Tuesday, May 10, 2011

This One Time... At Gay Camp

Maybe like two years ago (fuck time flies) I was asked by Heeb Magazine to go down to New York City and do some investigative journalism into an organization by the name of JONAH (Jews, Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality).

Long-story short - Heeb sorta folded (or became web only) and I never did anything with this article and blah blah blah... Sometimes I looked at it and wonder what to do with it; sometimes I think I could get sued for its contents, but mostly I just think its kinda crazy.

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Late one night not too long ago, I found myself sitting in boxer-briefs, cruising websites that a twenty-something, hot-blooded man shouldn’t be caught looking at. Like a fat kid drawn to a bag of smarties, I just couldn’t quite click away from www.JONAHweb.org, a homepage belonging to an organization whose acronym stands for: Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. Did I mention that I’m both a member of the tribe and, to quote popular ex-gay terminology, a continued victim of “same-sex attraction”? Even if my victimization hasn't been as frequent of late as I would have hoped...

JONAH is an oddity in the ex-gay movement, which is dominated by the Christian religious right. For Jews and by Jews, JONAH asks the ever-salient question, “Can Judaism help those individuals who wish to leave the homosexual lifestyle?” JONAH was founded and is run by Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Silodor-Berk; Goldberg is perhaps best known for authoring, Light in the Closet, Torah, Homosexuality and the Power to Change (note for those of you with KINDLES Goldberg's text is available from Amazon.com). JONAH “is dedicated to educating the world-wide Jewish community about the social, cultural and emotional factors which lead to same-sex attractions. Through psychological and spiritual counseling, peer support, and self-empowerment, JONAH seeks to reunify families, to heal the wounds surrounding homosexuality, and to provide hope."

I'll take some gefilte fish with that!

Thinking that perhaps this whole JONAH thing was someone's idea of a bad joke, the organization’s logo is of two sperm whales 69ing (I’m serious), I sent JONAH anonymous email: “Hi, I have a packing question for your weekend retreats: If I want to bring anal lubricant, does it have to be kosher?” Questions related to kosher lubricant are, I imagine, the second most important gay Jew question, beyond the obviously offensive: if two gay Jews are having anal sex on Shabbat do they have to use the sheet? An almost instantaneous reply came from JONAH director Elaine Silodor-Birk herself. She was NOT as amused by my sardonic sense of humor as one would have hoped: “How sad that you would spend your time making [sic] of men and women who are unhappy feeling same-sex attractions (SSA). JONAH doesn't make fun of those who are happy being gay and we feel we deserve the same courtesy from you."

I can understand Elaine’s mal humor; these are not good times to be proponents of the ex-same-sex attraction movement. In fact my initial email to JONAH came just days after the American Psychological Association reiterated their position that homosexuality is not a mental disorder.

So where do all of these conflicted reports leave a gay Jew fearing that his own ‘same-sex attractions’ aren’t halacich? Well a road trip, obviously, down to JONAH's head office in Jersey City to see first hand, if I could close the proverbial whale hole that is my ass.

The first thing you have to understand about infiltrating a not so secretive organization such as JONAH is that it is actually fairly easy. I concocted a Jewish alias, wrote a fake back-story and sent end out a tearful, poorly worded email to JONAH’s general email account (info@jonahweb.org). Within a matter of hours both Silodar-Berk and Goldberg were in contact with my poor, conflicted alter ego. I was soon ready to begin their process of de-gaying.

Elaine, clearly a consummate Jewish mother, lay down the rules of engagement, “It is important for you to begin to think of yourself as a normal man with unwanted SSA, which is just a symptom of underlying, unresolved emotional issues. No one is born gay and people do journey out of unwanted SSA all the time. No one is born gay - remember that.” [Adding in for modernity purposes - I guess she hasn't listened to Born This Way by Gaga?] I was never quite sure if she was telling me that for my purposes or for her own good.

In contrast, Arthur appealed to my need for emotional support: “just like you need a minyan to daven, so too do you need a minyan of men to support you to your journey into wholeness. So, let me be the first member of your minyan.” Question: is minyan code word for gang-bang these days?

Shortly thereafter Arthur and my depressed nom de plume had scheduled a phone call, where I was assured that everything JONAH did was completely confidential, “in our decade long existence,” Arthur declared, “we have never had someone infiltrate our organization.” Oy vey.

With my lack of spy training, I couldn’t believe how easy my infiltration had gone; although I was constantly worried that Arthur would see through the many holes in my tale of repressed woe. At one point, when Arthur asked me where I went to college, I stupidly answered Wesleyan, the first college that came into my mind. Arthur sighed heavily and I thought then that the jig was up. I mean what self-respecting yid from Brooklyn would go to a bastion of left-wing champagne socialism? Arthur’s response, however, didn’t skip a beat: “Wesleyan, a typically gay affirmative place. No wonder you experimented when you were there.”

My tale of regretted experimentation led to an hour-long diatribe against “the gay agenda”. According to Goldberg, I wasn’t born gay (that’s a big myth); in fact gay doesn’t really exist in JONAH’s universe. Being gay is just a symptom of underlying psychological issues, “A lot of people who go into the gay world are social outcasts. They didn’t feel they fit in to the straight world.” At one point, Arthur went through the list of reasons that caused homosexuality, which include (drum-roll please): not being close to a father figure, “daddy wasn’t around much”, “cruel daddy”, “overly attached to mummy”, “same-sex peer wounding”, and of course, sexual abuse, which according to JONAH is “the most dramatic of all risk factors”. My non-verbal prompts were so convincing that Arthur thought he was really reaching my conflicted self, “I can tell that this is ringing true for you.”

I won’t lie – while I listened to Arthur yammer on about how my homosexuality was caused by my “poor childhood”, I was also checking out the summer sale on jcrew.com. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in Goldberg (ok, you got me, I wasn’t), but listening to someone yell into the phone for an hour about how “homosexuality is a construct,” gets boring fast. You try keeping a straight face while listening to such bon mots as: “The classical male homosexual has feeling of a deficiency of his own masculinity.”

To truly understand JONAH you have to understand Arthur Golderg, who considers himself a consummate civil rights champion. According to his own bio, he has worked tirelessly throughout his life advocating for rights; in fact during the 60’s he was “hanged in effigy” for his African American advocacy work. Goldberg feels that JONAH is the next, natural extension of his life-long fight for rights. Goldberg is now fighting for a group of people that he feels are “the most under-represented minority in America and perhaps the World”. Who exactly? People who have been “co-opted into the gay lifestyle”. Goldberg feels that contemporary attitudes toward people who don’t want to be gay are “contemptible, immoral, irresponsible and potentially lethal.”

Goldberg looks like your typical Jewish high school professor. Tweed jackets and reserved looking suits, loosely cover a potbelly, while a closely cropped white beard, masks his mouth out of which he emits a mild Yiddish twang. He’s the type of guy who pronounces torah, like toyrah and if he wasn’t a total wing nut he sort of looks like the your uncle who gets drunk at the Passover seder and then tries to dance like Elijah.

JONAH isn’t just another rights crusade for Goldberg, it is also a very personal project. In his book he declares that his mother, shortly before she died “specifically asked that [Goldberg] carry forth a Jewish program to help heal those afflicted with the homosexual condition.” Jew-boys… always trying to please their mothers…

I imagine that many Manhatanites don’t venture to JONAH’s neck of the woods, even though it’s only a quick cross-river PATH ride away. JONAH’s office, the third floor of a converted old Brownstone in Jersey City, consists of a couple of meeting rooms as well as a small reception area filled with NARTH pamphlets and out of date Time magazines. Jersey City itself is typical of a mid-sized American city. That feeling of any town USA is part of JONAH’s positioning: married, straight suburban ideals, albeit with a side of matzoh ball soup.

I did, however, venture to JONAH spending some time under cover at JONAH’s offices where I met with Enrique, the JONAH therapist assigned to guide me towards the path of teshuvah. As preparation for my therapy session, I worried a lot about what to wear, before finally settling on a pair of amusingly titled “Straight Fit” jeans bought years ago from the GAP. I figured a gay guy who didn’t want to be gay would probably tend to shy away from trendy slim-fit jeans.

In our first five minutes together, Enrique let me know a little bit about his own background, which included a fairly lengthy stint as a “homosexual” before choosing the path of reformation. He’s currently “partnered with a woman”. Note that I didn’t meet her… so, to answer your question, I’m not sure if she’s a butter face.

Our hour was, I imagine, fairly typical of ex-gay therapy. We went through the causes of homosexuality, furthering what Arthur and I had already covered. JONAH’s therapy seems to be concentrated in understanding these “root causes” while simplifying the emotional needs into categories: validation/ affirmation, affection, and attention. When we don’t receive enough of these emotional needs, we tend to act out.

How do we act out you may ask? Why through anal sex with men.

Enrique and I would delve into my sexual history trying to understand when I first began noticing my lust for cock. We paused, naturally, at my teenage years, where I quickly made up some story about noticing other boys in the change room. When Enrique asked if I would get an erection, I didn’t even have to lie when I said, “Yes.”

According to Enrique, my erections had nothing to do with me wanting to fuck men, this had more to do with hormonal changes of puberty and of course the lack of validation, affirmation and affection in my life.

“When you were fifteen, you probably got erect very easily, yes?”

“Ya.”

“Did you ever brush up against a chair by accident a get an erection?”

“Ya, sure.”

“Does that mean you are attracted to that chair? Do you want to have sex with that chair?”

“No.”

“It’s the same thing with same-sex attraction. You’re not really attracted to men… you just think you are attracted to men. Because you had a perfectly natural erection and you assumed it was because of men. When it wasn’t.” At this point my internal thought process was more along the lines, “The more we talk about men, the more I’m looking forward to getting laid.” According to Enrique – it’s fairly natural to think that men are hot, but we need to continually affirm ourselves as masculine, which means we don’t fuck men.

“I can tell you – you are a very attractive guy. Very attractive. But I don’t want to sleep with you.” Understanding and being able to harness attraction vs. desire would lead me to the path of reformation, or somewhere between becoming straight or simply stopping to play the skin flute. JONAH doesn’t guarantee full straight-dom; rather, its 75-80% success rate is defined by a spectrum of change, ranging from straight marriage to helping people live without acting out on same-sex needs.

Things hit a new high of awkwardness towards the end of the hour, when I admitted that I had tried to have sex with women, but, “I just… couldn’t physically do it.” I decided that my character was worried about JONAH’s success rate and his ability to find a wife. There was something shockingly subversive about the conversation that followed, which would detail my sexual proclivities. I felt like I was describing what an ice-cream fudge sundae tastes like to an anorexic.


“Well what do you like to do with other men?” Enrique asked.

“I don’t know.” I answered with trepidation. “Uhm, I like to suck penis. I like anal sex.” I finally admitted.

“Do you like to give or receive?” This was the only question I had trouble answering. Truthfully, I had never decided if my fake persona would be a top or a bottom.

“I like both.” I finally admitted. I figured most people on Manhunt defaulted to versatile, so why should my alter ego define himself as either or?

“How does it feel when you’re having sex?”

“It feels like I’m loved, wanted.” It feels great.

“Exactly!” Enrique was excited, but in what way? “You’re using SSA because you require attention, affection and validation. You’ll train to get those feelings elsewhere.” This line of thinking reaffirms the main theory that Goldberg outlines in his book, detailing the need to “get into your soul and understand what the unfilled needs are. And helping people fulfill those needs in healthy, non-sexual ways.”

“Where else will I get those feelings?” I asked.

“Exercise. Maybe dancing…” When I came back to Toronto and debriefed my gay friends, they couldn’t stop laughing, “They told you to replace cock with ballroom dancing? Let me know how that works out for you.”

“You have to start thinking of SSA is like the white bread we’ve all known. But there are other types of bread out there.” Worst. Analogy. Ever.

We parted soon after. I paid him $100 cash, no receipt. As I left he grabbed my hand.

“Listen to me. You are a man.” He nodded his head asking me to repeat.

“I am a man.” I parroted back.

“Gay is just one window. You need to starting looking at other windows.” Second. Worst. Analogy. Ever.

I obviously called my mother as soon as the appointment was over. After all, I am a nice Jewish boy…

"The good news: you're not completely to blame for me being gay." I told her as I stood on the Jersey shore, wistfully looking at the Manhattan skyline.

"I should hope not," She said.

"BUT, because of my upbringing, I did feel a lack of attention and subsequently I act out by filling that void with same-sex attractions."

"YOUR UPBRINGING?” she shrieked. "I take offense! We gave you the best; you went to private school for god’s sake! I mean you don't have a trust fund, but have you ever wanted for anything?"

"Well we didn't delve into where the lack of attention comes from. It may not be because of our relationship... maybe you gave me too much attention? You should be happy that I’m only gay, according to JONAH because of my poor upbringing, I was eventually going to act out, either by turning to same-sex attraction or joining a gang."

My mother was never so happy to tell me that I was gay. "There was nothing wrong with your upbringing and there is nothing wrong with you being gay." Who knew that threatening to go to ex-gay therapy would finally make my mother extremely proud to have a gay son. For a Jewish mother what’s worse then having a gay son? Criticizing her child rearing skills AND costing her money…

So what is the true motivation behind JONAH?

In an email Elaine let me know that her only son Aaron is gay and that when she found out that he “suffered from same-sex attraction, she was completely devastated. For those who you are looking to meet a nice, single, gay Jew, Elaine also let me know that, “BTW, my son is still gay (no longer in that 10 year relationship) but is now not very happy with the gay world compared to his friends who are hetero and are now getting married and having families…”, perhaps Elaine’s son Aaron was my beshert?

I figured there would be some meat (pun intended) in tracking down Elaine’s son. Through the wonders of the Internet, I soon found the right Mr. Berk. I honestly expected to be hung up on, as soon as I mentioned JONAH; instead I found a son caught between his mother, the organization she founded, and his own life. Aaron Berk didn’t just add a new chapter in the story of JONAH he is the proverbial whale in the room.

“I don’t consider myself gay,” Aaron starts off our conversation, “I consider myself open to the possibility of men and women.” This construct frames Aaron’s admittedly complicated relationship with his mother.

To get the big questions out of the way: Yes he talks to her. Yes they have a good relationship. Yes they laugh about “it” (it being JONAH). Yes, they see each other once a week.

Filial responsibility is a consistent theme throughout our conversation. “I don’t want to contribute to something negatively that my mother really believes in,” he tells me as he is quick to defend his mother’s views on gay people, “If you were to ask her – she has no hatred, she has really good gay friends, we lived next door to lesbians growing up, she’s not - gay people are wrong or evil, she just thinks the choice is not the best choice.”

When I ask if Aaron begrudges his mother for her stance on his own “homosexuality”, he defaults to her feelings, “I am upset because she’s upset… I just wish that she didn’t have to go down that path where she looks at it [homosexuality] as a negative. She totally loves me and she totally accepts me for who I am, but I hate that there is always this but, ‘oh but I wish…’ but no I don’t hold that against her.”

So why JONAH? “God knows,” Aaron shrieks in what can only best be described as a Fran Drescher accent, “I was the golden child.” Berk tells me. “And then I was an actor, and then I was gay.”

And then he was an actor who played drag in several, well received off-Broadway productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Didn’t see that one coming did you? Yes, the son that inspired JONAH, “looks really good in heels.” But he’s not “a femmy drag-queen; I’m a balls to the walls she bitch rock-star.”

Has the JONAH crew made a fieldtrip to see Aaron’s work? “Arthur and my mother watched me do Hedwig, and were so proud of me, six inch platform heels and wigs and all,” he answers.

“My biggest qualm with JONAH,” He tells me when asked if he’d ever use the treatment himself, “Is their judgment of being gay.”

There are about a hundred people who subscribe to JONAH’s listserv each one trying to subscribe to JONAH’s treatment. Comments are standard, "I know I wasn't born with it [SSA]. But at the same time, it's an invoulentary [sic] result of whatever it is in my past that caused it. Why?! Why did I need this?”

In defending his mother’s stance on blank Aaron tells me simply that, “She does not accept it [homosexuality] as a lifestyle choice; she feels that there is nothing that is morally incorrect to be with someone of the same-sex, but as a choice of your lifestyle, you had many more options to be happy as a guy with a girl.”

This concept of lifestyle is perhaps the defining raison d’etra of JONAH, and while Aaron likes to think of his mother as a pleasant woman who provides “help to those who need it”, the liturgy behind JONAH is not as pleasant. Goldberg’s critique of the homosexual community is fairly clear, “by using the fa├žade of “tolerance” or “civil rights” or the ruse of an alleged “Scientific proof” defining homosexuality as “innate” gay activities have inundated western society with propaganda carefully designed to convince us that homosexuality is simply an alternative lifestyle… hence the argument goes that homosexuality is entitled to the same degree and kind of protection as racial and religious diversity.”

Yet Aaron is able to divorce himself from this, “I don’t believe my mom is anti-gay. She’s pro-straight. There’s a real difference. Anti-gay means you have hatred towards gay people, you believe they don’t deserve the same rights. Pro-straight, you believe strongly that people do better in typical old-fashioned male-female relationships…” Aaron finally laughed as he thought about his parents’ heterosexual friends who were just as single as their gay friends, before finally admitting, “Wow man… this is so challenging.”

And perhaps that was the most honest answer of the day. While our friends in Jersey City like to view sexuality as a flavour of bread, it is clear that to many sexuality is more challenging then simply choosing between challah with raisons or challah without. Third. Worst. Analogy. Ever?

Regardless... after my stint in JONAH's reparative therapy I’ve tucked away those straight fit jeans and am sticking with white bread. Luckily, my mother’s happy with it.

5 comments:

  1. Thank you! I hadn't laughed like this in quite some time!!! BTW not Anti-Gay just Pro-Straight.... That sounds like Not Anti-Black just Pro-White... not Anti-semitic just pro-Arian. this is not a choice! we Are born this way! and also I know straight people male and female in their 40's and they are guess what lonely and miserable! so guess what, straight is NOT the pass to happiness! being yourself is!

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  2. Aaron needs to retrieve his testicles from his mother's nightstand and stand up to the woman. JONAH has been proven to be DANGEROUS to the psychological health of the people it claims to help.

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  3. Thank you for the post. Interesting to find out she's another one of those people. I'm very surprised so that her son is still talking to her. I'd be doing all I can to speak out against what she does.

    By the way, wiki "Arthur A. Goldberg" or "Arthur Abba Goldberg". He's definitely more than just a former civil rights activist. You'll find out that he's plead guilty to fraud (to a tune of 2 million) and been disbarred.

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