Once Upon a Gay: A Jewish Journey Through the Ex-Gay Movement

Many people are surprised when I tell them I voluntarily entered reparative therapy at the age of 21 without pressure from family or religious leaders. During that time in my life, it was a choice between conversion therapy and not wanting to live anymore.
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Many people are surprised when I tell them I voluntarily entered reparative therapy at the age of 21 without pressure from family or religious leaders. I usually respond by telling them that during that time in my life, it wasn't a choice between coming out and conversion therapy; rather, it was a choice between conversion therapy and not wanting to live anymore.

After completing yeshiva high school and attending three years of black-hat-style yeshiva in Israel and Brooklyn, I returned to my parents' home knowing I had feelings for other men. So I did what any other religious Jewish boy in his early 20s might do: I called the local shadchan (matchmaker) to let her know I was finally ready to get married. After a year of interviewing young, unknowing women in their late teens in hotel lounges around Manhattan, I realized that perhaps I needed to work on getting rid of these attractions I had toward other men.

I sought the counsel of rabbis in Israel and Brooklyn (I would only trust the advice of bridge-and-tunnel rabbis, I told myself). As the first rabbi I had spoken to at the age of 18 told me, my feelings toward men were "just a phase," but when he still insisted that when I called him back at the age of 20, I decided to speak to further rabbis. An orthodox rabbi in Queens informed me that I just needed a sexual outlet for my feelings and that as soon as I'd found the "right" woman to marry, I'd be cured! Still not convinced, I spoke to another rabbi in Brooklyn, and after some deep thought, he mentioned that "everyone has skeletons in their closets, not just you." He further recommended that I not disclose anything to the girls I was dating, as I was forbidden to say loshon hora (defamation/gossip) about myself. I tried telling him that it wasn't actual skeletons that were in my closet but me that was in the closet. I decided to ask one more rabbi, this one in Staten Island. After a long hour of going through all the possibilities of what one might do and what other rabbis have suggested, the rabbi flatly informed me: "I don't know."

"Well, Rabbi," I said, with my eyes lit up as if I finally had the answer I'd been looking for, "that's the best answer any rabbi has ever given me."

So, without finding the answer to a problem I thought needed to be solved, and with no satisfactory sage among the rabbis of New York City, I turned to the modern-day avenue for finding an answer to a halachic (Jewish law) issue that rabbis can't answer: Google.

Amongst the sea of Christian ex-gay ministries found on the Internet, there was one Jewish organization that helped men deal with their "unwanted same-sex attractions": JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. JONAH was conveniently located across the river from me in Jersey City, N.J., and when I spoke to its director and was assured that I would be able to live the "normal and happy" life that I so truly wanted, I was immediately sold. That conversation in 2001 was followed by a five-year cocktail of weekend retreats, intense therapy, "bibliotherapy," journaling and creating non-sexual friendships with other strugglers and ever-straights (or men who are forever-straight).

As JONAH was a new player in the world of ex-gay ministries and not yet large enough to create their own weekend retreats, we hopped on the bandwagon of available Christian retreats, with a slight dose of Jesus-washing. I'll never forget my roommate on a retreat called Journey into Manhood (even at that time, I thought that would make a great name for an off-Broadway musical), who was a Southern Baptist priest who was forced out of the church due to cheating on Jesus with another man. He insistently told me in his Southern drawl, "You know, Jayson, even if you do fully heal from homosexuality, you'll never fully be healed until you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior!"

As faith and G-d meant more to me than my sexual orientation, it was a liberating experience being in a community of men who felt the same way. It was exhilarating to leave the life of being obviously the "only religious person struggling with homosexuality" to knowing that others felt the same shame, guilt and fear of having attractions to other men. In some twisted way I felt that these experiences were my own "coming out," even though I was now beginning a process of repressing my feelings.

Over the course of those five years, I began to shed my "gay identity," as I truly believed it was a politically created idea invented by gay activists to promote their abominable lifestyle. One ex-gay leader at the Love, Sex & Intimacy retreat held in the Washington, D.C. area, a seminar to help heal homosexuals, would start his speech by saying, "Gay lifestyle?! More like deathstyle!" I worked through therapy to gain confidence, shed body-image issues and work on correcting the classic triadic family dynamic (enmeshed mother, distant father, and confused, overly sensitive son) that resulted in my homosexual condition (so I believed). During therapy I learned how to love myself, love my parents, and feel emotions. I became confident, secure, and emotional.

I became close to other men around my age who were on the same journey, and often we would sit around and talk. I called the stage we were in "no-man's land" -- there was an obvious literal meaning to that, as we weren't sexually active with men (or each other, to the dismay of most people who think that's what happens at these retreats), and we weren't attracted to women, so we mainly hung out with each other. We decided that we didn't appreciate the term "ex-gay," as how can we be ex-gay if we were never gay to begin with? We spent hours one afternoon debating what to call our in-between status, and when we broke down the word "ex-homo" to "ex-mo" and said it a bunch of times fast, we realized that it sounded like "Eskimo." We then segregated ourselves to Jewskimos (Jewish Eskimos) and Chriskimos (Christian Eskimos), which further broke down into Episkimos (Episcopalian Eskimos) and Methkimos (Methodist Eskimos). We never met any Muskimos (Muslim Eskimos) during our journey.

I was able to learn a lot from my Jewish and Christian brothers on this journey of "change." I realized that many Christians who were attempting to change had an end-goal of celibacy, while the Jews had goals of being married with children. This obvious religious difference had much to do with celibacy being highly regarded and practiced in Christian culture, while Jews focus on biblical procreation (also known as "pleasing our families"). Therapy was never focused on increasing our opposite-sex attractions, and this made sense: the founders and practitioners of conversion therapy were Christians, and a Christian who achieves celibacy in his therapy considers himself successful. This is not the case for Jews.

Another difference between Christians and Jews was our relationship with G-d. My Christian brothers idealized the concept of surrendering their feelings to Jesus, while Jews have always preferred the concept of struggling with G-d and free choice. Christians were motivated to change because they were told that if they were gay, they were no longer Christian. Jews were motivated to change because they were told that if they were gay, their mothers would not have grandchildren.

After going through five years of conversion therapy and completing all the tasks required to transition to heterosexuality, including, but not limited to, setting up profiles on Jewish dating sites and doing my share of pick-ups in the lobbies of Upper West Side buildings named after sunny places in Florida, I still felt, well, gay. I stopped dating women, usually responding to queries of set-ups with the common Jewish response, "Oh, I already know her."

The confidence I gained in conversion therapy actually allowed me to proudly come out as a gay man. The leaders at JONAH were quick to state that I was not willing to do "the hard work necessary to completely change" or that I wouldn't shed the "politically induced gay identity." Many of my friends in the Eskimo world deemed me a "dos-equis," a term I helped create for ex-ex-gays.

In hindsight I realized that what attracted me to the ex-gay movement was the acceptance of being a religious Jew with attractions to other men -- a feeling I never felt those few times that I dabbled in the gay scene prior to entering reparative therapy. The ex-gay movement is a community of religious men who are affirmed by their religious orientation and find support from others in their continuance of being men of faith.

This made me realize that it is the responsibility of the LGBT community to embrace those who are still committed to religion or risk losing them to the religious ex-gay groups that will nourish their need for validation of their faith. While the religious and spiritual communities have hurt LGBT men and women throughout history, and the distaste for religion is warranted, our community must learn to welcome men of faith with more honor and acceptance; otherwise, we risk losing these individuals to the ex-gay communities that respect their value of faith over their sexual identity. If our community offered this same support, I truly believe that many would feel more comfortable stepping into the faith-affirming LGBT community. Our community can make the difference.

Advances in the acceptance of homosexuality in the orthodox Jewish world have come quite a long way over the last 10 years -- or perhaps religious girls have begun insisting that their rabbis stop encouraging gay men to marry them. It's not rare for me to receive a Friday-night Shabbos dinner invitation from a woman who wants me to employ my gaydar to determine the orientation of her boyfriend. Most Jewish guys tend to throw me off, as for years I've played the "is he gay, straight or just Jewish?" game in my own head. Of course, when the topic of gay Jews comes up at these dinners, I'm always thrown into a game of gay Jewish geography, followed by the hostess expressing a desire to set me up with "the other gay Jewish guy" she already knows, at which point my response is usually, "Oh, I already know him." You see, we really are not different after all.

This piece was first published on Heeb.

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