Testimony of Mordechai Levovitz, Co Executive Director, JQY
New Jersey State Senate, Trenton NJ
My name is Mordechai Levovitz. I come from a very religious Jewish community and grew up in an Orthodox family. I have both personal experience with being sent to therapists as a minor to try to change my orientation and gender expression, and experience dealing with this issue as the co executive director of JQY, a non profit org that helps support LGBT Jews and their families in the Orthodox Community. I have seen and felt the harmful consequences of Sexual Orientation Change Efforts, and the risks that this process poses to minors.
When I was about six years old my parents brought me to a therapist because they were concerned that I was acting too feminine. I played with Barbie’s, wanted cabbage patch kids, pretended I was a princess, and told people that I was really a girl. My parents, devout Orthodox Jews were horrified, confused and embarrassed. They wanted desperately for someone to tell them that I could be changed into a quote unquote “normal boy”. In their search for answers, they were told by religious leaders and even some doctors that I was a “Pre-Homosexual” and that “detecting” this early, is actually a good thing, because this was the time (when I was six) that “therapy” could be effective. Therapy to them, meant preventing me from ever turning gay, and making me into a normal masculine boy. So from the age of six I was sent to Dr after Dr. in the hopes of curing me from my “femininity” and wrong gender identification.
Obviously these forced interventions did not end up working. I am now gay man, I am still feminine, and sometimes I still pretend that I’m a princess. But there was one message that was made clear to me when being sent to these therapists. This was that the ‘professional mental health’ opinion was that there was something very wrong with who I was. I was made to feel by doctors there was something wrong with me. I was made to think that for me to be healthy, I must play sports, speak in a low voice, and keep my wrist from going limp. I didn’t want to do any of this. I was happy with the way I was. But in the name of professional mental health and the licensure of the state, I was made to feel shame and engage in a fruitless labor that left me sad and broken.
As I became an adult I promised that I could not stand idly by while this happened to other youth. I met other LGBT people who came from Orthodox communities like mine, many who also had the experience of being pressured into so called “reparative therapy”. We decided that we had to be there for each other. We started a group called JQY. JQY is a safe space where Jewish youth can come and feel support and acceptance for who they are. JQY now has over 700 members. As JQY grew, more and more Orthodox Jewish youth came forth to tell their stories.
What I heard and saw were many kids being pressured by their parents, schools and other therapists into organizations like JONAH and Journey into Manhood, that promise to change gay people straight. Often these minors were given ultimatums to engage in sexual orientation change efforts, or else they would be stripped of social privileges, or worse, kicked out of their homes, schools and communities.
What was obvious is that there certainly was no real consent. These kids weren’t just targeted for therapy because of the rhetoric that early intervention is the supposed best time to treat homosexuals. They are targeted because they are easy targets. They have no choice, and they have no power. What is worse, is seemingly nobody to protect them.
I thought “Protection from harm” is the essence of professional health intervention. And make no mistake, Sexual Orientation Change Efforts, especially those forced on minors by therapists, can cause real harm. The truth is that there is no best practice or standards for what is mistakenly called “reparative” therapy. There are only therapists literally making things up in the name of this arbitrary process.
JQY members report being pressured to do terrible things by their therapists in these efforts. Some like Jon were asked to repeat biblical verses and punishments in therapy. Some were shown pictures of AIDS victims and made to read CDC statistics and symptom descriptions of things like Anal Cancer. Those who were sent to weekends like Journey Into Manhood report being pressured into strange behaviors like naked wrestling, name calling, forced red-rover, and the beating of effigies meant to symbolize ones parents.
More horrific were the reports from kids who were sent to an organization called JONAH, where they were sent to therapists who pressured their clients to undress and touch their genitals in front of their therapists. JONAH calls this practice “body work”, and defends it based on mental health principles. But their clients are left traumatized. They come to JQY depressed and sometimes suicidal. I worry most about the ones who don’t make it to JQY. I know of to many young people who have taken their lives after years of orientation change efforts that never worked, and caused irreparable harm.
I remember one of the worst feelings associated with being a minor in reparative therapy, was being blamed when the therapy does not work. For the message was that you can only change if you are truly committed to the process. It only works if you really work hard enough at it. So when it does not work, the implication is simply that you didn’t put the work in. Parents and schools get the impression that the youth is not really serious about change. In fact, he refuses to put in the effort in that is required. Because if not, he wouldn’t still be gay! This causes the worst harm because it tears families apart. It positions mothers and fathers against their children, and strips youth of the allies that they need most.
Honorable State Senators of the Great State of New Jersey, I currently work for the United Nations NGO Committee for Human Rights. Freedom and rights are important to me. I respect the rights of adults who want to explore their orientation in non-traditional ways to engage in Consensual Sexual Orientation Change efforts. I respect the rights of an adults to seek a mental health professional for support in reconciling faith and desire. However, sending a minor to a therapist to work on changing orientation or gender identity is not a right. It is not consensual. It is not even an intervention. It is simply using professional licensure to tell perfectly healthy youth that there is something wrong with them.
As Toikko Kleppe from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner stated in an event at the UN last month on SOCE. “Professionalized Sexual Orientation change Efforts aimed at Minors is a violation of international Human rights.” It violates our medical ethics of “first do no harm”. It violates our values of informed consent, scientific integrity, professional responsibility, and any semblance of accountability. It continues to violate minors in my Orthodox community, and it violated me. Please vote today to stop this violation. May we build a world where no child is made to feel like there is something wrong with them because of who they are.