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A (Straight) Writer Reveals: What Goes On at ’Conversion Camp?’

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Dec 10, 2010

We've all heard the stories: gay youths forced by their families to submit to the tender mercies of "ex-gay" facilities or "conversion camps," taken against their will to some isolated place where they are held against their will and subjected to--what, exactly? What nightmarish abuses?

A straight writer named Ted Cox undertook to glean insight about what makes so-called "conversion" operations tick. Though he did was not forced by his family into a facility designed to force gay teens into becoming straight, Cox took part in what may have been a close approximation: a voluntary retreat for adults struggling with "SSA," or same-sex attraction. In short: gay men who want to be straight.

Cox's article, published first at AlterNet and then at men's online magazine The Good Men Project, described how Cox infiltrated a retreat called "Journey into Manhood," or "JiM" for short. Many of the men at the retreat, Cox writes, were married and had children; they also had a secret they wrestled with and concealed in shame: they had sexual feelings for other men.

At the retreat--where participants were not allowed to phone, text, or email friends and family in the outside world--participants were asked to define manhood, to re-experience youthful rejection, and to identify memories in which their fathers abused or neglected them.

Although Cox came away having witnessed what he called " 'Are you kidding me?' moments," he also felt sympathy for the men at the retreat hoping that the weekend would nudge their innate and spontaneous feelings toward members of the opposite sex. "To be fair, I had several positive experiences that weekend," Cox wrote. "I saw several men, some for the first time in their lives, lose the anxiety they felt about their sexual orientation. Up until that weekend, some of them had never told anyone about their struggle with SSA. In the course of the retreat, they would relax around other men who struggled the same way they did."

However, Cox did not believe that the retreat was going to be therapeutic in the manner advertised. None the men at the retreat, Cox suggested, was going to be "cured" of their homosexuality. Describing one exercise in which men explore non-sexual therapeutic touch in a bid to re-create lost moments of masculine physical affection--moments of security from a central male figure, namely a father--Cox talked about how he felt the erection of his partner in the exercise pressing into his back as he settled into the man's embrace.

But Cox, too, struggled with secrets and shame: he was, during this retreat weekend, a closeted straight man. His cover story was a mixture of truth and falsehood created to establish his fictitious same-sex attraction and account for his largely fabricated motives for being there. "Yes, I'm lying to them," wrote Cox at one juncture. "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."

However, Cox also described his reaction to the notion upon which the retreat was based: that gay men are not naturally predisposed to be sexually attracted to members of their own gender due to physiological reasons, but rather are seeking to heal some deep-seated psychological injury from childhood, most likely emotional withholding from their fathers. Comparing that theory of homosexuality to the fable of the emperor who was deceived into believing he wore a fine new suit made of magical cloth when he was, in fact, stark naked, Cox declared, "I want to stand up and scream, 'Are you fucking kidding?' "

Cox would seem to have a point. Given that for previous generations an unexpressive--if not stern--father was the norm (as a matter of expected gender roles) and yet the incidence of homosexuality does not seem to have gone through the roof, the claim lacks a certain visceral ring of credibility. Moreover--as Cox pointed out in the course of his article--science tends to argue against this theory, with biologists having noted homosexual behavior in thousands of non-human species (and some going so far as to claim that exposure to environmental toxins can cause homosexuality in some animals).

Next: Science and Scripture


  • , 2010-12-13 15:20:01

    Folks who are interested in a deep analysis of the ex-gay movement should check out the book ’Ex-Gay No Way’:

  • , 2011-01-19 01:51:27

    Why on earth would I want to change. It took many years to finally accept the "truth" about myself. Socially, to come out of the closet has been very heart wrenching; not nearly so much as living my life as a lie!

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