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 50 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 50 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 Monty 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 15 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 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.”
Early in the evening, staff members reenact the classic children’s tale “Jack and the Beanstalk” with different staff members playing the different roles.
The story, a narrator explains, is loaded with coming-of-age symbolism. Fatherless Jack has lived in the safe, feminine world under his mother’s care; the old man in the village represents ancient tribal elders who help boys transition into manhood; the seeds given to Jack represent both his sperm and the masculine potential for creation. Like most women, Jack’s mother doesn’t understand the importance of the seeds, so she chucks them out the window. The reenactment ends with Jack sent to bed without supper. After all, he screwed up his masculine duty to provide food for his family.
Much like Jack’s adventure, Journey into Manhood is the initiation into the mysterious world of heterosexual masculinity that has supposedly eluded us for so long. But as I look at the men filling in seats around the lodge room, especially the men who appear to be in their late 50s, I wonder: Have they never felt like men?
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We waste no time jumping into the exercises.
First, we stand up and form two parallel lines. We stand with our lines facing each other, each man mere inches away from the man in front of him. I’m staring at a blond guy barely into his 20s.
A voice from somewhere in the lodge barks instructions to us: “What stories do you tell yourself about this man?”
I want to participate in the retreat exercises as fully as possible, so I follow the instructions and, just by his appearance, try to piece together this man’s story.
He’s dressed like he looted an Old Navy store. Short, spiky, blond hair. Clean-shaven. I guess that he’s a college student.
Then, after several awkward moments, a staffer bangs a drum. At that signal, every man in the room takes one step to the left. If you were to look down on us from above, the two lines would rotate like a bicycle chain.
Now I’m facing another man in front of me; this time he appears to be in his late 30s. The voice booms through the lodge: “Look into his heart.”
The drums echo again, and I take another step to the left.
I can never know what it’s like for these men, trying desperately to change their orientation. But to try to see it from their perspective, I imagine the exercise as if I were staring into the eyes of a woman mere inches away. The only time I’ve stared someone in the face like this is at the end of a really good first date. You know: the shaky, heart-thumping moments spent mustering the courage to go in for a kiss.
In another exercise, one Journeyer stands at the center of the room while a Guide asks other Journeyers to raise their hands and give examples of mental blocks or excuses that keep us from effecting real change away from homosexuality. After each man gives an example—“rationalization,” “justification,” “intellectualizing”—he stands up and presses against the other standing in the middle of the room. Soon it’s a mass of male bodies smushed together.
In one of the final exercises for the night, we form another circle in the middle of the room. (We end up doing this circle thing a lot.) Staff members pass out black cloth blindfolds, which we tie around our eyes. With the blindfolds in place, staff men squeak their sneakers and bounce basketballs on the hard floor, recreating the sounds from a busy high-school gym class.
They yell out the the kind of shit-talk typical of high-school kids:
“C’mon, take the shot!”
“How did you miss that?”
“Why are you always picked last?”
“Okay, let’s hit the showers.”
When we remove our blindfolds, I see that many of the Journeyers are shaken up. The exercise has awoken some terrible adolescent memories. With tears streaming down some of our faces, we follow staff members into an adjoining, smaller, carpeted room. We sit in a large circle along the edges of the wall.
“For this next exercise,” says one of the staff, “Try to keep an open mind.”
Three staff members take a seat in the middle of the room. They demonstrate three different “healing touch” techniques.
First: Side-by-side, where two men sit shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the same direction, their legs outstretched in front of them. The man giving the Healing Touch puts one arm around the receiver.
Second: The Cohen Hold, named after “certified sexual re-orientation coach” and Healing Touch pioneer Richard Cohen. For this position, the receiver sits between the legs of the giver, their chests perpendicular, the receiver’s head resting on the giver’s shoulder. The giver encircles his arms around the receiver.
Third: The Motorcycle. The receiver again sits between the legs of the giver; this time, the receiver leans his back up against the chest of the giver. Again, the giver wraps his arms around the receiver.
The idea behind Healing Touch is to recreate the father-son bond that apparently we missed as children. In this twisted, neo-Freudian theory on the cause of homosexuality, men who didn’t get appropriate touch from their fathers sexualize their need for a “healthy” non-sexual masculine connection. Healing Touch techniques recreate a loving father-son bond, and are completely non-sexual.
Well, that’s what they tell us.
Staff divide us up into groups of six or seven men, about two staff members and four Journeyers per group.
With the groups spread out around the floor of the darkened room, one Guide in our group—a thin man in his early 50s with short, dark hair and thin metal-frame glasses—asks who wants to go first. Nobody speaks up for several moments.
Since I started this entire undercover project, literally thousands of times I have asked myself: Why? Could it be that I’m a deeply closeted gay man? Is it because I’m pissed off at the religious right, and I want to do everything in my power to bring it down? Or is it an unbalanced addiction to seeking out the strange and unusual this world has to offer? … Or something else?
These questions again run through my head as I reluctantly raise my hand.
The Guide asks which hold I want. I pick the Motorcycle. I’ve come this far; might as well go all the way.
The Guide leans back and opens up his legs. I scoot between his thighs, turn away from his face, and lean back while he wraps his arms around me. I flash back to a night months before, when a then-girlfriend held me the same way. She lit candles. We drank wine and later had sex.
At the Guide’s direction, the other men from the group place their hands on my arms, legs, and chest. This is so they can impart their healing masculine energy to me.
Then the music starts. How could anyone ever tell you / That you’re anything less than beautiful?
The Guide whispers in my ear how I used to be the Golden Child, how everything was wonderful before someone hurt me, how I put up walls to protect myself, and now it was time for those walls to come down.
Like so many times that night, I’m trying not to crack up. To use another children’s tale, I feel like the little kid in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Except this time, instead of pointing out that the emperor is parading down the street in his birthday suit, I want to stand up and scream, “Are you fucking kidding?”