Nature or nurture?

A therapy support group for those struggling with same-sex attraction raises controversy in the gay community.

gay parade 88 (photo credit: )
gay parade 88
(photo credit: )
For Health and Support resources click here. For years, Motti was not aware of any kind of attraction to women. "Whatever sexual attraction I had was toward men," he recalls. "Intellectually, I wanted to get married but I couldn't see myself actually forming such a relationship." Today, after three years of therapy and support, Motti is married and the father of a baby boy. Motti is just one of the more than 100 men who over the last five years have taken part in a controversial Jerusalem therapeutic support group for men struggling to resist homosexual behavior and diminish same-sex attraction. The group, which meets once a week in Kiryat Moshe, is the only one of its kind that meets regularly in Israel and the only English-speaking group in the country. "Our group caters to people who do not consider homosexual activity a viable alternative and supports their efforts to live a heterosexual life as much as possible," states Adam Jessel, the Canadian-born therapist who leads the group. "It is a difficult and painful struggle and one you cannot imagine if you have never been there. Many of our participants feel that psychology has largely abandoned them, sacrificing them on the altar of political correctness." Following the decision of the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to remove homosexuality from its definition of disorders in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DMS), considered "the bible" of psychiatric disorders, major medical and psychological professional organizations now take the position that homosexuality is not a disease or pathology that should be changed. Rather, homosexuality is considered normal and natural for a minority of people. Some experts question whether it is even ethical to attempt to change sexual orientation. Many gay and lesbian groups feel that giving any validation to someone who says he or she doesn't want to be a homosexual is somehow suggesting that there is something wrong with homosexuality or at least it is in some way "less" than heterosexuality. Formal therapy to change a person's sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual is often called reparative therapy. This also refers to a specific counseling technique that involves helping homosexuals bond in a close, intimate, but non-sexual relationship with adult members of the same gender. This relationship, proponents of this method contend, can substitute for the bond between client and same-sex parent that some therapists allege did not properly form in childhood. Jessel objects to the term "reparative therapy" for his group. But his group does follow the definition both by working to diminish same-sex attraction as well as by fostering bonding with members of the same sex. Jerry Levinson, psychologist, founder and former chair of the Jerusalem Open House, a community center for the gay, lesbian, bi- and trans-sexual population, says that reparative therapy is a sham. "If you look at psychiatric literature from the 1970s on, you will see that all the studies on reparative therapy show that it has not enjoyed any kind of success. Organizations that do this kind of therapy are, by and large, run by right-wing extremists or fundamentalist religious groups - both Jewish and Christian - with ideologies that do not want to believe that homosexuality is normative in terms of human behavior." Levinson adds, "While no one knows what causes someone to be of one sexual orientation or another, we do know that sexual orientation develops early in life and appears to be, for most people, immutable to change." But Levinson does concede that the situation is complex and that there are bi-sexuals who "may be able to channel their sexual and romantic inclinations to members of one sex or the other. It may be that all those who are successes [in reparative therapy] are actually bi-sexuals from the outset." In addition, reparative therapy has been blamed for leading homosexuals to commit suicide. "The frustrations, hopelessness and despair [which many homosexuals feel], when combined with reparative therapy, can and does lead to suicide," Levinson charges. Jessel counters that many homosexuals are already in states of depression and hopelessness and had suicidal tendencies before they ever began their therapy. Research statistics from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta seem to confirm this. Over the past 15 years, of those up to the age of 25 who attempted suicide in the US, over 30 percent were from the gay, lesbian, bi- or trans-sexual communities. There are men and women who, while experiencing same-sex attraction, do not feel that homosexuality is an option they can live with. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, cofounder and president of the US-based NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality), one of the leading organizations promoting reparative therapy, in his book calls such people "non-gay homosexuals" in his book, "Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality." He defines them as someone "who experiences a split between his value system and his sexual orientation." Same-sex attraction is particularly hard for the religious Jewish community. The Bible explicitly states, "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination" (Leviticus 20:13). Initially, efforts at reparative therapy came from the Christian Right. Today, there are Jewish groups in this field such as JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), a US-based non-profit international organization dedicated to educating the Jewish community about prevention, intervention and healing of the underlying issues of same-sex attraction. It promotes the Jewish approach that "everyone has the capacity to change." Jessel, who is a member of NARTH and an Orthodox Jew, asks: "In every aspect of our lives, we are told that it is possible to do tshuva - to effect change. Why should this be the only aspect of a person's life in which it is impossible to make any kind of change? "In today's political climate," he continues, "if someone tells me that he is attracted to his neighbor's young child and wants to reduce these attractions, I, as a therapist, can try to help him. If he has an unwanted attraction to his neighbor's wife, I can help him with this too. But if he has an unwanted attraction to his neighbor, helping him is somehow regarded as unethical. I believe that if someone wants to change his behavior or reduce unwanted attractions, then he is entitled to receive help. Overcoming one's personal inclinations in order to do what one thinks is right is a classic Jewish struggle." Jessel started the Jerusalem group five years ago in response to the request of a client. Initially, he placed ads in a newspaper. Today, clients come via word of mouth or are referred by other therapists or by JONAH. The Jerusalem-based distress line Atzat Nefesh also refers English-speakers to the group. Many are in individual counseling as well. Jessel see group support as an important part of the process. At present, there are 10 men in the group. All are religious, although in the past the group has also included secular Jews. Jessel sees this openness to both religious and secular as one of the group's assets. Ethical and halachic questions are brought to Rabbi Zev Leff, who sometimes consults with Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. "For some, the goal is to modify sexual orientation completely, a process that can take years," Jessel explains. "For most, complete change is irrelevant. Rather, their goal is to gradually resolve underlying issues and eliminate acting out of homosexual behavior." Potential members are screened to ensure that their goals are congruent with the group's purpose. They are advised of the group's rules regarding strict anonymity and confidentiality. David, a Jerusalemite in his late 20s, came to the group three years ago after trying other kinds of therapy. "The group is not only about same-sex issues but also about bigger issues such as emotional deficits, self-esteem, insecurities and reclaiming masculinity. These are issues that can manifest themselves in same-sex attractions. The bottom line is that same-sex attraction is a symptom. It is not the central issue." For David, the group provides a supportive environment in which he can drop your defenses and talk. "Part of the therapy for me was the establishment of real friendships with other men. The group was of tremendous service. It empowered me. Now I am not attracted sexually to men. I am emotionally, but that is okay." Avi, a Jerusalemite in his late 40s, attended the group a few years ago. He had been engaged in promiscuous homosexual behavior and wanted to change that behavior. "For many years, I was told 'you are a homosexual and you have to accept this.' In my 30 years of active homosexuality, I have never met one person who is totally complete with himself, regardless of how well adjusted he is. Some of us choose to do something to help us out of this lifestyle. "In the group," he continues, "no one is in denial. The point is to learn to change. Most homosexuals have deep issues that cause their homosexuality. Now, I have a better understanding and I have gained better control of my behavior." Jessel says he has the greatest respect for the men in the group. "I consider my clients to be heroic. They are struggling against powerful sexual urges. Their desires cannot readily be channeled into something permissible. Nevertheless, all of the men in our group are making progress, not just in dealing with same-sex attractions but also in developing self-esteem, becoming more assertive and improving communication. These individuals are among the finest I know. I believe they are lofty souls and I suspect that is why God has given them this challenge." Adam Jessel can be reached through the Jerusalem Institute of Therapy at: The Jerusalem Open House can be reached at (02) 625 3191