Rites of passage
A local woman crashes the Promise Keepers’ chest-beating, group-thinking, yup-yupping man party
Oh boy, it was not only supposed to be one of those Promise Keepers’ man-a-thons at Arco Arena, but this time they also were going to be completely and utterly unleashed! Or so said the bold-print advance advertising, rather like a monster-truck event.
How keen would it be to find some woman with enough chutzpah to masquerade as a man and actually infiltrate the two-day fest of male bonding, breast-beating, palm-upward-arm-waving, hugs, tears and “I’m the decider!” moments? Very keen.
So, I thought I’d ask all the women I speak to weekdays on the radio. I knew plenty of women who were stylishly androgynous enough to pass as men at a distance. But could I find someone who could carry it off up close and personal, as they say in the sports world? The sports analogy was important. After all, the whole Promise Keeper shtick was created by a $350,000-a-year football coach at the University of Colorado. That same coach, Bill McCartney, told his wife of his adulterous relationship just minutes before the Fiesta Bowl, according to a 1997 story in the New York Times.
The PK message is filled with athletic imagery. As in how to get to Jesus’ goal line while keeping the little lady at home relatively happy in her own role. All of this apparently can be accomplished while coping with all the defensive traps in life, like pornography addictions and illicit business practices. According to the Times, McCartney’s wife, Lyndi, described her husband as being the “same as a plumber, and a plumber never fixes anything at home. He’s always out fixing everybody else’s plumbing.”
The thousands of Sacramento-area men willing to pay $89 to spend two days in a testosterone-laden environment most likely would be Christians of the born-again variety, seeking a way to purify their past transgressions, deal with their wife and woman (“she just doesn’t understand me”) difficulties, and find comrades with whom to share their manly woes. Though female food-service and janitorial types work these mega-sessions, women and un-convertible non-Christians just aren’t welcome to the revival.
I put out my plea on the airwaves and got four responses. Two women sounded too feminine. I knew they would be discovered as imposters if they had to speak. Another had most of the basics, but displayed very feminine hands.
When “D” paid me a visit, I knew I’d found the right woman for the job.
D—who asked that her real name not be used—was raised in a fundamentalist household. Her father espoused the doctrine of PK. She knew the biblical lingo and the preaching style and the heavily emotional appeals to give it all up for a covenant with Jesus. Best of all, D is tall enough, willing to cut her hair short enough, and vocally capable of saying “How about them Cards?” with enough spirit and throatiness to pass. But best of all were D’s hands. She’s got big hands: hands with calluses and no French manicure. She is a tad voluptuous for the task, but nothing she and a good friend felt they couldn’t overcome.
And, even better than the hands and the look and the background, D had the crazy courage and imagination to go for it.
D and friends agreed not to use any props, wigs or make up. That way nothing could run, droop or slip. She wasn’t likely to be heavily scrutinized. She just had to pass. People tend to base conclusions on a minimal amount of information. Short hair plus flat chest equals male. D’s hairdresser cropped her locks and created the illusion of sideburns with a little gel. Ace bandages got her bosom down into the man-boob category. Clothes came from a thrift store. It was decided that holding in the tummy was not a good thing because it looked better if the gut stuck out a little further than the chest. Women tend to wear their belts above or across the “pooch,” but men wear their belts under their paunch. The final incarnation looked like a man with no facial hair or “package” to speak of. This was going to work as long as she didn’t smile—that sweet little smile was a sure giveaway.
Armed with the assurance that she pretty much could look like a man and walk like a man if she really kept concentrating, D headed into the crowded Arco Arena parking lot and negotiated a tight parking space. No one shouted out “woman driver!”—even though the increasingly uncomfortable ace bandages around her torso made cranking the steering wheel a real pain. A lot of attendees already had arrived and paid the admission. D had the presence to haggle with a scalper for a cheaper ticket and, passing her first test, quickly scored the blue wristband that would get her through the doors for two days of classic Billy Graham-style preaching with a twist.
Next came the security wand, which was passed over her crotch and almost made her squeal with that “I’m sooo busted” fear. Fortuitously passing the “weapons in the private parts” analysis, D was now officially in.
She immediately became aware of a powerful vibration from inside. The packed arena was pulsing with a repeated chant of “Yup yup! Yup yup! Yup yup!” and then a pause. And then more mass yupping. She already could recognize the tribal hormones of thousands of men becoming enveloped in the mob emotional groupthink that is PK. She managed a few yups herself under her breath, just to get into the swing of things.
To the beat of the yupping, D cruised into the midst of it all and saw seemingly no place to sit. Then she spied some PK motorcycle-club types sitting in a less-crowded area with several empty seats and a good view of the stage. You might as well go all the way to the belly of the beast, she thought. All the while, she was mindful that someone could detect her disguise and reveal her ruse at any moment, at any gesture, which inadvertently seemed too feminine. She tried to stay in the beat of the affirmations and remember how to sink into her seat like a guy.
Mission accomplished. And now she could watch preacher after prancing preacher present the basic spiel over and over again. Madonna-esque headphones and microphones were de rigueur on stage so that the preachers could strut their vision. Men can screw up again and again and not follow the teachings of Jesus, but they can always be washed clean and given a pure new start if they just come forward from their arena seats, hug their new best buddies whom they’ve just met, and cry up a river of deliverance tears.
There was a lot of touching and hugging and caressing as the “imperfect ones” clumped together at the base of the stage. Up went the arms and the palms of the hands in a gesture that is repeated in many of the world’s religions, a sort of primal belief that the deity or deities are sending down rays of blessing and purification.
The men were exhorted to “get closer and closer.” While the new converts huddled praying below the arena stage, the emcee passed out white contact cards, saying, “We want to keep in touch with you. We’re not a one night stand!” and “There you’ve got your miracle!”
It was the same type of talk that D heard as a child—a variation of the theme of giving it all up to make a covenant with the divine. She’d heard from her father the religious far right’s view that the man is the head of the household, at least in his own mind. The PK speakers have all sorts of saccharine ways of referring to respecting the wife or girlfriend. The woman is to be placed on a veritable pedestal of honor, except that the man is always to be the final “decider.”
D figured this group would probably “yup yup” the style of President George W. Bush, who is also a self-described “decider.” Sure enough, when one of the speakers referred to his own visit with Senator Bill Frist and Dubya, the crowd uttered a group “ahh” in reverent tones.
At the intermission, D—whose bladder is very disciplined—avoided the men’s room. She instead focused on the tables full of PK-related products for sale. Seems there are lots of porn problems for these PK men. D was intrigued by a software product that men can buy that alerts their designated Internet “buddy” whenever they go online in search of hard-core images. The buddy then either telephones or instant-messages them back to tell them to curb the urge in the name of Jesus. Research released in late 2003 by the Christian periodical World Magazine shows that 80 percent of born-again men find porn morally unacceptable. That same year, Internet Filter Review data showed that nearly half of these same men both enjoy and are conflicted by porn images.
There were also informational tables from local churches at the event. The theme here was a question designed for the terminally naïve: “Can Homosexuality be Prevented?” D noticed that never once in the whole program did any preacher try to claim that Jesus Christ himself had ever said one word about homosexuality. She didn’t feel like making or arguing the point because she didn’t really want to push her luck. With her problematic voice, it was much more powerful to just observe, invisible as she seemed to be.
And when that dervish of fundamentalist man-talk, Bob Reccord, spun like a Christian Sufi dancer to whip the men into a froth of shame for their sins, D was tempted to go forth to the stage and let the wave of confessional angst sweep over her. She heard that Reccord himself had walked down from the top of the arena to the stage—there were 152 steps. And if Jesus could carry the cross on his painful journey for our salvation, then why couldn’t these men drop their egos, come down from the rafters and take the medicine of humiliation and salvation? Ultimately D decided she didn’t want to run the risk of all the touching in the huddle. Not everyone came forward anyway, so it wasn’t all that curious that she didn’t.
Actually, it’s pretty amazing that D went back for more of this on the second day. She did it even though the ace bandages were hideously uncomfortable to wear for any length of time. She squirmed out of them both times immediately after reaching the safe cocoon of her car.
This infiltration of an all-male event by a woman required skill and study and courage. I don’t think anyone could have done it as well as D. Her account made for great radio when she came on my show and told the tale. I doubt she’ll be spending time dressing in men’s clothes again any time soon. She’s too busy going through all the amazing business offers that have been coming to her regularly since she signed up to receive PK mailings at a safe mailbox and e-mail account. There are PK investments, PK seminars, PK videos—all kinds of PK garb and literature to unleash her full potential as a born-again Christian man. Actually, she’s just glad to unleash something else. Both of them.
And when a couple of PK men called my show the day she was on and angrily asked why we both seemed to “hate men so much,” we had to laugh.
Our little prank had uncovered a basic truth: Men and women alike find it hard to be fully accountable for their misdeeds. That’s only human. And just because modern-day snake-oil salesmen try to tell anyone, regardless of gender, that redemption is easy and can be had for $89 a pop doesn’t make it so. Yup yup?