David*, a personable young man from a traditional Jewish family, came to my office in a state of agitation and near despair. He had come to believe that he was homosexual, in conflict with his own values and hopes for a traditional family life. Psychological evaluation revealed that David was a passive, inexperienced, and naive young man. His vague and confused thoughts about sex had been misinterpreted by a counselor who had advised him: "just accept your homosexuality." Through our discussions, David realized his potential for personal choice. He worked actively and successfully to create a life in keeping with his own deeply held values, including fidelity, a wife and family.
The term homosexuality has several meanings today, leading to confusion and sometimes, as with David, to unnecessary suffering. It can refer to same-gender sexual impulses, fantasies, behavior, or patterns of behavior. It can be a short-lived experiment, a lifestyle, or a political movement.
In recent years, some, unlike David, have come to define "who they are" around homosexual orientation. For these individuals, sexual commitments influence psychological sense of self in a basic way. Family arrangements, social outlets and religious expression become organized around this core identity construct.
For many Jews, disagreement between branches of the religion leads to confusion about the morality of homosexuality. The Orthodox and Conservative movements remain committed to the male-female marital norm and the prohibition of homosexual behavior. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism now accept homosexuality as a morally equivalent alternative to heterosexuality.
The changing perspective of the mental health professions, regarding the normalcy vs. pathology of homosexuality, also has contributed to confusion. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association deleted homosexuality from the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders (DSM), removing a major barrier to social acceptance. Still, the DSM continues to include psychiatric diagnoses for individuals in distress about their sexual orientation or troubled by issues of identity.
Removal of homosexuality from the DSM was intended as a morally neutral scientific decision. The social and medical sciences can say only what is, but not what ought to be.
Value judgements about sexual behavior stem from religious and/or philosophical traditions rather than psychiatry and psychology.
Prevalent myths interfere with clear thought in this area. Two of these myths are that homosexuality definitely is genetic or biologically based and that sexual orientation can never change. Current scientific knowledge does not support these assertions about causation and human potential.
Recently the American Psychological Association held a symposium inviting proponents and opponents of sexual reorientation therapies to seek common ground based on
respect for the values and desires of individuals wishing help. The symposium discussed research studies of ex-gay ministries, including Christian, Catholic and Mormon programs. The presenters concluded that appropriate psychotherapy choices should be available both for those seeking to solidify their homosexual identity and for those seeking a lifestyle of traditional heterosexual expression.
Jewish homosexuals, and their family members, who seek support for a gay-affirmative lifestyle have various options, such as those mentioned in previous editions of this publication. However, those seeking faith-based help towards a traditional heterosexual lifestyle discover that Jewish alternatives are not yet available; some turn to the Christian ministries mentioned above. A new national group, Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH) is attempting to fill that gap. In Baltimore, an independent group called Torah Approaches to Healing and Change (TAHC) also has been formed.
We live in a society of individual choice where religion, sexual morality and psychological identity interweave in a complex and sometimes confusing way. Helping professionals need to be informed, as well as compassionate, sensitive and tolerant, in order to assist those who are struggling with issues of sexual identity.
* Name and some details changed to protect confidentiality
A published version of this article appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times, March 2001