By Jayson Littman
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 an option between coming out and conversion therapy. 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 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 guy in his early twenties might do-–I called the local matchmaker to let her know I was ready to get married. After a year of interviews with unknowing girls in their late teens in hotel lounges around Manhattan, I realized that I needed to work on ridding my attraction toward other men.
I sought the counsel of rabbis in Israel and Brooklyn. The first rabbi I spoke to at the age of 18 told me it was just a phase and during a call back at the age of 20, insisted I speak to other rabbis. An orthodox rabbi in Queens informed me all I needed was a sexual outlet for my feelings, that as soon as I found the right woman to marry, I would be cured. Still not convinced, I spoke to another rabbi in Brooklyn. After some deep thought he said, “everyone has skeletons in their closets, not just you.” He recommended I not disclose anything to the girls I was dating as it was forbidden to speak loshon hora about myself. I tried telling him that it wasn’t actual skeletons that were in my closet, but it was indeed me that was in the closet. I decided to visit with one more rabbi in Staten Island. After an hour of examining all possible solutions of what one might do, and what other rabbis might suggest, he flatly answered, “I don’t know.” “Well rabbi,” I said with my eyes lit up as if I finally had the answer I had been looking for, “that’s the best answer any rabbi has ever given me.”
So without an answer to my problem that I thought needed to be solved, with no satisfactory sage advice from the rabbis of New York City, I turned to the modern day vice of answers to halachic issues rabbis wouldn’t dare touch—Google.
Amongst the sea of Christian ex-gay ministries found on the Internet, there was one Jewish organization that helps 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, NJ. When I spoke to its director I was immediately sold, he assured me I would be able to live the normal and happy life that I so truly wanted. Our conversation in 2001 was followed by a five year cocktail of weekend retreats, intensive therapy, bibliotherapy, journaling and creating non-sexual friendships with other strugglers and ever-straights (or men who are forever-straight).
JONAH was a new player in the world of ex-gay ministries and not yet large enough to create their own weekend retreats, so we hopped on the bandwagon of Christian retreats available, with only a slight dose of Jesus. I’ll never forget while on a Journey into Manhood retreat (great title for an off-Broadway musical) I had one roommate who was a Southern Baptist priest who had been forced out of the church due to his 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!”
My faith and God meant more to me than my sexual orientation, so being in a community of men who felt the same way was a liberating experience. It was exhilarating to leave the life of being the only obviously religious person struggling with homosexuality, to knowing that others felt similar shame, guilt and fear as me. I feel, in a twisted way as if my experiences with JONAH were my own coming out, even though I was only beginning a process of repressing my feelings.
Over the course of five years I began to shed my gay identity, truly believing it was just a politically created idea invented by gay activists to promote their abominable lifestyle. “Gay lifestyle?!” is how one ex-gay leader started his speech at a Love, Sex, & Intimacy retreat in the Washington, DC area. It was a seminar to help heal homosexuals, “more like deathstyle!” I worked through therapy to gain confidence, shed body image issues and tried to correct the classic triadic family dynamic: enmeshed mother, distant father, and a confused overly-sensitive son. It was that that resulted in my homosexual condition, or so I believed at the time. During therapy I learned how to love myself, love my parents, and feel emotions again.
I became close to other men around my age who were on the same journey. We would often 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 who think that’s what happens at these retreats. And we weren’t attracted to women, so we mainly hung out with each other and talked. We decided we didn’t appreciate the term ex-gay. 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. We broke down ex-homo to ex-mo and because we said it so many times fast, we realized it sounded like Eskimo. We then further segregated ourselves to Jewskimos, Chriskimos. We never met any Muskimos (Muslim Eskimos) during our journey.
I learned a lot from my Jewish and Christian brothers on my journey. I realized that many Christians who were attempting to change had an end-goal of celibacy, while the Jews wanted to get married and have children. The obvious difference had everything to do with religious dictates. Celibacy was highly regarded and practiced in the Christian culture, while Jews focused on biblical procreation, also pleasing our families. Therapy never centered on increasing our opposite sex attractions, which made sense—the founders and practitioners of conversion therapy were Christians, so even a Christian who reached celibacy in his therapy was considered successful. This was not the case for the Jews.
Another difference between Christians and Jews were our relationships with God. My Christian brothers idealized the concept of surrendering their feelings to Jesus, while Jews have always instilled the concept of struggling with God and free choice. Christians were motivated to change because if they were gay, they weren’t Christian. Jews were motivated to change because if they were gay, their mothers wouldn’t get grandchildren.
After five years of conversion therapy, completing all the tasks required to transition to heterosexuality, including, but not limited to setting up profiles on Jewish dating sites and doing my fair share of pick-ups in the lobbies of Upper West Side buildings, I still simply felt, well, gay. I stopped dating women altogether, and usually responded to set-ups with “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 of JONAH were quick to state I wasn’t 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 realize I was attracted to the ex-gay movement because I was accepted for being a religious Jew attracted to other men—a feeling I never felt those few times 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.
The acceptance of homosexuality in the Orthodox world has come quite a long way over the last ten years, or religious girls have become insistent upon their rabbis to stop encouraging gay men to marry women. Advances are being made. It isn’t rare for me to receive a Friday night Shabbos dinner invite where my sole purpose is to hone my gaydar to determine the orientation of the hostess’s boyfriend. Most Jewish guys tend to throw off my gaydar, as for years I played the “Is he gay, straight, or just Jewish?” game in my own head. Of course, when the topic of gay Jews comes up, I always have to play the game of gay Jewish geography, followed by a setup with another gay Jewish guy. My response is usually, “Oh, I already know him.” You see, we really are not that different after all.
Jayson Littman is the founder of He’bro. He’bro produces and promotes events for secular and cultural gay Jews in New York City. For more information, please go to www.myhebro.com or contact Jayson at Jayson@myhebro.com.