What Happened When I Went Undercover at a Christian Gay-to-Straight Conversion Camp
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The four of us step out of the car and pull our bags out of the trunk.
Things get real weird real fast.
After check-in, a staffer asks me to follow him. We circle around the back of a cabin. He motions me toward a man standing fifty feet away, dressed in all black and grasping a gnarled wooden staff. I slowly walk towards the man in black.
I stop a couple of feet away from him. He eyeballs me, shows no emotion, and stays silent for several uncomfortable moments.
Finally, he takes in a deep breath and asks, “What is a man?”
I don’t remember my answer. In fact, I don’t remember if that’s the exact question he asked, because once I muster some half-assed answer, he points to another man several feet behind him, also dressed in black and holding a staff, and sends me on my way.
There are about five of these men, standing fifty feet away from each other in a long curved line, leading from the registration cabin toward a large lodge.
Each staff man follows the act of the first. They say nothing for a few seconds. Once I’m feeling completely awkward, the question comes, open-ended and something to do with men or masculinity, or my reason for attending: What makes a man? How do you know you’re a man? Why are you here?
After the second man, I flash back to Monthy Python and the Holy Grail and suddenly feel like King Arthur answering the bridgekeeper’s questions: “What is your name? What is your quest?” An uncontrollable smile creeps across my face.
Once I answer the last man’s question, I’m directed to enter the lodge. It’s a wooden structure that looks exactly like you’d expect an outdoorsy camp lodge to look: spacious main hall, high ceiling, large stone fireplace. Inside, metal folding chairs sit in a circle. They’re half-filled with Journeyers who entered before me. On the floor in the middle of the circle, a single candle burns on top of a square rug. Native American flute music plays. Every few minutes, another Journeyer enters the room, looks around, and takes a seat in an empty chair.
After a brief welcome from yet another staff member — I count around fifteen total — and the first of many reminders about our signed confidentiality agreements, we’re briefly introduced to the staff.
There are two levels of staffing at JiM. “Guides” are men who lead the exercises and take a major part in the instruction. Guides have more experience with the JiM program. Many of them struggle with SSA (“same-sex attraction”), some do not. “Men of Service” have less or no experience at a previous JiM weekend, and are there to assist the Guides.
PCC made it clear before the weekend that JiM staff “are not professional therapists or counselors, or are not working as professional therapists or counselors in the course of the weekend.”
Early in the evening, staff members reenact the classic children’s tale, "Jack and the Beanstalk," with different staff members playing the different roles.
The story, a narrator explains, is loaded with coming-of-age symbolism. Fatherless Jack has lived in the safe, feminine world under his mother’s care; the old man in the village represents ancient tribal elders who help boys transition into manhood; the seeds given to Jack represent both his sperm and the masculine potential for creation. Like most women, Jack’s mother doesn’t understand the importance of the seeds, so she chucks them out the window. The reenactment ends with Jack sent to bed without supper. After all, he screwed up his masculine duty to provide food for his family.