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Back in the Closet

By now, most of us have seen or heard about the billboards: a smiling “ex-gay” man or woman announcing “I chose to change!” followed by a phone number or website for an “ex-gay” ministry or conference. This movement is big business, targeting young people—kids whose desperate parents fear they’re gay—through organizations like Love Won Out, Exodus International, and various unlicensed reparative therapy camps. It’s a religious war, whose controversial “experts” define homosexuality as a purely negative behavioral choice that can only be cured by submission to Jesus.

Ex-gay campaigns led by Protestant evangelicals differ from Catholic teachings, which acknowledge homosexuality as inborn, but construct behavior as choice: since celibacy is a respected alternative lifestyle, you can feel gay as God created you; but never act on it. Just don’t do it. Striving to demonstrate compassion even while labeling homosexuals as “intrinsically disordered,” the Vatican thus makes a distinction between sexual orientation and sexual behavior, while Protestant evangelicals are more punitive, comparing homosexuality to addiction, while promising to change both orientation and behavior through Christian prayer intervention.

Since both the sinner and the sin can be reshaped through conversion, fundamentalists claim that being gay shouldn’t be compared to a fixed racial identity, deserving minority-rights protection against hate crimes and employment and housing discrimination. This argument has attracted the support of some African American congregations and clergy who oppose homosexuality and resent its emergence as a civil rights litmus test- although it neatly sidesteps white Southern Baptists’ legacy of racial intolerance during the civil rights movements and desegregation efforts of the 1950s and 1960s.

What I’m interested in is the antisemitic echo in the “gays can change” argument. The persuasive billboards appear in subways and at roadside locations, accepted as public advertising. But let us imagine urban billboards of smiling ex-Jews undergoing baptism with the slogan “I chose to change!” Such caricatures would no doubt spark outrage and protest, perhaps leading to interfaith dialogue on the legacy of conversion pressures Jews (and other non-Christians) have endured.

Judaism, too, can be presented as either “natural”—an inherited ethnic status, marked with certain genetic factors such as predisposition to Tay-Sachs disease—or as a choice. People certainly convert into, and out of, Judaism. And, religious conviction aside, plenty of movie stars with inherited Jewish features or giveaway last names chose to morph into fellows with names like Tony Cutis and Tony Randall. Hollywood culture has shown the world that Jewish noses and names, at least, can change almost overnight—and by choice. But throughout the history of the Diaspora, a majority of Jews endured varying levels of state-sanctioned persecution for refusing to hide and for refusing to change to Christianity.

Forcefully told to change, Jews were encouraged to do so by being tied to the Inquisitor’s rack, expelled from most European nations, held to the fire, conscripted into the tsar’s army, or otherwise offered the choice between conversion and death. During Spain’s transition to state-mandated Christianity, men had to prove they were not Jewish infidels (or Moorish Muslims) by eating pork and pork fat in public.

Savvy right-winged politicos would probably not risk a “Jews can change!” election campaign, or suggest shipping teenage Jews off to reparative “camp” to unlearn undesirable religious practices. Put this crassly, strong-arm conversion tactics, when applied to gay Americans, should spark greater outrage. Yet these change campaigns are not only permissible but party-line for powerful groups like Focus on the Family. Thus has our civil society accepted that gays are the new Yids.

Although evangelical activists have not abandoned missionary outreach to Jews, for a brief political moment Judaism has been let off the hook and even embraced as one half of the Judeo-Christian heritage that presumably vilifies homosexual acts. In the religious war on gay culture, being a “person of faith” today includes anyone injecting Leviticus into public policy—thus qualifying the Orthodox Jewish rabbinate and Jewish social conservatives like Michael Medved to be part of Team Homophobia. (Granted, Medved recently admitted he found his fellow conservatives’ obsession with the sexual orientation of cartoon characters “silly.”) Neoconservative and religious Jews have united with Southern Baptists to seek to ban gay marriage only because, at this historical crossroads, homophobia has trumped anti-Semitism. In the urgency of building an interfaith political coalition with black churches and Bible-believing Orthodox Jews, white evangelicals have learned to tolerate difference in faith and skin color, as long as these allies espouse Scripture-based opposition to gay marriage/civil unions/adoption.

Aggressive invitations to “change” are old hat for me, a nice Jewish girl. I’ve been freer to light Hanukkah candles and eat matzo in this country than my ancestors ever were in Poland and Russia—but that hasn’t stopped the flood of Christian proselytizing during my entire life, from “You killed Jesus” on the schoolyard playground to missionary tracts showed in my hand at day camp to conversion chats at the doorbell or from the passenger beside me on a long plane trip. Most recently, a repairman called into fix my toilet left Christian conversion literature on my pillow. Always, the message has a thread of genuine well-meaning: We don’t want you Jews to burn in hell! Just accept Christ as your savior and you’ll be saved! Since the free speech I enjoy also protects the evangelical, I can’t ask for a ban on these annoying intrusions, but it’s a rare week that passes without someone urging me to change…as a Jew.

I’m thus familiar with the suggestion to change. As a gay American, I also know that even if I did try to change my sexual orientation—if I married a man, announced my heterosexuality, and promptly began to diss gays myself—I’d still land right back on the Christian fundamentalists’ conversion agenda unless I abandoned my Judaism. I’m not fooled by the benevolence of “change” rhetoric from PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays) or the Family Research Council; the real agenda is Christian proselytizing, period. And where will it end?

From my vantage point, American Jews need to be far more vocal in this discussion, providing insights form our own experiences resisting conversion tactics. Again, I’d argue that the Jewish community would not be silent if billboards in subway stations featured a rabbi tossing off his yarmulke and kneeling before the Cross—that would be considered offensive to Jewish identity. The problem here is establishing that to be gay or lesbian is to have a legitimate identity that can be offended. We’re both cross-cultural and tribal, with our own world history of triumph over persecution, survival stories many of us are just learning about. In a post-Holocaust world, we cannot deny knowing that the elimination of gays and lesbians was part of Hitler’s Final Solution. Our obligation, to paraphrase the great philosopher Emil Fackenheim, is to not hand Hitler a posthumous victory by changing from, and denying, who we are. And this requires a coalition that includes the broader Jewish community, which should be aware, by now, that choosing to change has seldom closed the door on persecution.

[[This piece originally appeared in the Winter issue of the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin]]

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