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Young gay Jews are ramping up their fight against prejudice in Orthodox Judaism

IN JULY last year Israeli Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu sparked outrage when he suggested that gay people were terrorists. He told Army Radio: “We will not allow Israel to become LGBTistan. There is LGBT terror, which forces the system to do what it views as being against healthy thinking. To say this is sick is an understatement – it’s something that needs to be treated and fixed.”

This hateful rhetoric is stock-in-trade for fundamentalist Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders but their influence is on the wane. People like Eliyahu are increasingly regarded as out-of-touch lunatics who are more likely to be laughed at than heeded.

When Eliyahu said that homosexuality was a sickness that needed to be treated, one assumes he fully supports quack reparative therapies, such as that offered by an American Jewish group called JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing).

JONAH is no more. Ironically, it came to an ignominious end in 2015 when a lawsuit was launched against it by members of Jewish Queer Youth (JQY) who successfully sued JONAH for consumer fraud and won a landmark court case, potentially making all conversion therapy illegal under New Jersey consumer fraud law.

JQY began in 2001, when a small group of New York LGBTQ Orthodox Yeshiva students found each other online and decided it was time to meet and begin to form a community. Many were still closeted, and few knew exactly what they needed from the community that they were seeking to build. However, they knew what they did not want. They did not want a future of living in the shadows. They did not want to continue feeling alone, isolated, afraid, ashamed, and ostracised by their communities of origin.

When they won their case, a right-wing religious website, Life Site News, was appalled. It suggested that Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which initiated the case against JONAH had won because it had better financial resources than JONAH, and expressed dismay at the result.

Under the headline “Jewish counselors forced out of business for helping people avoid homosexual behavior”, Dustin Siggins wrote: “JONAH lost its defense against the SPLC last summer, when a jury ruled that its reparative therapy programme for people with unwanted same-sex attractions was fraudulent. JONAH was found guilty of 17 of 20 claims leveled by SPLC on behalf of former JONAH clients, who claim they were emotionally abused by JONAH and had to seek therapy after leaving its services.

“The well-funded SPLC, which often declares pro-marriage organisations to be ‘hate groups’, filed the suit in 2012. On its website, an SPLC spokesperson said, ‘[T]his case is about exposing the lie that LGBT people are mentally ill and that they need to be cured. Groups like JONAH should not be allowed to use bogus therapy, based on junk science, to scam LGBT people and their families out of thousands of dollars.’”

Apart from ordering it to cease operating immediately, the court ordered JONAH to pay part of the $3.5 million in legal fees accrued by the plaintiffs at the SPLC. JONAH had already spent $3-million in its defence.
In February 2015, the judge who presided over the case – Peter Bariso – wrote that “the theory that homosexuality is a disorder is not novel but – like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it – instead is outdated and refuted.”

The case was the first of its kind. According to the SPLC’s deputy legal director, David Dinielli, “The end of JONAH signals that conversion therapy, however packaged, is fraudulent – plain and simple. Other conversion therapy providers would be well-advised to examine what happened to JONAH, and to abandon their foolish efforts to make gay people straight.”

He added: “JONAH’s conversion therapy programme harmed countless LGBT people and their families. JONAH peddled discredited, pseudo-scientific treatments to people who weren’t sick, who weren’t broken, and who needed nothing but love and support.”

Naturally JONAH co-directors Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Silodor Berk hotly denied peddling quack cures. They said the jury’s decision was a “tragic miscarriage of justice” that reflected “the near triumph of political correctness and the gay activist agenda in the USA. We long for the day when the outcome in the JONAH case will be recognised as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in modern history.”

That never happened. Instead it gave an enormous boost to JQY, which is now flourishing. According to its website, JQY is enjoying tremendous growth. There has been greater representation of all individuals in the LGBTQ Jewish community, and greater diversity amongst members. JQY now includes more specific and targeted programming based on the unique needs of certain ages and different identities: Yeshiva High School support groups, women’s and trans programming, and, as of May 2016, the JQY Drop-In Center in Midtown Manhattan.

“Over the years, the leaders of JQY came to realise that although building a safe LGBTQ Jewish community helps heal the scars of rejection that many face, it is equally important to prevent this pain from being experienced in the first place.

“JQY works with Orthodox community leaders and rabbis to raise awareness and connect on a basic, human level. It is critical that LGBTQ youth feel a sense of belonging and love in the communities that they come from, something that is very much in line with Jewish values. Working from the inside, JQY advocacy can be credited with some of the most important milestones in LGBTQ inclusion and progress within the Jewish community.”

Claiming that LGBTQ Jews from Orthodox Jewish communities face higher levels of homophobia as well as family and communal rejection, JQY says that these problems have, to a significant degree, been successfully overcome with a series of initiatives that includes the first and only LGBTQ Orthodox high school teen support programme in the USA.

Devised and facilitated by licensed mental health professionals with expertise and experience working in the Orthodox community, JQY’s teen initiative offers multiple levels of support including online, phone, in person, crisis, holiday and group programming.

“We work with leading Orthodox rabbis in the community on making sure that LGBT Orthodox youth feel safe, welcomed and stay healthy. Our awareness project seeks to tell the stories of our members and educates the Orthodox community about sexuality, while dispelling myths about harmful processes like ‘gay conversion therapy.”

Thanks to organisations like JQY and their enlightened supporters. In America today nine states, including New Jersey, have banned conversion therapy for minors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. The latest ban was imposed in Nevada in May 2017.

Additionally 31counties, municipalities and communities have imposed bans.

But the news is not all good. The Los Angeles Times reported that in Brazil last November thousands of demonstrators gathered in downtown São Paulo to protest a court’s recent decision to overturn an 18-year ban on conversion therapy.

Chants of “it’s not a disease” could be heard over songs including Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” as protesters flew rainbow flags and held banners demanding human rights be respected.

“We have to help people understand that this decision wasn’t something small,” said Carlos Daniel, one of the demonstration organisers. “These types of thoughts are what get us killed here in Brazil every day. We are dehumanised and treated like objects. We have to show everyone that we exist and that the future is ours.”

The challenge to the ban – which was instituted in 1999 by Brazil’s Federal Council of Psychology – came in a lawsuit in 2017 launched by Rozangela Justino, a psychologist and evangelical Christian who had her licence revoked in 2016 for offering the therapy and referring to homosexuality as a “disease”.

Ruling in her favour, Judge Waldemar de Carvalho wrote that people who want help in relation to their sexuality should not be prevented from voluntarily pursuing the therapy.
The judge has since released a statement saying that his ruling was misunderstood and that he does not believe homosexuality is a disease. He did not address the fact that experts have deemed the therapy ineffectiveand harmful.

Meanwhile, China has come under fire for allowing hospitals and other medical facilities to offer LGBT people conversion therapies that in some cases have involved electric shock treatments, involuntary confinement and forced medication.

A report published last November by New York-based Human Rights Watch points out that although homosexuality was removed from China’s official list of mental illnesses more than 15 years ago, stories of families forcing relatives to undergo treatments to change their sexual orientation remain common.

The report says many victims of conversion therapy were forcibly brought to hospitals by their families. The hospitals locked patients in their rooms to prevent escapes. According to the report’s findings, patients were verbally harassed by doctors, called “sick”, “pervert”, and “dirty” and some had to undergo “aversion therapy”, where patients were forced to take nausea-inducing medication while watching gay pornography, so that they would associate sexual arousal with nausea.

Trump’s war on LGBT rights takes a sinister new turn

AMERICA’s Department of Health and Human Services announced the creation in January 2018 of a new and “dangerous” division of the Office of Civil Rights that will allow healthcare providers to deny care to LGBT people and pregnant women based on their religious beliefs.

The office, according to a report in LGBTQ Nation, is intended to give far- right Christians a licence to discriminate against LGBT people. The division would also be responsible for outreach and technical support for

religious right organisations that oppose LGBT equality and abortion.

“President Trump’s Health and Human Services Department is playing with people’s lives in their latest attempt to upend LGBTQ rights,” Jerame Davis, Executive Director of Pride at Work, said in a statement.

“This brand of so-called ‘religious freedom’ is a mockery of the fundamental religious protections provided by our Constitution. It is not ‘freedom’ of religion to use your faith as a weapon to harm others.”

Roger Severino, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights, has actively opposed civil rights protections for minority communities. In his previous role as Director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society for the conservative Heritage Foundation, Severino spoke out against the regulations he is now tasked with upholding.

“It wasn’t enough to try to strip transgender Americans of their right to serve, roll back access to birth control, and attempt to defund Planned Parenthood. Now Trump, Pence, and their Republican cronies want to allow health care workers to discriminate and rip away access to medical care,” DNC Director of LGBTQ Media Lucas Acosta said.

“Any healthcare worker who has moral objections to providing medically necessary care to an entire vulnerable population is in the wrong line of work,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD.

“Denying a transgender person – or any person – life saving care if they walk into an emergency room is far from a moral act, it is unjust and dangerous. Trump, Pence and Trump’s appointees have tried time and again to establish blatantly bigoted policies that harm transgender and gender non-conforming Americans, and history will neither forget nor forgive this Administration’s attacks on its own people.”

Australian gay marriage a blow to religious bigots


ABOVE is one of a number of posters that began appearing in Australia last year as the country prepared to hold a plebiscite asking citizens whether or not to legalise gay marriage.

The main campaigner against a yes vote was the Coalition for Marriage, which used outlandish scare tactics to warn voters of the terrible threats same-sex marriage would pose to “religious liberty” in Australia.

“In countries where marriage has been redefined, we have seen that this does not stop at same-sex marriage,” Monica Doumit, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Marriage, said. “Despite promises of LGBT+ lobbyists, this is not about ‘living and letting live’.”

She pointed out that in the United States, some Christians who refused to provide services or products for same-sex weddings were saddled with crippling fines, and Denmark went even further, requiring every church to conduct same-sex-marriage ceremonies even if they violate its core beliefs.

But the scare tactics used by the Coalition for Marriage, and other groups such as Dads4Kids spectacularly backfired and on December 7 2017 the lower house of the Australian Parliament voted to legalise homosexual marriage.

Writing for the right wing Christian website Life Site News, Fr Mark Rogers expressed his horror that “Significantly, none of the promised amendments protecting freedom of conscience, religious liberty, and parental rights were allowed. All opposition concerns were defeated, including the right of parents to opt out of homosexual or transgender indoctrination in schools.

“Specifically, the new law does not give allowances for Christian business owners to choose who they will employ based on their religious values, nor does it protect them from being forced to participate in homosexual weddings – despite their sincerely-held beliefs in one-man, one-woman marriage.

He added: “Also defeated were conscience and faith amendments to allow Christians and others disagreeing with gay ‘marriage’ to be granted free speech.

“Christians and other traditional marriage advocates have expressed concerns that the gay agenda talks about fairness, anti-discrimination laws, and societal tolerance, but also fights for special rights, government endorsement, and societal approval.”

The Marriage Amendment Bill 2017 passed nearly unanimously, with only four members of Parliament voting “No”.

Cheers erupted in the chamber and outside when the vote was announced. A majority of Australians considered the sanctioning of same-sex marriage a positive move.

“This is Australia: fair, diverse, loving and filled with respect,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said. “For every one of us this is a great day.”
The new law deletes “the union of a man and a woman” from the definition of marriage and inserts “the union of two people” in its place. Australia already had “equality” laws giving special status to homosexuals in the workplace, and for government benefits and tax laws.

Life and the Possibility of Absolute Finality

SCOTT DOUGLAS JACOBSEN speaks to TERRY SANDERSON, President of the UK’s National Secular Society, who is undergoing treatment for cancer. The interview was first published by The Canadian Atheist last October, and is republished with consent.

TERRY Sanderson is the President of the National Secular Society – a British campaigning organization that promotes secularism and separation of Church and State. He has cancer. Here we talk about atheism in the 21st century, the meaning of life, the possibility of death, absolute finality, and more.

SDJ: What does being an atheist in the 21st century mean to you?

TS: It means nothing more to me than a lack of belief in anything supernatural. There is no such thing as “the supernatural”. Anything that occurs is, by definition, natural. There is nothing outside those bounds, no ghosts, no gods, no miracles. That is all atheism means to me – add other things – humanism, secularism –  and it becomes something else.

SDJ: You have cancer. You are about to enter major surgery. What does this make you think about the meaning of life?
Sanderson: Life has no meaning beyond itself. People who cling to religion are appalled by such thinking and regard it as sad. But trying to ponder the supposed “Big Questions” – things like “Why are we here?” “What comes after”, “What is the meaning of life?” is a complete waste of time. These questions have no answers so why ask them? Or as Gertrude Stein put it, “The answer is: there is no answer.”
Why torment yourself with such stuff? Get on with life, enjoy your senses – have good food, good wine, good sex. Our senses are all that we have to tell us we are alive. Make the most of them.

SDJ: How do you feel about the possibility of death?

TS: Death is not a possibility, it is an inevitability – for everyone, no exceptions. The fact that my own end may be arriving sooner than I had anticipated is disappointing only in the sense that life is good and I want more of it.

I have had seventy years of perfect health, which I have taken for granted. Such good fortune can give one a misguided sense of immortality – nasty things happen to other people, not to me. But when the reality of life’s conclusion suddenly presents itself, you start to think – sometimes resentfully – about the things you will miss by going too soon.

My mother lived until she was 97 and by that stage, with rapidly fading senses and physical decline, she longed for death and welcomed it when it came. I watched her take her last breath and she struggled to cling on, but she was under the influence of morphine so it might just have been her body’s natural instinct to survive. If she had survived, she would have cursed the doctors for reviving her. So death is not always the terrible enemy, sometimes it is a welcome friend.

One wise philosopher once said, “The living are just the dead taking a vacation” and I find that comforting. The eternity of non-existence before I was born was a state of complete unawareness for me. That is the state I expect to return to when I am dead. No need to fear non-existence (although for some Christians non-existence is the very definition of hell, a denial of the time they had expected to spend with their god).

SDJ: How important does the potential for the reality of death, of absolute finality, make friends and family and their love for you?

TS: Love is a wonderful thing. It is life’s grandest experience. Naturally, we want our loved ones to stay with us, not to die, and we mourn when they are gone. But the pain of loss is what we must endure in order to experience love.

There is no escape. I don’t want my partner to hurt when I am gone, but he will. We have spent half a lifetime together and when that comes to an end it will be hard. Bereavement seems unendurable, but it can be endured. I hope that those who have loved me will remember me with affection. That’s the best I can hope for.

SDJ: If you could advise youth on making the most of life, and fighting for the rights of others in the livelihood of others, what would you recommend for them? Even though they may not know the most about the world, this might help some who are reading this find some guidance from an elder.

TS: I hesitate to give advice because life as a young person is very different to life in later years. When I think back to my own youth, it is like looking at another person. What I thought then has changed several times. And we are all molded by our genes and our upbringing, so there is no formula that fits everyone.

I was lucky to have a childhood filled with love and I have always wanted to be like my mother, who was gentle, tolerant, forgiving, understanding and affectionate.

I want people to be happy and to accept them as they are in all their irritating variety. I try not to make sweeping statements about groups and to judge everyone on their individual qualities. If you can learn to do that, you will have a happy life filled with people who love you because you love them for who they are, not for any perceived racial or religious identity or ideological label that they put on themselves or have put on them by others. Life is about fun, too. Fun is not trivial, never think that. It is about being happy. As the great American atheist Robert Ingersoll said, “Happiness is the only good, the time to be happy is now, the place to be happy is here and the way to be happy is to make others so.”

So, have fun, be silly if you feel like it (I love being silly) and don’t make cruel or humiliating jokes about other people, however much you think they deserve it.

SDJ: The United Kingdom is much more secular and atheistic then Canada. What is one thing about the United Kingdom that Canadians should know but potentially don’t with regards to lack of faith?

TS: Our histories are very different and despite the long centuries of religious dominance, I have a feeling that the British have never really been very religious, not in their hearts.

If you read some Victorian novelists – like Anthony Trollope – you will see that even in those days, when the Church was very powerful in politics and society, there was still a lot of skepticism.

The Church has been cruel and greedy all along the way, and people know that, but until they got organized there was no way for ordinary folk to resist. Gradually the Church’s powers have been reduced until now it is regarded by most people as a complete irrelevance.

I don’t think there is much that secular or atheist groups can do to persuade people out of religion. I’m not sure that we should even try. For some people it is comforting and it brings the community into their lives. Such people will have to find their own way out of it.

The churches seem to be doing a good job of bringing themselves into disrepute by being so completely irrational and out of step with modern life. They take themselves so seriously and some religious people actually believe all the self-important bilge that they spout. Fervent religionists will have great difficulty seeing how fatuous their beliefs are. They have devoted their lives to nonsense and admitting it is next to impossible. That’s their problem.

It is when they demand that we all respect faith that I get annoyed. I don’t respect it. I never have. Why would anyone respect something so crazy? In some parts of the world, though, people are forced to respect religion or risk death. Blasphemy laws illustrate just how weak religion really is at its foundations. When respect has to be enforced by threats and menaces, you know that it isn’t deserved.

We should just keep on encouraging religious leaders to make stupid statements. We should continue pointing out how dangerous religious identities can be. It’s a gradual process, but it is gaining momentum every day.

SDJ: In the latter part of life, you have experienced quite a lot. You’ve experienced a lot of abuse. But you have come out an important voice. How do you persevere in light of all of the pain inflicted on you simply for being different and speaking your mind for the rights of others?

TS: I have never really been affected by abuse and only on a few occasions have I been threatened with physical violence.
I have love all around me from my friends and family, and I know that I can always retire to the safety of my home where warm hearts are waiting. Surround yourself with supportive friends and no amount of abuse will then penetrate.

If you see a glaring injustice (as I did with the treatment of my fellow LGBT people back in the 1970s and 80s) and you want to challenge it, then there is no easy way to do it. You just have to do your best, campaign as hard as you can and keep on going in the face of setbacks.

There may be people telling you that what you are doing is wrong, that you don’t understand the issues, but don’t take notice of that. If your conscience tells you that you are doing the right thing, something that will improve the lot of others and harm no-one, then press on despite opposition.

SDJ: What have been the bigger changes away from religion in the UK?

TS: Gods are no longer the most powerful influence in this country, as they have been in the past. People will claim to believe in “something greater than themselves” but pressed about what precisely they mean, it is soon apparent they don’t believe any religious claims.

Most religion-inspired legislation has been repealed – abortion is no longer illegal, homosexuality has been decriminalized, family planning is easily available. The churches have had to adjust to all these changes, but each one of them reduces their influence a bit more. Every reform secularises the nation further. Education and easy communication have also weakened the grip of superstitious thinking.

Religion is dying in the West. In Islamic countries, though, its baleful influence continues to grow. People in poverty often turn to religion as their only comfort and solace.

It’s understandable. But one day they, too, may achieve the affluence enjoyed by the West and be educated without indoctrination. Then that they will have the luxury of being able to reject the religious props that seem so important when they have nothing else. They will, as in the West, abandon beliefs that ultimately bring them so much misery. It is then that religion will collapse once and for all.

SDJ: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Terry, I wish you the best in recovery and good health.