Going Undercover in the Crazy, Tragic World of Christian Gay-Conversion Therapy
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SC: Let's talk about the camp in Arizona.
TC: This camp bills itself as an intense 48-hours immersive, experiential retreat. The idea is that there's an emotional burden to fix. It's called Journey into Manhood , run by a group called People Can Change . They bill themselves as non-religious. The organizer of the camp is a Mormon, Rich Wyler.
SC: What happened at the camp?
It starts out with these odd exercises meant to confront how you feel about men. For one exercise, you're standing just inches away from another man and you're staring him in the eyes, and someone in the background is telling you to think about what emotions come up. You do this with every man at the camp. It is very uncomfortable.
SC: How did you feel during the camp?
TC: At first, I was very confused and then I became amused. But as the weekend wore on, I became really angry and sad. I was angry because I feel these men are being lied to; they're being charged $650 for a system that, I think, does not work. I feel [these men] are victims of religious abuse and being told that there is something wrong about their fundamental identity, that they are committing a grievous sin if a man acts on what comes naturally to him. That made me angry.
I saw one man distraught that he was damaging his own sons, that they would end up gay because he was not enough of a man. And I wanted to just hug him, and tell him, "It's OK, it's alright. So what if your kids turn out gay? And you can't turn them gay." I became sad because I saw men reenact traumatic events from their childhood. The paperwork tells you [camp staff members] are not acting as professionals so you have no idea how ethical this is, how safe—psychologically—any of these programs are. I felt sad that their pain was being used to exploit them to make them feel like that was the reason they were gay.
SC: So these were traumatic events about their father or lack of a male figure?
TC: Yes. One man, for example, reenacted his father beating his mother. The men in the group had to play the different parts. Another man had to reenact beating his dad to death with a baseball bat because he remembers a time when his dad was reading a newspaper and didn't want to play with his son; he told his son, "Leave me alone."
SC: What were some shocking or surprising aspects of the meetings or camp?
TC: What was surprising at the weekly meetings was this emphasis on falling in love with Christ. In order to overcome your attraction to men, it was to fall in love—in almost a romantic way—to the most perfect man. Some of the songs they sang sounded like soft-rock 80s love hits, but they were about Jesus instead of your sweetheart. It was shocking the idea that holding and cuddling with another man is supposed to make you straight. We can laugh and say, "Are you serious?" But everyone wants to be touched and held, and for some of these men this is one way for them to get the affection they need.
The [camp] reinforced stereotypes about masculinity and manhood. The counselor would say: "Complete this sentence, 'I feel masculine when,' or 'A man is this.'" And the answers that came up were: protector, provider, husband, father. A man is strong, he is a meat eater. They're enforcing this alpha male American masculinity.