Opinion

Conversion Therapy for Whom?

Members of Israeli LGBTQ community protest near Rafi Peretz's home in southern Israel, July 14, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Two years ago a British advertising campaign invited straight me to try having a sexual encounter with another man. “Go for it,” the campaign declared, showing two men kissing. It encouraged men to divest themselves of labels and allow themselves to act in ways that don’t conform to straight male behavior.

While it was an ad for a cosmetics company, it touched on a sensitive question: Is it desirable, or even possible, to encourage heterosexuals to enrich the range of their experience by having homosexual experiences?

The question, meanwhile, remains hypothetical. Aside from that provocative campaign, it’s hard to think of any institution in today’s world that promotes turning straight people into bisexuals or homosexuals. By contrast, conversion attempts to heterosexuality are implemented pretty widely in many places on the globe.

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Education Minister Rafi Peretz’s remarks praising gay conversion therapy generated a wave of condemnations across almost the entire political spectrum. But the main argument being made against Peretz was that conversion therapies are not effective, because homosexuality is an inborn trait. And indeed, most studies show that conversion therapies not only are ineffective, but cause emotional damage. But the significant question isn’t the measure of the therapies’ effectiveness. The effectiveness argument is weak and misses what was really shocking about Peretz’s remarks. Because even if the treatments used today are ineffective, it’s not hard to imagine a time when a drug or other treatment might be developed that would eliminate same-sex attraction.

In fact, conversion to heterosexuality is happening all the time, and pretty effectively, too. We’re not talking only about those cruel psychological therapies that are used in Orthodox religious communities. Unfortunately, heterosexual conversion is a much broader phenomenon and exists even in liberal societies. The society in which we live imposes heterosexuality on a large portion of the population.

Feminist writer Adrienne Rich in 1980 spoke about the phenomenon of “compulsory heterosexuality.” In her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience,” Rich denied that most women were naturally heterosexual. She demonstrated that women exist on a lesbian continuum, and in many cases aspire to different sorts of touch, love and joint living with other women. She brings as an example the different types of female connections, from early children through adolescence until old age.

Rich wrote about women, but it’s easy to identify parallel phenomena with men. Men may have greater social power than women, but they are also subject to societal demands to submit to a heterosexual life, which is some cases is coerced. In many pre-modern societies, in which the modern distinction between homosexual and heterosexual doesn’t exist, almost all the men have sexual encounters and intimate emotional attachments with other men.

But one doesn’t have to go all the way to rain forests or wandering tribes to find proofs of this. In our society as well, many men who are considered straight are interested in intimate connections with their own gender, and these moments of closeness are more exciting to them than their relationships with women. It’s only social coercion that forces them to submit to their home and family lives, in which they are often miserable and make others miserable.

Peretz’s remarks deviate from the consensus that has been established in recent decades that sexual identity is stable and determined at birth. The problem is that his statement is based on oppressive power relationships and a motivation to eradicate homosexuality. Instead of condemning him, however, one could offer Peretz a challenge: If conversion through therapy is indeed possible, please also allow for conversion to homosexuality, which would compensate for the heterosexual coercion that has been imposed for generations. One could start, for example, with an open discussion in classrooms about the advantages and disadvantages of homosexual and heterosexual relationships.

One could similarly address another statement from Peretz, which called for annexing the West Bank. In this he was also deviating from the international consensus. That in itself is perfectly fine. If Peretz seeks to bury the two-state solution and impose Israeli law on the occupied territories, let him give full citizenship and voting rights to the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza. One state is a possible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but only a distorted mind could suggest that in such a state, one group has the status of masters, while the second group has no rights.

In an imaginary world Peretz’s suggestions could be almost utopian; a single state between the river and the sea, all of whose residents would have equal rights, who could move freely from place to place and have a chance at all the sexual and romantic possibilities. But it’s clear, of course, that Peretz isn’t interested in that; he wants to persecute LGBT people and trample on the Palestinians even further. That’s why, since the utopian solution isn’t on the agenda right now, we’ll have to suffice with defending the basic dignity of all people.