Going Undercover in the Crazy, Tragic World of Christian Gay-Conversion Therapy
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Over the course of the past two years, writer Ted Cox posed as a gay man. He attended weekly meetings for several months at two churches in California and a two-day camp at a ranch in northern Arizona in February, both geared toward one end: turning homosexual men and women straight. Last week, I sat down with my friend, Cox, to hear about his experience going undercover in Christian gay-to-straight therapy programs.
Sena Christian: What made you want to learn more about the Christian gay-to-straight movement?
Ted Cox: I was born and raised in the Mormon church and even after I became non-religious, I was still fascinated with religion. This was a cool intersection of religion, subculture, sex and equal rights.
SC: What exactly interested you?
TC: I first heard about gay-conversion therapy from a segment on The Daily Show, called Diagnosis: Mystery and Jason Jones interviews one of the most infamous names in ex-gay therapy who's Richard Cohen. What bothered me about the segment is that they didn't touch on the religious background behind these programs. There is no such thing as atheist, agnostic or non-religious groups trying to make gay people straight. Evangelical Christians, especially, tend to be heavily involved in this movement.
SC: Tell me about gay-conversion therapy.
They promote this idea that they can make you straight. That's their public message. As you dig deeper, you find out that people are actually suppressing their sexuality. They tell people these programs will make you free from homosexuality through faith and prayer; the programs will help you find the strength to live a chaste, Christian life. That doesn't necessarily mean heterosexuality, or marriage and happy children; so what it means is leaving behind your urges, desires and actions.
[These programs] say homosexuality is the result of emotional or psychological scarring in childhood, where you don't properly identify with your parent of the same sex. They say you're not born that way, it's not genetic, but it is your choice as to whether or not you act on those feelings and attractions.
SC: How do they suggest one can repair emotional damage?
TC: They can't seem to agree. It could be praying, studying scripture and going to church. It can be through therapy with a licensed counselor. It could be like the camp I attended where you act out traumatic events through your childhood or go through holding-touch therapy. These programs have been around since the 1970s. In earlier versions, men would have their testicles strapped to electrodes and they'd be electrocuted while being shown pictures of men. This was the idea of shocking the gay out of you.
SC: When you went undercover in the Christian gay-to-straight movement, what did you expect to find?
TC: I didn't know what to expect. Part of the adventure was: What would it really be like? There are weekly groups [with] prayer, scripture study, singing of hymns, some lesson addressing the emotional wounds leading to homosexuality. There's a lot of bonding with the men in these programs. They spend a lot of time together partly because, I'm guessing, they're still attracted to, and would rather hang out with, other men. But also because they can't find friendship within their churches; there are a lot of people they haven't told or can't tell and so they end up bonding together.
SC: Did you ever come out as straight?
TC: I told two people. One is the leader of one of the weekly meeting groups and it seemed his biggest concern was the fact that I was an atheist and unsaved. He was more concerned for my eternal welfare than for the fact that I had lied to him. The second man I told was one of the guys I'd really bonded with at the camp in Arizona. He was upset I had lied to him. I don't blame him.
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.
SC: Did you find any value in the weekly meetings or the camp?
TC: On the positive side, I saw many men finally opening up to other people. Some of them for decades had been hiding their attractions and not telling a soul. Also, thirty years ago you would not find a place for men or women to gather at a church because they're trying to overcome same-sex attraction. These programs are opening up a dialogue in Christianity about sexuality and sin and what all of this means.
At one conference I attended, one couple told the story of their own son who was gay and proud and living in the Castro district [in San Francisco]. These two were pastor and wife, and they said, "We love our son unconditionally. We have gone and had dinner with him in the Castro." It set an example of how people should treat their sons and daughters even if they don't agree with how they're living. That was a very powerful message.
SC: You're breaking a confidentiality agreement by speaking to me about the camp. Why take that chance?
TC: I had to. If I don't talk about this, this is going to keep happening. I met one man who is married and has children and he would go online to hook up with other men and he was having anonymous sex with strangers and then going home to his wife. Another man was married and making phone calls to gay-sex chat lines and his daughter discovered the bill. A lot of these men are living lies and it affects themselves, their wives, their children. I can't stay silent about this. I feel like there's a greater good in talking about this and exposing what's going on.