In the early nineties, Dan Rothenberg was having a gay old time—literally. A rising comedian in San Francisco, he spent his nights at clubs in the Castro, where he discovered, to his surprise, that he was "a bit of a boy magnet." Rothenberg, then in his early twenties, was for pretty much the first time in his life finding hooking up with people easy. A regular at the Stud's disco night, he was known for starting off his routine at local comedy clubs by saying "I like my women like I like my coffee . . . I don't like coffee." Fifteen years later, he sits outside a West Hollywood Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf reminiscing with a woman about his days as an out-and-proud gay man. The woman happens to be his wife.
Rothenberg and Colleen Crabtree, both 35, met seven years ago. Five or so years before that, Rothenberg was paralyzed by fear over the realization that he wasn't actually gay. Although it took about a year to admit to himself that his Castro days were over, one incident stands out. "I happened to see a female friend getting dressed," he says. "I remember watching her and thinking 'There's no way words can describe how much I want that.'"
Despite the insistence of many—straight and gay—that switching between sexual preferences can't technically happen, Rothenberg isn't the only man to have believed he was homosexual before deciding that he was wrong. These aren't gays who attend faith-based programs to be "cured," or bisexuals who rotate between male and female sex partners the way the rest of us alternate pairs of shoes. And they're not the type who hide gay urges in public while privately trotting off to the local bathhouse.
For Andrew Brin, who grew up in Milwaukee, it was all about girls—until he had sex with a guy at the end of his senior year of high school. "It was fun and I had a great time, but I remember having the feeling that I was doing something that wasn't right," he says. In his early thirties, Brin started dating a man and came out to his brother. When he later fell in love with a woman (who was at the time a lesbian) and realized he was straight, he didn't inform anyone that he'd been waving that rainbow flag mistakenly.
And although there aren't statistics to show how many men go through a similar sexual shift, anecdotal evidence suggests that some men who consider themselves to be gay experience this kind of change not because of sexual experimentation or peer pressure but because they decide that they want to sleep with women instead of men.
For Ethan Robinson (not his real name), a 37-year-old film editor from Los Angeles, chasing women during his post-college years became a chore. "If I went to a gay bar I got hit on like crazy, whereas at a straight bar the women all but turned their backs," Robinson says. "At gay clubs you danced, you had fun. At straight clubs, you sat around, posed, and tried to affect a degree of indifference."
Frustrated by his relationships with women, convinced that romantic relationships with men would be easier, and figuring that if he never tried it he'd never know whether it was for him, Robinson got into a casual relationship with a "really attractive, interesting" guy for about two months. After the first time they had sex, "I thought, 'Well, that wasn't as weird as I thought it would be,'" he says. "I didn't recoil from the experience."
After that relationship fizzled, Robinson dated another guy but eventually realized that he wasn't gay. "It just didn't fit," he says. "It wasn't what I ultimately wanted." The switch back to women wasn't complicated, in part because he was never officially out.
But for some men the sexual confusion is a little longer-term. Bob (not his real name), a 33-year-old artist from Los Angeles, decided he was gay when he was about 10. Although he had sex with girls in high school, an extremely close friendship with a neighborhood boy, combined with homophobic taunts from his sports coaches, only strengthened his belief that he was gay. He wasn't wholly convinced he'd been right until he was 25 and went on a date with a girl but ended the night by going home with a male architect the two of them had met at a bar.
Then, while he was in his second relationship with a guy—during which he would have to fantasize about women in order to have an orgasm—Bob realized his decision had been premature. "And finally it hit me when I was in bed with the guy I was [dating] and he said, 'You're not into this.' My dick wasn't hard. I was like, 'I'm not gay, I'm not gay, I'm not gay.' It was like the flip scenario of when I thought I was gay."
While these men all think the switch from gay to straight was a definitive experience, some experts are skeptical that such a turnaround happens in any but the rarest cases. "I've only run across men who came out of the closet and pursued their gay identity but couldn't withstand the pressures of family and society so returned to being closeted and heterosexual relationships," says Ian Kerner, Ph.D., a sex therapist and the author of Sex Detox.
Nevertheless, instead of trying to run from their pasts, these men feel extremely grateful for having gone through what they did—and some even believe it makes them all the straighter. "Experimentation adds to your perspective—it doesn't limit you," says Rothenberg, who, along with Crabtree, transformed his experience into Regretrosexual: The Love Story, a two-person play that they perform to sold-out crowds in Los Angeles. And while she may be married to him, Crabtree isn't necessarily doing much to perpetuate Rothenberg's heterosexual image. When Rothenberg is informed that the blue patterned shirt he's wearing looks a little flamboyant, he sighs. "My wife picked it out," he says with a smile.