Orthodox Rabbis Say Gay ‘Cure’ Therapy Doesn’t Work

Following a lawsuit against ‘reparative therapy’ for gays, Orthodox rabbis come out against the therapy, even as mainstream media outlets continue to give the unlicensed therapists a platform. Jay Michaelson reports.

Gali Tibbon, AFP / Getty Images

You know it’s a weird week when a group of Orthodox rabbis comes off understanding homosexuality better than mainstream TV personalities.

But that’s what happened: at the same time as the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest professional association of Orthodox rabbis in the world, was disavowing any connection with a leading provider of “reparative therapy” for gays in the wake of a new lawsuit, not one but two television doctors gave the therapy’s practitioners a sympathetic national spotlight.

In case you didn’t already know, “reparative therapy” is neither reparative nor therapy, but a collection of weird, disproven techniques designed to turn gay people straight. Most “clients” come from conservative religious backgrounds, and are desperately trying to live as they believe God wants them to live. To most twenty-first century folks, the whole thing may seem ridiculous, a throwback to the days of quack cures for masturbation or “hysteria.” But as someone who works with LGBT religious people professionally, I’ve seen that it’s much worse than that; for many, it is deeply harmful.

On Tuesday, four former clients of a Jewish reparative-therapy outfit called JONAH (“Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing”)—sued the organization for fraud, claiming that it sold them quack therapies that were ineffective and counterproductive.

On Thursday, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the professional association of more than 1,000 Orthodox rabbis around the world, sent an open email to its members that it no longer supported reparative therapy generally, or JONAH specifically.

These developments are big news in the world of religious gay people—and not just Jewish ones. Together with the State of California’s recent decision to ban reparative therapy outright, they indicate the fast erosion of the constituency which once supported it most.

Yet just as the RCA was crafting its historic statement, two well-known TV personalities—ABC’s Mehmet Oz and HLN’s Drew Pinsky—gave airtime to the unlicensed quacks at NARTH, the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. On his show, Dr. Oz even designated one of them as an “expert” and allowed her to spout already-disproven pseudoscience completely unchallenged.

Nor was this the first time that mainstream media gave equal time to science and pseudoscience, the 99 percent of people who have failed at reparative therapy and the 1 percent who have somehow made it work. Just last month, the New York Times devoted 1200 words to the stories of three men who praised ex-gay therapy, without a single quotation from a man who found it ineffective, counterproductive, or worse. And in 2010, ABC’s Nightline gave about 90 percent of a program to supposedly happy ex-gays and only about 10 percent to critics. (ABC later pulled the program offline without explanation.)

What do the Orthodox rabbis get that many in the mainstream media do not?

A brief background: Reparative therapy exists to explain why, if God hates gay people so much, they exist in the first place? Religious progressives have already solved this problem by saying that God doesn’t hate the gays after all. The six Biblical verses sometimes used against LGBT people are dwarfed by the other 31,000 verses in the Bible, many of which talk about love, compassion, justice, and other pro-inclusion values. It’s not hard to interpret the “bad” verses narrowly, or ignore them entirely, which is what progressives have done for forty years now.

Traditionalists, however, have attacked the other side of the theological equation. God hates gay sex, they say, but fortunately, gay people don’t exist at all. If you find yourself lusting for that same-sex co-worker, friend or teammate, that doesn’t make you gay—it just means you have Same-Sex Attraction (SSA) … a curable malady, sort of like the flu. It’s a psychological problem that comes from having too close a relationship with one’s mother, and too distant a relationship with one’s father. (Incidentally, you may have noticed that there are gay women too. Reparative therapy has not. Its rhetoric is entirely about men.)

Let’s set aside for the moment the inconvenient fact that millions of straight men have had smothering mothers and distant fathers—indeed, in the Jewish community, it’s our national custom. If being a mama’s boy eventually makes you gay, then “therapists” can work with this psychological problem like any other.

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Honest psychologists and scientists know that this is bunk. Reparative therapy has been dismissed by every single mainstream health and welfare organization in the country, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Counseling Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the National Association of Social Workers.

But ordinary people don’t know that. So, in customary mass-media fashion, Dr. Oz, Dr. Drew and The New York Times depict this as a “controversy” and present two opposing “sides.” It may be good television, but it’s bad science. Dr. Oz doesn’t debate the relative merits of modern psychiatry versus the practice of drilling holes in peoples’ skulls to release demons, even though he could probably find “experts” on both sides to discuss it. And Dr. Drew doesn’t have a flat-earther debate astronomy with a NASA scientist. “Equal time” may work for matters of political opinion, but not scientific fact.

(In response to criticism from gay-rights activists, Dr. Oz subsequently defended his decision to host NARTH but said that “after listening to both sides of the issue and after reviewing the available medical data, I agree with the established medical consensus.” Well, that’s nice.)

The media’s blurring of the issue only throws the rabbis’ statement into starker relief. Remember, these are not progressive rabbis—many are on the far right on Israel and women's issues, and many vote Republican. I have no doubt many of them would prefer that reparative therapy actually worked. Also, the statement runs against their deep-seated instinct to keep intra-Jewish conflicts out of the public eye. But even they could not stand silent any longer.

For years now, Orthodox rabbis have danced between two poles: between insider and outsider, between knowing about this issue and (pretending) not knowing about it. At first they supported JONAH, then they were ambivalent, and then in 2011 they privately asked JONAH to take down their endorsement. Surely it’s theologically convenient to know but not know—to claim, as climate-change deniers love to do, that the evidence is not yet “persuasive.” But unlike Dr. Oz and Dr. Drew, many of these rabbis have known for years that reparative therapy doesn’t work, because they’ve met its survivors. They know that for every “success” (usually, a tortured gay man struggling to stay faithful to, and aroused by, his wife) there are hundreds of failures—some of which are downright tragic.

And so, in the wake of the lawsuit, which includes allegations not only of fraud but of borderline sexual abuse as well, they’ve had to take a clear, public stand. “As rabbis trained in Jewish law and values,” the RCA’s statement reads, “we base our religious positions regarding medical matters on the best research and advice of experts and scholars in those areas, along with concern for the religious, emotional, and physical welfare of those impacted by our decisions. Our responsibility is to apply halakhic (Jewish legal) values to those opinions.” Exactly.

Surveys have consistently shown that the most powerful predictor of whether someone supports gay rights is personally knowing gay people. It seems that the same is true for reparative therapy: whether you’re religious, conservative, or both, the more you know gay people, the more you know what happens when they try to change their sexualities, the more you know that reparative is not, as Dr. Oz framed it, a “controversy”—but a sham.

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that it is characterizing the views of "many" of the rabbis in the Rabbinical Council of America, not all of them.