Category Archives: reparative therapy

Fighting a losing battle

As I’ve said repeatedly since I began blogging, we’re in the midst of rapid-fire change when it comes to LGBTQ rights. Sometimes I read the news headlines, or scan my Facebook news feed, and I feel like Billy Joel’s singing a contemporary version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” (Pennsylvania, Oregon, trans exclusions all gone! Football, RuPaul, Hedwig’s angry inch. Not bad, huh?) This week, three of those events caught my attention:

  • Last weekend, the Texas Republican Party adopted a party platform for 2014 that includes support of reparative therapy, a psychological approach that claims, despite being heavily discredited, to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight.
  • This past week, the Wall Street journal ran an opinion piece written by Dr. Paul McHugh, former chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. This piece was likely written in response to the Obama administration’s decision to reverse a 1981 policy that excluded gender reassignment surgery from coverage under Medicare. McHugh, in contrast, believes strongly that being transgender is “a mental disorder that deserves understanding, treatment and prevention.”  (A New York Times editorial, which ran a few days earlier, provided a much more pro-transgender perspective on this issue).
  • And last Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. In that interview, when asked about her decision to include transgender rights along with lesbian, gay, and bisexual concerns, she said, “LBGT includes the “T,” and I wanted to stand up for the entire community. I don’t believe that people who are the L, the G, the B, or the T should be persecuted, assaulted, imprisoned, even killed for who they are.” (Full disclosure: She then, in a heated exchange with Gross, embarked on a clunky defense of her initial opposition to same-sex marriage.)

So hold on a minute. The Texas Republican party is supporting reparative therapy, even though a lot of highly respected professional organizations have issued public statements about how dangerous it is? A major news publication is running a piece declaring that transgender people are, by definition, mentally ill – even though the DSM-5 doesn’t include “transgender” as a mental disorder? Except for Hillary Clinton’s breath of fresh air (pun absolutely intended), these news articles seem like they could have been written 30 years ago.

Except they weren’t. This is happening today, in 2014. After the Supreme Court has overturned DOMA, and so many states have legalized same-sex marriage. After two states have banned reparative therapy for minors. After we’ve been closer than ever to passing an inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Of course, lots of people have continued to believe that being gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, or in any way gender nonconforming, is sinful, wrong, or sick, and that granting rights to LGBTQ people merely enables our “condition.” But coming out publicly, on large political and media stages, and stating these views is rising to new levels. It’s almost like the anti-LGBTQ rights folks are saying, This shit’s gotta stop. Time to end this nonsense. 

Some might say that this is a perfect example of a backlash – a powerful, almost violent, reaction against progressive change. Back in 1991, Susan Faludi wrote a bestselling book titled Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women, in which she discusses the conservatism of the 1980s as a reactive response against the gains of various social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But I’m not sure “backlash” is the most accurate term. It’s more like a last, desperate gasp for air. These folks see that “one-man-one-woman” marriage statutes are tumbling down like dominoes. They see that ENDA now has bipartisan support in Congress. They see transgender rights gaining serious traction. And then they see Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine (oh, HELL no!), and seeing how close they are to the tug-of-war pit, they gather up every last bit of strength and start yanking on that rope as hard as they can.

What makes people dig their heels in so deeply, even though they know they’re fighting a losing battle? Why doesn’t someone like Paul McHugh budge – even just a little – on his beliefs, even when they conflict with the scientific consensus? Why does some factions of the Republican Party swing further to the right, even though they’re losing constituency groups? They’re on a sinking ship – why don’t they jump off?

I’ve scoured the psychological literature, in search of an answer to this question. And unfortunately, it hasn’t offered much. Some researchers point to personality characteristics, like the “authoritarian personality” – what psychologist Theodor Adorno thought reflected the “potentially fascistic individual.” From this standpoint, certain types of people are just more likely than others to dig in their heels and stay there. Other researchers view this stubbornness as a variation of the fight-or-flight response, a reaction to a perceived imminent threat. What that threat is certainly is up for debate; it could be a threat to one’s status and power, or it could be a more intrapsychic threat – a threat to one’s masculinity, for example, or a threat to one’s heterosexuality. Perhaps it’s a form of aggrieved entitlement, a variation of fight-or-flight and a concept I’ve written about in past blog posts – a feeling that one’s identity, status, and culture is being taken away from them, and a need to stand one’s ground against those changes.

Maybe it’s all of these. Or perhaps it’s none of these. Either way, research isn’t offering me great answers. At least, nothing that’s making me feel better.

When I’m surrounded by disturbing, uncomfortable, or distressing behavior, I tend to seek solace in the intellectual. If I can explain it, my reasoning goes, then perhaps I can have some control over it – and understanding is a form of control. Freud called this “intellectualization,” or “flight into reason.” (Freudian scholars, just to be clear, don’t see this as a particularly healthy form of coping.) To be honest, I’m distressed by the GOP’s party-line endorsement of reparative therapy. I’m distressed by Paul McHugh’s pathologizing statements about transgender people and surgery. And here I am, trying to explain their behavior, partly in an attempt to educate, but mostly in an attempt to just feel better. Because having large groups of people hating on you and wanting to fix you just feels yucky.

How did the song go? Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! The Cola Wars may be over (or perhaps, in light of the New York City soda ban, we’re in a new Cola War), but I can absolutely relate to feeling overwhelmed by political attacks. Especially when those attacks my identity, and my family, and my community. Often, intellectualizing pulls me through. Direct action works wonders too. But sometimes, as odd as it sounds, giving myself the space to just feel yucky helps move me forward. Because really, the only way out of the yuckiness is through it. If I’m fighting a losing battle with my feelings, I’m being just as stubborn as the people that are causing me distress.





Filed under activism, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, mental health, psychological research, reparative therapy, same-sex marriage, transphobia

Labels, labels, labels!

This weekend, I attended the LGBTQIA conference at the University of the Pacific, a biannual event that draws hundreds of people from throughout California. At this conference, I presented an overview of findings from my research for my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community. The room was packed. There were people sitting on the floor. I stayed for half an hour after my session ended to talk to a line of people. “I don’t think they liked it very much,” one of my colleagues joked afterwards.

Then there was The Question. The one I didn’t have a great answer for. “Did you consider interviewing someone who identifies as asexual?” she asked. I had not. Because, in fact, I don’t know anyone who openly identifies as asexual. I didn’t at that particular moment, anyway. Throughout the conference, I met several people who identify as asexual. I met another person who is a demisexual panromantic poly female. I met another person who described herself as an “amoeba.” I heard the terms “gray-A,”, “nonlibidoism,” and “queerplatonic.” I’m embarrassed to admit that I wrote these terms down and Googled them later, because I had no idea what they meant – and, like entering Narnia through the back of the wardrobe, I was introduced to a whole new nomenclature.

There aren’t a whole lot of studies focusing on asexuality, and I could only find one that addressed the question of how common it is. Out of a community-based sample of 18,000 participants, 1% identified as asexual – which doesn’t sound like much, until you crunch the numbers. One percent of 18,000 is 180. One percent of the U.S. population is over three million people. That’s a lot of people.

Other studies focus on who is likely to be asexual. Morag Yule and Lori Brotto, researchers at the University of British Columbia Sexual Health Lab, have conducted several studies investigating whether other characteristics are associated with asexuality. Interestingly, asexual men and women are more likely to be left-handed, according to one study. One of their studies focused on birth order – asexual men, according to their findings, are more likely than non-asexuals to be later-born siblings, while asexual women are more likely to be first-borns. People who are asexual are more likely, according to yet another study, to have alexithymia – an emotional blindness, detached from any experience of feelings. Not surprisingly, Laura Gilmour, a researcher from Grant MacEawan University in Ontario, found a higher-than-average rate of asexuality among people with autism spectrum disorders – which often involve some form of alexithymia. The asexual community seems to have made this connection on its own – one blogger calls himself  “Amoebageek.” (“Amoeba” is a slang term used to describe asexuality.) Another calls herself “LadyGeekGirl” and posts semi-regularly about asexuality. Like so many things in the queer community, I bet if an asexual-identified person read these studies, that person would say, “Well, I could have told you THAT!”

All of that came from about five different studies. No joke. In fact, the best information out there about asexuality isn’t emerging from the psychological literature – at least, not yet. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), on the other hand, provides an overview of asexuality, a series of FAQs, stories of the experiences of various asexual-identified people, a newsletter, and an online forum.  In fact, some people identify as “AVENites” or “AVENistas,” meaning that they are a member of the AVEN forums. It’s clear that AVEN is a strong fixture in the asexual community, and it’s chock-full of great information.

As I was reading through AVEN’s site for the first time, what intrigued me was their strong, repeated focus on research ethics. Emphasis on the word STRONG. Their “Rules for using AVEN for research,” for example, provides researchers with an extensive set of guidelines for recruiting participants or using existing data from AVEN. This is as rigorous as a university Human Subjects Committee, I thought to myself as I read through these documents. In addition to their lengthy guidelines, AVEN also asks researchers to read their “Open Letter to Researchers,” a document drafted in 2011 that provides further recommendations for conducting research using online asexual communities. 

Why so much focus on research ethics? Remember what I said earlier – that “the best information out there about asexuality isn’t emerging from the psychological literature.” Part of that is because asexuality is just starting to register on the radar screen. But part of it is that asexuality has already been extensively studied – but in an abusive and pathologizing way. You see, most researchers have assumed that asexuality is a psychological disorder. They get diagnosed with “HSDD” – hypoactive sexual desire disorder (or, since the publication of DSM-5, “SIAD” – sexual interest/arousal disorder). And then they get treated for it – well, subjected to reparative therapy, really. Sound familiar?

Think about it. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people continue to be subjected to reparative therapy, even 41 years after the “homosexuality” diagnosis was removed from the DSM. Transgender people often are expected (or forced) to undergo some form of gender-reparative therapy, often after being diagnosed with “gender identity disorder” (or, since DSM-V, “gender dysphoria”). And here it is again. While there truly are people who suffer from sexual dysfunctions and deserve to experience relief from them, AVEN – and a growing group of researchers – makes clear that asexuality is not the same thing as HSDD or SIAD. It’s a sexual orientation. And attempts at changing people’s sexual orientation via reparative therapy techniques – well, you all know how that goes.

At the conference, the question about asexuality wasn’t the only one that got the gears of my brain turning. Shortly afterwards, another student approached me and asked, “What do you think about labels?” (Actually, before asking the question, he prefaced with a series of comments about queer theory, post-structuralism, and radical deconstructionism. I won’t go into all of that here.)

What do I think about labels? I had to think for a minute. Years ago, feminist psychologist Laura Brown wrote a book called Subversive Dialogues: Theory in Feminist Therapy, which influenced my thinking enormously. One chapter in the book was titled “Naming the Pain,” and it focused on the politics of diagnosis – a form of labeling, if you will. The Cliffs Notes version of that chapter is that diagnosis, as we all know, can be incredibly pathologizing and shaming. But it can also be liberating. Knowing what it is that you have enables you to talk about it, to find community, to experience some sense of relief.

The same goes, I think, for sexual and gender identity labels. Finding a word to describe your experience can be enormously empowering. Once you find the word “asexual,” you’re more likely to stumble upon AVEN – and find a large community of others like yourself. But labels can be hijacked by others (or they can create their own labels), and used to suppress and control. Sexual and gender minorities are all too familiar with this, I must say.

One conference. A semester’s worth of new information. Try it sometime.

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Filed under bisexuality, human rights, intersectionality, psychological research, relationships, reparative therapy

Fast and furious – but not over


That’s how I’m feeling as I try to write this post. Blocked.

Why do I feel blocked? It can’t be because there isn’t anything to write about. Two major Supreme Court decisions have resulted in a tectonic shift in the LGBTQ rights movement. The federal government no longer defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. Same-sex couples in California can get married if they wish.

And now, sitting in front of my computer, I feel . . . blocked.

It’s not just the Supreme Court decisions that are rendering me speechless. It’s the fact that so much change has been happening so quickly. Think about what’s happened – just in 2013:

On January 21, Barack Obama became the first president to discuss gay rights in his inaugural address.

On April 13, Jason Collins became the first professional athlete to come out of the closet.

On June 19, the Board of Directors of Exodus International, the largest ex-gay ministry in the world, announced last week that it was shuttering its reparative therapy operations, issuing an apology to the individuals who had been harmed by attempts to treat their homosexuality.

And on June 26 – well, you know the rest.

These are events that have impacted three of our country’s major social institutions – religion, professional sports, marriage – just in this past year. If we cast our net wider and look at state-by-state events, we continue to see significant institiutional change. California, for example, recently issued a ban on insurance discrimination against transgender patients. In addition, the California Assembly passed a bill that would provide transgender students equal access to facilities and programs based on their gender identity. And a week before the SCOTUS decisions, Colorado’s state civil rights division ruled that, by preventing 6-year-old transgender student Coy Mathis from using the girls’ restroom, the Fountain-Fort Carson School District acted in a discriminatory manner and needlessly created a harassing, hostile environment for her.

I could go on and on and on. It’s like a house of cards, with one critical card holding up all the others. Once you pull out that card, the entire house comes tumbling down. And that’s probably why I’m having this deer-in-the-headlights reaction – because even though change has been happening for a very long time, there’s been slow movement, then gradual acceleration. Now it’s like a roller coaster that’s just started zooming down the hill that it’s worked so hard to scale, and the ride is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.

Social psychologists – and political pundits – call this the bandwagon effect. As more people come to believe in something, others become more willing to “hop on the bandwagon” and join in that belief system. Malcolm Gladwell re-branded and popularized this concept in his 2002 book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. A “tipping point,” according to the book description, is “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.”

Have we hit that tipping point?

If we examine public opinion data on same-sex marriage in the United States, I think we can see the bandwagon effect – or tipping point – in pure, living color.  Ten years ago, according to Gallup Poll data, 39% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. Five years later, in 2008 (the illustrious Proposition 8 election year), 40% said that same-sex marriage should be legal. In 2012, that number jumped to 50%. And last month, a Washington Post-ABC News poll indicated that 55% of Americans support same-sex marriage. Going from 39% to 55% in a ten-year span is a HUGE change – especially when it involves such a controversial, value-driven, institutionally-ingrained issue. No wonder I’m feeling so shell-shocked.

But I think there’s another reason for this rare I-have-nothing-earth-shattering-to-say moment. Since the decisions were issued on Wednesday, a lingering question has been in the back of my mind: Where will we go from here? The movement has been so focused on marriage equality, and while full marriage equality obviously hasn’t been achieved yet, I fear that our community will rest on its laurels, assuming that the fight is over. But the fight is anything but over.

This past Thursday, I participated in an event at the San Joaquin Pride Center in Stockton, California. When I got there, I had a conversation with Nicholas Hatten, the director of the center. In the midst of our discussion, he said to me, “I hope that people in our community don’t decide to pack up and leave. I hope they don’t stop speaking out and contributing money. Because if they do, we’re dead.”

My thoughts exactly.

We can shift our collective LGBTQ community energies to planning our respective weddings – choosing wedding attire, selecting the perfect venue, figuring out who to invite and where to seat them during the reception, planning the honeymoon.

Or we can roll up our sleeves and focus our energies on moving towards equality, justice, and acceptance for all LGBTQ people. We can reduce the rates of LGBTQ youth depression and suicide. We can ensure that our LGBTQ students are in a safe, affirming, and inclusive educational environment. We can work towards ending victimization of LGTBQ people. We can fight for the right of intersex people to make decisions about their own bodies. We can demand full health care for all. We can push Congress to pass an inclusive Employer Non-Discrimination Act. We can fight for immigration rights in our community. We can work towards racial justice for all. We can ensure that our LGBTQ aging population is treated respectfully, fairly, and equitably. We can work towards full accommodation of LGBTQ people with disabilities. There is still work to be done, and I haven’t even begun to name all the issues.

My block is gone. I’m ready to move forward.




Filed under disability, gay suicides, hate crimes, health, human rights, intersex, LGBT families, relationships, religion, reparative therapy, same-sex marriage, transgender, Uncategorized, violence

It takes a lawsuit

June, 1967. A little boy, whose penis had been mutilated beyond repair as a result of a botched circumcision, lies on an operating table at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. The surgeons will remove his testes, and from that point on, the little boy will no longer be a boy. He will be Brenda (known to the public as “Joan”), a boy raised as a girl, and held up as proof of the malleability of gender.  Years later, the child’s doctor says, “The child’s behavior is so clearly that of an active little girl” – and the case is hailed as an unwavering success.

This story, as many of you probably know, does not end well. The doctor was John Money, and the child was David Reimer. As John Colapinto reported in his bestselling book, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, the case was anything but an unwavering success. He never identified as a girl, and he actively resisted wearing dresses and playing with girls’ toys. By age 14, he was openly identifying as a male, and at age 25, he went through a reverse sex reassignment process. Thirteen years later, at the age of 38, Reimer committed suicide – and since then, even though Reimer wasn’t intersex, his case has been used as a cautionary tale for the intersex community.

April, 2006. A 16-month-old baby, a ward of the state, lies on an operating table at the Medical University of South Carolina. This child, whose phallus is not within the “medically acceptable” range, is not easily labeled as either male or female. As a result, the child will undergo a phallectomy, and from that point forward will be raised as a girl. Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

The outcome? M.C., who is now eight years old, clearly identifies as a boy. He’s been asking his parents, “When will I grow a penis?” And his parents have to find a way to tell him that he was the victim of an unnecessary surgery that may have caused sterilization and reduction (if not outright elimination) of normal sexual functioning. The doctors chose the wrong sex – and M.C. will have to bear the consequences of that choice for the rest of his life. Thirty-nine years after David Reimer’s ordeal, and here we are again.

But this case has the possibility of a better ending. Last week, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of M.C. and his adoptive parents by Advocates for Informed Choice (AIC), The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and pro bono counsel for the private law firms of Janet, Jenner & Suggs and Steptoe & Johnson LLP.  The lawsuit alleges that: (1) M.C. was subjected to a medically unnecessary surgery without fully determining whether the procedure was in M.C.’s best interest, and (2) the doctors failed to obtain adequate informed consent before proceeding. Specifically, M.C.’s guardians were not warned about the significant risks of the surgery, they were not presented with the option of not having surgery at all, and they were not told that the surgery itself was cosmetic, but medically unnecessary. “His bodily integrity was endangered,” said M.C.’s father, Mark Crawford, in a BBC World Service interview.

These are serious medical allegations. Yet these practices, referred to as the “concealment model,” have been going on ever since the days of David Reimer and John Money. In fact, the concealment model (also sometimes referred to as the “optimal gender” model) has been the standard operating procedure (literally and figuratively) for intersex babies and children. It involves choosing a gender at birth, “normalizing” the infant’s genitalia so its body matches its gender assignment, and raising the child as a “normal” girl or “normal” boy, with no reference to the intersex condition whatsoever. Pretend as if the intersex condition never happened, and move forward from there.

In the same BBC World Service segment cited above, the interviewer asked, in a heartfelt tone of voice, “Do you believe this decision [to perform surgery on M.C.] could have been made in good faith?”

No, I don’t believe that this decision could have been made in good faith. If you consider the following time frame, I think you’ll see why:

July 1993:  The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) is formed, which is the first major group to advocate for the human rights of intersex people.

February 2000: David Reimer’s story is made public in As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl.

May 2005: The San Francisco Human Rights Commission releases a report titled, “A Human Rights Investigation into the Medical ‘Normalization’ of Intersex People,” which among other things, says this about genital surgeries on intersex infants:

[T]he medical community . . . [tries] to make the problem ‘disappear’ with a scalpel and the withholding of information. . . .'[N]ormalizing’ interventions are inherent human rights abuses and deprive persons of the right to express their own identity.

February 2006:  The National Institute of Health releases their Strategic Plan for Pediatric Urology, which covers, among other things, the clinical and medical management of “congenital anomalies of sex differentiation” (otherwise known as intersex conditions). Prior to listing a set of clinical and research recommendations, the report provides a patient-centered perspective of the damaging effects of the concealment model (which, to me, sounds chillingly similar to M.C.’s experience):

They object to the fact that they were either not informed or were misinformed about their condition and had difficulty obtaining accurate information about their condition and treatment. They feel stigmatized and shamed by the secrecy surrounding their condition and its management. Many also attribute poor adult sexual function to damaging genital surgery and repeated and insensitive genital examinations, both performed without their consent.

April 2006:  M.C. is subjected to medically unnecessary surgery.

August 2006:  The highly-regarded journal Pediatrics publishes an article titled, “Consensus Statement on Management of Intersex Disorders.” Citing 90 references (all of which, by the way, were published before April of 2006, when M.C.’s surgery took place), the report presents a detailed set of best practices for treating people with intersex conditions. These recommendations include, but are not limited to, a much more cautious approach to surgery, emphasizing the functional outcome rather than mere cosmetic appearance. The publication of this article – in the flagship journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics – was seen as a major victory for the intersex community.

May 2013:  Medically unnecessary surgeries continue to be performed on intersex children. Frequently.

If this had happened twenty, thirty, forty years ago, one could argue that the decision to perform surgery was made “in good faith.” But considering that the medical community was engaging in broad-based conversations about intersex conditions right when M.C.’s surgery took place, that argument doesn’t hold much water – and frankly, it exhibits flagrant disregard of the existing medical recommendations. This lawsuit won’t reverse the harm that M.C. was subjected to. But it might do what the NIH Strategic Plan and the AAP’s Consensus Statement have been unable to do – prevent this from ever happening to another child. Anne Tamar-Mattis, who is the executive director for AIC, was quoted as saying: “This case is about ensuring the safety of all children who do not have a voice.”

How sad that it takes a lawsuit in order for that to happen. If only it could have helped David Reimer, and all the other individuals who had surgery when it wasn’t needed.

* * * * * * * * * *

If you would like to learn more about this case, or if you’d like to find out how to get involved and show your support, please visit the Advocates for Informed Choice website at


Filed under children, gender nonconformity, human rights, intersex, mental health, psychological research, reparative therapy, Uncategorized

Rainbow flags and Stars of David

I have attended two Passover seders in my lifetime. When I was in college, a friend of mine (actually, a sorority sister, for you regular readers of “The Active Voice”) invited me to her grandparents’ seder in Charleston, South Carolina. I’m told it was very watered-down and a far cry from what a “real” seder should be. Frankly, this here Gentile didn’t know the difference. I thought it was fun – and, even in its watered-down state, the experience taught me a lot about the meaning of Passover.

About five years later, I attended my second seder, this time in Berkeley, California. Only two people at the table were actually Jewish. But everyone at the table was queer. We used the “Queer Pride Seder” that had been developed by the Berkeley Queer Minyan (of which one of the two Jewish attendees was a member). I was tasked with bringing three bottles of wine – and, knowing that my meager graduate student budget couldn’t absorb the shock of the $25 kosher wine option, I took my chances with Manischewitz. How bad could it be, anyway? I thought to myself. Apparently this transgression was worse than bringing a loaf of crusty artisanal bread.

There are obvious intersections throughout history between queer identity and Judaism. For one thing, both groups were targeted by the Nazis during the Holocaust (yellow Stars of David for Jews, pink triangles for gay men, black triangles for lesbian women). During the 1950s, both Jews and homosexuals were linked to Communism, and ultimately targeted and persecuted in the age of McCarthyism. Throughout history, Jews have been major forces in a range of activist efforts – Emma Goldman, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf, and Eve Ensler are just a few examples – and that social justice ethos has at times spilled over into the LGBTQ rights movement. Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco City Supervisor, was Jewish. Barney Frank, who was the 1st openly gay member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is Jewish. The overlap between the two communities is strong.

Even with those strong overlapping commonalities, there is still a tension that exists between Judaism and homosexuality, which has caused some division among the various Jewish denominations. At the most conservative end of the spectrum, Orthodox Judaism explicitly prohibits same-sex sexual conduct – in fact, certain homosexual acts are considered to be in the category of “die rather than transgress.” Over time, some Orthodox leaders have become more sympathetic, stating that although homosexual acts violate Judaic law, people with same-sex attractions should be treated with compassion and respect. Yet many Orthodox Jews who are gay have incredible difficulty reconciling their sexuality with their religious and cultural beliefs. To use a term coined by Tova Hartman Halbertal, many gay Orthodox Jews experience “identity pluralism,” meaning that their gay identity is maintained completely separately from their Orthodox Jewish identity (the film Trembling before G-d depicts this tension in a very poignant way). On the far end of the spectrum, it’s not uncommon for gay Orthodox Jews to try to change their sexual orientation – the best-known organization in the Orthodox Jewish community is JONAH, which stands for Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. (As an aside, one of JONAH’s founders is Arthur Goldberg, who is the former secretary/treasurer for the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), the nation’s largest secular reparative therapy organization.)

On the more progressive side, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements do not prohibit homosexual sex, and they allow people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual to be ordained as rabbis and cantors. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) has endorsed same-sex marriage, and in 2003 the Union for Reform Judaism issued a resolution that calls for the inclusion and acceptance of bisexual and transgender communities. The Reform movement is the largest branch of Judaism in the United States.

And then we have this middle ground, in the form of Conservative Judaism, which has taken the most complicated stance on the issue of homosexuality. In 2006, drawing upon the Jewish tradition of pluralism, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) issued three different opinions, the most progressive of which lifted most prohibitions on homosexual conduct and allowed for same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay rabbis. By adopting multiple opinions, the CJLS essentially gave permission for individual rabbis, congregations, and rabbinical schools to choose the option that suited them best. Shortly after the CJLS issued this statement, the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies started acccepting openly gay students into their rabbinical and cantorial programs.

So we have progress, and we have tensions. And, within both the Jewish and the LGBTQ communities, we have our own forms of intersecting oppressions. Homophobia exists in Judaic circles, and anti-Semitism exists in the LGBTQ community (and others). And various forms of oppression exist in both communities – racism, class oppression, and sexism, to name a few. While Jewish people have been persecuted for centuries, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages on. While lesbians and gay men continue to experience oppression, there is tension within the community regarding whether to be fully trans*-inclusive. Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter), in her 1936 book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, referred to this as “identification with the aggressor,” where the victim of oppression takes on the role of the oppressor by victimizing others. We end up coming full circle.

Politics is complicated. Overlapping oppressions is complicated. But I come back to the celebration of Passover, which is a festival of liberation, commemorating the Jews’ release from slavery in ancient Egypt. The foods that are eaten during Passover and served during the seder are reminders of that oppression. At the Passover seder, the youngest child asks “the four questions,” starting with, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”  What an opportunity to reflect upon the devastating impact of oppression, however complicated it might be. And what an opportunity to invite everyone to the table (literally and proverbially) to celebrate the release from the bonds of oppression. Even those of us who can only afford Manischewitz.


Filed under culture, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, religion, reparative therapy, same-sex marriage, Uncategorized