Amid an outcry over the education minister’s comments backing so-called conversion therapy, a growing number of gay Israelis who grew up in religious communities are coming forward to share their experiences of predatory therapists and bizarre behavioral treatments as part of the controversial practice, which many say drove them to attempt suicide.
Health officials around the world say that conversion therapy is scientifically dubious and possibly dangerous. Gay conversion therapies, also called reparative therapies, have been strongly discouraged in Israel, the US, and elsewhere, with major health organizations pointing to what they term pseudo-scientific methods and the treatment of homosexuality as a mental illness.
Though Israel’s Health Ministry advises against the therapy, agreeing that it is scientifically weak and potentially dangerous, no law limits the practice, which is still an accepted approach in some conservative and Orthodox circles.
“I wanted to change, because of what I was taught, and I believed that’s what I was supposed to do,” Nadav Schwartz told the Walla news site. “Being gay is forbidden, and I needed to be like everyone else. I thought it was the right thing to do.”
Schwartz said his “therapist” turned out to be a sex offender who was in the habit of having sex with the young men under his care. The therapist was later charged with sexual abuse, according to the report.
“He told me that it was my father who made me gay, and that if I figure out what it was my father did to me, I would change,” Schwartz recalled Sunday.
Another former patient, identified only as N. recalled a similar experience in an interview reported by the Haaretz daily Monday. A 28-year-old Jerusalem native, N. said that his parents and rabbi sent him to conversion therapy while he was enrolled in a yeshiva high school in the city.
N. said his therapist instructed him to watch heterosexual pornography and masturbate, in a bid to cure his same-sex attraction. It was explained that watching porn under these circumstances was permissible under Jewish law, and in doing so, the teenager “would be fulfilling a mitzvah [good deed].”
N.’s therapist also instructed him to wear a rubber band around his wrist and snap it against his skin every time he felt attracted to a man. After months of treatment yielded no results, N. said he began to feel guilty that his parents were spending money on his therapy, and began engaging in self-harm.
“I got addicted to the pain, I saw in it some kind of solution or redemption, if you can call it that.” By 11th grade, N’s self harm escalated to dangerous levels, and he was hospitalized for drinking bleach.
As an adult, N. said he has tried to locate his therapist, who presented himself to his parents as a trained and certified psychologist, but has never been able to find him. “Encouraging someone who hates themselves to self-harm is like giving the car keys to an alcoholic,” N. told Haaretz.
Shay Bramson, who is now an advocate for gay religious youth and deputy chair of the Havruta group for religious LGBTQ youth, described similar experiences during his own gay conversion therapy nearly 20 years ago.
Unlike N., Bramson said he voluntarily sought help in suppressing his same-sex attraction, at age 13, due to social pressure and the stigma of being gay in the religious community. Bramson told Haaretz he was treated by a psychology professor for three years as a teenager without his parents’ knowledge.
Part of his treatment, he recalled, consisted of watching heterosexual porn, masturbation, and self-punishment for thinking about boys. Another stage involved invoking strong feelings of guilt, and internalizing that his same-sex attraction was a choice. His therapist “used to say to me: ‘You need to decide if you want to be a normal religious guy or a debauched secular guy who lives in Tel Aviv and has an STD.'”
Bramson, in a separate interview, told the Ynet website that friends of his also underwent conversion therapy, and that it had caused them depression and suicidal thoughts.
Efforts at legislation thwarted
The issue of gay conversion was thrust into the spotlight this week after Education Minister Rafi Peretz — a career educator — said in a TV interview that he had referred students to the treatment and saw it was “possible” to change their sexual orientation. His remarks to Channel 12 drew widespread criticism from the public and lawmakers across the political spectrum, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Protesters gathered in downtown Tel Aviv on Sunday to demand the resignation of the “homophobic” education minister. Another demonstration against Peretz was scheduled for Monday night.
There are an estimated 20 to 30 licensed psychologists and social workers and 50 non-licensed therapists who practice some form of conversion therapy in Israel, Rabbi Ron Yosef of the Orthodox gay organization Hod told The Associated Press in 2016.
In Israel, practitioners say their services are in demand, mostly by Orthodox Jewish men trying to reduce their same-sex attractions so they can marry women and raise a traditional family, according to their conservative religious values.
Leading medical organizations in the US say there is no proof sexual orientation change efforts are effective, and that therapy can reinforce self-hatred, depression, and self-harm.
The Israel Psychological Association reached similar conclusions in a 2011 position paper, which the Health Ministry adopted in late 2014. But the association also endorsed a claim practitioners make, that “political correctness” likely prevents the funding and publication of studies examining the therapy’s potential effectiveness.
There have been several attempts to outlaw the practice since 2015, but ultra-Orthodox parties have repeatedly shot down the Knesset legislation.