Two months ago I made the decision to turn my play “Play The Gay Away!” into a television pilot. My reason for writing this was to bring awareness to the issue of Reparative Therapy, especially the fact that in 45 states it is legal for a parent to force their child under the age of 18 to attend reparative therapy against their will. In expanding on this topic and making it into a show with real authentic characters, I knew that I wanted to gain an even greater understanding of what it’s like to go through this. It’s one thing to read about it online and watch documentaries- it’s another to actually experience it for oneself and talk to people who have been through it.
I decided to look again at the initial sports camp that I had been inspired by. To my surprise, the camp is alive and well, and in its 17th year. I learned through my reading that it was actually part of a larger group, modeled on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. There were meetings in hundreds of cities across the world, including one in Los Angeles. I immediately emailed the person in charge requesting to attend a meeting. If I was doing this, I was going all in. I had already once gone “undercover” in an ex-gay group in college, so I felt prepared to do it again. This time, however, I was not going to do any damage.
My plan was to simply listen and observe. I was there to gather information, to better understand, and above all else, not to interfere. I made a promise to do no harm. The group was a Catholic support group for people experiencing Same Sex Attraction, or “SSA”. It was meant to help people with SSA to live a chaste celibate life in accordance with the teaching of the Catholic Church.
I dressed for the meeting in plain khakis and a button down blue shirt so as not to draw attention to myself. Underneath my plain outfit I wore a jockstrap that I had bought on Amazon because I wanted something fancy. Today I was wearing it as a form of silent protest, and also because I knew it would be absurd.
I arrived at the church early and was greeted by the man leading the meeting. He introduced me to several of the men at the meeting. I was surprised to see that they were all significantly older than me- I was the only one there under 50. The meeting began with people sharing about their struggles lately with SSA, and after everyone had shared it was going to be my turn to tell them about myself.
It was at this point that he walked in. An older man, in his early 50’s, who was incredibly handsome and had wonderful arms. I was immediately attracted to him. He shared about his struggle with SSA lately and his despair that his sister was voting for Hillary Clinton. Next, I gave a several minute spiel about where I was from and fudged the truth about why I was there. I didn’t want to tell them I was there for research, but I didn’t want to be completely dishonest, either.
Afterwards, everyone went upstairs for confession with the priest. I was given “Spiritual Advice”, since I am not Catholic. He asked me what I wanted to talk about and I asked him about what advice he would give me for how I would be able to feel whole and fulfilled as a person while not acting on my sexuality. He told me to seek out intimate yet platonic male friendships to fulfill my need for intimacy, and that sexuality was fleeting, unless it is in the bond of marriage between a man and a woman. I wanted to ask why that could not be true for marriage between two men, but I held my tongue.
I then sat through my first non-wedding related Catholic Mass, attempting to sit and stand at all the right places. I felt awkward being there, considering I was there under false pretenses. I didn’t want to be blasphemous or disrespectful, but I figured if I just kept my mouth shut I wouldn’t do anything wrong. During mass, I kept looking over at the handsome man sitting next to me, who was smiling at my feeble attempts to follow along.
After the service was over, I asked him if people were going out for fellowship. He said he was going to an Italian festival in Hollywood and invited me along. I agreed, and we drove there together in his convertible. His name was Bill, and I glommed on to him immediately. He offered to pay for my entry to the festival, which I vehemently refused. I wasn’t going to let a man pay for me when my basis for knowing him was a lie. He insisted, however, and told me that he’d let me pay for my own food once we were in. I agreed, feeling guilty.
We perused the stands and tasted all sorts of italian foods, and had a wonderful time. He told me about his experiences with SSA and with the group that we had been to. He told me he had been through reparative therapy in the 90’s.
“We were sold on this lie that eventually we would become straight. When that didn’t happen, a lot of the guys lost hope,” he said.
I felt so bad for what he had gone through. The idea of dealing with this for your entire life was heartbreaking to me. I enjoyed talking with him, though, and was looking forward to seeing him again. He dropped me off at home and hugged me goodbye. My heart fluttered. Then it dropped when I saw later that he had friended me on facebook. There was no way we could be friends on facebook- I am unashamedly gay there! I immediately changed my profile pic, cover photo, and blocked his profile. He texted me later asking if I wanted him to tag me in any photos he was going to upload to facebook. I told him I had deleted my facebook after the festival because of the conversation we had had about it being a time waster. (We did talk about that, and I mentioned at the time I might delete it because I was afraid of this exact scenario and wanted to create an excuse ahead of time). Luckily he believed me and we made plans to get dinner the next week.
I was overcome with guilt for lying to Bill, and for presenting myself under false pretenses. What happened to not interfering? To doing no harm? I was supposed to be there to observe, not to make friends and lie to people. I felt awful. Before this had all been theoretical, it was just something awful and horrible and evil that happened that I was trying to stop. Now, actually meeting a real life person going through this, it became a lot less black and white. Things were real now, no longer an image in my head. Bill was a real person, with real experiences that I will never have. I sought advice from my friends and my parents. They advised me that I should be honest with Bill. But I knew I still wanted to attend those meetings. I knew that I hadn’t finished what I had come here to learn. So I reasoned that I would be as honest with Bill as I possibly could, without hurting him and telling him I was only there for research.
We met for dinner near my place, and I wore a tank top because I thought my shoulders looked nice. It was an intimate restaurant and it felt like we were on a date. Clearly, we were not. We talked more about his experiences in reparative therapy and he told me about another group in Los Angeles. This one, he said, was more based on reparative therapy than the Catholic group we had been to. This one believed that you could go from gay to straight, whereas the previous group was simply for people who wanted to be celibate and not act on their same sex attraction. He offered to go to the next meeting with me, and I agreed. Date number 3 was already in the works. I told him that I was there to get a greater understanding of this, and that I had grown up in a more gay affirming family and church and that I wanted to know what the other side was like. Mostly accurate, although I didn’t tell him that I had no intention of joining his side.
I went to the second Catholic group meeting with him, and this time there was a woman there. During the shares, she talked about a friend of hers who told her that her son had come out to her and she didn’t know what to do. In that moment, I was overcome with an intense feeling of rage. Here was a kid, coming out to his parents, and the people that his parents chose to seek advice from on how to respond were people like the ones in this room? I was disgusted. Before I was able to listen to them talk about how society has gone so far downhill, how Rupaul was to blame for so much graphic content on television, how any gay affirming Catholic groups were lying to people. None of that affected me. But thinking of that kid, being so open and vulnerable with his parents, and the idea of them telling him, “Don’t worry, there’s a group for you! All you have to do is repress this huge part of who you are, and if you do that, then you’ll be all right with God.” I spent the rest of the meeting with my hands clenched tightly. And the worst part of the whole thing was looking over at Bill, nodding along. How could he buy into all this bullshit?
The next week we went to the reparative therapy group which was all the way out in Glendora. I met Bill at his house, and we drove to the meeting from there. I was impressed with how nice his house was, and a bit overwhelmed at the sheer number of Virgin Mary statues that adorned pretty much every part of the house. There was a cross on almost every wall, and some form of Catholic paraphernalia in every room. Still, the neighborhood was just lovely.
When we got to the meeting, I was again the youngest person in the room, although this time there were some guys in their 30’s. I spoke initially with a man who reminded me of my father. He was around that age, and mentioned his wife and two teenage children.
“It’s nice being at this meeting, because I can’t really talk to any of them about this,” he said.
I felt so bad for him. I imagined what it would be like if my dad had to go through something like that and didn’t feel that he could tell me.
The group was set up with a guest speaker, who started things off by asking all of us when was the last time we felt drawn or attracted to someone. For starters, his was an uber driver he’d had earlier in the week who was very muscular. Most of the men mentioned some man that they’d encountered, while Bill apparently was attracted to every barista at the Starbucks we’d been to before the meeting.
Next the leader asked us to go around the room and look at each of the men, up and down. Then, as a group, he asked us what we found attractive in the other men.
“For example,” he said, “Youth.”
Keep in mind, I am the only one under 35.
It was like a brainstorm of sexual attraction.
This whole thing was bizarre to me. I honestly couldn’t believe this was happening. The leader then basically gave us a spiel about how we were confusing our needs as humans as sexual attraction.
“We all have needs,” he said. “Touch. Warmth. Stimulation. Affection. Stability. And we confuse these needs as sexual attraction.”
I sat back flabbergasted. All of the strange Freudian logic I was hearing did not justify to me the absurd drive to upset everything in your life and try and inhibit your sexuality in an attempt to live the way you think God wants you to. Listening to the men sharing was the most heartbreaking and depressing thing I have ever experienced. Many of the men were married, and had children. The rest wanted nothing more than a wife and kids. One man shared about how he used drugs because he hated being a homosexual. He hated the way he felt, having to confront it, and he wanted nothing more than to marry his fiancée who he had recently proposed to.
I wanted to die. I felt so horribly for him. I related to him so much, with the substance abuse and hating who you were. I was lucky enough that my sexuality never really tied into that, but here was someone who was just like me, stuck in this system of circular logic and pain. I wished beyond all else that I wasn’t there under false pretenses. Still, I approached him after the meeting and told him my story. I got his number to stay in contact with him. I told him I would pray for him. I needed to do something.
I left the meeting feeling very discouraged. I did not enjoy being there, and the excitement of being around all of this absurd drama had turned sour in my stomach. I was beginning to let it get to me. When we got back to Bill’s, I scheduled an uber home.
“My uber’s coming in 10 minutes,” I said.
“Oh, that’s not enough time for a dip in the hot tub,” Bill said.
I swear to God, that man was sending me mixed messages. I ubered home, wishing I had just canceled it and gone in the hot tub.
Later that week, I decided it was time. I was going to tell Bill the truth, as much of it as I could. We made plans for dinner that weekend, and I knew that I was going to tell him then. After the hot tub.
Getting ready for dinner felt like getting ready for a date again. I had splurged again and bought several more jockstraps on Amazon. I debated whether or not to wear one. I knew it wouldn’t make a difference, because clearly nothing would happen. But I wore it anyway.
I ubered to his house and he drove us to dinner. We had dinner at a nice Italian restaurant and it was lovely. We chatted at length about his water filtration system, while I built up the courage to make my speech. We went back to his place, and I suggested a dip in the hot tub. Of course, I had brought my bathing suit. We went out to his hot tub, and settled in for a nice nighttime soak. It would have been perfect, but I knew what I had to do. I knew why I was really there, and what was going to happen. It was time to get it over with. The fantasy of this flirtationship that I had with Bill had to come to an end. I had to tell him who I really was.
We talked about the meetings we had been to, and I told him about what a greater understanding I now had of this topic. I told him how important it was to me and that I was glad to get to learn so much from him. He began to ask me a question, and I knew it would lead to me telling him the truth. I didn’t want to do it in the hot tub, however, as romantic as that would have been.
“Can we go inside?” I asked.
“Sure!” he said.
We went inside and he got us towels.
“I’m just going to change out of my bathing suit,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, sitting on the couch.
He came out 30 seconds later only wearing a towel.
“You have got to be kidding me,” I thought. This was a lot worse than telling him in the hot tub.
He sat on the couch next to me. I took a deep breath.
“I have something to tell you. I’ve made a decision,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
I looked at him. I didn’t know how to phrase it. I closed my eyes.
“I’m gay,” I said. I opened my eyes. He was looking at me.
“Okay,” he said.
“And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t think it’s a sin. I don’t feel any shame or guilt surrounding it. Everything in my life tells me this is exactly who I’m supposed to be, that this is normal, and that I’m capable of having a romantic relationship with another man just like a heterosexual person can,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
“I just wanted to tell you because I wanted to be honest with you. And your friendship is very important to me. It’s the most important thing I’ve gotten out of this. But I don’t think I want to go to the meetings anymore,” I said.
“Thank you for being honest with me,” he said. “I’m not surprised you’re telling me this, a lot of the things you said seemed to indicate you felt this way. I’m a little surprised you came to this conclusion this quickly, though.”
“I think my mind was made up more than I realized before I came here,” I said.
“Well thank you for telling me,” he said.
I paused for a moment. I had to do it.
“There’s a part 2,” I said.
“Oh?” he said.
I paused for about 30 seconds, staring at the ceiling.
“I’m just going to say it,” I said. I paused for 15 more seconds.
“I have feelings for you.”
Wow. That was the first time I had ever told someone I had feelings for them. I felt incredibly vulnerable. But at the same time it was easy. Because I knew in my head that nothing would happen. I knew that he wasn’t capable of being with me the way I wanted him to. But still, I hoped. I couldn’t help it.
“Okay,” he said.
My heart sank. He said nothing. I wanted to be anywhere but there.
“I’ve enjoyed being friends with you and I felt like I had to be honest with you,” I said.
“Thank you for being honest with me,” he said. “I mean, that’s flattering. A handsome young man tells me he has feelings for me. That gives me a boost.”
I think he was trying to compliment me, but to be honest, I don’t think he could have responded in a worse way. I wished I had just said nothing. I didn’t even know what I expected. Did I really think the man with a billion statues of the Virgin Mary was going to go for me? I felt so naive. I have never felt more like a child than I did in that moment.
“How do you feel?” he asked me. I paused.
“Disappointed,” I said. “I mean, I know what the reality is. We’re on very different paths. And neither of us is going to fundamentally change. So nothing can happen between us. But still, that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.”
“What did you want to happen?” he asked. “Did you want me to say, ‘Oh I agree, I love you, let’s be together?'”
Yes. I did.
“It crossed my mind,” I said. “But like I said, I know who you are and I know who I am.”
“We grew up in very different times,” he told me. “When I was in college, first dealing with my SSA, I was in a fraternity. One day the Founder of the fraternity was caught giving a blowjob to another member of the fraternity. Everyone in the fraternity voted to kick him out. And they voted to make me go to his room and collect his stuff. And when I went in, I saw him sitting there on his bed, and he looked like the saddest person in the world. And I thought, ‘that could be me if anyone knew.'”
I sat there stunned. Why was he telling me this horribly depressing story? What was this supposed to accomplish?
“Maybe if I grew up nowadays, I would have chosen the same path as you,” he said.
I wished so badly that he would choose the same path as me. I mean, didn’t I get into all of this to help people? To tell them my story so that they would know that you can be gay and believe in God and you don’t have to change anything about yourself? Yet here was one person, right in front of me, and I couldn’t even help him. I felt so stupid. But part of me knew it was just my pride and ego that was hurt. That I could still do good, and help people. That all was not lost. But at the time, all I wanted was to change his mind.
I didn’t want to get into a discussion about homosexuality and morality, but somehow we did. He talked about how he could never really accept same sex attraction because he felt it went against natural law, about sex being meant for procreation and unity. I asked why the aspect of sex as unity didn’t apply to same sex couples. He said he didn’t think it was what God intended. I said that I thought whatever happened was what God intended to happen. I knew I was not going to change his mind, but something in me continued the conversation.
“To be honest,” he said, “and this is just my belief, but I think that the reason that same sex attraction exists, is similar to cancer. Not that they’re the same, but I don’t think God designed us to have same sex attraction just like how some people are born with birth defects or get cancer. I think it’s because of the Original Sin. Because we live in a fallen world, that threw nature off balance, and that’s why things like SSA exist.”
I stared at him. I couldn’t say anything.
I mean, are you fucking kidding me?
The twisted logic behind that, the utter sheer absurdity of that belief was so unbelievable to me that there was no argument. I suddenly realized how delusional I was. There was no way that there was ever going to be anything here. Not when he has grown up being indoctrinated into a belief like this. There was nothing I could do. How could I have ever thought any differently?
I started to feel very uncomfortable. I wanted to leave, immediately. It was 1130 at night and I had to open at work the next morning at 630 am. I was exhausted, drained emotionally and wanted to be alone. I said goodbye to him. He said he hoped we could still be friends. I agreed, although I knew it would be a while before I would be able to be around him again. On the uber home, I flashed through the night over and over again in my mind.
“What did you want to happen? Did you want me to say, ‘Oh I agree, I love you, let’s be together?”
But weirdly enough, I couldn’t stop thinking about that kid in his fraternity. Sitting there on his bed, alone. And I wondered. Bill had said that everyone in the fraternity had voted to kick the kid out. Did that mean that Bill had voted to kick him out, too? That thought disturbed me more than anything else.
None of this is what I expected when I decided to continue my research into reparative therapy. I didn’t expect to get so emotionally invested. I didn’t expect to meet Bill. And I certainly didn’t expect to develop feelings for him. But regardless, all of that happened. And now I am left wondering what to do next. First, I had to write all of this down. Because I had to process it, and I knew this would be cathartic. I can already feel it has been. And even though I normally am willing to write about things that are personal to me, I usually do not include anything personal about anyone else. But this is different. No one I know will ever meet this man. They will not attend these groups, and the anonymity of the people in these groups will be maintained. But the things I have learned from the groups, from the people in them, and from Bill, have profoundly affected me. I can honestly say that I have a much greater understanding of what it means to spend your whole life repressing such a large part of who you are, and the characters that I will write will be fully developed, honest characters who will represent the kind of people I have met and encountered in these meetings. Because the most important thing to me is honesty, and although I was not honest about who I was to the people I met, I hope to be honest from here on out with what I write and what I have to say.
– Theodore Dandy