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Haredi politicians must accept that gay conversion therapy does harm

When a serious study shows statistically significant higher rates of suicide attempts and depression for those who underwent reparative therapy, what more do you need to know?

The anti-conversion therapy law in Israel has passed its first legislative hurdle. This first step has met major pushback from some religious and political groups, including members of the Likud party who have been instructed to vote against the bill. The groups arguing that conversion therapy should be allowed believe that gender identity can be converted, repaired, reformed, or somehow altered by going through a therapeutic process that is now recognized as beyond dubious.

It is important to place the concept of conversion therapy in context to understand the debate and the nature of conversion therapy. Several decades ago, it was believed that having homosexual tendencies was an indication of a mental disorder. Research has definitively shown that not to be the case. A mental disorder entails significant maladjustment or distress. Gender identity or homosexuality engenders neither. For therapy to be effective, it would have to alleviate symptoms of maladjustment and distress. Reparative therapy does not do that. To the contrary — conversion therapy and how it is practiced increases significant psychological and social pain.

Virtually every major professional health and mental health organization has instructed its members not to attempt reparative or conversion therapy. The political and religious arguments in favor of gay conversion therapy ignore what the therapy consists of, the research on it, and why it is opposed by psychologists and psychiatrists in the Western world. There are excellent reasons to prohibit this “therapy.” Several recent studies have found that parent-initiated sexual reorientation efforts to allegedly help a child overcome sexuality issues lead to serious adjustment and mental health problems that can last for many years. In one study, 245 young adults who were sent by their parents to mental health or religious leaders for reparative therapy when they were younger were found to have higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, lower educational success, and overall lower income levels than their peers 10 to 15 years later. In a more comprehensive study, reported in JAMA Psychiatry, 27,715 individuals were surveyed. It was found that 3,869 of the respondents who had undergone gender identity conversion efforts had statistically significant elevated rates of lifetime suicide attempts and depression.

A 2015 survey of 762 marriage and family therapists assessed respondents’ beliefs about LGBTQ individuals, and their own clinical competence. The results suggest that those who practiced reparative therapy had negative beliefs about LGBTQ persons, and low levels of clinical competence.

In an increasing number of anecdotal reports, individuals who practiced gay conversion therapy say that they knew it did not work. Beyond that, some of these same practitioners are now admitting that they themselves are, and have always been, homosexuals. It would not be much of a stretch to suggest that they were not practicing ethical therapy, but were attempting to find a way to address their own insecurities, projecting their own pain at having been shunned for their sexual identity on to those they were allegedly helping — but instead harming.

Many articles have been written recently about the political implications of this legislation for the present government. The Haredi parties have threatened to oppose other government decisions in response to the possibility that the anti-conversion therapy bill will be adopted.  The angry reactions of Haredi Knesset members alleging an attack on Torah and the Jewish family if such a bill is passed, give the impression that the legislation promotes gay and lesbian lifestyles and single-sex marriage. This characterization of what is at stake expresses approval of gay conversion therapy. Orthodox therapists and rabbis who actually are aware of the regimen and techniques of this therapy agree with the psychological community that it is not only unsuccessful in changing sexual orientation, but it is harmful to the mental health of the young people who are subjected to it.

Whether or not legislation is the best way to respond, it is critical to educate the Orthodox community that this particular therapy is dangerous to the vulnerable youth who are told that this therapy will solve their internal conflicts. Each person must be evaluated and treated in a manner that is respectful and responsive to his or her challenges and needs. No one should suffer from a therapy that has proved to be excessively harmful.

Co-authored by Dr. Michael Salamon.

About the Author
Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual advisor) at Yeshiva University, and a partial resident in Jerusalem.
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