Last month, a state funded Jewish school in North London, JFS, was accused by the Jewish Chronicle of showing students the logo and central message of JONAH, a so called ‘gay cure’ group and implicitly portrayed it as something they should explore if they thought they might be gay. The chief rabbi of Amsterdam was suspended from his position after he signed a document alleging homosexuality could be “modified and healed”. And Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, backed a Christian ‘gay cure’ therapist struck off by her professional body. But very little has been written about what actually happens at so called reparative therapy. Chaim Levin enrolled on a Jewish scheme to try to turn himself straight. This is his story.
I grew up in a traditional Jewish family in Crown Heights. I love my mother, my father and my family. I had always felt different and was the subject of relentless bullying by other boys for “seeming” gay. When I was 17 I confided to a friend that I was attracted to men and not sexually attracted to women at all. When it came out, I was thrown out of yeshiva (Jewish religious school). For the longest time I felt so alone because I truly believed that I was the only person battling this secret war. My older siblings were getting married and having kids, and all I ever wanted was to be a part of the beautiful world my parents had raised me in. My dream was to marry a woman and live the life my family hoped and dreamed for me. I would never have chosen to be gay; I could not imagine anyone growing up in the Orthodox world who would choose to be someone who doesn’t fit into the values and norms of everyone around them.
So do I think that I was “born gay”? I don’t know and I am not sure how important that is. What is important is that it certainly is not something that I chose or had anything to do with. And I felt immense pressure to somehow change who I was.
After much time and research I found a well-known organisation that “specialised” in reparative therapy. This organisation had endorsements from a wide range of rabbis and I was sure that it was the answer to all my problems. The organisation’s executive director told me that he believes everyone can change if they simply put in the hard work. I would have done anything to change, and this message was just the hope I was looking for. I spent two years attending every group meeting, weekend, and individual life coaching sessions they offered. My parents and I paid thousands of dollars. Every day, every session, I was working and waiting to feel a shift in my desires or experience authentic change. That moment never came. I didn’t change, I never developed any sexual desire for women, and never stopped being attracted to men. Instead, I only felt more and more helpless because I wasn’t changing. The organisation and its staff taught us that change only comes to those who truly want it and are willing to put in the work. So if I wasn’t changing, I was seen as someone who either really didn’t sincerely want it, or would not put in the necessary work. In other words, there was no one to blame but myself.
The worst part of my experience in reparative therapy came at the end. In a locked office, alone with my unlicensed ‘life coach’, who said he was an ‘ex-gay man’ I was told to undress, stand in front of the counsellor and do things too graphic to describe in this article. I was extremely uncomfortable, but he said that I must do this for the sake of changing and that if I didn’t remove my clothing I wouldn’t be doing the work it takes to achieve change. I would do anything to change, and so I did what he asked me to do. It was probably the most traumatising experience of my life.
I tried to tell people what happened, but the organisation said it wasn’t true and refused to fire the life coach. But I have spoken to other men who all underwent the same experience. And I can only imagine how many other young men who this has happened to who have not yet come forward. One of the most frustrating aspects was that because this coach is not licensed by any professional board, he is unaccountable to any licensing committee. Since I was over eighteen and agreed to this kind of therapy, I am told that I have no legal recourse. But I do have my voice! Yet, even after coming forward with what happened, nothing has changed. I often hear that this therapy has helped people, that it is wonderful, but I wonder, how helpful can an organisation be when it causes great suffering and pain to many who come to them for hope.
The recent Torah Declaration, signed by so many rabbis, only serves to perpetuate the notion that all homosexuals in the Orthodox community must change in reparative therapy. Unlike the helpful recent RCA statement on welcoming homosexuals or the “Statement of Principles” written and signed by over 200 responsible rabbis, the Torah Declaration does not demand that therapists must be board licensed. Unlike these other statements, it does not allow those for whom this kind of therapy is harmful or not working to seek other options. It kills me that this Torah Declaration will be used by parents to force their children into therapies that may be harmful to them. It frightens me that this Torah Declaration says that “change is mandated by the Torah,” when I know personally that change therapy has not worked and was so harmful for me. It hurts me to know that I am now being blamed by these rabbis and therapists for this failed therapy.
It confuses me that this Torah Declaration contains so many flawed arguments. Saying that God would never make a gay person unable to change is simplistic, inconsistent and flat-out wrong. If someone gets into an accident we would never say that we know he can be “cured” simply because his affliction is not genetic and he wasn’t born this way. We would never tell a deaf person (born deaf or not) that his ‘test’ is to find a way to hear again, so that he can be observe the positive commandment of hearing the shofar (horn) in the synagogue at new year? Yet the Torah Declaration uses all of these arguments to make gay people feel that their ‘test’ from God in life is to change their sexuality, simply because it may not be genetic and God would never make it unchangeable. This is the worst kind of rationalised homophobia.
I know first hand how this kind of societal bullying can lead to self-harm and suicide. I know of too many young men who have been pressured to stay in these kinds of therapies only to be tormented to point of taking their own lives. No one can bring these boys back. However, there are many Orthodox rabbis, religious therapists and organisations that remind us we are loved and that we belong. In the darkness of my days, a grass roots support community organisation in New York called JQY saved my life. JQY is a group of over five hundred young Jews who grew up in the religious community. Their goal is to combat shame, bullying and ostracising, while making families, religious schools and communities safe and welcoming to their gay members. They do not advocate for any change in religious law, but rather assert that one can believe that certain behaviours are technically prohibited and still be a happy, healthy and fulfilled person.
In JQY the right path for an individual is unique for each person. There are some members of JQY who are trying to change their orientation and many like me, who have tried for years and have discovered that it is not possible for them. We are all just trying to be the best that we can be. We learn from each other and are there for each other because we know how hard it is to be gay in a religious family. JQY is my logical family. We have support meetings, crisis resources, festival get togethers and sabbath meals where we know it is safe to be ourselves.
I now have a sense of pride about who I am. However, I understand the concept of “pride” as combating the years of self-shame and instead promoting a sense of personal self worth. Pride is not a celebration of any personal behaviour or desire. Nowhere in my story do I ever mention prohibited behaviours. I know that “being gay” does not express anything about personal intimate behaviour; it merely expresses an orientation. I adhere to the religious concepts of modesty, which demands that intimate behaviour stays private and discrete, and has no place in the public forum. In fact I do not know any gay person from a religious background who doesn’t believe the same way.
This is not an appeal to change religious law or anyone’s political views. This is not a push for gay marriage or any legitimising of gay marriage within the orthodox Jewish community. I am simply asking my community not to judge and not to pressure someone to participate in a program or therapy which causes harm. Just because someone is honest about being gay, does not mean that he engages in anything wrong. No one should feel silenced or asked to lie about who they are. Abuse and cruelty should never be tolerated or ignored. A little humility goes a long way. Sometimes the kindest and most thoughtful response when it comes to very difficult situations is, “I don’t know, but I’m here for you because you are part of my family and community.”
This comment has been adapted from an article first published in the Jewish Free Press by the author. Chaim blogs at http://gottagivemhope.blogspot.com/ and tweets at @chaim89