"Yes, Jesus. Yes!"
"Monty has a scary journey ahead of him ..."
"Evil days! Evil days!" someone cries.
"... please watch over Monty, oh Lord!"
"Amen! Amen!" someone else cries.
"The righteous man falls several times. Look after Monty and guide him!"
"Yes, Jesus! Yes!"
This goes on way longer than I feel comfortable with. When the praying finally ends, a box of Kleenex is handed to me; apparently, I'm expected to be in tears.
"Wow!" I remark, moving my hands to emulate some sort of energy field. "Yeah, that was really great. I really felt something there. Yeah, it was like feeling a force or something like that. Yeah, that's it: a force!"
I pause. I can't think of anything else to say except, "Wow!"
Many would think this type of fire-and-brimstone, repent-for-homosexuals-for-they-are-sinners antics would take place only in the Midwest or the heart of the South. Uh-uh. Such religious zealots congregate right outside the gates of the city of sin itself, San Francisco. You can take the BART to them.
According to extreme Christian ministries, homosexuality, like poison ivy or frostbite, can be prevented -- if you look for the signs. Pick up a copy of Preventing Homosexuality: A Parent's Guide; the Christian world provides guidelines for concerned parents who want to keep their children from entering the World of Gay:
Masculinity is an achievement. Growing up straight isn't something that happens. It requires good parenting. It requires societal support. And it takes time.
Dad is more important than Mom. Mothers make boys. Fathers make men.
Recognize that most homosexuals were not explicitly so when they were children. More often, they displayed nonmasculinity that set them painfully apart from other boys: unathletic, somewhat passive, unaggressive, and uninterested in rough-and-tumble play.
A boy needs to see his father as confident, self-assured, and decisive. Mothers need to back off a bit. What I mean is, don't smother him. Tip: Single mothers may need to recruit a trustworthy male role model.
Be concerned if you see gender confusion or doubt in your child from ages 5 to 11. There is a high correlation between feminine behavior in boyhood and adult homosexuality.
Personae: Carl and Isabella, concerned Christian parents. Which fictional last name do they go by? Why, the Gaymores, of course.
Disguises: Isabella is caked with way too much makeup: bright pink lipstick, an overabundance of eye shadow, and smears of blush. Her hair is a mess that reflects her frazzled state. I adopt the standard Christian male uniform: Dockers pants, blue sport coat, white shirt, and red tie.
Back story: The Gaymores are experiencing culture shock; they've just moved to San Francisco from a small town in Minnesota.
The Gaymores' problem: This young Christian couple have become frightfully concerned about their son. The little rascal falls within the guidelines of homosexual characteristics on the Web site for the Back to Hope support group. It doesn't help matters that they decided to name him Tobias.
My overused catchphrase: "What do you tell the kids?!"
Approximate distance from San Francisco: 55 minutes.
The Exodus ministry runs a Christian-based support group for parents who are concerned and want to take action in regard to sons or daughters who are, as the ministry puts it, in the gay lifestyle. What separates this support group from others is the firm belief that children who are gay will go straight to hell unless they change their ways and embrace the Lord. Why is it those who scream "sinner" are, almost always, the people concealing the deepest, darkest sins?
With the assistance of an actress friend named Johanna, who poses as my fake wife, we enter a classroom that has a large "Jesus Loves You" banner on the wall; it is inside a community church center in Fremont. We wear funereal expressions.
"We're a limited, cozy group this evening," professes Debbie, a woman who exhibits the bobble-headed enthusiasm of an Orange County cruise-ship social director. "We are officially ending our first year as a group."
I take a seat in one of the schoolchild-size chairs in the semicircle, next to Debbie, Carol, and a large woman, also a first-timer, who has a box of Kleenex, and who appears to have been crying long before we got there. I stare straight ahead, as if I'm harboring a horrible secret.
"Do you have a loved one that's in the gay lifestyle?" asks concerned Carol, a chunky woman who resembles a high school women's softball coach.
I drop my eyes to the ground in shame and answer yes.
"I went to the Web site and looked for the signs, and he fit right into that sort of scenario," I explain, highly disturbed. "It said that now is the time to take action and take the needed steps for prevention."
"Is it a boy or a girl?"
"It's a boy."
"How old is he?"
"He's 7!" I answer in a soft voice.
There are a few seconds of stunned silence; this is obviously a new situation for participants in this group. Much like parents who want their child to get into a good kindergarten, the Gaymores are taking early steps to prevent their precious son from turning a little gay, since he's in the Christian ministry's definition of the all-important developmental years of 5 to 11.
Debbie bobbles her head and prays: "I'd like to thank you, Heavenly Father. Thank you for bringing Carl and Isabella to us tonight."
I look at my fake wife with a glimmer of hope. "Thanks for having us," I muster.
Carol takes over with some mean Scripture-quoting (1 Corinthians, to be exact): "Those who won't inherit the Kingdom of God: the sexually immoral, idolaters, male prostitutes, the homosexual, drunkards, the greedy ...."
It's now time for everyone to tell his story for being here tonight. First comes bobble-headed Debbie, who says both her children have turned gay.
"I didn't know where to go. I didn't know where to turn. I didn't know what to do. I didn't even know how to say the word 'lesbian,'" she shares, bobbling her head. "Though working with Carol, I really spent some time gaining knowledge on what little wire could just kind of short-circuit.
"I went to Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians. That was the only place I knew. 'Cause that's what the kids hear in school (huff): that it's OK, anyone's sexual preference is OK. (More huffing.) If I would have stayed on that path, I probably would have said it's fine. But I believe now that there is an incredible power, and we can change people. I love my children and I'm praying for them. (Nervous cackle.) Because without God, we're all lost." (Big laughs.)
With a bobble of the head, Debbie then directs her attention to the Gaymores. "I don't know at 7 I would have recognized the signs, 'cause I don't know at 7 [that] they know. Do you know what I'm saying?"
We, the Gaymores, shake our gloomy heads in unison.
"I believe it takes a lot of guts to walk through that door, to say, 'I even know someone who is homosexual, and I question it.' Because socially, it's like drinking," she spews, disgustedly. "Social drinking is very acceptable. They don't know it's wrong."
"We all need God!" exclaims Carol.
"Amen!" someone says.
"What do you tell the kids?!" I throw out as a rhetorical question.
"I sit in the back of the church crying my eyes out," Carol remarks; she's talking about her son, who was kicked out of a Christian college when he was caught in bed with his prayer buddy.
"She's my little prayer warrior," Debbie says.
"I remember standing there, and my son told me he was homosexual. And it's like a death," Carol remarks solemnly. "It's like a death in the family."
"What do you tell the kids?!" I repeat again for no reason.
It seems that the large crying woman has a son who recently moved not just to San Francisco, but to the Castro District.
"Right in the heart of it," she says between sobs, going on to explain how shocking it was to hear about the antics of a typical Castro Halloween.
"Halloween is a scary time over there," Debbie agrees, bobbling her head in disapproval.
"I wish he weren't gay. I know that homosexuality is a sin," the large woman says. "It's a sin in God's eyes."
"Amen," adds Debbie.
"Amen," adds Carol.
"Amen," add the Gaymores.
"It's a sin!" the large crying woman repeats.
"What do you tell the kids?!" I add.
The large woman's crying intensifies.
"My son designs Web sites. He said to me, 'Mom, look at this Web site I designed.' He brought it up on the computer, and these male figures came up. And it was a gay porn site!" the large woman says. "My mouth had dropped, and I said, 'Oh my God! What are you doing?'"
"You had to look at them, too," Debbie sympathizes.
"Was there any tea-bagging going on?" I ask, gravely concerned.
Carol sets the record straight. "They do not believe they are living in sin," she says. "They live in denial, because they believe what the world has bombarded upon them, and they have bought into it to justify how they live is OK."
Debbie's head-bobbling intensifies: "To them it is not a sin."
Carol poses a little theory. "I pretty much believe that the Christian world has created the Castro, because that's the only place they can go for their sins and live in denial," she says. "Do you know what I'm saying? And I'm not saying it's right, it's just as wrong as any other sin."
Debbie once again turns perky. "When I walked into the Castro, my daughter said she was going to take me to the best taco place around. And I wasn't going to go, but I prayed my way through the Castro," she says. "And I mean it was like, 'What an experience.'"
She pauses and then adds, with mild confusion, "I had a girlfriend tell me that I was in the closet!"
"The kids, what do you tell them?!" I ask.
"Carl, would you like to share?" Carol asks compassionately.
"I do indeed," I reply solemnly, slowly ticking off the concerns that trouble the Gaymore household. "Nowadays there are so many outside forces. The TV and the movies make it seem like it's acceptable to be gay. Can you believe that?"
As group members nod in agreement, I gesture to my fake wife. "Like, we once went to a church that made it seem acceptable to be homosexual. Isn't that something?! Sure, we're all God's children, but what are they going to say next -- that necrophilia is OK?!
"What do you tell the kids?!" I spew with mock anger. Then I repeat it slowly, for dramatic effect:
"What ... do ... you ... tell ... the ... kids?!"
My troubles foster sympathy.
"Our children are exposed to things that we were never exposed to. We were being bad kids if we drove out of a drive-in movie theater with the speaker still connected to the car," Debbie cackles.
"We're seeing the gay warning signs! We're seeing the warning signs," I say, hitting the back of a chair. "He doesn't like sports."
"He just ends up playing with the Barbies," adds an almost tearful Isabella Gaymore.
"And he gets picked on by other kids," I state.
"They call him sissy-boy," adds Isabella.
"Yeah, sissy-boy or just plain sissy. They call him ...," I declare and then list other examples; the members of the group nod with each new entry. "... homo, felcher, fister, tea-bagger, truck driver on the Hershey highway ...."
I elaborate on the evil outside forces descending on our fake son.
"Like, there's that show Will & Grace. We caught him watching that," I spout. "We can only watch him a good 12 hours a day and can't watch him 24 hours day. If there was something we could do ahead of time ... something to prevent it!"
"We're especially, really worried since we're living in San Francisco now," my fake wife says, explaining that the Gaymores just moved one month ago from a small town in Minnesota, located, ironically, not far from the large crying woman's hometown.
"So you're in gay culture shock!" Carol clarifies.
"I even saw two men holding hands," Isabella states with horror. "And our son sees that!"
"What do you tell the kids?!" I remark with a sad, disturbed expression.
"How do you explain that?" the crying woman agrees and then continues to cry. "I'm sitting here thinking we are both originally from the same place. God brought us both here for a purpose. I wish I would have seen the signs you've seen."
Carol, who has no counseling degrees of any type, decides it's time to begin discussing the proper ways of dealing with the warning signs of gayness, such as a fascination with long hair, earrings, or scarves.
"In child development there are positive steps you can take," says Debbie, who also is not certified as a counselor. "There are positive ways to make him feel that playing with Barbie dolls is not acceptable."
"What about when he tries on my dresses and makeup?" asks my fake wife. "Should I tell my little Tabby-Wabby that it's not cute?"
"Seems he's bringing that home from those outside influences," Debbie retorts. "There are ways to tell them, 'It's not acceptable to wear Mom's clothes and Mom's makeup, but come in here I'll show you how to put on aftershave!' Their little spirits are just so susceptible."
"What about if it's being taught in our schools? Should we change schools?" I cry, slamming down my fist.
"I was just about to say, 'Oh, get him into a private Christian school, if there's any way possible,'" Carol counsels.
"It's funny, they even have a school especially for gay people in New York City," my fake wife notes with faux disgust, throwing fuel on the fire. "Can you believe it? It's specifically for gay teens. It's a public high school."
"The kids! The kids!" I say. "What do you tell them?!"
"God has given them protection. And sometimes when I say pray about it, I don't mean to sound as stupid as that sounds," Debbie says, trying not to sound stupid. "I believe you can pray about it, but God gave me the ability to take action. I always say, 'He feeds the birds, but he doesn't always bring the food to the nest.' We got a big responsibility in that."
"He feeds the birds, but he doesn't always bring the food to the nest," I repeat.
Carol, who has no medical qualifications whatsoever, explains the science behind homosexuality.
"People are not born gay. The so-called gay gene has not been proven," she says. "People call them sissy-boy or queer or fag, and they begin to believe that."
"Not to mention tea-bagger," I add, vigorously nodding my head, as my "wife" decides it's time to throw a curveball at the group's biblical "logic."
"What happens when you are born both a man and a woman? A hermaphrodite?" she asks. "What then? It seems no matter what they do, they're a sinner."
"Yeah, that's a tough thing. Like I said, it's a rarity," Carol explains.
"There's deformities of all kinds; some are more visible than others," perky Debbie pipes in. "When my kids ask me about that, I say, 'You can't believe everything you read.'"
"It's actually a medical condition," my fake wife clarifies. "Are you a sinner then because you were born that way and are both a man and a woman?"
"That is the way God created you. And the day will come when you will lean towards one or the other," Carol explains. "They do surgery. It's very common."
"So if you get surgery, and you become a woman, then you're not a sinner if you like men because surgery made you a woman?"
"As they grow, they will naturally go to what sex they want to go to," Carol says with assurance.
"What do you tell the kids?!" I blurt, shaking my head.
"Then if they are both man and woman, and they know what sex they want to go to, then they are not a sinner, no matter what sex they want to choose?" my "wife" asks.
"No. I wouldn't think so," Carol answers matter-of-factly.
Debbie sheds light on why: "That was not a choice for that child. It was a birth defect."
"I believe their hormones will tell them as they grow," Carol guesses. "I'm not a doctor so I don't know for certain. We have a mighty, merciful God, and we've got to trust what God does.
"God looks to the reason why."
It turns out that dark, dark days are upon us, and prayer is the only hope for homosexuals.
"I believe that our children are being held captive by the enemy. I believe Satan has taken people captive. I believe God has a special calling for us. Because who's going to care for the homosexuals? Who's going to care? Who's going to pray for them?" Debbie says. "A homosexual has to carry that guilt their whole life. Being a Christian, it's just a calling, and we pray for one another to carry each other's burden."
"I think now we have access to the Internet, to television, to movies. Now they have banded together to say, 'Hey, we are a force,'" Carol says with feeling. "I hate to say this, but the homosexuals do look for kids that maybe don't have a father figure in their life. They look for kids who are susceptible. That fact that you're in your son's life, you're going to guide him ... God will focus you and help guide you."
"OK," I say.
"The three of us wish we would have known, back then," Carol says, noting, for about the thousandth time, the bravery the Gaymores are showing in confronting their 7-year-old son's problem so early. "After 27 years I believe that God needs people who are homosexuals so we Christians can pray for them. I see homosexuals and my heart breaks. I think about what's going to happen to them and their families. I think of men who are already married and have kids."
"Carol will close us in prayer?" Debbie suggests.
"I want to ask, what's your son's name?"
"Tobias," I say.
"Oh, I love that name."
As my fake wife and I clasp hands and lower our heads, Carol brings us home with some prayer.
"God, thank you for bringing Carl and Isabella here tonight. God, look after their son, Tobias. Lift him up, God, and surround him with your angels. Reclaim this young boy for your kingdom. We say that Satan shall not have this young boy. Show him that he is created to be the boy that YOU want him to be, God. And you are molding him into that young man," Carol prays. "We thank you, God, that you have a special plan for Tobias."
If Carol says "Tobias" one more time I'm going to lose it.
"Father, keep Tobias as secure as he was when he was in Isabella's womb," Carol says. "Father, help Tobias to grow into his masculinity ...."
"You got to pray for him every day," Debbie adds as the prayer appears to conclude and the large crying woman hands us the box of Kleenex.
But there's more.
"God, we believe that you are going to redeem them from the land of sin," Debbie prays. "Father, we know that once they become Christians, they won't stay gay. Because they will be lifted by your spirit.
"Father, we thank you and praise you, and you will bring our children through this dark valley we are walking through."
"Amen!" I proclaim, wanting to get the hell out of there. Churches are recommended to the Gaymores, particularly one led by a "recovered homosexual" named Pastor Brian. Advice is also given on what churches to avoid, and how to behave in the presence of gays.
"When you encounter a homosexual when you are walking on the streets, try to see them through the eyes of Jesus, and be prayerful," Debbie says, neatly wrapping up the double standard of Christian tolerance: Do not judge, but banish people to hell, nonetheless. "Just try to be open, because there might be nobody praying for them."
"And we'll be praying," expresses Carol. "Tobias is now on our prayer list!"
"Cool!" I say.
"And you're invited back any time to share all your learnings."
"Now's when the work really begins," I announce with a nervous chuckle. "You know what? For Christmas I'm going to get little Tobias a baseball mitt, boxing gloves, a football, a hockey stick ...."
Carol bursts my bubble. "Well, even sports athletes can be homosexuals," she notes.
"You're kidding!" I exclaim, shocked. "Who? Don't tell me Shaquille O'Neal."
"My son dated a cop, a Marine, a construction worker," Debbie proclaims, almost proudly.
My face drops.
"What do we tell the kids?!"
Persona: A gay man who needs a hearty dose of the Jesus.
Pretext: I seek an initial consultation about becoming ex-gay.
Approximate distance from San Francisco: 58 minutes.
Here's the irony: As far as homoerotic images go, Jesus on the cross is probably one of the most alluring known to humanity. Think about it: an almost-naked guy, draped in a skimpy cloth, with long hair and ripped washboard abs, apparently into blood sports.
On the other hand, what Christian anti-gay groups stress as the reason for falling into a gay lifestyle is a lack of Jesus in one's life.
But what if Jesus was the source of the problem? Let the phone consultation begin!
"Are you professional counselors?" I ask a man named Jose.
To my surprise, Jose acknowledges his lack of credentials. "No, we are not professional counselors. We're people who have dealt with same-sex attractions ourselves. Or we are people who have a desire to help people that do."
I tell Jose that I started in the gay lifestyle when I was in the military. "It happened with my commanding officer during the Gulf War," I explain. "That was the first time, when I was in the U.S. Army!"
In response, Jose explains the cure: "Recovery is not something that happens overnight. Yes, there have been people who have said yes, it's happened for them overnight. Some people think if the sexual side of things is gone, then they are cured more or less.
"[But] we call it 'The Process,' because it is a process of recovery."
"Do you think it's like envy?" I ask, interrupting him and referencing the Exodus Web site, which says that male homosexuality can start because of envy of the size of someone else's Johnson.
"You know, just from reading up," Jose explains, "I think it could be envy of other guys, like if they are more well-endowed ... that could be an envy trait."
"For me, it's the complete opposite," I say. "I was much laaaaaaarger than all the other kids in that department, and it was kind of a bragging, showing-off type of thing. You know, to show how large I am."
"I mean, I've always been huuuuuuuge!" I say. "I'd always be whipping it out and waving it around when I got a chance, like a 'Look at me! Look at me!' type of scenario."
"Uh-huh," Jose says, then quickly changes the subject.
"Heterosexuality is not our overall goal, because we have a lot of married people come to us. And they've been married for many years, and they still come to us," Jose says. "They would pretty much confirm that heterosexuality is not the goal because they would say, 'I'm pretty much full heterosexual.' Our main goal is to help them with their relationship with Christ, and from there, sexuality will change them into the person that God created us to be."
Now it's time to turn the religious tables.
"It's kind of weirdly religious based for me," I say, bringing the focus back to my problem.
"Uh-huh," Jose responds.
"It's kind of a messed-up sort of scenario. It's really complicated."
"There's actually different roots and different causes," Jose says, elaborating to the point that I think he's reading from a script. "Some people stem from a sense of envy. Some stem from a sense of anger and rejection. Some stem from other areas. It would really depend on each individual person. Though the roots are somewhat similar, those roots can tap different branches of the same root and splinter off into different areas."
"Well, I became aware of my present condition when I was a kid."
"OK. Has this case ever come up?" I ask. "The first time I ever felt attracted to a man -- this sounds kind of weird -- but it was from seeing pictures of Jesus when I was little. I would have this picture of Jesus hanging in my room and it would get me really, REALLY aroused!"
"Uh-huh," Jose says.
"Has that scenario ever happened to others? How do I deal with that?" I ask. "Every time I go to church, I get really turned on!"
Then Jose says, "These are unique cases, but different people can respond to different images differently. (Pause.) Some people are terrified of Jesus because they can use Jesus as a man, a godly man, and they can transform that onto other men in their life or maybe their own father."
"How would you take the steps if that is the sexual image in my mind, and when I try to go to church and pray, I only end up being really aroused?" I ask. "You know, like, fully erect?"
"Uh-huh," Jose says. (Pause.) "Is that what you're obsessed with currently?"
"Yeah, it's this weird scenario. I want to go to church and get close to Jesus, but these sexual feelings come up, and it's really inappropriate."
Persona: Monty Lamar.
Game plan: Posing as someone who wants to become an ex-gay, I decide to dress really gay. This will show how much help I actually need.
Disguise: A very tight Enrique Iglesias T-shirt with his large, hunky head blazoned on the front. An open, pink, button-down shirt. Leather pants. Rings on every finger. A cowboy hat. Most important, a neckerchief. I also wear a large 49ers football jacket, so they'll cut Monty some slack and see at least he's trying to make the attempt to be straight.
Approximate distance from San Francisco: 42 minutes.
I'm directed to Marin County and "A Christ-CENTERED MINISTRY designed to help people struggling with homosexuality leave their past lifestyle and to fully EMBRACE THEIR TRUE IDENTITY IN JESUS CHRIST." Here's what the group's Web site professes:
The homosexual lifestyle often proves to be a painful and unrewarding way of life, particularly for older gays who are no longer desirable sexually.
Thousands have left homosexuality behind and become "new creations in Christ." Many have married and raised families, while others remain celibate yet lead joyful lives devoted to God's service.
Satan is not pleased when someone sees through the deception of homosexuality and discovers the way out.
If there were ever a group to organize a Gay Shame Parade, this would be it.
The group's monthly Friday night meeting is held in an office complex that resembles a meth-addict trucker motel. As I enter a cramped back office that has a large shelf filled with numerous books centered on the subject at hand, about a dozen Fellow Warriors, mostly older men, are gathered in a circle.
"Welcome Monty and Steven," announces the second-in-command, who has excited eyes and wears a large wooden cross. "It's their first night. Make them feel welcome."
After being trumpeted as fresh meat, I take my lead from the other new guy -- Steven, a teenage kid with tattoos on all his knuckles who's gripping a Bible and acting really intense, to the point of psycho -- and stare straight ahead with a distant look in my eye.
For the most part, it's a congenial bunch. I'm offered tea and cookies and note that only two really old guys would be described as "creepy." (They remain silent throughout the whole meeting.) I'm instructed to take my place on the cozy couch next to the second-in-command. As laughter and talk of a fallen member who is back in the lifestyle die down, the meeting begins.
"Father, thank you for turning my life around ...," prays the leader, who wears a Promise Keepers T-shirt and mildly resembles a Mel Gibson with 30 years of hard living under his belt. Like a wise, ex-gay prophet, he tells how the "program" began in 1995, bitterly noting, "That's when I started my walk out of this mess."
The group's goal isn't necessarily for members to become heterosexual, but for them to be holy in God's eyes. "I know straight guys who are screwed up as Grogan's goat," the leader admits with arms folded. "The focus right now is walking with the Lord." He then adds, "When it's time, God will pray my wife into me."
The leader asks the others what they've found to be the hardest thing to deal with; for him, it's been the visual. "Several years ago, there was some construction going on down there. And there was this kid down there. Really nice body," he vividly describes. "And he would have the jackhammer going and have his shirt off ...."
Laughter erupts amongst the group. I sense some are slightly aroused.
"It's important to recognize that men are attracted to men. We're drawn to masculinity. There's nothing sexual about it," explains the leader, prompting me to wonder, What about guys who are into Thai lady-boys? "For me, it was to deal with the visual, to get that under control, that was my big first step."
The conversation turns to a heated discussion about masturbation: the amount members of the group were doing it, when, and that sort of thing. As the talking continues, it becomes clear -- surprisingly, or perhaps not so -- that most all the Fellow Warriors have had serious drug and alcohol problems, but have attributed their most severe problems to being in the gay lifestyle.
"I lost my job, my house, everything," the leader says.
"When I first came out of the lifestyle, I was screaming at God all the time, because I didn't have anything," the second-in-command says. "I left homes, I left cars, I left jobs, I have left everything, and I moved in with Mom and Dad.
"But he knew where I was and was able to work with me, once I gave myself to him."
"I did a lot of coke," someone says.
"I had a problem with drugs and alcohol."
"I got to go to my 12-step meeting tomorrow," another adds.
"My sexual drive was not normal," yet another Fellow Warrior pipes in. "This plain desire was abnormal whether I was attracted to men or women or whatever."
"When I was in the deepest, darkest depths of my sin, that's when Christ died for me!" adds the leader.
Clearly, these guys weren't casually gay; these were extreme gays, people who had multiple partners in the throes of coke- and alcohol-induced blackouts. They are mistaking personal excess and fuck-ups for something to do with gay standards in general.
The leader, who has no psychological degree but who reads a lot of books on the subject, goes on to explain exactly what homosexuality is: "It's not a sexual problem. It's a relationship problem," he says, stressing each word matter-of-factly. "Men ... feed ... off ... of ... each ... other's ... masculinity. It's a relationship problem!"
"And that's the key. God, he accepts me with all my frailty in all my screwed-up-ness, but he has the plan, the desire, to transform me into something that is going to bring him glory."
"You go girl!" I add with a finger snap, getting into rhythm.
"One of the problems I seem to have right now," a guy wearing a baseball cap says, "is a thing called intimacy."
"Mm-huh," replies the second-in- command.
"And the renewing in the mind that intimacy is not lust."
"When I had a wife, I was not intimate. When I had a lover, I was not intimate. God was showing me that it was lust. Because you don't know the difference," the guy in the baseball cap says.
"What about Monty and Steven? Do you want to share anything? You don't have to," asks the second-in-command.
I'm momentarily caught off guard; I forgot I was calling myself Monty.
"I'll share," says Steven, the teenage kid with tattoos on his knuckles. He sounds as intensely psycho as he previously looked. "I will literally sit in a room, and contemplate and soak up as much God as I can, you know."
"If God didn't make his provisions for us during his time of blood on the cross, we're all doomed. We're all doomed," repeats the leader. Steven continues.
"One time this guy called me up late at night. He said he made out with me one time at a club when I was drunk. I told him I'm a Christian now. He started to get very sexually descriptive, so I just shouted into the phone, 'The Lord rebukes,' and slammed down the phone."
I am imagining how creepy it would be to have a random, drunk, late-night booty call end that way when the second-in-command turns to me and asks, "Monty, do you want to share?"
Since everyone here has had a drug or alcohol problem and has slept with thousands of partners, for reaction's sake I change my game plan. How would they counsel someone who's quite normal but happens to be gay? I tell the group that I've never touched drugs and alcohol in all my life, and I've been in one long, monogamous relationship.
"CANNIBALISM!" the group shouts in cultish near-unison. Somehow, I've triggered a classic sinner scenario.
The leader explains cannibalism, again slowly stressing one word at a time: "You ... take ... on ... the ... attributes ... of ... the ... other ... person!"
"I know," the second-in-command turns to me, nodding. "I was in a relationship for 17 years."
"Men want lust, not intimacy," the leader says to sum up this and all other gay scenarios.
A guy across the circle leans toward me. With strong, crazed eye contact, he says it straight: "An erection put into a woman's vagina is like going into the paradise of heaven. An erection put in anything else is unnatural, and it's a sin!"
"OK," I reply.
Keeping the strong eye contact, he makes hand gestures and uses the word "erection" at least six more times. I'm grateful when he stops directing the word "erection" at me.
"Can I still hang around my old friends?" I ask. "We've all got the same taste in music."
"I'll answer that," pipes in the creepy teenage kid, suddenly sitting up. "An alcoholic shouldn't go into a bar!"
"It will be worth the sacrifice," stresses the leader. "You'll find the best relationship you'll ever have will be with God!"
I am feeling bad for these guys. Clearly, they are misapprehending drug and alcohol problems, coupled with sex addiction and extreme guilt, as sins against God and the world. Their heartfelt comments are nothing if not depressing.
"To become a heterosexual is not my goal; my goal is holiness, spirituality."
"Images still plague my mind, but I dismiss them at the door."
"I used to take the approach that Jesus loves drag queens; now I know it's wrong."
It sounds really lonely. The options provided by their religion are heterosexuality or complete celibacy, yet, obviously, these men aren't into women, and never will be.
"I work around a lot of homosexuals, so what should I do?" I ask the leader.
"You might consider changing jobs," he advises.
"But I work as a costume designer for musical theater," I retort, throwing a curveball. "That's what I do. I can't really change jobs. That's how I make a living."
"Then I would suggest putting up a barrier," the leader counsels. "Because they will try to tempt you."
"I'm confused. First you're saying to develop nonsexual relationships with men; then you're saying to put up a wall?" I ask.
The leader has an easy solution: "Just say, 'Hey, I'm a Christian now!'" He puts his hand up in a "stop" motion to illustrate his point.
"I used to be a DJ at a top gay nightclub in New York," the former coke enthusiast in the baseball cap says. "It's worth the sacrifice. Give yourself to God."
"What about gay marriage?" I ask; after all, this was the major moral issue of the presidential election just past. "It's legal in Massachusetts, you know? If it's legal, it's not a crime."
"It's a sin in God's eyes," the leader says, ending the argument. "Sure the ancient Greeks said homosexuality was OK, but they also said human sacrifice was OK."
The part of the meeting during which I sit in the "hot seat" unfolds. As the ex-gays put their hands on and pray over me, I swear one is massaging my shoulder. When that's over, a guy with glasses pulls me aside. I think he's going to call my bluff. Instead he says, "The Lord showed me a sadness in you."
The statement is so true, I almost begin to cry.