"Masturbation" is the first word I hear from the wholesome lady in the wholesome brown sweater as I walk into the chapel. I have stepped into a conference sponsored by Clean Heart Ministries, an organization of "hope and healing for the sexually and relationally broken," so I'm not surprised to hear the "M" word bandied about.
"Emotional masturbation," the church lady continues, "that's what it is. Buying a product that you don't need, to make yourself feel better. Same with OCD people, washing their hands over and over because it makes them feel better." I don't know which is funnier -- her take on a serious mental disorder or her name, Mary Mclean, which sounds fake even before you consider the ministry's name. Think Meegan Vegan lecturing on fast food consumption, or Tammy Teetotaler on drinking.
Mary believes people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder choose to have OCD. It may not be an easy choice, like white or wheat, but it is a choice nevertheless, within a person's power to change. Some people continue to have OCD because they are weak, are being directed by the devil, have not fully and correctly accepted Jesus Christ. . . or simply desire to check under their cars every 50 feet to see if they ran over somebody. This is the model Mary has selected as an analogy for a homosexual's decision to be gay.
The conference is titled "The Power to Become the Real Me: Accepting Myself God's Way," a long-winded fundamentalist Christian euphemism for "Being Gay is Not OK." The crowd of about 70 consists of gays, ex-gays, family members who wish to turn their gay son/daughter/brother/sister/etc. into an ex-gay, and journalists pretending to be gay. OK, I was probably the only one in that last category. In my religion, lying is not a sin if it means saving $125, the price of admission.
Bored with the lecture, I venture into the lobby to meet Jim, Clean Heart's co-director. After a few minutes of chatting, I hit this "ex-gay" with the hard stuff: "I'm not so sure the Bible is clear on homosexuality," I say. "Like, in the original Hebrew text, the word qadesh means homosexual prostitute, but in the King James version it's translated to just homosexual. And there are many other examples of incorrect translations like that." Beforehand, I had read some literature on the subject and spoken to Nancy Allison, a reverend at the gay-friendly Holy Covenant United Church of Christ.
"That's simply not true," Jim says, and then rips out a string of Bible passages that, according to him, denounce homosexuality.
"I just don't see why God would have a problem with homosexuality; it doesn't make sense to me," I say.
"All we can do is follow the way of Jesus Christ. Jesus wasn't a homosexual, so it can't be right," he says.
I'm about to argue that not everyone is a carpenter, but the conference lets out for lunch. I say goodbye to Jim and eavesdrop on some men conversing by the snack table. A man with a lisp is talking: "The pecan guy came by and asked, 'Does anyone need my nuts?' After that, my mind was in the gutter. I'm usually OK unless something like that happens." The others nod.
Three of the men -- let's call them Ray, Don and Pecan Guy -- invite me out to lunch. Pecan is the most effeminate. It's harder to tell at first with Ray and Don. Over a chicken club, I hear their stories.
"I always liked menfolk," Ray says. "But I was always lonely with men." Now Ray has a wife and kid, is still attracted to menfolk, and is still struggling with loneliness.
Pecan Guy credits an absent father and being molested by an uncle as reasons he began exploring men sexually. His early experiences made him crave a man's affection and being molested caused him to associate "getting off" with men. "There have been studies done where guys masturbate looking at a pencil, and after a little bit of time, they show them a picture of a pencil and they become sexually aroused," he explains.
"But a pencil is a phallic object," I say.
Don's story takes the cake. Throughout lunch, he has been the most sullen, confessing that his struggles with homosexuality have driven others away. He isn't open with anyone, and comes off as cold to the world. "God let me be arrested," he says with glossy eyes.
During a lunch break from work some time ago, Don responded to a Creative Loafing personals ad seeking a rendezvous. The guy he met in a bathroom stall was an undercover cop. Don's boss was called, who in turn called Don's wife, who showed up with Don's stepson to bail him out. Within a few days, his picture was all over the news. Don views that day, last April, as the best one of his life. He's still attracted to men.
"What's your story?" Pecan Guy asks me. I gulp, clear my throat and pray the lies will spew forth naturally.
"I experimented a lot in college," I begin. Oh crap, this is sounding like a Penthouse confessional. "I always felt guilty after an encounter." Encounter? What? "But eventually the guilt goes away."
Don is staring into me. I can tell he's about to say something bad.
"Who is Jesus Christ to you?"
I panic. They are looking for an answer cloaked in religious-speak. I'm not only not gay or ex-gay, I'm not Christian. S-words fly through my head. Sacred. Sacrifice. Savior. But how to use them together?
Don sees I'm struggling and clarifies: "Is he the son of God or just another prophet?"
This makes it worse. Now I definitely need to give an explanation. "Ummm. . . I'm sorry. . . That question is just too personal for me."
The gay ex-gays nod and crunch on their chips.
Have an idea for Urban Explorer? Contact Jared at Jared.Neumark@creativeloafing.com or call 704-522-8334.