The irony of having an ex-gay conference at a popular gay vacation destination was lost on few in West Palm Beach, Florida, where the National Association for the Research & Therapy of Homosexuality held its annual get-together in November. There was another twist: In a hotel less than a mile from the NARTH reunion, a handful of gay-rights organizations -- -Soulforce, Box Turtle Bulletin, the National Black Justice Coalition -- put together the first Anti-Heterosexism Conference, populated mostly by ex-ex gays -- those who had been in therapy but "relapsed."
It was a setup ripe for satire, and that's just how it played out in the local media. "Whether you're gay and looking for a 'cure,' or gay and want to stay that way, West Palm Beach will be the place for you this weekend," advertised the local NBC affiliate. The Miami Herald referred to West Palm Beach as a battleground for "dueling conferences" headquartered at the Marriott and Crowne Plaza hotels.
The casual observer might assume that the two groups are, as the Herald put it, "polar opposites" of each other. In fact, both weekend get-togethers -- disguised as opposing academic conferences -- were more or less therapy retreats where participants learned how to bond with God and men.
NARTH bills itself as a professional organization like the American Psychological Association, though it was condemned at the APA's annual conference for its creative interpretations of "science." But it has done what it can to maintain the image of a serious, research-based -- not a crackpot, religion-based -- association. Like other scientific groups, it has its own publication, the Journal of Human Sexuality, which is peer-reviewed (by other ex-gay therapists). Its Web site includes links to papers by unbiased academic heavyweights like A. Dean Byrd (Brigham Young University); Douglas Abbott (Brigham Young University); Brent Slife (Brigham Young University); and NARTH President Julie Harren--Hamilton (Nova Southeastern University in Florida). Despite hosting talks on topics like "The Church and Homosexuality," it has managed to gain a reputation in the media as a secular counterpoint to the gay-rights movement. Whereas the organizers of the Anti-Heterosexism Conference probably wouldn't dignify, say, a Westboro Baptist Church convention with a major counter-event, they felt a slightly more respected group such as NARTH deserved some opposition.
I attended the ex-ex-gay conference as a journalist, but not as a disinterested one. Nearly a decade ago I was in therapy with NARTH's co-founder and former president, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. Now I am engaged to a man and work for a liberal magazine that supports the "homosexual agenda," but I remember my therapy experience well.
Once, Dr. Nicolosi gave me a list of contradictory "symptoms" supposedly associated with homosexuality. "Anxious clumsiness" was one (this morning I did drop my glasses), but "perfectionism" was another. It also included being too "theatrical," "self-dramatizing," and "hyperactive" -- while at the same time being "withdrawn" and "nonassertive." According to NARTH, the non-gay homosexual, which is what the organization calls those in therapy, is a deeply conflicted individual. One moment he's Mr. Magoo, and the next he's Richard Simmons. Beneath all that is the "True Self," Nicolosi said, which is "spontaneous," "energized," "on par" -- and, of course, straight. But just as it can be hard to tell the difference between hyperactive and energized, NARTH seems to draw a very fine line between gay and straight.
Under Dr. Nicolosi's treatment, my true, straight self was not encouraged to hang out with women. To the contrary. NARTH pushes those involved in ex-gay therapy to connect with other men. The theory is that if you are "secure in your masculinity," homosexual attraction diminishes, even if it never fully disappears. While the aim is to create relationships akin to a buddy comedy (think Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple or Seth and Evan in Superbad), sometimes the bromance gets a little too deep. Some ex-gay therapists advocate "touch therapy," a technique that calls for the patient to lie in the therapist's arms like a baby. The idea is that certain male physical activities help you overcome same-sex attractions, while others exacerbate them. Telling the difference can be tough: One disgraced therapist took "touch therapy" too far when he started giving his patients nude massages to "desensitize" them.
My experience was less noteworthy, partially because my parents were wary of some of Nicolosi's suggestions. When, after a group-therapy session, Nicolosi suggested I have coffee with some of his other patients, my dad quickly recognized it was a bad idea to send his 14-year-old son off with undersexed middle-aged men. Instead, my dad and I played catch. Admittedly, I didn't think hanging out with him was cool at the time, but it certainly wasn't traumatic.
That's more than many of my fellow conference attendees could say. It was evident that most of them had started ex-gay therapy because same-sex attraction didn't mesh with their religious beliefs, which is why I was surprised to discover that the Anti-Heterosexism Conference had a theological bent. Using religion to get over religion, it seems to me, is a lot like using men to get over men. Throughout the conference, various speakers assured the audience that God loved them, which was vaguely reminiscent of the calls from ex-gay ministers to accept God and reject homosexuality. Many of the talks dealt with how to reconcile one's faith with one's sexuality. This is also one of NARTH's goals.
Personal testimonies are what drive both the ex- and the ex-ex-gay movements. The basic theme is the same -- "I tried to change and did/did not." At the Anti-Heterosexism conference, I met one man who had been married to a woman for 20 years before he finally came out as gay. "I was mad at myself the whole time," he said. The ex-gay movement has its own narratives. Take someone like John Paulk, who was a drag queen and a hustler before becoming the chair of Exodus International, the largest ex-gay organization in the world -- until he was discovered in a D.C. gay bar using his old street name.
But the most obvious commonality between members of the ex- and ex-ex-gay movements is an attraction to the same sex. If you took all the gays, ex-gays, and ex-ex-gays who attended the West Palm Beach conferences and put them together in a room, they might not share lingering embraces, but they would share this.
While standing in front of a long poster board on which attendees of the Anti-Heterosexism Conference were asked to write their feelings on various topics, I struck up a conversation with someone who had sneaked over to the NARTH get-together to check it out. (Like kids at rival summer camps, conference goers couldn't help spying on one another throughout the weekend.)
"Do you think they're just lying to themselves?" he asked me.
I said I didn't know.
"I used to think so," he said. "But they're like us; they just call it something different."