Can This Man Be Straight
Tim Coralto starts to undress.
He takes off his shoes and his socks. He takes off his shirt, revealing a raft of chest hair so long you could French-braid it. Here, in a basement apartment outside of Washington, D.C., Tim takes off his jeans. Except for his boxers, he’s naked. He’s ready to do what he drove 130 miles from Philly to do.
His friend John is getting undressed, too. John, whose apartment this is. John, a balding George Costanza look-alike with glasses and a doughy torso.
Tim is attracted to John. He’s attracted to a lot of different men, in fact. Almost everybody he knows would call him gay. But Tim doesn’t want to be gay. His reasons are complicated, but they boil down to this: He’s a devout Catholic. He can’t be gay. So that’s why he’s here, on this April Saturday, in John’s apartment. He’s trying to figure out a way to not be gay anymore, and he thinks he’s hit on a solution. But he needs John’s help — John, an evangelical Christian who for years kept a secret stash of gay porn on his computer and whose wife separated from him when she discovered it. John wants to be straight, too.
Tim climbs into John’s four-poster bed. John gets in too, and flattens his back against the headboard. Tim lies down on his side and nestles his head against John’s heart. John closes his eyes. It’s silent except for the ticking of the wall clock. Tim exhales in sweet release Â… here it is, the payoff Â…
But it’s not sexual. All Tim’s doing is cuddling, really. It’s called “healthy touch” therapy. Tim read about it in a book. By cuddling, Tim is supposed to be able to fill the hole inside himself that was never filled with his own parents’ love — the hole he tried, in later years, to fill by having sex with other men. Tim has tried this therapy before, but this is the first time with John.
And pressed flat against John’s heart, skin to skin, Tim feels loved like never before. Accepted. He feels like he’s thrumming in new octaves Â…
“Can I touch your genitals?”
John doesn’t answer right away. Most “healthy touch” therapy frowns on below-the-waist touching. Thou shalt not.
“Okay,” says John, eventually.
For 30 seconds, Tim touches John.
“Would you touch mine?” says Tim.
John’s hand moves below the waist.
“Wow,” says John. “Empire State Building over there.”
And that’s why this is so great for Tim. John can reach over and touch Tim, and Tim can reach over and touch John, and although anybody else would find this sad and pathetic and self-delusional — anybody else being John’s wife, who thinks “healthy touch” therapy is just a cover story for sodomy — Tim knows that John isn’t getting the wrong idea. What matters to Tim most of all is that he’s near someone who understands him. John understands. But there are so many who don’t. Or won’t. Who just think Tim is a freak. And Lord, does he ever not want to be a freak.
“John,” says Tim, “do you think I’m normal?”
Outwardly, the life of Tim Coralto (not his real name) appears normal enough. He’s a 30-something paralegal. He lives on the Main Line. He has lots of friends. He is attractive: six feet tall, with just a slight paunch. Tim is Hispanic, but people often mistake him for Italian. His voice, a soft alto, isn’t at all effeminate. He slips through gaydar like a stealth bomber.
But underneath, he’s a mess. Prozac? Tried it. Effexor? On it. He’s not normal. He’s nowhere near it. The only way he could find normalcy is by making one of two choices. It’s that stark. It’s that simple.
One: Be gay! Come out! Declare, loud and proud, in the words of New Jersey’s Governor Jim McGreevey, “I am a gay American.” Tim could spend weeknights at Woody’s Bar on 13th Street, flirting with guys over Yuenglings, knowing that the gay community would support him. And so would a growing niche of straight people. Two decades ago, fewer than half of Americans knew someone who was gay. But in this Queer Eye era, 69 percent know a gay person, and 68 percent wouldn’t mind their kid being taught by one. Kids are even more accepting than adults. Just the fact that folks are debating the propriety of gay marriage, not of gayness itself, is a mark of significant progress. Even better, Tim works in a city that’s so queer-friendly, it’s spending $1.7 million to attract gay tourists. Tim could enter the gay world, and people would understand.
Option two: Be straight! Deny the part of him that wants to see men naked. Fight it. There are groups that say he can do it, a hundred or so “ex-gay” ministries that dot the country, backed by the likes of the Reverend Jerry Falwell and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson — the allies of a branch of psychiatry called “conversion therapy.” By last fall, at least in the realm of public opinion, conversion therapy looked to have gone the way of bloodletting. And then, last October, it got a second wind, in the form of a psychiatric study — later blasted as scientifically unsound — that claimed some men and women really can change if they are “highly motivated.” Doctors used to “motivate” the men with electroshocks and poison, but these days the motivation must come from within. All Tim has to do is say the words — “I want change” — and he’ll have another instant base of support, another group of people, powerful people (not just the ex-gay folks, but ministers and even U.S. senators), who would understand.
But neither one of these choices works for Tim. With either, he has to give up some of what’s real about him. He tried “coming out,” sort of half-heartedly, but living as an openly gay man just made him feel lonelier, because none of the gay men he met at Woody’s could relate to his faith. He tried being straight, asking God to change him, burning through dozens of pens writing passionate journal entries to Jesus. But he couldn’t talk publicly about his inevitable setbacks, or else he’d stop getting his calls returned by Catholic friends who never got the memo on loving the sinner. Even his more tolerant Catholic buddies — four of whom have formed a “Tim Team” support group to help him stay straight — would tell him that “victory” means making “the choice to love God more than what you may want,” and that being gay is “the easy way out.”
So Tim’s a unique case. A strange hybrid creature, caught between two hardening extremes of a high-stakes social and political battle over gay rights. And to the extent the battle’s premised on ideas about nature and nurture — whether gay people are born or made, and whether they can change — then Tim, unwillingly, is on the front lines.
And he isn’t the only one. Last year, after a decade of looking for some fellow travelers, he found them. A group of guys just like Tim, alienated from the culture in the exact same way. They meet at a few locations throughout the U.S., including a camp in the Poconos. Their program — called “Journey Into Manhood,” or “JIM” for short — is basically an “ex-gay” ministry, but it’s a newer breed, more secular and New Age, less Jerry Falwell than Stuart Smalley. Since JIM was founded two and a half years ago, about 300 men have become Journeyers.
These Journeyers have hooked Tim into their network of support groups and weekend retreats, a furious circuit of healing. They’ve eased Tim into life as a therapy junkie. He’s so comfortable with introspection these days that he’ll hand 150 pages of his journals to a reporter, a stranger, as long as his name and identifying characteristics and those of his friends will be changed. The Journeyers are goooood. They’ve gotten Tim to say the words: “I want change.”
And it’s the Journeyers, finally, who have given Tim the most important thing in the world, the thing that the layperson at Sacred Heart Church in Maryland is talking about right now, this early June Sunday. Tim’s bent down on the pew kneeler, hands clasped in a loose fist. He hardly ever misses church. Today is the Sunday of Tim’s second cuddle weekend with John. And the layperson is wise indeed, because now she’s reading the best part of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
Not the part in which Paul — a lifelong confirmed bachelor himself — talks about “men committing shameless acts with men.”
No, not that part. This one:
“We even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint.”
Tim’s dad might have understood. He was just like Tim: shy, sensitive, compassionate. Tim’s mother was a different story. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she was sad and nervous, hospitalized several times as Tim was growing up. “Why are you so shy?” she’d say to Tim. “Why don’t you say something?” As soon as he’d form a first syllable, she’d move on to another topic, leaving him more resolved than ever to keep his mouth shut.
Anyway, there wasn’t much point in adding to the chaos and noise of the Coralto household. Tim grew up with six siblings in the mid-Atlantic suburbs, and despite all the commotion, he never felt much of a connection to anyone.
Did this alienate Tim from his body and his masculine soul, as his Journeyer friends tell him? Watching his eager-to-please dad enable crazy Mom by giving her a weekly allowance, then watching her flee the messy house, watching her start inexplicably hanging out at Applebee’s up the street, watching her start to date the men she met there — was that what made him gay? His mom’s imbalance? Her fear of doctors, which meant that Tim was never circumcised? He learned to hate his penis, actually standing some nights in front of a full-length mirror and berating himself. He couldn’t stand the sight of his own naked body. However, he wrote years later, I wanted to see other boys & men naked!
Tim’s parents raised him Catholic. They took him to church and sent him to CCD. His mom made rosaries for missionaries, and Tim was intrigued; as a boy, he’d pray the rosary alone. He tried, in little ways, to remain devout.
But in middle school, Tim saw his first porno — Debbie Does Dallas — and while the other boys were checking out the cheerleaders, Tim was focused on the men. In high school, he started experimenting with girls. At age 16, he would make out with a sweet girl named Blair, and the two became close. Then Tim confessed, for the first time to anyone, ever, that he thought he might be gay. Blair consoled him. Then she broke up with him. He wrote little heartbroken songs about it: Blair, my teddy bear/Please don’t say no/I don’t wanna go homeÂ…
And then came the end of senior year, in the late ’80s. Time to leave home. What Tim wanted more than anything was to feel like he belonged. A relative suggested he seek out a group in college that would take him in, shower him with love and help him get right with God. It sounded nice.
Tim moved into his new home, near an East Coast university. It wasn’t a dorm. It was a house owned by a fundamentalist Catholic sect called Opus Dei, recently made famous by The Da Vinci Code. Tim would be a “numerary,” a lay Catholic living a life of celibacy and service to God. He’d study the humanities during the day and the Bible at night.
At first, Tim liked the place. He shrugged off everything about Opus Dei that seemed lavishly strange. He didn’t complain that his mail and books were censored. He didn’t even mind wearing the “cilice” — a barbed-wire bracelet — around his thigh for an hour every day, to purify his flesh through pain. Tim didn’t mind because I was overwhelmed by the amount of attention & love I was receiving from older men.
But Tim’s ecstasy didn’t last. For one thing, Opus Dei’s celibacy requirement meant he couldn’t masturbate, but he couldn’t help himself. Worse, he masturbated while thinking about men. He couldn’t talk about the feelings with most of his Opus Dei friends. He couldn’t suppress the feelings, either. What he could do was scream. Loudly.
The screaming was totally out of character. Normally Tim was the kind of guy who waited until others had their say before offering his, whose body language was calculated to minimize his presence in a room.
But not here. Here, he’d just lose it during counseling sessions, start wailing and lashing out: “Fuck all you all!” Nobody knew what to do with him. They didn’t understand.
Tim prayed. Tim waited.
Miserable, Tim decided to get out.
The summer of 1990, Tim was working for his father. One hot, clear day, Tim asked his dad to lunch. After eating, they stopped to talk in the cool little park across from Dad’s office, the park where Tim and his siblings used to play.
There, Tim told his father about his homosexual urges. He started crying. Dad held him.
“Don’t worry about it. I love you no matter what,” Dad said. “I struggled with this same issue myself.”
Tim couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. He knew that three of his relatives were gay, and they all had good relationships with Tim and his family — Uncle Larry, who was trying just like Tim to be straight; Uncle Rick, who was in a committed relationship with another man; and Aunt Jane, who was a lesbian. If Rick and Jane were happy being gay, Tim was happy for them. But Tim’s own father?
“I could have gone either way,” Dad said.
Tim asked what he meant.
“I decided I was going to be straight,” Dad said.
That’s it? Tim thought. It was that easy? He asked for more details, but Dad clammed up. He couldn’t share anything more. He still had a wife. He still had seven kids. And now Tim was the only one who knew. Dad understood what Tim was going through, but he was afraid. He wasn’t much help at all.
Tim was afraid, too. He was afraid of going to Hell. It was nice to be accepted and loved, but Dad seemed too eager to approve. Tim didn’t want anyone to affirm his difference. He wanted to eliminate it.
But it was hard, in those first years after leaving Opus Dei, to deny his gayness. The feelings he’d suppressed for so long came rocketing out all at once, a vomitous brawl of emotion. Tim couldn’t crush all that feeling back into the pit of his stomach. Carefully, painstakingly, Tim let the feelings vent.
He started slow. He wrote letters he’d never have the courage to send. Dear Joshua, he wrote to the handsome Opus Dei numerary he’d been infatuated with for years. This letter is the letter I long to write you — containing all the thoughts of my crazy heart for you Â…
And Tim, as always, wrote to God — but with renewed passion and urgency. Lord, help me to change Â… I am a monster and I can’t live with myself. Asking God for help, though, meant asking the one who had created Tim’s problem in the first place. Fuck you!!! God!!! I hate this lust you’ve given me. It’s all I feel Â… I didn’t make myself this way you did! Â… I get so angry & frustrated with your church! It does not give me answers/solutions to my problems! The conflict drove him to consider drastic acts. Dear Lord, more madness! Today is my 25th birthday & should be a cause for celebration but I feel like death. I like to act suicidal/speak of death Â…
By then, in the early ’90s, Tim had moved away from the East Coast to continue his schooling. He soon connected with an ex-gay umbrella group, Exodus. But Exodus — with its Opus Dei-like inculcation of the fear of Hell — didn’t help. One night, he found himself wanting so badly to touch another man that he propositioned a balding Exodus member named Dominic. It led to Tim’s first homosexual experience: Tim masturbating with Dominic, Tim finishing first, feeling guilty and telling Dominic “You gotta go now,” hugging him in a lame attempt to be all holy.
Tim moved back to the East Coast in 1997. He settled in Philly, because Philly was halfway in between his family and his therapist in New York, a Catholic woman who believed gay men could change. Here in Philly, Tim started feeling a little better. He joined a church right away. He took his antidepressants. After two years, he landed the paralegal job he still holds.
But Tim struggled, still, so he tried something different. For the first time, he decided to try to be gay. To come out. He started wandering out to Philly’s gay bars after work, nursing a beer and waiting for someone less shy to come up and start flirting.
Like that late-fall night in 1999 when Tim showed up at Woody’s. A man approached him, a man with blond hair and blue eyes. Tim didn’t know what to say, so he said something painfully honest.
“Do you ever think your homosexuality is a result of something that happened in your childhood,” Tim asked, “something that went wrong?”
The blond guy waved his hand. “Nah, that’s all bullshit,” he said. Immediately, Tim knew there wasn’t any relationship potential. But he was horny Â…
“All right,” Tim told him. “That’s okay. That’s fine.”
They left the club together and got in the car. Tim, emboldened, reached over the cupholder and touched the guy’s arm. And there was something about that gesture that was just Â… awesome. The sweet overture of foreplay. Starting to make out. Taking off the guy’s shirt. Taking off his own shirt. Wanting it, and feeling momentarily okay about the wanting. Feeling: Yes. Yes. This is So. Right.
Tim spent the night at the guy’s condo in Bucks County. Over the next few months, they talked on the phone. “Yeah, I’m doing some stuff with my church group,” Tim told him once.
“Whatever,” the guy said.
As much as Tim tried, he couldn’t pull off being gay. I have somehow been so much happier & relieved & somehow also at war on my insides, he wrote to God in November 1999. While there is much joy, none of it comes from you. Once again, he committed himself to being straight.
And this time, he started making progress. That year, he found a book called Coming Out Straight, which taught him the “healthy touch” therapy, and he started the “Tim Team” support group with his Catholic friends. A year later, Tim read in an ex-gay newsletter about a program called the New Warrior Training Adventure, or “Warriors” for short. The men who comprised Warriors — an offshoot of Robert Bly’s Men’s Movement that has trained 30,000 men all over the world — were overwhelmingly straight. But Warriors held special appeal for gay men, for reasons Tim discovered when he paid $450, drove his boxy Toyota sedan to a muddy retreat camp in Deer Park, and spent the weekend male-bonding like he’d never done before. There in the camp, the Warriors rechristened him “Lion Heart” and guided Lion on a “trust fall.” They blindfolded him, made him drop backwards into a lattice of loving arms. Lion broke into tears, crying, “I am a man among men!”
Tim became a Warrior devotee. He started staffing the weekends so he could be around his Warrior brothers. On one weekend in 2002, he met a man named Nathan, a six-foot-seven married father of three with a theater degree and an effeminate voice. Nathan, it turned out, was a leader in an ex-gay group called “Journey Into Manhood,” which Tim had never heard of. Nathan explained what it meant to be a “Journeyer.” He convinced Tim to sign up (it was only $350), and last year, Tim drove to the JIM camp in West Virginia with his also-struggling Uncle Larry, hoping JIM would live up to Nathan’s billing.
Tim walked up a stone path to the registration table, where Nathan was waiting to sign him in. He walked farther along the path until he arrived at the “meditative circle,” where he sat with the other Journeyers and the “spiritual guide,” a man in sweats and a ponytail. Soft music played. Tim stared at a candle in the circle’s center. After an hour, the music faded out.
“Is the container ready?” said a guide, standing outside the circle.
“The container is ready,” said another.
“Close the door.”
The door was shut, and a JIM “elder” spoke. He spoke of “un-mentored boys, confused about what it is to be a man.”
“Masculinity becomes a sexual craving,” said a guide.
“It is not too late,” said the elder.
Tim felt hopeful. As the weekend progressed, the JIM leaders proved they really got it. They led Tim on a “shame walk,” encouraging him to voice his deepest fear — the fear of being old and unloved and alone — so he could own the fear and release it. One of the staffers was John, his “healthy touch” mentor, whom Tim was meeting for the first time. During one exercise, John role-played Tim’s mother. John held him. Tim cried and cried. This wasn’t like any ex-gay ministry he’d ever heard of. It felt like a mixture of conversion therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous. There was no God talk, just references to a “higher power.” No suppression. No shaming.
Tim gave himself over to the weekend. He “touched the core” of his alienation, standing blindfolded while JIM staffers bounced basketballs and blew referee’s whistles, yelling insults to dredge up old sports-related wounds. (“Catch the ball next time or I’ll shove it up your ass!” “Let’s get that little faggot in the shower!”) In one exercise, a staffer laid hands on Tim and sang to him:
How could anyone ever tell you
You were anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you
You were less than whole?
It all seemed so unjudgmental, like a gay coming-out party except in total reverse. By weekend’s end, Tim was a convert. He believed what the Journeyers had taught him — the basic tenets of which he’d heard before, but never delivered so effectively. Tim believed he could use the chisel of therapy to release the fully formed man within: latent, authentic, craving sex with women.
Tim, finally, belonged to something. He was one of them.
He got so into it that he became a leader himself, and helped staff a weekend. In March, I watch him hang out with 12 other staffers at their Pocono lodge. One of the first-time staffers is curious about everyone’s sexual preferences. He asks the men to talk about it. At first, there’s an awkward silence. Then the straight guys pipe in. (Of the 13 JIM staffers here, four are totally and unconflictedly straight.) Gradually, a few of the other guys chime in. None of them speak the words “gay” or “bisexual.” It’s always something like, “I am attracted to both men and women,” “I prefer sex with women,” or sometimes, “I struggle with SSA,” using their clinical acronym for Same Sex Attraction.
Now it’s Tim’s turn. He speaks slowly. Tim admits he’s never had any interest in women — just occasional “sparks of attraction.” When he’s with a woman, he has said before, “I feel like I’m faking it.” It looks like Tim is the only man here who hasn’t had a full-on sexual relationship with a woman, however illusory or fleeting. And while most of these guys might traditionally be classified as “bisexual,” Tim wouldn’t qualify.
After the exercise, I take Nathan aside and ask him what he thinks of Tim’s prospects for heterosexual love. I tell him I’m worried that the Journeyers are consigning him to a life of loneliness. “I share your concerns,” Nathan tells me, nodding. “Not specifically about Tim, because I know him, but Â… ” He trails off. “Me, I don’t get that. A guy who’s never been attracted to women?”
And then Nathan — the man who recruited Tim for this weekend, the man who represents Tim’s last and best hope for normalcy and empathy, the man who is a leader in the only group of men ever to have peered into the splay of Tim’s soul and said yes, yes, we’re just like you, we understand — leans toward me. He drops his voice to a near-whisper.
“I just thank God I’m not one of them,” he says.
Even among the faithful, Tim is alone. Most of the Journeyers have something anchoring them in the straight world — a wife, maybe, or a teenage son. Tim doesn’t have anything like that. He’s not locked into a marriage. He doesn’t have any kids who’d be scandalized if Daddy started working out at the 12th Street Gym. He has nothing to fear but queer itself.
So. After all of the work he’s done, after becoming a guinea pig for every half-baked idea about gender and sexuality, after going from celibacy to the bar at Woody’s, the full sweep of American sexual possibility — Tim is still without a home. One day he imagines life with a man to love, and the next day he wonders who will be the best man at his wedding. Because his gayness and his spiritual impulse have proven equally stubborn, no side of the gay-rights battle can claim him, and he can claim no side. He’s tried to fit himself into those molds, without any luck. Either he’s defective, or the molds are.
Well, it’s dawning on Tim that he’s not defective. That it might be worthwhile to make his own mold. He wants to build it around “healthy touch” therapy, the only thing that seems to work, the only thing that offers some small measure of peace.
Thank God for John.
John may be a middle-aged evangelical with a rocky marriage, but he’s the best Tim can do. By cuddling with John, Tim can inch as close as possible to a gay experience without actually having one, without compromising his faith or his homosexuality. Right here, right now, on this darkening June evening in John’s Maryland apartment, Tim can “get my needs met” in a “healthy way” — which is another way of saying that tomorrow Tim won’t have to run off to Woody’s or church in search of some temporary comfort.
“Is your ear positioned over my heart?” John asks.
“It is now,” says Tim.
“For me, that’s important to me.”
“Yeah, it is cool.”
“It deepens the connection.”
They’re demonstrating Holding Position One, Tim’s favorite. John turns to me. “I close my eyes,” he says. “Usually I play soft music Â… If the man is comfortable with it, I think the skin contact deepens the experience.”
They switch to Holding Position Two. John leans back against the wall, opens his legs, and lets Tim lean his back into John’s chest. Their arms cross and form an X on Tim’s chest.
“Sometimes I pray over the men,” says John. “As the spirit leads, I will do that.”
Holding Position Three is the most controversial, because it’s horizontal. It almost looks like spooning — Tim’s on his side, turned toward John, and John is lying down on his back. “This is what I call the side by side,” says John. “This is my favorite.”
Silence. Ten seconds. Twenty Â…
“Occasionally,” John explains, “there’ll be a comment, like ‘My arm’s falling asleep.'”
“Or like, ‘John, can I touch your dick?'” says Tim.
“That’s an exception,” says John.
“You were mad at me for telling that.”
“Well, I wasn’t mad.”
They switch back to Position One. John closes his eyes. Tim’s chest rises, falls. And in this moment, he doubts nothing. He’s not worried about what his father thinks, or his priest, or his liberal friends, or his gay friends, or the Journeyers, or John’s wife and kids, or the inventor of “healthy touch,” or even God. He doesn’t care if they get it. He doesn’t even care that he doesn’t know where or when this journey is going to end. Others may not be okay with that ambiguity, and to be honest, Tim doesn’t like it either. But he accepts that, for now, this is as far as he can go.
Here he cuddles; he can do no other.
“I want to go to bed,” Tim says. “Let’s kick the reporter out.”
I get up to leave. I ask Tim how he feels.
“I feel good,” he says, simply. “I feel joyful.” b