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Wayne Bessen

Manly man ‘warriors’
Part One: Nude Warrior Adventure
A central tenet to “ex-gay” theory is that a male turns gay because of a poor relationship with his father. Under this baseless hypothesis, a sensitive boy perceives paternal disapproval, and as a defensive measure, the child rejects his dad and all things masculine that remind him of the broken relationship. The mother supposedly reinforces the downward spiral by becoming the child’s fierce protector. The circle is complete when the spurned boy rebuffs sports and male peers in school and instead chooses female friends and leisure activities such as playing house.

Of course, this quackery ignores that many gay men had terrific relationships with their fathers and have close heterosexual male friends. There are also countless men who had horrendous relationships with their dads and they turned out straight. Another curveball to this absurd psychobabble is that that gay men, such as former professional baseball player Billy Bean, can hit a 100 mph fastball with a sliver of timber. I have yet to see any sports-promoting ex-gay therapists duplicate such athletic prowess.

It is also worth mentioning that no respected mental health association supports such ideas and the overwhelming majority of people who subscribe to these beliefs are devoutly religious, even as they disingenuously claim their “scientific” theories are secular.

If a guy wants to become heterosexual, according to ex-gay literature, he must reclaim his masculinity by playing sports and hanging out with heterosexual friends, while they partake in “manly” activities. For years, ex-gay organizations have included lipstick seminars for lesbians and touch football games for men. However, they routinely butchered the butching process, producing surprisingly effete leaders such as Alan Chambers and Sy Rogers. Or, they featured clownish figures, such as Focus on the Family’s Melissa Fryrear, who nearly tumbled off a stage in Orlando, while boasting how she mastered the art of walking in high heels.

Realizing their forte was white-knuckling prayer — not bare-knuckled machismo — several ex-gay organizations began outsourcing to a paramilitary, pseudo-psychological outfit, The ManKind Project. Ex-gay programs, particularly Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH), have aggressively promoted The ManKind Project’s New Warrior Training Adventure.

This cult-like national program is a $650 weekend boot camp where participants — mostly straight — are greeted by large, intimidating men dressed in dark clothing and faces painted black. During their stay, the men are forced to take cold showers, survive on about four hours sleep and subsist on very little food. In follow-up meetings, the activities include shaving another man’s face, kidnapping a member of another camp group and changing clothes with other men. The idea is to help them get in-touch with their feelings and uncover and heal deep wounds that are barriers to successful lives.

The alternative publication, The Houston Press, uncovered a letter Michael Scinto wrote to the Madison County Texas sheriff’s office, just prior to committing suicide, allegedly as a result of the boot camp. The Scinto family has filed a lawsuit against The ManKind Project.

The deceased man’s letter to the sheriff claims the New Warrior program practiced bizarre rituals that include blindfolded walking tours in the nude; people blowing sage smoke in his face while 50 or so naked men danced around candles; men sitting in a circle discussing their sexual histories while passing a wooden dildo called “The Cock;” and naked men beating cooked chickens with a hammer.

In The Houston Press article, the wife of one of the men who attended discussed why her husband eventually rejected the group.

“So, everyone was sitting Indian-style in a big circle in the lodge when the man leading the group said, ‘if you wish, you may reach over and grab your brother’s dick. If your brother doesn’t want your hand there, he can remove it.’ Well, my husband told me he just froze. And, from that point on, he just wanted out.” The ManKind Project called the allegations false and “vindictive.”
The bigger issue, however, is that these are unlicensed men practicing what appears to be a form of therapy. There is the potential to do great damage, particularly to repressed and vulnerable gay men who feel their homosexuality is a shameful sickness that can be cured through male bonding and risky outdoor activities.

Ex-gay activist Chad Thompson is a prime example of the absurd measures some individuals will go through to feel “man enough.” He once wrote of working a summer wilderness camp in Colorado to “affirm his masculinity.” This apparently included climbing a mountaintop in “a massive lightening storm.”

Hopefully, these men will eventually realize that self-acceptance is the only way they can come down from the stormy mountain and out of the woods. Openly acknowledging their homosexuality is by far the most masculine thing they could do — and much less queer than attending oddball boot camps.

Part Two: New Warrior
As it turns out, my love affair with ManKind may be one sided. The ManKind Project does not support ex-gay therapy and does not believe that their program helps gay men go straight. Indeed, New Warriors has a large gay following and many who attended consider it helpful to their coming out experience. I’ve received more than 25 letters from gay men who said that the program helped them accept their sexual orientation.

“The ManKind Project gave me the confidence and wherewithal to finally say, ‘I am a gay man,’” said one participant from Wisconsin.

“The program helped me become a better husband,” wrote another gay man from the Washington, D.C., area. “As I knocked down the walls, I became more comfortable with myself and able to give 100 percent to my partner. The program literally saved my relationship.”

These letters are incongruous with the cheerleading ManKind receives from homophobic ex-gay groups, such as Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH) and the website People Can Change. In fact, People Can Change director Ben Newman, who served as a trainee and co-staffer in the New Warrior program, started the ex-gay retreat, “Journey Into Manhood” with several other New Warriors.

So, is the ManKind Project’s New Warriors program gay affirming or does it cater to ex-gay fringe groups?

I posed this question in a conference call with the group’s Executive Director Carl Griesser. Well-known gay author Joe Kort — a vocal proponent of the organization — was also in on the conversation.

Griesser said he was troubled by the way ex-gay ministries had been promoting his group and that his organization did not support the ex-gay cause. He suggested they had misinterpreted what his group meant by instilling masculinity in men.

“There is a difference between masculinity and sexual orientation,” Griesser said on the call. He pointed out that almost every New Warriors training session has at least one openly gay or bisexual man.

Kort, a psychotherapist, passionately defended the organization as a group that helps men “live in honesty and integrity — whatever their sexual orientation is.”

“Straight men and gay men are all welcome and come together helping each other be part of the male culture, even with their- differences,” explained Kort.

In fact, New Warriors has a position statement that flat out says, “We do not and will not attempt to change a man’s sexual orientation.” However, this statement is not currently on the group’s website, making it difficult to know that ManKind is not an adjunct of the ex-gay ministries. Griesser said he would take this issue up with ManKind officials in future conversations. I certainly hope that they take it seriously, as not to cause any confusion of what the group stands for.

While some of the group’s unorthodox activities may seem bizarre to outsiders, Kort and Griesser defended the activities as helping men accept their bodies.

“There is so much shame about the body,” said Griesser. “The nudity put me and others in an honest space to deal with the shame - the goal is to take men’s sexuality out of the shadows.”
Critics also point to the harsher aspects of the program, such as meeting participants with men in dark clothing and painted faces.

“We want to shake men up,” said Griesser. “They can only be awakened if we shake them out of their routine.”

“This is therapeutic, but not therapy,” Griesser said. “It is a legal issue that will be addressed in this case.”

Whatever one thinks of the group’s tactics, it is clear that many gay men find it beneficial. It is also a relief that what ostensibly appears to be a program sympathetic to ex-gay ministries, is actually opposed to them. However, the ManKind Project must do more to publicly distance themselves from these dangerous groups. To downplay how ex-gay organizations have latched on to them, leaves the ManKind Project naked and fully exposed to criticism it might not deserve.

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