What I Learned At “What I Learned At Straight Camp”

19 Mar

So, a week or two ago I went to an lecture called “What I Learned At Straight Camp”. This guy, amusingly named Ted Cox, decided to infiltrate a Christian gay-to-straight conversion camp to see what they’re all about. What he found was strange and fascinating, and if you haven’t read this article, you really should.

I have no bone to pick with that stuff, I think it’s important and interesting. But a lot of the details of the presentation, and the way the audience responded to it, really niggled at me.

There were a few things that stuck out as especially problematic. For one, there was a strong undercurrent of “men being intimate is totally gay, lololol.” There were several moments where we were talking about men being intimate (emotionally, physically-but-not-sexually, spiritually, etc.), and we were supposed to see this as proof that the men involved were totally gay. While I agree that the men involved probably are totally gay, it’s not cool to conflate intimacy and sex, nor is it cool to perpetuate the destructive cultural norm that stigmatizes male intimacy.

Relatedly, there was a repeated mockery of anything that showed vulnerability in the men involved. There was this “demonstration” (that I was asked to take part in), where we recreated one of the rituals they did at this camp. Several of us guys sat together, laying comforting hands on one particular guy, and singing a song that was meant to be affirming. This was clearly intended to be hilarious in the context of the lecture, and it succeeded. But why is that inherently funny? What’s so amusing about the idea that some men think they need more physical and emotional support, and are finding ways to get it? I mean, I know why it’s funny: it’s funny because it shows a particular form of vulnerability on the part of the men involved, and men aren’t supposed to be vulnerable. But I figure that’s something we should be fighting against, rather than simply accepting and perpetuating, right?

There was, of course, no discussion of whether there could be any benefits of these camps, or whether there might be elements that would be worth preserving in a more healthy context. There was certainly no discussion of whether choosing to forgo your own sexuality could ever be a legitimate life choice. There was only, “They think teh gay can be cured, lololol.” I’m not suggesting we welcome gay conversion camps into the sex-positive movement with open arms, but there was an incredibly strong “us-versus-them” narrative that showed nary a hint of concession or common ground.

In general, I felt that the emphasis was not on actually understanding these people, but simply on discussing how they were wrong, and therefore bad. That, and having a jolly time mocking them. The attitude in that room was at least as judgmental as any church service I’ve ever been to, probably more so. Obviously I agree that marginalization and persecution of homosexuality hurts a lot of people, but that seems like a weak reason to turn around and have celebrations about how dumb and bad and wrong and gay Christians are, especially when that mockery invokes a lot of the prejudices and tropes we really ought to be fighting against.

What do people think? If you went to the presentation, am I wildly misrepresenting it? Even if you haven’t, is this a trend you can see in liberal discussions of this issue, and do you think it’s as big a problem as I do?


12 Responses to “What I Learned At “What I Learned At Straight Camp””

  1. Siggy March 19, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    I have not seen this presentation, but I’ve heard of conversion therapy and of Ted Cox, and I feel like I know the crowd that is generally interested in this stuff. Unless I’m mistaken, it’s the skeptical/rationalist/secularist/humanist/atheist crowd.

    So first, a defense: Conversion therapy is Big Pseudoscience. This is on the level of Young Earth Creationism (YEC), and about as harmful too. In many contexts, conversion therapy doesn’t deserve serious treatment, just as YEC doesn’t deserve serious consideration by scientists. Of course, more serious resources should be made available, but in any given talk, mere ridicule could be the most appropriate response.

    For a more frank look at the ex-gay movement, I’d recommend the Box Turtle Bulletin.

    Now, an agreement:
    Yes, I’ve seen some of the same things in the secularist/humanist community. I’ve complained before about the rhetoric against clerical celibacy. Clerical celibacy is not wrong because celibacy is wrong, but because it prioritizes an institutionalized vow over individual considerations.

    The thing about the atheist community, they are extremely pro-gay (as they should be), but they’re not necessarily educated about queer issues, nor social justice issues. The queer issues they care most about are the well-publicized ones (eg gay marriage and DADT) and the ones where religion is involved (eg homophobic churches and conversion therapy). Sensitivity is not really on the agenda. Nor are the more obscure queer issues such as asexuality.

    • semiel March 19, 2011 at 10:31 pm #

      Yep, it was sponsored by the university’s atheist club, and was part of a tour of campus atheist clubs.

      Your link is awesome, by the way. That’s exactly the sort of thing I would like to see more of.

      So, I recognize this is a big question, but your response has me wondering: what is the purpose of the secularist community, then? If they haven’t even learned a lesson as simple as “avoid thinking as if it were us vs. them”, what _do_ they care about?

      • Siggy March 20, 2011 at 3:26 am #


        There are literally over a thousand atheist blogs out there and you can find out for yourself what they care about. They care about queer issues as I’ve already said above. They care about pseudoscience like alternative medicine and intelligent design. They care about science and science education. They care about civil rights for atheists and other religious minorities. They care about creating social structures for people who have left religion.

        And tell me, how do you know that it’s always “us vs them”? Based on one talk, or a few people you met? And how do you propose fighting an organized opposition without at least a little of that? Sure we can talk about the opponent’s motivations, and we can find common ground, but we can’t do that the whole time when there are substantive disagreements to be had. Activism isn’t all about making nice, not for queers and not for atheists.

      • Siggy March 20, 2011 at 10:17 am #

        A calmer reply:
        The reason I got annoyed earlier is because atheists are another minority group, and they have their own share of stereotypes and myths. Among them are the idea that they’re like a church, that they don’t care about anything, that they have no reason to gather, that they’re always antagonistic.

        These are valid comments to make, and they may even be true of some parts of the multi-faceted movement. But if all you have to back up your claims are impressions, I’m going to assume that those impressions are influenced by prejudice.

      • semiel March 21, 2011 at 10:13 am #

        I apologize for offending you. I come from a rhetorical context where blunt questions and objections are preferred, because they allow us to get to the root of things quickly. I have a bad habit of not modulating that in other rhetorical contexts.

        So, I identify as an atheist, and have some but not a lot of contact with the modern secular movement. (It was an important part of my conversion to atheism from evangelical Christianity, so I certainly paid attention to it in the past. At the moment I follow a few atheist/skeptical blogs, but I’m not part of my school’s secular students association, for instance.) This, of course, doesn’t mean that I’m exempt from prejudice, but it does mean that I have a lot of sympathy for the movement.

        My actual question was not at all clear from my post, I now realize. I understand and support what I would label “atheist rights” groups, those people working to combat prejudice against atheists. I also understand and support groups that fight things like anti-vaccination nonsense or equal time for creationism.

        I can even understand why these two types of groups tend to work together, since skepticism is a common form of atheism, and the groups will likely have a reasonable amount of overlap.

        But there’s a third movement (or perhaps a third aspect of a single, broader movement), which is what I have been calling the “secularist movement”. This movement has opinions about social issues like gay rights, labor politics, and the inherent dangers of “religion”.

        As of yet, I have not found anything in this aspect of the movement that would lead me to believe it was anything other than yet another fundamentalism. The presentation I went to is simply the latest manifestation of that impression.

        Therefore, the question I was trying to ask: What aspects of the social conversation does the secular movement make important and original contributions to, such that I shouldn’t simply write them off?

        • Siggy March 21, 2011 at 7:40 pm #

          I’ve been using secularist/atheist/humanist interchangeably in my comments above, but you’re right that they have different connotations and represent different aspects. “Secularist” usually refers to the more political goals of the movement, like anti-atheist discrimination and religiously justified laws. Seems pretty important to me.

          But now you are dividing the movement into a “good” part and “bad” part. Obviously, if you put all the atheists you don’t like into a single category and call them secularists, you will conclude that all secularists are bad. Meanwhile in reality, secularists are not a separate group. And to the extent that secularism is a certain aspect of the movement, it actually represents a more diplomatic face, since they need to appeal to politicians and voters.

          Moreover, the line you’ve drawn is not even the same line drawn in standard anti-atheist rhetoric (which usually divides atheists into the “nice” ones and the “militant” ones). If it were a real distinction, everyone would see it, and describe the same thing (an example of a real distinction is the skeptic/atheist distinction). But it is not a real distinction, it’s the result of people trying to reconcile their dislike of certain atheist actions with their appreciation of others.

          And this is not to say that your criticisms are wrong. Some atheists say and do stupid things, okay? But you can’t just cut away all the bad parts with vague accusations of bad atheists being bad. It’s more useful to criticize specific actions and attitudes.

          Fair criticism: The atheist movement doesn’t seem to care about confronting gender norms.
          Unfair criticism: Some atheists are practically fundamentalists.

        • Siggy March 21, 2011 at 8:02 pm #

          The mistakes you are making, btw, are very common ones. See #6, 7, 8. I don’t mean to get all up in your face or scare you away from the subject, but you were sort of stepping all over it.

          • semiel March 22, 2011 at 7:45 am #

            I appreciate you being willing to get up in my face, it gives me the chance to get an education. Thank you for continuing to be willing to engage.

            I read the article you linked, as well as two articles it linked to.

            I think you’re right that it was invalid of me to suggest my three-part distinction was an actual sociological one, rather than just a theoretical one. I should have been talking about “three spheres of activity that the atheist/skeptical movement engages in” or something like that, since it’s obvious that you can’t draw firm lines between them. Also, if the word “fundamentalist” is considered inherently offensive, I’ll stop using it.

            However, I’m a little worried that we’ve been focusing on my rhetorical faux-pas at the expense of the actual substantive concerns, which are not the same as the stereotypical religious responses. (Or perhaps, if I am indeed just falling into prejudice, then we haven’t yet talked about the connection between what I said and prejudice yet.)

            I thought the distinction I was drawing was pretty clear, and not particularly related to “good” and “bad” or “nice” and “militant”. The distinction I’m drawing is explicitly between atheist/skeptical/whatever discussions of “science and/or atheism” on the one hand, and “broader social issues” on the other.

            It’s obvious to me that atheists (of all levels of anger and cuddliness) have important things to say about discrimination against atheism. It’s also obvious to me that skeptics (of all levels of anger and cuddliness) have important things to say about science.

            I’m wondering whether I ought to pay any attention to what the atheist/skeptical/whatever movement has to say about broader social issues, such as queer issues and the like. Is there a useful perspective or method that we can learn from by listening to the movement on those issues?

            My experience so far is that the atheist movement, at best, parrots the feminist/queer/whatever line, and at worst offers a watered-down version mixed with naive scientism and anti-religion rhetoric. I’m asking if there’s something I’m missing.

  2. Elizabeth March 20, 2011 at 7:30 pm #

    I agree with Siggy’s comments above. I am also well acquainted with the atheist/skeptical/etc. crowd, as I am part of that movement myself, though I do try to keep that kind of activity off my own blog, for several different reasons irrelevant to this discussion.

    Anyway, from my reading of the article, I didn’t detect the kind of vitriolic ridicule that you seem to have read into it. I mean, yes, there was plenty of ridicule there, but it seemed to me that the author was trying to portray the Journeyers in a compassionate light, while the brunt of his ridicule fell on the people running the camp itself. His conversation with Dave at the end of the essay really exemplifies this: so often, like I noted on last year’s National Coming Out Day, there is a lot of pressure to come out without regard for the harsh consequences of doing so (and btw, atheists can face similar consequences as well). But here, Cox gives Dave his honest opinion while still giving consideration for his personal circumstances and calls the audience’s attention to how hard it is for people in such a position. It does imply to me that he considers staying with his family (and forgoing his sexuality) a legitimate life choice for Dave with its own pros and cons, even while he is expressing how disturbing it is to him that Dave is put in such a position in the first place.

    “But why is that inherently funny? What’s so amusing about the idea that some men think they need more physical and emotional support, and are finding ways to get it?”

    From what you described, I don’t think he is necessarily implying that it’s bad for men to seek physical/emotional support in general, though that may be a big part of why the audience finds it funny. I think the point of the joke is that it’s ridiculous to think that this kind of thing can cure homosexuality, in particular. Of course, I wasn’t there for the lecture, but inferring from his essay, it seems that he is underscoring the men’s vulnerability for the purpose of showing what a scam the JiM retreat and its like really are. I think it’s interesting to note that he didn’t actually get into the science of it at all, and so the focus was entirely on the experiences of the men involved, and how the camp directors attempt to manipulate them psychologically. This makes it come across to me as much less of a “look how stupid and bad these guys are!” kind of work.

    I’ll readily admit that the atheist community has problems dealing with minorities. There was a fairly recent explosion of misogyny within it in response to a few women pointing out what made them uncomfortable at a conference in an attempt to make the rest of the community more sensitive/accommodating*, for example. I’ve also had personal experience with another atheist activist type person who totally refused to accept asexuality as real. But in this case, I don’t have enough evidence to conclude that Cox was just trying to ridicule intimacy between men or the men themselves.

    * This started on Blag Hag, which I’d recommend if you are interested in seeing what some atheist activists are interested in. Since you asked up thread, here are a couple other blogs I’d recommend: Greta Christina’s blog, Friendly Atheist, and Pharyngula.

    • semiel March 21, 2011 at 11:16 am #

      I responded to Siggy, if you’re curious. (I already read Pharyngula, but I’ve been meaning to check out Greta Christina for a while and haven’t gotten around to it, so thanks for the link!)

      For the record, I actually think the article did a pretty good job avoiding the problems I had with the presentation. It’s partially because I liked the article so much that I was disappointed with the presentation.

      It’s interesting to me, though, that you say it’s about “how the camp directors attempt to manipulate them psychologically”, as if this were not a value judgment. What evidence do you have that at least some of the camp directors were not in earnest?

  3. Siggy March 22, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    I’m not sure that the atheist movement even purports to bring anything new to social justice issues. They’re good at showing how pseudoscience and religion are used to defend bigotry, but other than that…

    Atheists, just like the general public, are mostly straight. You don’t want a bunch of straight people to bring anything much new to queer issues. Instead, they should be drawing attention to what queers are saying about queer issues. You may deride it as parroting, but I think that if there’s any problem, it’s that they’re not parroting enough, and they often simply ignore social justice issues.

    • Siggy March 22, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

      (oops, replied to wrong post)

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