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LeftOut: The New Warriors: A Second Look

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Though endorsed by some ex-gay ministries, the ManKind Project supports gay men and rejects the idea of conversion therapy. REVISED

200802waynebesen39By Wayne Besen

 To see original LeftOut column
“Nude Warrior Adventure:
‘Ex-gay’ conversion therapy
looks pretty gay to us,”
click here

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original January “LeftOut” column written by Wayne Besen incorrectly asserted that the ManKind Project is connected to or supports organizations that advocate so-called ex-gay or reparative therapy, which purports to be able to change men’s sexual orientation. The publication of the column resulted in a strong response objecting to the false assertions about the ManKind project’s ex-gay affiliations. Following conversations with leaders of the ManKind Project, Besen decided that he reached “the wrong conclusion” regarding the ManKind Project, as he stated in a telephone conversation with OutSmart. On January 10, Besen provided a revised, corrected column, which is published below. (Besen’s original column follows). The revised column on the ManKind Project will appear in the February OutSmart along with several letters to the editor from individuals involved in the ManKind Project. OutSmart deeply regrets the error, and hopes to set the record straight on the ManKind Project’s worthy endeavors and gay-supportive atmosphere.

For my January column, I wrote about the ManKind Project, a weekend retreat that tries to jolt men into dealing with deep personal issues. In the original column [see below], I discussed what I considered the troubling ties that the ManKind’s New Warriors program has with ex-gay ministries, which aggressively tout the retreat in their efforts to supposedly instill masculinity in their clients.

It turns out, however, that the love affair is 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 have participated consider it helpful to their coming-out experience. I 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 ManKind Project executive director Carl Griesser. Well-known gay author Joe Kort—a vocal proponent of the ManKind Project—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 that the ex-gay proponents 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 includes 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 the differences,” Kort explained.

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.” This statement is not currently on the group’s website, which perhaps makes it difficult for people not familiar with the ManKind Project to know that ManKind is not an adjunct of the ex-gay ministries. Griesser said he would take this issue up with ManKind officials. I certainly hope that the ManKind Project takes this issue seriously, in order to avoid confusion over what the group actually stands for.

In my previous column, I also discussed how the organization had some activities that to some people may seem unorthodox. These include: blindfolded walking tours in the nude; 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.

While these activities may seem odd to some outsiders, Kort and Griesser defended them as helping men accept their bodies.

“There is so much shame about the body,” Griesser said. “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 participants being met by men with painted faces wearing in dark clothing.

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

There is also the issue of a lawsuit that has been filed by the family of a Texas man who committed suicide after he participated in the program. The family charges that New Warriors is administering therapy without trained professionals.

“This [the ManKind Project program] is therapeutic, but not therapy,” Griesser said. “It is a legal issue that will be addressed in this case.”

Whatever one might thinks of the group’s practices, it is clear that many gay men find the work of the ManKind Project beneficial. It is also a relief to know that what ostensibly appeared to me to be a program sympathetic to ex-gay ministries is actually opposed to them. I encourage the ManKind Project to do more to publicly distance themselves from these dangerous ex-gay groups. Not clearly repudiating the way that some ex-gay organizations have latched onto the ManKind Project leaves the group naked and fully exposed to criticism it does not deserve.

Wayne Besen, author of Bashing Back and Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth, writes a weekly column published at www.waynebesen.com.

——————————————

ORIGINAL COLUMN
Nude Warrior Adventure
‘Ex-gay’ conversion therapy looks pretty gay to us.

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, while 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”

• 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 at 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.

Wayne Besen, author of Bashing Back and Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth, writes a weekly column published at www.waynebesen.com.

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