Photo correction • An incorrect photo of the Jeff Bennion quoted in this story was included in the original online gallery that accompanied this article. The erroneous photo has been removed. The Salt Lake Tribune apologizes for the error.
Men holding other men, as fathers cradle their newborn sons. Men running naked in the woods, like innocent boys during playful childhoods. Men exploring their bodies, as they once did in puberty. Men caressing a silky scarf, like they might a woman.
Men sharing their most vulnerable moments from the past — being bullied, insulted, attacked, wounded.
These were among the activities at a Journey Into Manhood weekend retreat, and, for $650, these Mormons were told that their attractions could change from gay to straight — or at least diminish.
Three years ago, former Utahn Michael Ferguson, a gay Latter-day Saint, and three Orthodox Jews sued the nonprofit group JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing), which offers reparative therapy and had helped facilitate Journey retreats.
As part of the resulting trial, several Journey participants or leaders were deposed or testified for the defense. After vetting the groups' methods, a New Jersey jury determined in June that such strategies were "unsuccessful" and constituted false advertising.
So-called conversion therapy for minors now has been banned through legislative action in California, Oregon, New Jersey and the District of Columbia, and a bill has been introduced in Congress to classify as fraud any commercial conversion therapies and all advertising that purports to alter one's sexual orientation or gender identity.
That fits with what the vast majority of therapists believe about reparative or conversion therapy.
The American Psychological Association has declared it not only impossible but also unethical to try changing sexual orientation.
The newly formed, independent Mormon Mental Health Association has come out against any therapies "which have been developed to change, alter or reduce sexual orientation."
Clinical studies have linked these therapies, the association says, with "increased rates of clinical depression, suicide, anxiety, low self-esteem, difficulty sustaining relationships and sexual dysfunction."
LDS Church-employed counselors don't use reparative therapy either.
Kendall Wilcox, a gay Latter-day Saint who helped launch a new podcast program called "Out in Zion," goes even further. It is time, the documentary filmmaker says, for all reparative therapies to vanish — and for the LDS Church to come out strongly against them.
Despite all these forces aligned against conversion-therapy programs, many gay Mormons continue to turn to them.
Why? Perhaps they are desperate to rid themselves of attractions they see as unwelcome and are eager to marry someone of the opposite sex — as their faith preaches.
That's why Jeff Bennion, a same-sex attracted Utah Mormon who has staffed nearly a dozen Journey weekends, believes ending these retreats is not the answer.
Bennion, who testified at the trial for the defense, argues that his group has helped, not harmed, participants, many of whom go away feeling better about themselves.
"If the church says to shut down these retreats, I am an obedient church member so I would do it," he says. "But I would do it with a heavy, sad heart."
Balancing faith and feelings • The 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recognizes that same-sex attraction is a "complex reality for many people," according to mormonsandgays.org, the faith's official website on the topic, and teaches that attraction itself is not a sin, only acting on it is.
"Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them," the site says. "The church's focus is not on the causes, but on how to help church members who are same-sex attracted respond to those attractions in ways consistent with gospel principles."
Therapists with LDS Family Services do not offer any kind of "sexual-orientation change efforts," church spokesman Doug Andersen confirms. But they are willing to help members who "desire to reconcile same-sex attraction with their religious belief."
The church "maintains professional relationships with a variety of organizations to ensure the diverse needs of church members can be met in an individualized and ethical way ... and may refer those seeking counseling to professional therapists," the spokesman says, "but [it is] not in the business of recommending third-party for-profit organizations, retreats or workshops."
Neither does the Utah-based faith "discourage individuals from trying to address issues arising from same-sex attraction."
The church's silence on groups such as Journey, however, should not, Andersen says, be "construed as a tacit endorsement or stamp of approval."
Without explicit condemnation from top LDS leaders, change programs have sprung up, tapping into a yearning for normalcy and acceptance.
Mormonism is a community in which it has been difficult "to come out and get social support for disclosing your orientation without ramifications," says Laura Skaggs Dulin, a gay LDS therapist in a mixed-orientation marriage. "The prospect of being able to go somewhere and guarantee that there will be a compassionate response, that you will be around people who are going to be like you, that you can be transparent, and you can talk about it with empathetic people, provides an incredible amount of meaning."
The appeal of these retreats and workshops, says Dulin, who holds a master's degree in marriage and family therapy from San Diego State University and specializes in LGBT/SSA-related issues, "is not surprising."
By not providing an alternative, the church unwittingly created a vacuum, she says, and conversion-aimed retreats have filled it.
Healing childhood wounds • In 2000, Rich Wyler, a Mormon who believes his same-sex attraction diminished with the use of some therapies, created a website, People Can Change, to profile success stories and offer online support.
Wyler's view, unlike that of the LDS Church, is that everyone is born heterosexual, but traumas and other experiences push some toward same-sex attraction.
Two years later, Wyler teamed up with David Matheson, an LDS therapist specializing in "gender-affirming therapy," to craft the first Journey Into Manhood weekend.
The retreats — particularly the advanced Journey Beyond version — eventually included what have been described as "psychodramas," rooted on the premise that many gay men "often had far too little healthy touch from father figures or brothers when they were young, and so they crave male touch today to fill that deficit."
The program includes, the People Can Change website says, "journaling, visualization, group sharing, safe healing touch and intensive emotional-release work."
The retreat experiences often include a "rebirthing process" (naked men are covered with baby powder and wrapped in a blanket, explained one Jewish counselor in his trial deposition, while father figures stroke and hug them in a loving way). Still-nude participants then get "crazy like a boy" (they run into the woods playfully to "experience their wild side"). The men redo "adolescence" (they evaluate their bodies as they grow and change in puberty). Finally, the players find themselves in "manhood" (they snuggle with a silky cloth, imagining a woman at their side).
"All of the exercises are designed to help you identify and process the underlying issues that may be alienating you from your authentic heterosexual masculinity," the website says, "and, ideally, to help you experience a deep emotional breakthrough."
Bennion, a Journey volunteer, acknowledged at the trial that some nudity took place in these retreats, but it didn't bother him.
The point was to make nakedness more normal, not sexually charged, Bennion explains in an interview. "How do you create a context where you can see normal male bodies that aren't billboard-worthy?"
These experiences have all helped him confront his shame, not only his same-sex attractions but also with many other issues.
"It taught me that my feelings were innately good, and a natural response to the circumstances I faced," Bennion writes in a New York Post op-ed. "It motivated me to try to repair important family relationships, and helped me learn how to better relate to other men, whom I'd previously ignored or disdained. It's made me much more accepting of myself and of others."
He even asked his own dad to hold him, Bennion says in the interview, and it was cathartic.
"I don't feel I violated any church standards," he says. "I kept standards of modesty and chastity, and it wasn't wrong."
Not everyone, though, has a positive experience with such tactics.
Nightmarish journey • Craig Nielson, the youngest of four from a devout LDS family in Springville who had served a Mormon mission in Chile, didn't know what to expect when he attended a Journey weekend about five years ago outside of Chicago.
Nielson had long dreamed of finding a woman to marry in an LDS temple. By the time he was 21, however, he realized his attraction to men was more than mere admiration. He went to the retreat to learn how to "manage his feelings," he says. When the five men in his group were asked to address problems they had with their mothers, Nielson balked. He had no anger toward his mom, he says, nor did he blame her for his same-sex orientation. Instead, he told the facilitator, who was not a licensed counselor, that he wanted help nurturing his feelings for the woman he was dating.
"I said, 'I really like [her],' " Nielson recounts. "And he said, 'It's not enough to like [her], you have to want to rape her.' And that is a direct quote."
Stunned by what he heard, Nielson says he expressed his immediate discomfort with the facilitator's inappropriate choice of words.
The Journey leader "backed down," he says, "but I think it speaks to the fact that these people are not therapists."
Nielson believes use of the term rape was likely an unintentional "slip" of the tongue by the facilitator. It did, however, convince him that these methods were not right for him.
Another young gay Mormon in Utah went to two different group sessions in a private South Salt Lake home (not Journey Into Manhood, but recommended by its proponents).
He came away shaken and horrified.
The first time was a little like a 12-step gathering, with men sitting around, talking about themselves and their issues, he says, It ended with the men watching a TED talk by researcher Brené Brown about vulnerability, then discussing the topic while holding one another.
On the second occasion, the men donned blindfolds and were told to strip. When they removed their eye coverings, they found themselves surrounded by unclothed men.
"We then proceeded to line up in two rows and face each other. We were told, if we wanted, we could ask questions, make comments, and were encouraged to study each part of the other person's body. Then, we'd switch," says the LDS returned missionary, who asked that his name not be used because his family does not know all that went on there, "and by the time we were done, I had thoroughly examined the naked bodies of eight other people, and they had done the same to me."
The young Mormon didn't object that night, but his discomfort persisted, followed by severe depression.
"There is a moment where you suddenly wake up and look at it and think, 'this is wrong,' " the 27-year-old says. "Every time I talk to someone about this experience — including my LDS therapist — they are appalled. They have no idea this is going on."
In his circles, he says, "there's a culture of equating Journey, a program created without any priesthood direction or authority, with the gospel and doctrine of the church."
He cannot let it go, because it hurt him deeply, and he fears the program could do the same to others.
"I don't want to believe it, but maybe everyone likes Journey so much because it just gives their hormones some release," he writes in a letter to several LDS authorities and to North Star, an independent support group for gay Mormons that included Bennion. "Maybe holding isn't good because it's therapeutic, but [rather] because it's arousing. ... Maybe cuddling and holding are enough to keep our appetites satisfied so we can continue to pretend that our attractions to men are diminishing. ... Maybe it's because we're essentially on group dates to throw our sex drives a bone to gnaw on so we don't feel so empty."
And maybe, just maybe, such programs are appealing because there is nothing else.
Coming together • Dulin designs and promotes LGBT/SSA Mormon outreach interventions, which draw on the LDS Church's official website and LGBT mental health research. She hopes to help move the Mormon community beyond reparative therapy to a more evidence-based multicultural approach.
Journey workshops may fill a need, she realizes, but she would like to see approaches that offer "a much healthier and more ethically sound alternative."
Others, too, are looking in a new direction.
In recent months, but especially in the trial's aftermath, some LGBT-affirming and LDS-affirming therapists have attacked one another with escalating vitriol.
Now a committee of 10 people — including David Pruden, former director of the now-defunct Evergreen, which championed conversation therapy, and psychologist Lee Beckstead, who testified for the plaintiffs in the trial — has formed a new group, Reconciliation and Growth, to bring both sides together.
It has produced a four-page document for training therapists who deal with religious clients. The list spells out best practices, including an awareness of faith beliefs, the complexity of sexual attraction and the need to treat clients with dignity, rather than proscribe behavior.
Bennion recently stepped down from North Star's board of directors, saying he didn't want members to identify him and his choices — he is married to a woman and leads Journey retreats — as representing the organization.
North Star co-founder Ty Mansfield insists his group takes no position on reparative therapy and no longer gives even implied endorsement of Journey events either online or at North Star's annual conference.
The Reconciliation and Growth collaboration, says Mansfield, who has joined that team, is the best hope for "overcoming a lot of unhealthy approaches on all sides of this."
Wilcox, too, is working to foster a better way by founding a small group practice called "Circles of Empathy."
He knows firsthand the inner battles. He tried for years to make his orientation go away. He attended a Journey weekend and saw Mormon therapists offer false promises to troubled young members.
"The people aren't the problem," he says, "it's the programs and their underlying assumptions that need to be exposed."
And the answer, he says, is simple: "End conversion therapy now. Period."
— Tribune reporter Jennifer Dobner contributed to this story.
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