IN JULY last year Israeli Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu sparked outrage when he suggested that gay people were terrorists. He told Army Radio: “We will not allow Israel to become LGBTistan. There is LGBT terror, which forces the system to do what it views as being against healthy thinking. To say this is sick is an understatement – it’s something that needs to be treated and fixed.”
This hateful rhetoric is stock-in-trade for fundamentalist Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders but their influence is on the wane. People like Eliyahu are increasingly regarded as out-of-touch lunatics who are more likely to be laughed at than heeded.
When Eliyahu said that homosexuality was a sickness that needed to be treated, one assumes he fully supports quack reparative therapies, such as that offered by an American Jewish group called JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing).
JONAH is no more. Ironically, it came to an ignominious end in 2015 when a lawsuit was launched against it by members of Jewish Queer Youth (JQY) who successfully sued JONAH for consumer fraud and won a landmark court case, potentially making all conversion therapy illegal under New Jersey consumer fraud law.
JQY began in 2001, when a small group of New York LGBTQ Orthodox Yeshiva students found each other online and decided it was time to meet and begin to form a community. Many were still closeted, and few knew exactly what they needed from the community that they were seeking to build. However, they knew what they did not want. They did not want a future of living in the shadows. They did not want to continue feeling alone, isolated, afraid, ashamed, and ostracised by their communities of origin.
When they won their case, a right-wing religious website, Life Site News, was appalled. It suggested that Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which initiated the case against JONAH had won because it had better financial resources than JONAH, and expressed dismay at the result.
Under the headline “Jewish counselors forced out of business for helping people avoid homosexual behavior”, Dustin Siggins wrote: “JONAH lost its defense against the SPLC last summer, when a jury ruled that its reparative therapy programme for people with unwanted same-sex attractions was fraudulent. JONAH was found guilty of 17 of 20 claims leveled by SPLC on behalf of former JONAH clients, who claim they were emotionally abused by JONAH and had to seek therapy after leaving its services.
“The well-funded SPLC, which often declares pro-marriage organisations to be ‘hate groups’, filed the suit in 2012. On its website, an SPLC spokesperson said, ‘[T]his case is about exposing the lie that LGBT people are mentally ill and that they need to be cured. Groups like JONAH should not be allowed to use bogus therapy, based on junk science, to scam LGBT people and their families out of thousands of dollars.’”
Apart from ordering it to cease operating immediately, the court ordered JONAH to pay part of the $3.5 million in legal fees accrued by the plaintiffs at the SPLC. JONAH had already spent $3-million in its defence.
In February 2015, the judge who presided over the case – Peter Bariso – wrote that “the theory that homosexuality is a disorder is not novel but – like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it – instead is outdated and refuted.”
The case was the first of its kind. According to the SPLC’s deputy legal director, David Dinielli, “The end of JONAH signals that conversion therapy, however packaged, is fraudulent – plain and simple. Other conversion therapy providers would be well-advised to examine what happened to JONAH, and to abandon their foolish efforts to make gay people straight.”
He added: “JONAH’s conversion therapy programme harmed countless LGBT people and their families. JONAH peddled discredited, pseudo-scientific treatments to people who weren’t sick, who weren’t broken, and who needed nothing but love and support.”
Naturally JONAH co-directors Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Silodor Berk hotly denied peddling quack cures. They said the jury’s decision was a “tragic miscarriage of justice” that reflected “the near triumph of political correctness and the gay activist agenda in the USA. We long for the day when the outcome in the JONAH case will be recognised as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in modern history.”
That never happened. Instead it gave an enormous boost to JQY, which is now flourishing. According to its website, JQY is enjoying tremendous growth. There has been greater representation of all individuals in the LGBTQ Jewish community, and greater diversity amongst members. JQY now includes more specific and targeted programming based on the unique needs of certain ages and different identities: Yeshiva High School support groups, women’s and trans programming, and, as of May 2016, the JQY Drop-In Center in Midtown Manhattan.
“Over the years, the leaders of JQY came to realise that although building a safe LGBTQ Jewish community helps heal the scars of rejection that many face, it is equally important to prevent this pain from being experienced in the first place.
“JQY works with Orthodox community leaders and rabbis to raise awareness and connect on a basic, human level. It is critical that LGBTQ youth feel a sense of belonging and love in the communities that they come from, something that is very much in line with Jewish values. Working from the inside, JQY advocacy can be credited with some of the most important milestones in LGBTQ inclusion and progress within the Jewish community.”
Claiming that LGBTQ Jews from Orthodox Jewish communities face higher levels of homophobia as well as family and communal rejection, JQY says that these problems have, to a significant degree, been successfully overcome with a series of initiatives that includes the first and only LGBTQ Orthodox high school teen support programme in the USA.
Devised and facilitated by licensed mental health professionals with expertise and experience working in the Orthodox community, JQY’s teen initiative offers multiple levels of support including online, phone, in person, crisis, holiday and group programming.
“We work with leading Orthodox rabbis in the community on making sure that LGBT Orthodox youth feel safe, welcomed and stay healthy. Our awareness project seeks to tell the stories of our members and educates the Orthodox community about sexuality, while dispelling myths about harmful processes like ‘gay conversion therapy.”
Thanks to organisations like JQY and their enlightened supporters. In America today nine states, including New Jersey, have banned conversion therapy for minors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. The latest ban was imposed in Nevada in May 2017.
Additionally 31counties, municipalities and communities have imposed bans.
But the news is not all good. The Los Angeles Times reported that in Brazil last November thousands of demonstrators gathered in downtown São Paulo to protest a court’s recent decision to overturn an 18-year ban on conversion therapy.
Chants of “it’s not a disease” could be heard over songs including Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” as protesters flew rainbow flags and held banners demanding human rights be respected.
“We have to help people understand that this decision wasn’t something small,” said Carlos Daniel, one of the demonstration organisers. “These types of thoughts are what get us killed here in Brazil every day. We are dehumanised and treated like objects. We have to show everyone that we exist and that the future is ours.”
The challenge to the ban – which was instituted in 1999 by Brazil’s Federal Council of Psychology – came in a lawsuit in 2017 launched by Rozangela Justino, a psychologist and evangelical Christian who had her licence revoked in 2016 for offering the therapy and referring to homosexuality as a “disease”.
Ruling in her favour, Judge Waldemar de Carvalho wrote that people who want help in relation to their sexuality should not be prevented from voluntarily pursuing the therapy.
The judge has since released a statement saying that his ruling was misunderstood and that he does not believe homosexuality is a disease. He did not address the fact that experts have deemed the therapy ineffectiveand harmful.
Meanwhile, China has come under fire for allowing hospitals and other medical facilities to offer LGBT people conversion therapies that in some cases have involved electric shock treatments, involuntary confinement and forced medication.
A report published last November by New York-based Human Rights Watch points out that although homosexuality was removed from China’s official list of mental illnesses more than 15 years ago, stories of families forcing relatives to undergo treatments to change their sexual orientation remain common.
The report says many victims of conversion therapy were forcibly brought to hospitals by their families. The hospitals locked patients in their rooms to prevent escapes. According to the report’s findings, patients were verbally harassed by doctors, called “sick”, “pervert”, and “dirty” and some had to undergo “aversion therapy”, where patients were forced to take nausea-inducing medication while watching gay pornography, so that they would associate sexual arousal with nausea.