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

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday December 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).

Faith and Facts

Aside from a growing body of evidence that homosexuality has its roots in physiological causes, ranging from brain studies to non-human instances of homosexuality to proven statistical trends showing that younger sons are more likely than older sons to be gay, the simple fact has been observed that homosexuality seems to take place at a given rate in every nation and culture and at every socio-economic level. Indeed, reputable mental health professionals warn that attempts at so-called "reparative therapy" and "conversion therapy" are more likely to harm those to whom they are subjected than to help them.

But, as Cox noted in his article, the idea that homosexuality is a pathological condition, and that to be gay is somehow to be less than a man--that it requires a "cure" or a "Journey into Manhood," as though gay men were not already exactly who and what they ought to be--is a persistent one, especially among those with anti-gay religious beliefs, and seemingly impervious to demonstrable fact. Wrote Cox, "How much does science really matter when God has spoken?"

In the United States, so-called "reparative therapy," also known as "conversion therapy," has been decried by professional organizations dedicated to mental health concerns, including the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which struck homosexuality from its listing of mental disorders in 1973. In 1992 The International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organization also struck homosexuality from its list of pathologies, marking an international consensus that gays and lesbians constitute a natural human sexual variation, rather than being victims of disease or deviance.

However, some religiously based organizations still promote the view that gays and lesbians are "disordered." The Catholic church has barred gays from entering seminaries, declaring that they do not enjoy a healthy ability to relate to persons of both genders. Some groups, most of them religiously based, also promote the notion that through prayer and psychotherapy, gays and lesbians can "convert" themselves into heterosexuals.

While human sexuality may feature some degree of plasticity, especially in adolescents (who frequently go through a phase of sexual experimentation with, and attraction to, others of the same gender), most mental health professionals view homo- and heterosexuality as innate qualities of individuals. One way of looking at human sexuality, espoused by the American sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey, proposes that each individual falls somewhere on a "scale" of sexual orientation, the extremes of which exclude attraction to either the opposite gender or the same gender; in the middle, there is room for some degree of bisexuality.

There is some evidence to show that at least some individuals identifying as gay or lesbian might refocus their sexual energies on the opposite sex; what is unclear is whether those individuals were innately, and essentially, gay or lesbian to begin with. Indeed, the debate over whether physiological differences between gays and straights are authentic--and meaningful--has raged since Dr. Simon LeVay's 1991 paper "A Difference in Hypothalamic Structure Between Heterosexual and Homosexual Men" was first published in the journal "Science."

The paper documented LeVay's discovery that, on average, gay men had a smaller cluster of specialized neurons in their hypothalamuses than did heterosexual men. Subsequent research has offered other indications that brain physiology may indeed account for the deep-seated and spontaneous feelings of same-sex attraction that gays and lesbians experience.

What alarms GLBT equality advocates are attempts from religious and social conservatives to paint gays and lesbians as having "chosen" their sexuality--an argument that makes even many heterosexuals uncomfortable, because it suggests that straights could also have "chosen" to be gay. Even so, the argument that sexuality is a choice is used repeatedly in efforts to deny gay and lesbian families and individuals equal access to rights and protections enjoyed by virtually every other demographic, including access to marriage rights.

Without the backing of scientific evidence to support the view that homosexuality is either a choice or a pathology, some religiously-based groups have launched public relations campaigns designed to suggest, or even claim outright, that gays are deviants who have made deviant choices. A Mormon-affiliated ant-gay group, The National Organization for Marriage, has attacked family equality efforts with an array of well-funded campaigns in states such as Maine and California--where ballot initiatives were used to rescind laws granting family equality to same-sex couples--as well as in states where marriage equality might yet become a reality.

Anti-Gay Media Campaigns

NOM also produced a widely-derided ad in which actors portrayed heterosexual individuals expressing fear over a "storm" in which GLBT individuals would demand equal treatment before the law and--the group claimed--automatically trample the religious freedoms of heterosexuals in the process. The ad relied on cases in which religious groups and individuals had come into conflict with state anti-discrimination laws and policies.

A six-minute anti-gay ad raised hackles, and drew jeers, in West Virginia and beyond in February of 2009 for making similar claims, and for depicting a heterosexual couple and their children as being sited with a sniper-scope. Around the same time, a paid hour-long advertisement called "Silencing the Christians" claimed that gay rights groups were allowed to demand their rights with rallies while similar demonstrations by Christians were targeted by authorities determined to "persecute" people of faith. Last year, a Michigan TV station declined to air the hour-long anti-gay ad, leading to condemnation from religious conservatives.

In Canada, a similar paid program was yanked from the airwaves after gay and lesbian groups complained to Canadian Television (CTV). The ad was produced by Life Productions, and made the claim that gays and lesbians can "choose" to become heterosexual. The ad also made the claim that "many homosexuals don't want to be homosexual." The commercial featured an "ex-gay" minister, John Westcott, whose Exchange Ministries promises gays that they can be "cured" of their "affliction."

In the commercial, which is half a minute long, Westcott delivers the following speech: "You hear a lot about gay rights, gay marriage and the gay lifestyle being taught in our public schools for children, but what many people don't realize, and seldom hear, is that many homosexuals don't want to be homosexual." Adds Westcott, "What many who are struggling with homosexuality don't realize, and seldom hear, is that they can change." Westcott goes on to claim, "I should know--for 13 years, I used to be one."

The ad was scheduled to run for a year, according to a March 10 article at anti-gay religious site LifeSiteNews, but was pulled after three days. CTV apologized for airing the ad (which was rated as "mature" and slotted to run after 9:00 p.m. by an outside agency), and claimed that its contents were not known to the company's officials.

The article carried a quote from the head of Life Productions, Jason Johns, who said, "The commercial doesn't promote hate. It doesn't promote discrimination. It promotes knowledge, and information." Johns also denied that gays and lesbians were harmed by the ad, saying, "What we were doing was reaching out to, and educating people that there is a community of people who practice homosexuality that are not interested in practicing homosexuality, in that they want help."

Johns condemned the ad's removal from the airwaves on their behalf, saying, "What about these people who want help, who the commercial was actually for?" Johns went on to say, "I'm concerned about our freedom of speech as well," and added, "If our freedom of speech is jeopardized, if it's taken away, then who can advocate for these people? According to the pro-gay activists, no one is allowed to advocate for them. And I think that that's where the real dictatorship and discrimination comes in."

While some in the GLBT equality camp would argue that gays and lesbians who are miserable about their sexuality are only unhappy because of the legal and social attacks to which the GLBT community is subjected, Johns sought to reverse that viewpoint, claiming instead that those whose homosexuality makes them unhappy are intimidated by other gays into hesitating to accept a "cure" and to "convert" to heterosexuality.

Claimed Johns, "There's a lot of fear and a lot of intimidation imposed by the pro-gay community, that I would think that anyone who claims to be homosexual and wants to get help, I think that in that sort of environment they would not feel comfortable voicing their opinion or their concern because of the response that they would get."

A Wikipedia entry on the subject of so-called "conversion therapy" listed an array of techniques that have been employed in attempts to "convert" gays, including "behavior modification, aversion therapy, psychoanalysis, primal therapy, Bioenergetics, reparative therapy, hysterectomy, ovariectomy, clitoridectomy, castration, pudic nerve section, lobotomy, hormone treatment, pharmacologic shock treatment, treatment with sexual stimulants and depressants, the reduction of aversion to heterosexuality, electroshock treatment, group therapy, rational emotive therapy, and hypnosis."

The article went on to note that, "Mainstream American medical and scientific organizations have expressed concern over the practice of conversion therapy and consider it potentially harmful."

Not even all "ex-gays" claim to be heterosexual: while some report a satisfying life of heterosexuality after having "left behind" their gay impulses, others report that they continue to "struggle" with their own spontaneous and naturally-occurring emotions regarding members of their own gender, with a form of sexual suppression, or asexuality, being the end result.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.