Touch Me, Man, I’m Healed, I’m Straight

I’m a straight guy who went undercover at the “ex-gay” ministry Journey into Manhood in Northern Arizona in 2009.

During that weekend, I watched, horrified, as retreat staff handed a fellow attendee a baseball bat and instructed him to beat his dad to death in effigy. That was just one piece of a bizarre weekend that included “healing touch therapy” and strange attempts to force men to deal with their “mother issues.” In one such exercise, I held back laughter after removing a blindfold to find that camp staff had strewn panties, tampons, and lipstick on the floor in front of us. They told us to pick up one item and share what that item meant to us. 

In its segment examining so-called “ex-gay” therapies—religious programs that try to turn gays straight—NPR, as as Warren Throckmorton first discussed here, omitted vital pieces of “ex-gay” Rich Wyler’s biography, specifically that he is a “certified life coach” who makes his living counseling men who want to become straight. He co-founded Journey into Manhood, the 48-hour, $650 group therapy retreat that I experienced, and which is “designed specifically for men who are self-motivated and serious about resolving unwanted homosexual attractions.”

As NPR reports it, after years of dating men and frequenting gay bars in Los Angeles, Wyler missed his old Mormon life (NPR generically calls him a “conservative Christian”) and started therapy sessions with another same-sex attracted man. Wyler says he’s now heterosexual.

But Wyler’s methods are highly questionable. Healing-touch therapy was pioneered by Richard Cohen, an “ex-gay,” whose marriage to a woman was arranged by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, while both Cohen and his wife were members of the Unification Church. Cohen was kicked out of the American Counseling Association in 2002 for violations of six different provisions of its ethics code, including provisions that prohibit counselors from “seek[ing] to meet their personal needs at the expense of clients,” taking advantage of the “trust and dependency of clients,” and deceptive promotion of products.

At Wyler’s Arizona retreat, I was introduced to that healing touch therapy:

I sat on the floor between the outstretched legs of a camp guide, my head leaning back against his shoulder. The guide sat behind me, his arms wrapped around my chest. This hold was called “The Motorcycle.” Five men surrounded the two of us, their hands resting gently on my arms, legs and chest.

There were about ten other groups like this sitting on the floor in the darkened room: one guide giving “healing-touch therapy” while the surrounding men rested their hands on the receiver. Some men were held in the Motorcycle position. Others were turned towards their guide, cradled the way a parent would hold a sobbing child who had just scraped her knee on the sidewalk.

But there’s more to the story besides Wyler’s professional and financial stake in claiming ex-gay therapies work. In the past, Wyler has mentioned other sources of help in his journey out homosexuality.

In 2007, Wyler addressed a group of ex-gay Mormons in Salt Lake City. He said that as part of his healing work, he “found a men’s experiential healing retreat—and discovered a connection to men unlike anything I had ever known before. For the first time in my life, I really felt like a man among men—like I really belonged.”

That retreat was the Mankind Project’s all-male New Warrior Training Adventure, which as the Houston Press reported, includes beating cooked chickens with hammers, naked blindfolded nature walks, and dancing naked around a fire. (Wyler’s bio says he was a staff member at Mankind Project for several years. One of the exercises at JiM involved us saying the words “as a man among men” and then stating a personal affirmation.)

In 2007, Throckmorton asked Wyler about any connection between the JiM retreat and the New Warrior Training Adventure:

3. Does JIM endorse MKP and NWTA?
3) We do not endorse MKP or NWTA, although we do make information about NWTA available, along with information on Christian- and Jewish-variations of New Warriors (Dare to Soar, Marked Men for Christ, Call of the Shofar, etc.) along with other programs, such as various 12-step programs. It’s an information list of resources, not an endorsement list.

However, when I attended JiM, staff passed out a stapled packet with “suggestions for follow-up and support.” The packet reveals that Wyler’s organization holds another retreat called The Journey Beyond, “an advanced training for men who have completed both the Journey into Manhood and the New Warrior Training Adventure.”

In 2002, psychologists Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder published their study, “Changing Sexual Orientation: A Consumers’ Report” in the peer-reviewed journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.

Between 1995 and 2000, the researchers conducted interviews with 202 people who had received various forms of “sexual orientation conversion intervention.”

The results? Of the 202 people interviewed, 176 of them (87 percent) viewed their attempts at therapy as a failure.

Merely eight participants (3.96 percent, for all you math buffs) reported what the researchers called a “successful heterosexual shift,” and that they “viewed themselves as heterosexual and denied distress with regard to periodic experiences of same-sex desire.”

Of those eight with successful heterosexual shift, seven provided ex-gay counseling themselves; four of those eight were paid to do so.

So, are these successfully straightened men more likely to practice ex-gay therapy? Or are these formerly-gay paid therapists just more likely to say they’re straight?

The study authors write, “This finding needs further research.”