Vernon, a heavyset man in his late 50s, stood in the middle of our circle of eight men, dressed comfortably in loose-fitting clothes and a pair of beat-up Nikes. "What is your deepest wound around men and masculinity?" the counselor asked.
Vernon, whose name has been changed here to protect his privacy, shared that he had never felt he belonged among men because of his body. He said that he had struggled with body image issues since he was a young boy.
I was at a campsite in Pennsylvania for a 48-hour weekend retreat called "Journey Into Manhood" to help me change from gay to straight. I'd paid the $625 registration fee with my own money, signed a confidentiality agreement, and locked my phone in the car. It was 2009, and I was 21 years old. I had mixed feelings about being there, but I wanted to do right by my family.
This particular exercise, about facing painful, unresolved feelings, was called "guts work."
The counselor explained that for each insecurity Vernon was willing to "surrender," he should remove a layer of his clothing and set it on the floor. To encourage and support him, they asked which of us would be willing to mirror his actions, the way friends of a chemo patient might shave their heads in solidarity. I didn't want to undress. But I couldn't be the only contrarian to put his own needs ahead of the goals of this weekend: Be open-minded, participate, travel the pathway out of homosexuality.
The exercise continued, and shirts were removed. Vernon opened up about his difficult weight-loss surgery, and we slipped off our shoes. He said he'd been treated at four different hospitals, and we peeled away our socks. The counselor probed Vernon until he cried, and we dropped our undershirts on the piles of clothing growing next to us. "I'm sick of feeling this way," Vernon sobbed. At last, we undid the buttons on our pants and shimmied free of them, revealing our underwear. After several long, uncomfortable moments, those came off too, and we were all standing together nude. I tried to comfort myself. Go along with it. This is what it takes to change.
"Without the burden of shame," the counselor said, opening the tent, "We are free to move around the world uninhibited." Vernon was first out, followed by the rest of us. We picked up the pace until we were jogging single file, barefoot and naked on a compact dirt path in the woods. It was Sunday afternoon, a cool 68 degrees. The autumn air smelled of pine trees. When I got distracted by the curve of a shoulder or a back muscle, I thought, Stop it, Shloimy. You shouldn't be thinking that right now. It's against the reason you're here.
I wanted so badly to believe that this weekend would work. I didn't understand how running naked with a group of men was going to change me, but I believed I had to change. If I didn't, I risked losing the one thing that mattered more than anything: my family. So I suspended my disbelief.
I was familiar with suspension of disbelief, having grown up doing sleight-of-hand magic. The expression was coined in 1817 by the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative — or suspend their disbelief. Suspension of disbelief is an essential ingredient in many kinds of storytelling: magic, religion, advertising, conversion therapy.
I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household. On Friday nights, Ma stood in front of nine lit candles — one for each member of our family — and extended her hands over the flames, drawing them inward three times in a circular motion. She covered her eyes and recited the Hebrew blessing aloud, then prayed for her children to be God-fearing, for our safety, our well-being.
On the wall behind the candles was a large piece of art, a beautiful illustration depicting the messianic era. This work of art was commissioned by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, or the Rebbe, as we called him. My parents were devout followers of the Rebbe. When Ta was younger, before he met Ma, he got a job working in the Rebbe's house in the Hasidic community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, assisting the Rebbe's wife with household chores. For Ta, this wasn't just landing a gig. It was an auspicious honor, like working in the White House, being granted access to the Oval Office.
From all over the world, people would flock to the Rebbe, seeking his spiritual counsel on all aspects of life. In a letter the Rebbe published on homosexuality, he wrote: No normal society would declare that since one was born that way, one should be allowed to go through life according to his natural desires and tendencies. Everything should be, and is, done to help individuals to overcome their neurological problems, whatever they may be.
I started having doubts about religion very young. I have early memories — maybe I was 9 or 10 — of doubting the existence of the divine, but I never admitted my lack of belief to anyone. And I never told anyone I thought I might be gay.
But then, a year before my weekend in the woods, on a transformative 10-day trip to Israel, I decided it was time to tell my family. There was something about the Holy Land that made me feel so at home. Seeing so many different kinds of people coexisting in one land, I yearned to explore parts of my identity I had been avoiding.
Back home in Seattle, watching TV with Ma and Ta, I managed to force the words "I'm gay" out of my mouth.
There was a pause. I felt strangely light.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.