News & Politics

No More Praying Away the Gay

Last week, New Jersey became the second state in the nation to ban so-called “conversion therapy.” That means children under the age of 18 can no longer be forced to endure therapy designed to change their sexual orientation from gay to straight.

When he signed the bill into law, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie explained his actions thusly:

“The American Psychological Association has found that efforts to change sexual orientation can pose critical health risks including, but not limited to, depression, substance abuse, social withdrawal, decreased self-esteem and suicidal thoughts…I believe that exposing children to these health risks without clear evidence of benefits that outweigh these serious risks is not appropriate.”

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(Christie’s support of the ban was surprising following his veto of the marriage equality bill that arguably would have given gay children with poor self-esteem and suicidal thoughts a much-needed boost.)

As expected, the right-wingnuts were in court days later filing a lawsuit claiming that such a ban violates a licensed therapist’s obligation to “respect the rights of clients to make decisions.” Of course, the client in these situations is the child getting the therapy, not the parent forcing him or her to go to therapy. But that’s probably just nitpicking.

The whole thing did make me think back, though.

When I was 17, I sought out a therapist to help me fix “my problem.” At the time, I was a freshman at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, where my classmates were getting engaged by the gaggle. I was becoming keenly aware of my predilection for the fairer sex, and at the same time, realized with no small amount of horror that I had three years, tops, until I would have to announce an engagement of my own to somebody named Shmuli or Yitzi or Moishy. I tried to get into the right frame of mind, but every time I fantasized about my own wedding, I pictured myself as the groom.

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Fortunately, I found a therapist through a dear friend of mine from high school. In the first session, I explained my predicament.

“So can you help me fix this problem?” I asked her.

“How would you like to fix it?”

“You know…fix it. Make it go away.”

“You mean your attraction to women.”

“Right. That. Can we fix that?”

“Well, this is your therapy and we can work on whatever you like. But I think it’s important just to consider the possibility that this isn’t something you can fix.”

“I’m not following.”

“It’s possible that this is just who you are.”

“No, that’s not possible.”

“Sometimes, that really is the case.”

“No, you don’t understand. It’s literally not possible. I need to get married soon. To a man. So this problem needs to go away.”

I’m sure she sensed the panic level rising because she reluctantly agreed. It’s your dime, she told me. We can work on whatever you want.

In our weekly sessions, we explored possible reasons for my same-sex attraction as well as potential causes for my lack of interest in men. With every passing week, I grew more depressed. Talking about something so fundamental to who I was and addressing it as though it were a disease in need of a cure—it felt positively annihilating.

That didn’t stop me from continuing to pray away the gay. But, as my therapist suspected, it became clear that this would be a very challenging “fix”—akin to altering my eye color or changing the fact that, at 5’1”, I can barely clear the height requirement for most Disney rides. In due time, I came to realize that I was fabulous just as I was and that if anything needed fixing, it was my self-loathing attitude.

What would have happened if my therapist had been unable to agree to my demands for conversion therapy because such treatment was off limits for someone my age? Would I have responded well to being told that I would have to accept myself as is—or would I have sought out a rogue black market therapist?

I don’t know. Certainly, those fighting the new law believe it takes away the rights of kids like me to seek out a cure. But I don’t think the law was written for kids like me. It was designed to help the thousands of young LGBT people who are forced by their guardians to submit to such therapy. It protects them from predatory “professionals” all too happy to administer this “help” and to reinforce the self-loathing already in force. The law’s very existence serves as a desperately needed reminder to children that there is, in fact, nothing about them that needs fixing.

And kids like me who voluntarily seek out masochistic reparative therapy sessions? They’ll just have to wait until they’re old enough to vote. And hopefully by the time they turn 18 they’ll have realized that, instead of heading to conversion therapy, they’d be much better off heading for the polls to vote a few right-wingnuts out of office.

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5 Comments

  1. Your personal brush with this really drives it home!

  2. It’s so difficult to wrap my head around the fact that only 2 states ban conversion therapy. I hope other states are quick to follow. Who knows? Maybe Shmuli is going through the same struggle somewhere else!

    • And the ban in California has not taken effect because its been challenged. PS, I’m pretty sure shmuli is living in Chelsea now.

  3. I have a dear friend who is ex-ex-gay. He was one of their poster boys for awhile. It’s a sad and scary thing. I am guessing the self-loathing will be with us forever in some corners, but hopefully protecting kids from parental loathing will soon be the norm.

  4. Wow, Shannon, good for your friend for finally starting to accept himself. Good point re: loathing. If we can reduce parental loathing, we’ll probably make some real headway with internalized homophobia.

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