By Jack Drescher, MD
Some individuals who experience conflicts between their traditional religious beliefs prohibiting homosexuality and their same-sex attractions and desires seek out "sexual conversion therapies." Unfortunately, most people who try to change their sexual orientation are unsuccessful and sometimes these "therapies" do harm. So what are the alternatives when the demands of belief contradict the demands of love, affection and sexual desire? As I recently discovered, learning to embrace contradiction can become a meaningful—and adaptive—alternative.
It is havdalah, Saturday at sundown signifying the end of shabbat (the Sabbath). I am in the company of a hundred and fifty celebrating Jewish men, women and children. Standing in a circle, sometimes two and three layers deep, they sing loudly and joyfully in a darkened room whose only light source is braided ritual candles held aloft by young men. As their prayers end, I suddenly hear the sound of a fiddle, then there is more singing and everyone with the stamina to do so starts dancing.
I sit in a corner of the room, apart from the group, thinking, watching and listening. Someone invites me to join the festive circle but I decline. I feel myself an outsider, although I was raised in a Jewish home in which my mother kept kosher and lit shabbat candles. I was educated in an orthodox Talmud Torah (Hebrew school), learned to doven (pray), entered Bible contests, sang songs, and earned academic accolades. Yet by age fifteen, I was no longer observant.
Why? I can't say for sure. Suffice to say, except for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, I have not gone to synagogue for decades. One thing is certain, I have no recollection of the clearly palpable joy I feel in the room tonight.
This group's love of Jewish ritual both puzzles and intrigues me. When I have gone to religious events in recent years, I always feel like a gay outsider. Here, amidst all this religious celebration, I realize I am not a gay outsider as most of the celebrants are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender). I'm an outsider here because I'm not frum (observant of Jewish orthodox rituals).
LGBT orthodox Jews are starting to come out of their closets. Once invisible and considered an oxymoron, the nature of their plight was revealed in Sandi Dubowski's poignant 2001 documentary, Trembling Before God. Trembling, as the film has come to be known, portrayed the dilemma of frum gay men and lesbians attempting to reconcile their devotion to cherished traditions with having a modern gay identity.
In the decade since its release, millions of Jews and non-Jews around the world have seen Trembling. Having cast off invisibility and broken the silence, the film, (and the Internet) made it possible for the hidden orthodox LGBT Jews spread around the world to find each other. And they found me as well.
I was invited to speak about "sexual conversion therapies" at a Shabbaton, a weekend retreat from Friday through Sunday, organized by a group called Eshel. The group's mission is to provide "a place of SHELTER for Orthodox, frum, and other traditional gay and lesbian Jews seeking to maintain their Jewish observance and find meaningful religious community. We also welcome all those who are formerly Orthodox, 'Orthodox-curious,' or otherwise interested in maintaining a connection to traditional Judaism as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender Jews." Ortho-curious? Who knew?
There were Friday night services, Saturday morning services, prayers before and after meals, and on Sunday, a morning service with the men (and one woman on the other side of the partition) laying tefillin (putting small leather boxes containing scripture, called phylacteries, on an arm and on the head). The numerous weekend workshops included serious discourses on "Rabbinic Texts on Lesbianism," "Religious Approaches to Gay Relationships," "Gender Identity and Judaism," and "Why did G-d make me gay?" I was constantly reminded of how gay and lesbian analysts coming out in the 1980s and 1990s began writing about the "traditional" heterosexist, antigay orthodoxies of psychoanalysis. I began feeling sorry for this generation of orthodox rabbis, totally unprepared to meet with organized frum LGBT men and women who study and revere the same texts they do.
Rabbis may also not be prepared to listen to the kind of suffering that frum Jews have endured from their own families and communities. As everyone attending was asked to keep other people's stories and identities in confidence (out of a realistic fear of being found out and shunned by the larger community), I asked and received permission to tell some of the poignant histories I heard.
I was brought to tears by the palpable anguish of a twenty-something man who had seen innumerable therapists since age 14 to try and change his sexual orientation. Fortunately, he felt his current frum therapist seemed willing to accept the possibility he might be gay. A thirty-something woman who, after coming out as a lesbian, sadly spoke of how a formerly close relationship with her mother is now strained and distant. Ironically, her father, to whom she always felt less close, is more accepting. Another young man, sexually molested as a child by an older cousin, told of his family's efforts to ignore that fact. He also had a retraumatizing experience when his sexual conversion "therapist" had him undress in their session as part of the "treatment."
Today, there are orthodox rabbis who continue to refer members of their communities for "sexual conversion therapy," despite the fact that mainstream mental health organizations like the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Psychoanalytic Association have cast doubt on the efficacy of these approaches and have raised serious concerns about their possible harm.
There is much more to tell about my Shabbaton experience, but I'll conclude with a recurring thought I had all weekend. Many attendees came to integrate their Jewish and gay identities. That seemed achievable in this setting. However, integration within the larger and seemingly hostile orthodox community is more difficult. Until the orthodox community becomes more accepting (which is not an impossibility), learning to live with contradictions is a reasonable psychotherapeutic alternative.
About the author:
Jack Drescher, MD, is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the William Alanson White Institute in NYC. He is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at New York Medical College and a member of the DSM-5 Workgroup on Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders. The author of Psychoanalytic Therapy and the Gay Man, he has written numerous scholarly articles and book chapters and edited a score of books dealing with gender and sexuality.
© 2011 Jack Drescher, All Rights Reserved