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What Happened When I Went Undercover at a Christian Gay-to-Straight Conversion Camp

My weekend was filled with crying, singing, and wrestling, as 30 men struggled to overcome their attraction to other men. It was also the first time I felt another man's erection.

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Three staff members take a seat in the middle of the room. They demonstrate three different “healing touch” techniques.

First: Side-by-side, where two men sit shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the same direction, their legs outstretched in front of them. The man giving the Healing Touch puts one arm around the receiver.

Second: The Cohen Hold, named after “certified sexual re-orientation coach” and Healing Touch pioneer Richard Cohen. For this position, the receiver sits between the legs of the giver, their chests perpendicular, the receiver’s head resting on the giver’s shoulder. The giver encircles his arms around the receiver.

Third: The Motorcycle. The receiver again sits between the legs of the giver; this time, the receiver leans his back up against the chest of the giver. Again, the giver wraps his arms around the receiver.

The idea behind Healing Touch is to recreate the father-son bond that apparently we missed as children. In this twisted, neo-Freudian
theory on the cause of homosexuality, men who didn’t get appropriate touch from their fathers sexualize their need for a “healthy” non-sexual masculine connection. Healing Touch techniques recreate a loving, father-son bond, and are completely non-sexual.

Well, that’s what they tell us.

Staff divide us up into groups of six or seven men, about two staff members and four Journeyers per group.

With the groups spread out around the floor of the darkened room, one Guide in our group — a thin man in his early 50s with short dark hair and thin metal-frame glasses — asks who wants to go first. Nobody speaks up for several moments.

Since I started this entire undercover project, literally thousands of times I have asked myself: Why? Could it be that I’m a deeply closeted gay man? Is it because I’m pissed off at the religious right, and I want to do everything in my power to bring it down? Or is it an unbalanced addiction to seeking out the strange and unusual this world has to offer? Or something else?

These questions again run through my head as I reluctantly raise my hand.

The Guide asks which hold I want. I pick the Motorcycle. I’ve come this far; might as well go all the way.

The Guide leans back and opens up his legs. I scoot between his thighs, turn away from his face, and lean back while he wraps his arms around me. I flash back to a night months before, when a then-girlfriend held me the same way. She lit candles. We drank wine and later had sex.

At the Guide’s direction, the other men from the group place their hands on my arms, legs, and chest. This is so they can impart their healing masculine energy to me.

Then the music starts.

How could anyone ever tell you
That you’re anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you
That you’re less than whole?

The Guide whispers in my ear how I used to be the Golden Child, how everything was wonderful before someone hurt me, how I put up walls to protect myself, and now it was time for those walls to come down.

Like so many times that night, I’m trying not to crack up. To use another children’s tale, I feel like the little kid in "The Emperor’s New Clothes." Except this time, instead of pointing out that the emperor is parading down the street in his birthday suit, I want to stand up and scream, “Are you fucking kidding?”

One-by-one, the “Journeyers” (as participants are called) in our small group take turns reenacting painful childhood memories. Jason, a baby-faced, barely-out-of-college guy, struggles for a minute to come up with something. Then, finally, he half-heartedly recounts the time he tried to get his dad’s attention. But Dad rebuffed him, saying that he was busy reading the newspaper.

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