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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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But for Jason and his newspaper-reading father, the solution took a violent approach. First, the Guide playing Jason’s father rises from the metal chair to stand in front of him, repeating the lines about Jason being worthless. Next, Jason is handed a baseball bat and told to kneel on the floor. A punching bag is placed between him and the father.

“What you need is a new father,” the Guide says, moving another Guide to stand behind the first. “But this old father is standing in your way. You need to get rid of him.”

Jason looks wide-eyed at the man standing in front of him. The Guide who has been leading Jason through the exercise makes an over-the-head swinging motion. Jason grips the bat, lifts it up behind his head, and swings it down, the bat thudding on the punching bag.

“Again!” yells the Guide.

Jason obeys. He swings over and over again.

“Yell! Let it out!” commands the Guide.

His yells are weak at first, but with each swing, they grow deep and primal. Every few swings, Jason’s old father buckles a little, clutching his body as though wounded.

Another Guide motions for the rest of us to encourage Jason.

“Yeah, man!”

“Do it!”

“C’mon!”

I’m horrified by what I see — Jason beating his dad to death in effigy — but I join in the growing roar of voices. Jason seems like such a nice kid, the kind of guy whose biggest regret was the day he forgot to do his algebra homework.

After several minutes, Old Father crouches close to the floor. Jason wails away, his timidness fleeing with his wide-eyed, belly-deep screams.

“Finish him!” commands the Guide. A few more swings, and it’s over. Old Father lies motionless on the ground.

The room is silent, except for the New Father, who stands with his arms open, repeating the lines that have been covered by the thudding and screaming: “I love you, son. I care about you.”

Jason drops the bat, stands, and approaches New Father, who wraps his arms around his son.

Many of the other scenarios end the same way: the Journeyer is held by the Guide playing his father, who tells him how much he loves his son. I’ll admit feeling a twinge every time I see it. What son doesn’t crave his father’s love?

After our group has finished the exercises, we walk from our cabin to the carpeted lodge room. Inside, the lights are low. While the different cabins slowly file in, two staff members off to the side of the room sit in the Motorcycle position. The man in back gives the other a back rub.

Once all the men have assembled, a Guide speaks briefly about the work we did with our father issues. He then instructs us to take out our pens and notebooks. We are instructed to write the letter that we wish our ideal father, the Golden Father, would write to us. After a few minutes, Guides take their places for another holding session. When my turn comes, I opt for the side-by-side hold. I don’t need to feel another erection in my back.

While the Guide reads me my letter, I think about the beatings and bruises and black eyes my dad gave my brother and me. Mom was the breadwinner most of my childhood years; I think Dad took out on us his frustration over feeling emasculated. In the patriarchal Mormon faith, a stay-at-home dad never fully lives up to his manly obligations. Dad and I haven’t spoken much in the ten years since I left the Mormon church; in fact, I haven’t heard from him at all in three years. And yet, despite being raised by an abusive, spiritually castrated father, I have a strong preference for women.

 
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