Quit Ho Mo: Undercover with the ex-gays: Part I
This is the first installment in a two-part series on Christian reorientation therapy. The second installment can be read here. The first part appeared in Outlook Weekly in June of 2008, the second part ran in September of 2008. There’s also a radio interview I did with the editors of Outlook, since the second, longer piece was a cover article for Outlook Weekly. That can be listened to here.
There’s a very funny sketch from the TV show The Kids in Hall, wherein a group of males sit inside a men’s public bathroom and hold a meeting, a support group to make sure they are not giving in to the “tyranny of our bladders.” The leader of the group has each member discuss how the week was for them, i.e., did they cave and actually pee? Each one slowly admits that he gave in to his “demons,” including one guy who claims that when, after a night of drinking, he found himself passed out in a puddle of urine, that it may not be his, his theory being that “some guy, you know, broke into my trailer, squirreled his way in through the window, went all over me, and left.” If there was ever a more apt analogy for attending an ex-gay meeting, I’m not sure what it is.
Recently, under the guise of a man struggling with “same sex attraction,” I went undercover to try to figure out how this seemingly ridiculous process works. Sure, I’ve heard about the process of reorientation before (where men and, less often, women, try to convince themselves that their homosexuality is wrong, and they will try to repress their feelings and change which sex they are attracted to in order to honor “the Lord”). From what I understood, they would read stories, and hear some personal accounts. But I’d never actually seen how it worked, and I was curious to learn — if one were not already indoctrinated into the hardcore Christian world — how it might appear to an outsider.
You might imagine that anyone attending these meetings is probably a gullible sap, likely to believe anything that people supposedly preaching the “word of God” might say. And you might also assume that, upon entering said meeting, you would be assaulted with a mix of heavy prayer and hellfire guilt trips. Unfortunately, it is far more insidious than that.
It’s more like The O’Reilly Factor. Like leaving the show running in the background, and occasionally perking up to hear a sentence or two when Bill starts yelling at something or someone. Without listening to the words and the context, the smarmy , overbearing style could be theoretically overwhelming, and get you chanting along with the talking points. Unfortunately, all anyone with a modicum of focus or intelligence has to do is listen to about five minutes of it before realizing, “wow, this is completely condescending fearmongering and the only kind of logic being used here is circular.”
In The O’Reilly Factor, even Bill doesn’t believe what he’s saying. He’ll admit to being just an entertainer. But to those who cling to every one of his theories without actually thinking about it, they go right along with whatever he and his writers dream up. This is virtually a facsimile of what occurs at an ex-gay meeting.
When I arrived, I expected a small group; which would thereby be easier for its leader to influence and convert their fear into self-loathing. However, there were about 60 people there, and right before the opening lecture, there was calm conversation among the leaders and their parishioners, jovial joking and a very relaxed tone. The crowd was mostly 40 and above, though there were a handful of younger folks. The older men were generally unattractive, clearly this inner-hatred thing isn’t good for your skin. The younger men were average looking, ranging from trendy yuppie to buff model types. Everyone there was white. There were pamphlets, books, and large binders available for sale on the way in, which would help you follow along with the lecture, ranging in price from $2-$25. The course was organized to occur, weekly, over a several year period, covering various subjects, which would never be repeated.
The subject that week was abuse, and the speaker, one of the leaders of the group (but never proclaimed that he was a pastor), was a heavyset man who had the tone and looks of writer/director/Silent Bob/slacker hero Kevin Smith, minus the constant profanity but maintaining the self-deprecation.
Behind him were two, clearly expensive widescreen projection TVs, spaced out so everyone could see his slick Powerpoint presentation. One of the first things he said was, that in that audience, 2/3 of us had been abused when we were children. Now he never said sexually, but the coding resembled the way a “leaked” White House press release might suggest Valerie Plame is a CIA agent, without actually uttering the words. In true Fox News fashion, he followed up that statement by qualifying it, so it was just a suggestion, and couched in careful passive language, “most of you would say you were abused; not all, mind you.”
He knew what we would take from what was he saying; especially because he followed that with example after example of various ways people abuse each other, whether it be emotional or not. Each explanation that followed was curious and bizarre. But I suppose if you were already eating the Soylent Green, you wouldn’t take notice.
- For instance, sexual abuse, which comprised the longest portion of the lecture, could be defined as when a parent talks to their child about their “sexual brokenness” (being gay). Again, it was implied, but never uttered, that there seems to be no age when you could do that to your child (so don’t be gay!). It was considered emotional incest if you confided in your child at all about any problems you might have (how can they be pure if they are burdened?!).
- He buddied up to us by revealing his pent-up anger, which occasionally resulted in him screaming in the car or being mean to his wife. This was his version of emotional abuse.
- Spiritual abuse was defined as the way churches may take advantage of their “tribe” by convincing of them of “ungodly messages.” But there were far more hints about priests diddling little boys.
- Surprisingly, Internet abuse did not refer to watching a lot of porn — he actually specified this. It simply meant when people are mean to each other on the Internet, be it using instant messenger or bulletin boards. There were some words about guys who stalk little boys, but again, nothing overt about homosexuality.
The only thing said about gays at all was that it was a form of sexual addiction, and obviously you were there to heal or cure your addiction. Luckily, despite detailing virtually every item on the list, which was about 20, corpse abuse was never defined. If Internet abuse isn’t watching porn, then corpse abuse probably wasn’t necrophilia. I hate to think what it actually was.
This 75- minute lecture was intended to be extremely accessible. A large portion of it was defining words and concepts that everyone, if they passed the 8th grade, already understood. It seemed to be the way that they were sneaking in the subtext. If people already understood what was being said in a normally “boring” style lecture, they might think they were smarter than they actually are because they can follow the “expert.” It gets heads nodding and Kool-Aid drunk.
After the lecture, because I was new, I was handed a schedule, an application and a CD of the head of the branch of the organization’s testimony (all of which I will discuss in the second part of this article in a couple weeks). After they asked me my age, I was led to the 18-30 group. Everyone of the 14 men there looked uneasy, despite apparently having been in the group for months, if not years.
No one said anything to me, even though they knew I was new to this. I asked a few questions before the meeting started, but was met with smiles and half-answers. Finally, the head of the branch joined us and led us in a prayer. He then laid out the ground rules: talk about your week, the struggles you may have had, and how God helped you through them.
The first guy, looking seemingly well-adjusted, talked about his dealings with his wife and stepchild, and how he didn’t like the fact that he realized that he loved his biological children with her more than he loved his stepchild. What would seem like a simple psychological solution — he doesn’t feel complete love for the stepchild because it isn’t his, and there’s a nagging feeling about the fact that he wasn’t his wife’s first — was ignored in favor of the leader of the group rambling and repeating himself for more than 15 minutes, with the only clear message being that he should pray to God to forgive his sins.
The next guy was much more vague; there was a running theme of people not really explaining their situations. You would think this would interfere with the nature of group therapy, but it made perfect sense once I realized how this particular version of therapy ran.
After a few people spoke, it became clear that this only resembled therapy. It was actually moral and spiritual dictation. The member would semi-explain his problem, and the group leader would speak for often as long as 30 minutes, telling him how he should handle it. The group made no suggestions while he talked (and said the same thing over and over about repenting and trying not to be sexually broken or a sexual sinner). Afterward, some people would timidly try to help, but it was half-hearted and after it quickly petered out, we would move on.
It is important to note that most people were not there to cure their gaiety; they were clearly miserable, but putting up a façade of righteousness. At least 10 members of the group were confessing solely to their horrible and repeated sin of… masturbation. The most baffling moment was later when one man confessed to cheating on his wife… with his wife. There was no explanation, and the implication with him, and most of the others, was that they had frequent private conversations with the group leader on the phone, via email, or after therapy, and they wouldn’t dare divulge their problems in front of all of us.
At that point, the meeting had been mostly depressing, because these people were beating themselves up for having natural desires. It verged on comical, but the fact that no one there appeared to be actively stupid made it all the more disturbing. I hadn’t said a thing to that point, and I was wholly unprepared for what was to follow.