The academic world, especially a campus as elaborate as Yale's, fills me with awe -- the libraries, buildings devoted to different subject areas and, above all, the energy of the thousands of students studying day and night toward various degrees that offer a brighter future. That world is something I had once thought I would never have the opportunity to experience. This past weekend, I had the great pleasure to get another glimpse of it as part of the warmly received Orthodox Jewish LGBT panel hosted by the Slifka center at Yale.
Two years earlier, I had spoken on a similar panel at the University of Pennsylvania; that was the first time I had spoken in front of an audience about my experience with issues of orientation and Orthodox Judaism. It was also the first time I had set foot on a college campus. Until then, the only thing I had known about college campuses was through TV and movies. I resolved that day that I would experience college first-hand.
As the time for the Yale panel drew closer, the room became crowded with people standing along the walls. This panel consisted of three others and myself, representing Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), and was moderated by Erez Harari, a Yale doctoral student and co-director of JQY. Sharing personal experiences of being part of the Orthodox community and being gay, we told about our journeys to acceptance of our orientations and reconciliation with our faith. Michael Rabinowitz began the panel by providing background on growing up in a "black hat" Orthodox community and discussing the pressure he faced by family and friends to get married to a woman; he was taught that his grandparents survived the Holocaust in order for him to carry on his family name by getting married and having kids -- a norm in many Orthodox communities. Justin Sprio spoke about growing up as Conservative Jew, finding his place in Orthodox movement and reconciling the seemingly incompatible gay and Orthodox identities. I spoke about my personal experience growing up as an Orthodox Jew, my failed attempts at "ex gay" reparative "therapy" and finally coming out and becoming an activist. Mordechai Leibovitz, the executive director of JQY, closed the discussion with how he and 10 others had formed JQY 10 years ago and the monumental progress being made in the Jewish world toward more tolerance and acceptance of LGBT people.
I started my talk on the panel with my experiences growing up in a community and school that does not teach basic, academic subjects, such as English language, math, literature, science or history -- the very foundation for higher education and indeed requirement for most jobs. Until the age of 17, when I was kicked out of yeshiva for being identified as gay, I had studied only the Torah and never had any substantial exposure to formal academic subjects.
Everytime I discuss going through reparative "therapy" to change my orientation because I believed I could not be gay and Jewish, I continue to be surprised by the shock of the audience. Some are shocked by painful and disturbing experiences of clients in programs like Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH) and People Can Change, which offer "therapy" and programs geared towards "the reduction and healing of same sex attraction." Many people are shocked to learn that such programs still exist. Others ask how I did not know about the potential dangers of such programs and how they have been proven to be ineffective.
This is part of the reason I discuss my educational background when telling my story. I grew up believing that any desire can be overcome with sufficient work and focus and that "forbidden desires" must be overcome by any means possible; I was taught that for a man to be attracted to another man was at worst sinful and at best an illness which must be overcome. This was more than enough ammunition against my young self. I felt hopeless. I desperately wanted to overcome my "problem" and be observant. When I was 18 years old, the director of JONAH confidently assured that after doing the "work" supervised by the "experts" (unlicensed practitioners known as life coaches), I would surely be able to move on to living a heterosexual life. He claimed that "thousands" had passed through JONAH's doors and have been "successful."
The utterly irresponsible and reckless position of groups like JONAH and People Can Change and religious leaders who recommend these practices, which have been condemned by the American Psychiatric and Medical Associations, serve only to bring more trauma to LGBT people by offering false hope and the dangerous, misleading and scientifically refuted notion being LGBT is inherently "pathological, harmful and destructive" and that LGBT can to "change."
But I had no way of knowing any of this at the time. My nearly two years of struggles at changing my orientation ended with me in a locked room naked fondling my genitalia as instructed and observed by my JONAH life coach, himself "ex gay." He insisted that removing my clothing and touching myself was part of the "healing" process necessary for me to become straight. I did not become straight, and my experience with JONAH were anything but therapeutic.
The reality that I faced in the hands of "experts" recommended by my insular community's leaders and without any pragmatic education is an experience that still plagues many young people today, both LGBT and straight. Sharing our stories with energetic Yale students, stoked my hope to overcome my educational handicap and attend college soon. Sharing my story, I hope dangerous practices that people are shocked to learn still occur can be stopped before others are harmed. Sharing our stories, the panel demonstrated real hope that LGBT people can find acceptance and reconciliation even within seemingly contrary, indeed, hostile religious communities.