Last week, I wrote about the ManKind Project, a weekend retreat that tries to jolt men into dealing with deep personal issues. In the column, I discussed the troubling ties 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 may be 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 attended 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 group's Executive Director Carl Griesser. Well-known gay author Joe Kort – a vocal proponent of the organization – 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 they had misinterpreted what his group meant by instilling masculinity in men.
"There is a difference between masculinity and sexual orientation," Griesser said on the call. He pointed out that almost every New Warriors training session has 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," explained Kort.
In fact, New Warriors has a position statement that flat out says, "We do not and will not attempt to change a man's sexual orientation." However, this statement is not currently on the group's website, making it difficult to know that ManKind is not an adjunct of the ex-gay ministries. Griesser said he would take this issue up with ManKind officials in a call later this week. I certainly hope that they take this issue seriously, as not to cause any confusion of what the group stands for.
In my previous column, I also discussed how the organization had some unorthodox activities. This includes:
• Blindfolded walking tours in the nude
• Men sitting in a circle discussing their sexual histories while passing a wooden dildo
• Naked men beating cooked chickens with a hammer
While this may seem bizarre to outsiders, Kort and Griesser defended the activities as helping men accept their bodies.
"There is so much shame about the body," said Griesser. "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 the harsher aspects of the program, such as meeting participants with men in dark clothing and painted faces.
"We want to shake men up," said Griesser. "They can only be awakened if we shake them out of their routine."
There is also the problem of a lawsuit by the family of a Texas man who committed suicide after attending the program. They are charging that New Warriors is administering therapy without trained professionals.
"This is therapeutic, but not therapy," Griesser said. "It is a legal issue that will be addressed in this case."
Whatever one thinks of the group's tactics, it is clear that many gay men find it beneficial. It is also a relief that what ostensibly appears to be a program sympathetic to ex-gay ministries, is actually opposed to them. However, the ManKind Project must do more to publicly distance themselves from these dangerous groups. To downplay how ex-gay organizations have latched on to them, leaves the ManKind Project naked and fully exposed to criticism it might not deserve.