Though endorsed by some ex-gay ministries, the ManKind Project supports gay men and rejects the idea of conversion therapy.
Last month, I wrote about the ManKind Project, a weekend retreat that tries to jolt men into dealing with deep personal issues. In the column [“LeftOut,” January 2008 OutSmart], 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 in 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, the ManKind Project 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 aspects of the program that some might regard as harsh, such as participants being met by men with painted faces wearing 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 think 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.
Editor’s note: Read reader responses to Wayne Besen’s first column on the ManKind Project in Letters. Includes a note from the publisher.
Wayne Besen, author of Bashing Back: Wayne Besen on GLBT People, Politics and Culture 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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