The Gilded Cage of LGBTQ Conversion Therapy

Ben Zilberman
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An activist waves a rainbow flag during a "Rave Pride" protest for LGBTQ rights, in front of the Ukrainian President's office in Kiev on July 30, 2021.
Ben Zilberman

As an Orthodox Jewish youth my sexuality was a well-guarded secret. The only ones in the know were authority figures in my life: my father, the head of my yeshiva and my therapist. After three years of rigorous conversion therapy, my therapist sent me to join a conversion therapy support group which met regularly in a secret Jerusalem basement. And so, I found myself in a different kind of closet: in a basement with 20 other homosexuals who, like me, had hidden lives and were prepared to go to any length to become “normal.”

It was in this fresh closet that, for the first time in my life, I felt that I wasn’t alone. It took me four years to realize that this conversion support group had become a gilded cage, and the way out would take more than I could bear.

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The central assumption of the conversion therapy support group was that homosexuality was the result of childhood trauma, that it was curable, and that the cure would restore the normative heterosexuality that was always lurking inside us. Two common methods the group practiced were referred to in the conversion scene jargon as “guts work” and “clearing.”

“Guts work” was a psychodrama method remodeled as a conversion technique. Its stated aim was trauma reenactment from an earlier stage of a homosexual’s life, hoping to generate a “therapeutic” experience that would “cure” their homosexuality.

The technique is featured in a difficult scene from the film “The Therapy,” documenting my exit from conversion therapy: One of the participants shares with the group the derogatory things his rabbi said to him in the past. The conversion therapist suggests that he sit in a chair and cover himself with a blanket. Once he is seated, the therapist grabs a rope and ties him to the chair, severely restricting his movement. Then a different group member yells out the same abuses the tied-up member had just shared with the group.

The aim is to re-enact the trauma, forcing the participant to fight back against the abuses. The assumption is that if the participant successfully resists and silences the abuser, he will feel a sense of triumph and thereby heal from the trauma that led to his “maladjustment” and be cured of homosexuality.

Being tied up and yelled at are not the worst part. In my opinion, the awful thing is the assumed correlation between trauma and the “pathological” homosexuality it is said to have caused. Participants are led to believe that they must tear free from the tied blanket to overcome the trauma that caused them to be attracted to other men, and if they only repeat this exercise enough times, they will realize their homosexuality is an illusion.

If their attraction persists following the exercise, this is a sign their trauma is so profound, it demands repeated attempts. And if this doesn’t work, then over and over and again. And if this is still not enough, then they haven’t done enough “clearing.”

“Clearing” is one of conversion therapy’s flagship techniques. Its stated aim is to reduce the homosexual attraction by breaking it down into small elements. This technique is also featured in the film, where you can witness how a participant is asked to face their object of attraction and answer the conversion therapist’s questions: What do you tell yourself about this man? What feelings arise in you when you see them? What is your desire? How do you think you will feel if you were with him?

The assumption behind the technique is that homosexuals are attracted to other men because they serve an unconscious desire to address unfulfilled childhood needs – such as security, love, belonging. An implicit assumption is that this does not apply to heterosexual attraction, which is all pure romance. That is, heterosexual attraction stems from healthy desire rather than unfulfilled needs.

Through this technique the therapist attempts to convince the homosexual that their attraction is nothing but a pathological desire to “take.” The word “take” is used deliberately to pathologize the homosexual. The message is: “When you desire another man you don’t really wish to reciprocate love, but rather to objectify them in order to extract from them the love that you lack. The reason for this lack is not normal, it is because your father deprived you of the love you needed. So, you are looking for it in another man.” How is this treated? That’s what “guts work” is for, and so on and so forth.

I participated in conversion support groups held under strict secrecy for four years. During the fourth year I began asking myself questions I didn’t dare share with other participants or the therapist: Maybe homosexuality is genuine love between two men? Maybe my need for security and love is a normal human need in a healthy relationship, homosexual and heterosexual alike? Maybe the anxiety and depression I feel are not the result of trauma but because I must keep fundamental parts of my identity hidden?

I knew these questions would be perceived as threatening by other group members, and I was afraid they, or the therapist, would ask me to leave if I said anything. Only they knew about my sexuality, so I felt like I was trapped in a place where on the one hand, I could share my feelings, but on the other, I could not be myself. I was scared to come out of the closet in real life and be rejected by my family, my friends, the group, and my personal therapist. I did not want to be alone against the whole world. The double bind made my depression worse, and death seemed like a reasonable option to end the suffering.

In the depths of despair, I realized that the only way out was to gamble on the lot – to come out of the closet. Leaving a conversion therapy support group is like leaving a cult. The power of a conversion group over an individual is immense, because paradoxically, this is the only place where, due to their circumstances, they can be themselves.

The author survived conversion therapies for seven years, and is currently researching the subject at the Hebrew University. The film “The Treatment” was broadcast on Kan public television.

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