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Surviving Bullying, Silencing And Torment For Being Gay In The Frum Community



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Photo Credit: © Katja Heinemann/Aurora Select, courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center



It’s been more than six months since The Jewish Press published an op-ed titled “Orthodox Homosexuals and the Pursuit of Self Indulgence.” In the article, the writer, while not mentioning my name, calls me shameless and self-indulgent and suggests that I learn to suffer in silence. He was referring to an anti-suicide video I made for the “It Gets Better” project. In the YouTube video I talk about the endless bullying in my childhood, the trauma of reparative therapy and my suicide attempt as a result of a frum community that seemed to not want me to exist simply because I was gay.

My message was that, with time, with understanding friends and with self-acceptance, it gets better. I hoped to tell other kids who may be on the brink of suicide to stick it out, because life gets better; even for gay Jews growing up in the Orthodox community. This video never talks about private behavior, never mentions any assur activity, and certainly does not divulge anything about what I do behind closed doors. However, simply because I talk about how I was bullied for being gay, the author tried to make me feel horrible for simply sending a message of hope. He succeeded in embarrassing me and making me feel unwanted by this community.

I wish I could say that this is the exception. But the truth is that despite the fact that I would never talk publicly about private personal behavior or engaging in sin, the frum world seems to see me as part of a “gay agenda” simply because I won’t stay quiet.

My name is Chaim Levin. I grew up in a heimishe 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. 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 organization that “specialized” in reparative therapy. This organization had endorsements from a wide range of rabbanim and I was sure that it was the answer to all my problems. The organization’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 organization 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,” I was told to undress, stand in front of the counselor 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 traumatizing experience of my life.

I tried to tell people what happened, but the organization said it wasn’t true and refused to fire the life coach. But I have spoken to other men whom 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 organization 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 flawed arguments that would pass muster in the beis medrash. Saying that Hashem 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 nisayon is to find a way to hear again, so that he can be mekayem the mitzvah of shofar? Yet the Torah Declaration uses all of these arguments to make gay people feel that their nisayon in life is to change their sexuality, simply because it may not be genetic and Hashem would never make it unchangeable. This is the worst kind of rationalized 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, frum therapists and organizations that remind us we are loved and that we belong. In the darkness of my days, a grass roots support community organization called JQY saved my life. JQY (www.JQYouth.org) is a group of over five hundred young Jews who grew up in the frum community. Their goal is to combat shame, bullying and ostracizing, while making families, yeshivas and communities safe and welcoming to their gay members. They do not advocate for any change in halacha, but rather assert that one can believe that certain behaviors are halachically 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 frum family. JQY is my logical family. We have support meetings, crisis resources, Yom Tov get-togethers and Shabbos 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 behavior or desire. Nowhere in my story do I ever mention prohibited behaviors. I know that “being gay” does not express anything about personal intimate behavior; it merely expresses an orientation. I do not support or encourage any sexual or intimate behavior. I adhere to the concept of tzniut (modesty), which demands that intimate behavior stays private and discrete, and has no place in the public forum. In fact I do not know any gay person from a frum background who doesn’t believe the same way.

This is not an appeal to change halacha or anyone’s political views. This is not a push for gay marriage or any legitimizing of gay marriage within Orthodoxy. I am simply asking my community not to judge. Remember the compassion we show to the agunah, who may also desire something that is halachically prohibited through no fault of her own. Similarly, why pressure someone to participate in a program or therapy that they may have laredy tried or which causes harm. Just because someone is honest about being gay, does not mean that he engages in any sin or chillul Hashem. No one should feel silenced or asked to lie about who they are. Abuse and cruelty should never be tolerated or ignored. We should assume the best about people’s actions and intentions and ask Hashem for guidance in situations where we do not have easy answers. 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 is why I have so much hakaras hatov (gratitude) to The Jewish Press for allowing me to tell my story, so that the frum community can hear what really happens to its gay sons, brothers, and family members.

May we be zoche to live in a world free of suffering.

Chaim Levin

About the Author: The author can be reached at magazine@jewishpress.com


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