Surviving Conversion Therapy

By David-Elijah Nahmod, April 2018 Issue.

In 1964, when I was 8 years old, my parents had me committed to a mental hospital in New York City. Years later, when I asked my mom why they had done this, her reply shocked me: “Because the rabbi advised us to.”

Today, more than 50 years later, the experience still haunts me.

I was given drugs that are now banned from use in children, like Thorazine. I had at least one electro-shock treatment that I can remember. My psychiatrist, Dr. Herbert J. Levowitz, wore a yarmulke at all times and quoted the Torah to me, in Hebrew no less, during “therapy.”

It was a nightmare. It took me many years to realize that what I had been subjected to was conversion therapy. My parents had figured out pretty early on that they had gotten stuck with a gay kid, and they wanted me to be “normal.”

For years after that horrific hospital stay I was forced to see a series of doctors and take all kinds of medications, some of which came with brutal side effects. One medication affected my eyesight, which fortunately returned to normal after I stopped taking it.

I’ve often wondered how my parents had figured out that I’m gay while I was still a young child, but I think I know what first gave it away.

In 1961, when I was 5, mom took me to see the musical film South Pacific. When we got home I wrapped myself in a towel and sang “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” one of the film’s show stopping numbers. I think I was marked from that moment on, and, as I look back, this was not an isolated incident: I was an effeminate kid, often doing “girly” things that boys were not “supposed” to do. My parents, who were religious conservatives, were at a loss about how to respond to this, so they did as they were told by the rabbi.

As a teenager I began exhibiting manic behaviors. I was hyperactive, could not concentrate on school work or anything else, and was barely able to make eye contact with people. I was a handful to be around during those years. As an adult I was diagnosed with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and clinical depression. My current medical providers have told me that this was all a direct result of how I was treated during childhood.

If there’s one thing I want people to understand, it’s that conversion therapy does actual harm. I would not be living with mental illness if my parents and the rabbi had let me be who I am. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. As long as I take my meds I’m able to function normally and pursue my writing career, which I love so dearly. But there are others who didn’t turn out so well, some of whom have committed suicide.

It should also be noted that conversion therapy doesn’t work. After all the medications I was given as a child, and all the Torah quotes which were shoved down my throat, guess what? I’m still gay. Nothing can ever change that.

Another thing I want to emphasize is that mental illness is no joke. Occasionally I still have manic episodes and I can still be quite awkward around people I don’t know. I’ve been ridiculed for this on many occasions – sometimes from within the LGBTQ community. I would have expected better from a community which claims to stand for tolerance and diversity, but that isn’t always the case. To those individuals, I say: Don’t judge me unless you’ve walked in my shoes.

In recent years, I’ve been happy to see that more and more cities are passing laws banning conversion therapy for minors, and that’s a good thing. This barbaric practice is harmful and ruins lives – it destroyed years of my life, causing me enormous anguish.

I’d like to conclude by urging all of you to take a stand against conversion therapy and to have compassion for those of us who have lived through it (now you know at least one). If we don’t stand up for each other, then who will?

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Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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