I Infiltrated an 'Ex-Gay' Group in New York City — And This Is What It Did to Me
When I was 12, I faked the flu so I could stay home from school to call my shrink. I got her machine, but the soothing tones of Dr. Miller, Christian child therapist and prize-winning border collie trainer, encouraged me to leave a message, so I did.
"Due to a crisis of masculine identity caused by a lack of proper male peer socialization, I'm experiencing some regressive issues that are manifesting in unwanted homosexual attraction," I said, glancing down at the coffee table, across which I had spread my triptych of supportive texts: Leviticus 18, the part of the Old Testament where Moses recommends getting stoned as a cure for homosexuality; Bringing Up Boys by the psychologist James Dobson, scion of the conservative powerhouse Focus On The Family; and The Collected Works of Sigmund Freud, courtesy of my father's Great Books of the Western World library.
I quoted liberally from all three, and suggested that we meet with my parents to figure out how to nip this homosexuality thing in the bud. I was referred to the local chapter of Exodus International, and so began my five year journey with the "ex-gay" movement, also known as "conversion" or "reparative" therapy.
My dance with Exodus lasted until I was 17, when two things happened: I fell in love, and I took my first trip to Egypt. The experience of loving an amazing boy who loved me back, combined with the philosophical crisis of encountering millions of human beings with a religion different than my own, added to the stress of five years of unsuccessful conversion therapy was the straw that broke... well, I try to avoid including Egypt and camel metaphors in the same breath, but you get the idea.
Never one to do anything small, I left Exodus, renounced Christianity, quit my youth group and worship band and moved out of my parents' house, all at once. I crossed the country to join my queer runaway brethren in New York, leaving behind the quaint ethics of my Evangelical upbringing forever. Or so I thought.
It was three years into my time in the city — shortly after I'd dropped out of New York University to write a screenplay about skateboarding, musically inclined Craigslist prostitutes who hatch a plan to short the pre-2008 real estate market — when I encountered Exodus again. While researching for the screenplay, I had looked to see if there was any ex-gay activity in the city. Incredibly, a support group met weekly on Bleecker street, two West Village micro-blocks from my front door.
Soon, I was seated across the table from the local group's leader, sipping cheap coffee and spinning a backstory carefully calculated to arouse maximum interest in "Auggie," the person I would become one night a week for the next several months.
Auggie — short for Augustine, the early Christian saint who penned Confessions — was an impossibly perfect, half-musical theatre geek, half-fratboy wunderkind. His bucolic childhood as the son of loving Christian parents (a doctor and housewife in Orange County), oldest brother of six boys (Dylan, Logan, Austin, Colton and Jordan — which admittedly sounds like the setup to a cheesy gang bang porno, but was really just the names of my ex boyfriend and his brothers) was created to both titillate the group leader and confound his ex-gay model for causative identity formation, which would have presumed sexual abuse, an absent father or lack of same-gender peer experience as the "root" of a homosexual malformation. Auggie had none of those.
I wanted the leader to be attracted and intrigued, to see in Auggie a kind of potential research specimen for his healing guidance. Between my subtle conversational baiting based on my familiarity with ex-gay ideology, my not-so-subtle flirting and my winning knowledge of mid-century Broadway musicals, the poor guy never stood a chance.
Unlike with the "reparative therapy" I'd received as a kid, no one among the Bleecker Boys was a professional therapist or licensed counselor, and I didn't pay to go to group. It was more a combination between a fabulous Bible study and an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, full of "approved program literature," curriculum handouts and snappy in-group mantras — except the "insanity" we were fighting wasn't drug addiction; it was our mutual malady of same sex attraction, or "SSA," as it's known within the ex-gay subculture (a discreet acronym which allows Ex-gays to talk with each other about their struggle without ever having to speak its name).
Between my subtle conversational baiting based on my familiarity with ex-gay ideology, my not-so-subtle flirting and my winning knowledge of mid-century Broadway musicals, the poor guy never stood a chance.
The group was organized around what has been the same general premise of the ex-gay movement throughout the years — a combo platter serving idiosyncratic versions of 20th century psychological models alongside the kinds of mysticism, prayer and self-flagellation found in many monastic traditions. The experience is a bit like being a pseudo-Freudian monk for Christ. Here are a few of the reasons a man could end up experiencing SSA, according to one of the handouts from the Bleecker group that I still have folded up in my journals:
1. Lack of an emotionally nurturing father
Contradictory, unsatisfactory and as disorienting as the visuals at a Bjork concert, I know. Possible modes of healing discussed in this handout include:
1. Being fathered by God
In short, the ex-gay/reparative therapy model posits that if you fill your perverted need for male intimacy with Godly kinds of male intimacy, such as a father figure, love from a male-gendered deity or a lot of holy bro-ing out, you won't want to have sex with guys anymore.
This may sound ridiculous, but in a moment when the "born this way" generation insists that people are essentially "gay" or "straight," the ex-gay movement's emphasis on sexual malleability, which includes a tacit embrace of the potential for sexual fluidity, has a certain appeal — especially to a person who experiences attractions that don't fit neatly into secular society's rigid boxes. And if that person happens to come from a conservative background, ex-gay is there to welcome them with open arms.
Looking at the Bleecker group's handout now, it's clear from the celebratory tone of my notes running up and down the margins that I took it home that night and read it aloud, to the hilarious incredulity of my roommates. It felt wonderful to at last be at the cool kids' table, to laugh at the freaks who had for so long tried to convince me I belonged with them. Armed with a bookshelf full of queer theory course readings and the self-righteousness of liberal secularism, I watched these men with malevolent amusement, fantasizing about the "gotcha!" moment I would savor, somehow, eventually.
I didn't have a real plan for what the hell I was doing with all this, how exactly I would conclude my prank, but I didn't mind. These bastards, I reasoned, had robbed me of my youth, filled me with the kind of self-loathing you can't shake off, screwed up my self-worth perhaps beyond repair, and I would find a way to make them pay. It didn't matter much that these were different people than those I'd met through Exodus as a teen, at a different place in space and time; a substitutionary atonement is still an atonement.
As the weeks of my charade turned into months, I became familiar with what to expect on Wednesday nights. Our group leader would guide the rambunctious collective with the put-upon, good-natured exasperation of a den mother. Most men in the group were older than I was. Some were married, some were single, several were pastors or worked in ministry. Some seemed hopeless queens, others could "pass" as straight. Cal*, for example, was a strikingly handsome guy, the music pastor of his church, who exuded alpha male confidence and whom no one would have guessed struggled with SSA. This was a mercy, Cal said, since if anyone at his church ever found out, "My career would be over. Done. I'd lose everything."
Donny* was Cal's opposite. Plump, rosy-cheeked, balding and affable, Donny was always breaking into broadway numbers. We got along gorgeously; I think he couldn't believe that I, this swaggering skateboarder, knew every word to Funny Girl.
I wanted to snatch Donny up, and skip around the corner to the gay piano bar The Duplex to belt our hearts out together, but, of course, that could never happen. Not only was this place a veritable den of perversion, but the minute young Auggie walked in the door, Maria, the buxom, sultry voiced bartender, would have pulled him into a kiss, and Darius the pianist would have yelled, "Hey, Drew Harper, grab a songbook, you're fifth on the list!" And there goes my cover.
Though the early weeks at Bleecker were thrilling — the undercover ex-gay spy narrative made a great party anecdote for my oh so sophisticated New York friends — soon it became exhausting. As the hours inevitably crawled toward 7 p.m. each Wednesday, I found myself slowly gripped by a deepening sense of panic, dread and revulsion. My loathing for the group leader grew. His wide eyes, his leering grin, confounded and repulsed and enticed me; my desire to crush him and his mission struggled against my instinct to run far, far away.
I began to feel old traumas every time I'd come home, my head spinning with the same conversations and struggles I thought I'd buried years ago.
"My wife hasn't had sex with me ever since I told her of these attractions," one man quietly admitted during a meeting.
"On the subway today, this man and I made eye contact and I knew he wanted me to follow him," sighed another. "I had to make a decision: this way or that way, God or the Devil. The problem is that I regret the godly decision, and that's where I need help. I imagined dinner, the opera, going to church together... "
"A lot of my sexual sin has been not so much sexual as just wanting physical affection and touch," said one man. In response, the group leader offered Isaiah 30:18, a passage that speaks of God's enduring justice, his longing to show graciousness to us, if only we will wait on him... and wait... and wait...
The project had long stopped being about my screenplay. I wasn't learning anything about the ex-gay movement that I hadn't known from my years with Exodus, yet something about this experience was different. The same pseudo-psychology and shame tactics were there, but they had lost much of their power to demean and dehumanize me. I wasn't a vulnerable teenager in the clutches of a paid counseling professional anymore; at Bleecker, we were all consenting adults.
The group leader offered Isaiah 30:18, a passage that speaks of God's enduring justice, his longing to show graciousness to us, if only we will wait on him... and wait... and wait...
I was forced to admit that while I wanted to feel nothing but contempt toward these men, it wasn't that easy. Instead I saw a bunch of homosexual or bisexual men who didn't want to be homosexual or bisexual, sitting in a circle of folding chairs under bad fluorescent lighting in the gay epicenter of the western world. A stone's throw from the Stonewall Inn, these desperate, earnest men were fighting their own "liberation" battle, staking a shabby flag in their right to try to live in accordance with their religious sexual ideals. It was chilling, and heartbreaking, and much less fun than I'd anticipated.
The pity and revulsion melted away, and I saw that these men just loved Jesus, at least as they understood Him. They were doing what they thought He wanted them to do, and supporting each other the best way they knew how. As the monsters I had needed them to be began to fade out of focus into the broken, searching individuals I came to know and care for, something inside me started to look forward to going to group.
Then one day I logged into Auggie's Gmail account to write our group leader a message, only to find an email from him with the subject line, "Hello Drew."
It was all over.
I wasn't surprised he found out — anyone who has lived long in NYC knows it's actually quite a small town. What surprised me was how much I felt like shit. I realized that I didn't want things to have ended like this. I had been so excited at the beginning for my big reveal, and now suddenly it had come, and I felt a palpable loss, like someone had died. I suppose Auggie had.
I begged the group leader to let me come in one last time. I wanted these men to know that even though I'd betrayed their trust, they had nothing to fear from me, that I was still somehow one of them, even though I didn't believe in what they were doing. I wanted to tell them that I had been wrong. I wanted to say I was sorry.
But it was much too late for that, the group leader told me. The group had talked about it, and they collectively insisted that I come nowhere near any of them. Some had wanted to report me to the police. There was nothing to be done, and nothing to say. Jig's up. Show's over. Strike the tents.
This April, President Barack Obama announced his support for the banning of conversion therapies for minors, which is certainly a critical consideration; no child should be put through what I endured, even if they think, as I did, that they want it. And on Thursday, a New Jersey court deemed conversion therapy to be liable under consumer fraud protections, potentially setting a legal precedent that could reverberate across the country.
But while the push to ban ex-gay therapy gathers steam as the next important LGBT legal showdown now that the fight for marriage equality is won (a kind of dignity I never could have imagined as a kid), I am reminded of my time with Exodus, and with the Bleecker Boys, and of some things I wish people better understood about that world.
For one thing, not all ex-gay "therapy" is created equal. Much can't even be called therapy, but rather consists of religious, DIY fellowships of consenting adults, like what I found on Bleecker Street. Such muddled lines between professional counseling services and religious practice present a sticky legal issue.
What's more, while it's easy for secularist society to tell a sexually conflicted religious person to just let go of their "backward" beliefs, to lose your religious convictions is utterly traumatic. I know this. That's not to say I wish I'd remained in my Evangelical world, but I wouldn't condemn an adult for a choice different than mine, so long as they allowed me the same respect. As Obama mentioned during his speech praising the Supreme Court's marriage decision, "Americans of good will continue to hold a wide range of views ... based on sincere and deeply held beliefs. All of us who welcome [this decision] should be mindful of that fact, and recognize different viewpoints."
Finally, and most personally, it's vital to recognize that not all parents who send their kids to ex-gay therapy are "evil." I'm so weary of hearing this. When my parents took me to Exodus, they were sold a false bill of goods by the religious culture to which they belonged, goods they bought into in an effort to help their son whom they love more than themselves. These Evangelical Christians are the same people who introduced me to Vincent Van Gogh, Jean-Paul Sartre and Michelangelo. They are complex human beings.
In the coming months, my father and I are releasing a book, Space At The Table: Conversations Between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son. He and I don't believe the same things. But we've found a way to maintain a loving relationship amid that. This is the kind of story I wish America heard more often. Recognizing the humanity of an "other" is something this discourse still lacks profoundly — from both sides.
Looking back now, five years later, I can see my time with the Bleecker Boys as a turning point in my journey of recovery from reparative therapy, my exodus from Exodus. In coming to see those men as people worthy of compassion and dignity, I was finally able to begin the humanization of the "monsters" of my past, and eventually to forgive the counselors and group leaders of my youth, whom I had held responsible for so much of my inner torment. This door for healing has opened wider through the years.
I still walk by church on Bleecker Street, whenever I visit my old neighborhood. I always wonder if the Boys are still there. If they are, I wouldn't say no to a smile, or even a hug on the street, NYC-style — quick and anonymous.
When I'm home in Oregon, however, and I drive by the grand old Victorian house of the organization that taught me so much shame as a vulnerable kid, before I had the chance to develop into an adult who could make his own decisions about what path to follow, my feelings are different. I hope something — whether it's Obama's announcement, or the court case in New Jersey, or something else just beyond the horizon — hits with enough force to close those pretty doors forever.
*Names have been changed.