Ted Cox took on the identity of a closeted Mormon for a weekend of crying, singing, and wrestling. The experience surprised and shocked him.
I don’t remember exactly when I felt his erection pressing into my back. It might have been while he whispered in my ear, “Long ago, you were the Golden Child. But somehow, that Golden Child was hurt, and you put up a wall to protect yourself.” Or it might have been when other men in the room broke out in song:
How could anyone ever tell you
That you’re anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you
That you’re less than whole?
I sat on the floor between the outstretched legs of a camp guide, my head leaning back against his shoulder. The guide sat behind me, his arms wrapped around my chest. This hold was called the “Motorcycle.” Five men surrounded the two of us, their hands resting gently on my arms, legs, and chest.
There were about 10 other groups like this sitting on the floor in the darkened room. One guide gave “healing touch therapy” while the surrounding men rested their hands on the receiver. Some men were held in the Motorcycle position. Others were turned toward their guide, cradled the way a parent would hold a child who had just scraped her knee on the sidewalk.
In one corner of the room, a portable stereo played Shaina Noll’s song. At one point, the staff members all sang out in unison, their voices filling the high walls of the camp lodge. Somewhere in the room, a man sobbed over the sound of the music.
It was the first night of “Journey into Manhood,” or JiM, a 48-hour weekend retreat designed to help gay men become straight. In that room, about fifty men—some 30 “Journeyers” and 15 staff members—sat on the carpeted floor of a ranch lodge two hours outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Most of the men, except for a few of the staff members, struggled to overcome their attraction to other men.
Sometime during all that holding and touching and singing, while I was cradled in the Motorcycle position, I felt it: the unmistakable bulge pressing through his tight jeans. It was the first time in my life I had a felt another man’s erection.
What the staff members and other Journeyers didn’t know was that I was attending the weekend undercover. I’m straight. I’m also an atheist. By that February evening, I had been undercover in the so-called “ex-gay” movement for just over a year. Before signing up for the $650 JiM weekend, I had attended weekly support-group meetings and weekend conferences geared toward Christian men and women desperately trying to overcome their same-sex attractions. I am currently writing a book about my experiences posing as a same-sex-attracted Christian man—“SSA man,” in the lingo.
My motivation for undertaking this wild project stems from several factors. First, I was raised in the Mormon church, which has taken the lead against equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. It’s been 10 years since I left Mormonism, and I feel a particular need to stand up against the church’s well-funded opposition to marriage equality. (I wonder what Mormonism’s polygamous founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., and his successor, Brigham Young, would say about the “Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman” bumper stickers slapped on so many Mormon minivans.)
Second, while the ex-gay movement has publicly declared they can bring “freedom from homosexuality,” there’s no evidence that someone can change his or her orientation through these religiously motivated programs. Rather than turning straight, the men and women I met throughout this project dealt with a cycle of repression, backsliding into sin, then shame, guilt, and repentance. These programs collect hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on a promise they can’t deliver.
Third, these programs are dangerous. Ex-gay watchdog groups document the stories of men who, after years of failed attempts to become straight, resort to suicide. Later I’ll introduce you to Eric, a fellow JiM attendee who would hook up with men on Craigslist and then go home to his unsuspecting wife. For many men in ex-gay programs, often their wives, friends, family, and church members have no idea they struggle with SSA.
What I saw and experienced at JiM both enraged and disturbed me. I had trouble staying in character as I watched one man, as part of his therapy, act out beating his father to death with a baseball bat—just one of several “Are you kidding?” moments. How anyone could believe that a JiM weekend could turn a man straight still baffles me.
To be fair, I had several positive experiences that weekend. 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.
Journey into Manhood cofounder and “Certified Life Coach” Rich Wyler goes to great lengths to keep his techniques hidden from public scrutiny. Only after I had booked my non-refundable flight and paid the non-refundable retreat deposit was I informed that all Journeyers are required to sign a confidentiality agreement. Last year, when I attempted to write an article for Salt Lake City Weekly to run the week that Journey into Manhood arrived in Salt Lake City, Wyler complained to the paper, citing the confidentiality agreement I signed.
While the article idea I pitched to SLC Weekly would discuss only publicly available information about Wyler and Journey into Manhood, SLC Weekly—citing insufficient time to run the piece past their legal department—pulled the article and interviewed me instead.
After that interview, I discussed the confidentiality agreement with attorneys, editors, journalists, and gay-rights activists. As a result of those discussions, I have decided to discuss in detail several aspects of the JiM weekend. The decision was not easy. But given what I experienced, the pain many of these men feel, and the money Wyler’s organization takes from them, I feel obligated to speak out.
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 were 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 had 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 controversial “New Warrior 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 our 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.
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.
Then things get real weird, real fast.