My Journey Into Manhood II
Ted Cox is a Sacramento writer who follows the gay “conversion” movement: Organizations that claim to “cure” gays of their homosexuality. This week we’re running excerpts from his report of an undercover visit to a weekend retreat held near Phoenix last year. The entire article is available online.
Some details have been altered to protect the identities of participants.
The Friday morning of the retreat, I double-checked my bags to make sure I didn’t pack anything that might divulge my true identity or my secular tendencies. Stricken from the usual weekend-getaway packing list: My iPod, for the Rage Against the Machine and Immortal Technique albums, and my current reading list — Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: A Biography, and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Before flying out of my hometown of Sacramento, I sent the camp location and phone number to a handful of friends. I told them that if they didn’t hear from me by Sunday night, they should contact the authorities. I did fear a bit for my safety: I worried what would happen if I was, well, outed.
The flight stopped over at LAX, where a blinking cockpit light forced passengers to switch planes. So by the time I touched down in Phoenix, I was almost an hour late. I rushed through the baggage claim looking for Robert, my carpool driver.
In the days leading up to the retreat, PCC (“People Can Change,” the sponsor) arranged for men driving from close locations or arriving at the airport at close times to ride together to camp. Since I paid almost $900 in camp fees and airfare, my wallet was happy to avoid renting a car for the weekend.
I’m riding with three other men. Two of them sit in those slouchy leather airport chairs. The third guy’s plane should touch down soon.
Robert is a quiet, pudgy, middle-aged man from California. He’s married with children, has attended ex-gay programs for several years, and signed up for JiM (“Journey into Manhood”) on the recommendation of one of his ministry leaders.
Dave is a young father from Texas. He’s a lifelong Mormon and works a corporate job. Before attending JiM, he took part in the “New Warrior’s Training Adventure” weekend.
Tony finally de-planes. As we climb into Robert’s rental car, Tony shares his story: He’s single, in his 30s, and hails from Texas, where he works as a biologist. He tells us that this is his second time attending JiM. I’m surprised: Doesn’t the effectiveness of the JiM weekend depend on us not knowing what happens beforehand? Isn’t that the reason we have to keep JiM techniques secret?
I prod Tony to divulge information about what to expect, but he won’t budge. Plus, he attended a few years ago, and he thinks the program may have changed since then.
As the city gives way to dry rolling desert hills, we talk about our lives.
Dave talks about life with his boys. Robert and his wife have been struggling financially, but they seem to be doing ok. Tony loves his work in the science field.
For the most part, I dodge the group’s questions. But when pressed, I try to answer their questions with as much truth as possible.
I use the same cover story since I began attending ex-gay programs: From a young age, I was attracted to other guys (false); I was raised in the Mormon church (true), and served a mission (true); I married in my early 20s (true), but the marriage fell apart (true) after I fell in love with my best friend, Brian (false). After my younger brother’s suicide in 2003 (true), I reevaluated my life (true) and had a religious reconversion (false). I recently joined ex-gay ministries in 2007 (true), even though I still haven’t found a new faith (false).
Yes, I’m lying to them. And I feel horrible for it. It doesn’t help that from our long conversation during the ride to camp, I learn that these guys are good men, the kind of people you hope to have as neighbors.
After an hour in the car and a late lunch stop at In-N-Out (sorry, East Coast readers, but you haven’t eaten a real burger until you’ve scarfed an In-N-Out Double-Double), we finally turn off the Interstate and onto a windy dirt road. The mood in the car grows tense with anticipation as we travel the last few twisty miles to the white ranch gates. Outside the window, the desert stretches out in all directions. We’re in the middle of nowhere.
As Robert pulls the car into the dirt parking lot, I panic: What happens if my cover is blown? Or if I decide I want to leave the weekend early? The carpool saved me some cash, but on the other hand, I can’t really leave unless Robert drives me out. Or would I have to walk the dusty dirt road to the highway? And then what? Hitchhike back to the airport?
It feels like no matter what happens, I’m stuck here for the weekend.
Robert shuts off the engine. Per the instructions PCC emailed us before the weekend, I collect everyone’s cellphones and close them up in the glove compartment. There will be no contact with the outside world until Sunday afternoon.
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.”
Wednesday: Jack and the Beanstalk