger knives or a missing penis? The same thing that can make a heterosexual believe he is really gay or a homosexual believe he is really straight, the same thing that "feels" so real.

Let's give that ‘thing' a voice again. "Yo, wassup? It's me, your OCD! But you knew that already. You know what I feel like, and boy oh boy it's fun to make you squirm. Thank you for feeding me every day. I couldn't do it without you. Hee hee hee."

And that, my friends, is OCD on truth serum. Don't ever expect to hear truth from OCD again.

Others' Claims about Changing Sexual Orientation

The HOCD form of OCD is also a pathological liar and schoolyard bully. It looks for any excuse to confuse and torment you. One of its favorite tricks is getting you to believe stories about people who "suddenly" change from happily heterosexual to gay against their wills—even though that is physiologically impossible. (If you are a LGBTQ-identified person, for you the trickery involves stories about people who supposedly turn straight.) As soon as you are aware of even a single story, OCD will make it "feel" as if that is your destiny. But sometimes a clown is just a clown. Or a cigar.

Do not assume you are getting all the facts about a "transformed" person.  A person of any sexual orientation can have an axe to grind (something to complain about), and the details may not be wholly truthful.  Or perhaps the person is telling the truth as he or she sees it; that does not mean it is Truth with a capital T.

Let me illustrate this with my own story coming-out story. I am sure people who knew me then thought I had changed from happily heterosexual to gay.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, I knew I was attracted to other guys. I did not understand what being gay meant since there was no public Internet at the time, little positive material in libraries, and many negative stories about gays in the media.  Further, I was raised in a conservative Christian environment, and my church claimed (Are you ready for this?) that homosexuality did not exist. ("Oy vey!" he says today in his best New York Yiddish.)  If homosexuality did not exist, I reasoned, I could not be a homosexual. I was therefore… heterosexual. ("Oy vey iz mir!")

My former church's argument is actually more complicated than I am making it out to be. It includes homosexuality as mere temptation (not something most psychologists would agree with today) and complicated tracts on what Jesus and the devil do. I simplify it for brevity because theology will lead me away from talking about OCD.

The church is only part of the reason I once identified as heterosexual; my ethnic background is equally important. Like my father, I was born and raised in New York City; however, my mother is an Arab born and raised in the Middle East; my father's mother came from Sicily (Southern Italy). Most of my Arabic and Sicilian relatives speak in accented English and are culturally more Mediterranean than American. In both of these cultures, heterosexual men can be surprisingly touchy-feely. Putting an arm around a male acquaintance or leaning against him for a long time means nothing. If the affectionate way these men behave was ever seen as gay in these somewhat homophobic cultures, their behavior would change overnight. 

And so… Seeing so much male-male touching and high emotion, I told myself that Mediterranean guys had an intense need to bond with each other. I know today that is true, although it is not even remotely sexual for most of them.  But back then I was desperate to prove I was not gay, and I reasoned that I merely wanted to bond with other men like a Mediterranean. Therefore, I was not a homosexual. (And besides, you will recall, homosexuality did not exist.)

As a young man I sought women (since it was the thing to do), fantasized about men in private, and never used the word gay.  When I came out to myself and then, two years later, to another person for the first time, I did not suddenly "become" gay.  Instead, I finally had the facts about homosexuality. I wonder if my coming out after leading a heterosexual life (on the surface) ever spiked anyone with HOCD before I even knew what it was.

  Many LGBTQ folks lived the way I did before coming out—and many still do. They may be the ones whose words make you spike. Anansi the Spider carried all the wisdom of the world in a clay pot on his back, but true wisdom is never found in only one place. It takes time for a person to learn what coming out means to him or her since it is different for each person; it takes even longer to become wise. Some may claim to have "become" gay (and instantly wise) by coming out, but that does not make it so. Instead of feeding OCD by thinking in extremes and buying into everything we read or hear, we need to step back and say "Maybe yes, maybe no."

The next time you come across a claim that someone has "turned gay" (or, if you are a LGBTQ-identified person with false heterosexual fears, "turned straight"), you should consider the following questions:

  • Do you know enough about this person to believe him or her?
  • Is the person misinformed because he or she does not have all the facts?
  • Does the person perceive reality the way you do?
  • Does the person have an ideological axe to grind?  Axe grinding can be part of the political right, center, or left; it can be found in the very religious, the moderately religious, or the non-religious; it can be a tactic employed by gays, bisexuals, or heterosexuals. 
  • Is the person posting to feel better about himself or herself? 
  • Is the person in the middle of a life journey?
  • Have you misunderstood what the person wrote?
  • Does the person wish to rebel against convention, religion, or parental values?
  • Could the person be mentally ill?
  • Could the person be a troll looking to cause trouble and have a good laugh at your expense?  

If you consider the different ways of looking at a claim that has spike potential, it won't scare you at all. (And besides, it will be great behavior therapy.)

But what about… Sex?

Another cause for great misunderstanding and OCD spikes is the thing that is supposed to be one of life's greatest pleasures. It may be hard to hear this, but anyone can have sex with anyone else regardless of sexual orientation. Many people would never have sex outside their orientation, but some do. Stimulated sex organs feel good. 

That does not mean I am encouraging you to experiment. People with HOCD should never try to prove or disprove sexual orientation through sex. Some of my correspondents have experimented this way and are sure they do not want that kind of sex again. But then OCD says they like it and want more of it; they end up spiking and more confused than ever.

If you have engaged in sex outside your orientation, particularly when you were much younger, do not panic. Above all, do not let OCD rewrite your past or make it "feel" as if the sex points to anything. If you feed OCD, it will belch on you.

Some of my heterosexual friends had same-sex experiences when they were young.  It did not mean anything. Believe it or not, I kissed women my age in college. If I followed OCD's so-called logic, I would have to conclude that I was… heterosexual?!!

How do I always end up heterosexual in this article?!!

"Because you are a gay guy who is secretly heterosexual!" screams OCD.

I respond to OCD's lies with a line stolen from Deanna Troi: "Muzzle it!"

Why did I kiss girls in college? Why do young people experiment?  Ah, youth. Young people dealing with the onset of sexual maturity would have sex with hydrants, washing machines and motorcycles if they only could. At the age Victorians wrongly called innocent and unblemished, most youngsters are experiencing the first onrush of sexual hormones.

Besides, we are all sexual beings, and we sometimes act out of curiosity, a need for comfort, a need for affection, or a need to get off. There is nothing perverse or bizarre about this, although getting off is not the same as lovemaking. When a guy says he was happy with women in the past but now is much happier being gay, what he may mean is that he got off with women in the past (under societal pressure, religious pressure, sexual pressure, or whatever) but now engages in lovemaking with a man.  Lovemaking requires emotional commitment and is tied into sexual orientation.

While lovemaking is often within a monogamous context, it does not have to be. Some people want to be monogamous for life, and it would be wrong to tell them not to be monogamous. Others do not wish to be monogamous and should not be coerced into conforming to someone else's dictates. Some people wait for marriage or a committed relationship to have sex; others do not wait; others choose not to have sex. Your view on monogamy and when sex is or is not appropriate are valid no matter what they are—and you should never assume that having one partner for life, having multiple partners, or having no partners means you are any specific sexual orientation. Similarly, if you have sex for the first time at 18 or 80, it does not mean you are a specific orientation.

"Don't listen to Mark!" screams OCD. "He doesn't know what he is talking about. What is right for that man is right for you. You don't know what your sexual orientation is—but I do!"

"Muzzle it!"

What about Dreams and Fantasies?

Your sexual orientation is hard wired, whereas you choose your sexual partner or partners. But what about dreams? Do they reflect your hidden desires?

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a dream is just a dream. At least, that is how I interpret the wet dream I had about a woman many years ago.  If I use OCD to interpret what my dream means… Well, here I am heterosexual again.

And yet, despite what OCD says or "feels" like, that odd dream cannot compare to my many dreams of men, fantasies about men, thoughts of men.   (You are welcome to substitute "women" for "men.") This is what I tell HOCD correspondents who complain about unwelcome sex dreams. I am not a dream analyst, but I know that the content of dreams is heavily influenced by what a person thought and did the day before. If you have been obsessing about one group of people all day, it makes sense that you may be visited in your dreams. When I was in an OCD loop about earthquakes and hurricanes, my dreams made Godzilla look like Bambi.

Disaster dreams upset me since they reflect my OCD issues. Dreams about a woman do not; for that reason, when I woke up from my sex dream I laughed. I had dreamt about the Captain's daughter on The Love Boat, although I could not imagine why. Elizabeth Montgomery and Nichelle Nichols (Samantha on Bewitched and Lt. Uhura on Star Trek) would have been better choices.

Of course, when a gay man chooses to populate a dream with women, there is spike potential across the sexual spectrum. I stand by my choices because I know what I find attractive regardless of sex. The only thing I have revealed is my age.

Also, most of my friends are heterosexual men, and I am used to hearing them go on and on about women. I have also had a lot of practice keeping up my end of the conversation. But one night I was tired of being asked the same type of question, one that begins "Mark, if you were straight…" I decided to turn the tables and asked each of my friends to name a man he would sleep with if he were gay. There was a little embarrassment at first, but they were good sports and played along. The last to answer—a good Republican—said he wanted to sleep with Richard Nixon.

He was serious, and in defending his choice so emotionally he reduced the rest of us to hysterical laughter.

If he ever has a wet dream about Richard Nixon, I will not assume he is gay

Why would a heterosexual guy identify Richard Nixon as a potential lover? My friend admires many of Nixon's life qualities, Watergate aside, and wants a piece of those qualities. Such traits, he believes, will make him more attractive to women (especially Republican women). He could have said Ronald Reagan or Rudy Giuliani since those men also embody the Republican qualities he dreams of.

It does not end with politicians either. Many straight guys idealize heroes in action movies, science fiction, and super-hero comic books. Does that mean they want to hump Superman? Unlikely. They are drawn to heroes because they want to emulate their qualities and attract women. Who would not want to be Superman, James Bond, or Indiana Jones, running around the world for adventure, always defeating the bad guys, and always getting the babe?

Hmmmm. I like science fiction and super-heroes too. Don't tell me I'm heterosexual again. Is anyone keeping count?

I hope you hear how silly that sounds. Why would anyone assume science fiction speaks only to one group? If a heterosexual or LGBTQ-identified person likes something you do, it means you have common interests. Period. Do not let HOCD clown with sexual orientation. Some gay men play football and some straight men like Madonna and Cher. Some gay women are lipstick lesbians (girly girls) and some straight women fix cars.

"This is going to stop now!" cries my OCD. "You don't know what you're talking about, and everyone's going to laugh at you! I'll make the world end in earthquakes and hurricanes if you don't recant—and touch the wall exactly 43 times!"

"Muzzle it."

"If you don't do what I say, people will still be laughing at you after the world ends."

People who no longer exist will be laughing at me? "Know what, OCD? I ain't changing them words."

My OCD does a victory dance on my head. "Ain't? Them words? You call yourself a teacher? You're a disgrace!"

I defied my OCD on purpose with those words, and now I am not listening to it. Earlier in this article I confronted my OCD and even said "muzzle it" three times. But that is not the best way to handle OCD. So now, I just ignore it.

My OCD screams for attention, increasing the earthquake thing and "feeling" real.

But as I continue not to pay attention, it shuts up. Stop feeding OCD and it is like a car without gas. It… just… stops. You need practice (and behavior therapy) to adopt this mindset, but every day people continue to learn to control OCD instead of letting it control them. They know about its lies. They know how it uses deception to make them spike. And they know not to pay attention or react emotionally.

Starve OCD when you read about someone who claims to have turned gay or straight, when you see an affectionate couple, when you have a weird dream, when you run into clowns. There is no reason to get upset. You do not get upset because of a sexual orientation crisis; you get upset because you have OCD.

Your OCD only has the power you give it. You are not the sum of your OCD.

"It isn't me. It's my OCD."

Mark is a Professor of English as a Second Language in New York City, a freelance writer, and a middle-aged gay male with OCD.

People with OCD, friends and loved ones affected by OCD, mental health professionals, and folks who do not fit into any of those categories are welcome to contact him at [email protected]

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