At 18, Chaim Levin, battling with being gay, entered into a program called JONAH — Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home, he was trying to deny who he was in order to be accepted within his religion.

“When I met with the director he told me that anyone can change and he also said that if I didn’t try hard enough it wouldn’t work,” Levin said at a press conference today at the Phillip Rush Center held by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Truth Wins Out. The press conference was held the day before protests were planned for Saturday at the “Love Won Out” ex-gay conference taking place in Villa Rica, Ga. Check out the Facebook page for the protest for further details.

Levin recounted how, at his last session, his “life coach” — a man who said he was ex-gay himself — told him to remove his clothes.

“He said to remove my clothes was part of removing my layers of shame,” Levin said. Levin said he protested and did not feel comfortable doing so. His coach said that this was the work he needed to do to ensure change.

So Levin took off his clothes and stood naked in front of a mirror with the life coach near him. The life coach then said he should touch his genitals as a way to “embrace his masculinity,” Levin said. Levin again protested, he said, but was again told to not do so was to not do the hard work needed to change.

Levin said he carried out the instructions and then redressed and walked out of the session swearing to never speak of it again. But he decided to finally speak out after coming out as gay because he didn’t want others to undergo the same torture he did.

“For anyone considering this therapy, think twice,” Levin said. Groups such as JONAH and Exodus International, sponsoring Saturday’s “Love Won Out” ex-gay conference, are wrong, he stressed.

“You’re acceptable the way you are,” he said to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Sam Wolfe, attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said his organization is making a concerted effort to dispel the myths that groups such as Exodus International puts out. SPLC is also asking survivors of “ex-gay” therapy to visit its website and share their stories.

“We are here to expose the dangers of conversion therapies,” Wolfe said. “It’s a dangerous practice based on the idea people can change their sexual orientation. In short this practice is nothing more than junk science and religious bigotry.”

Wayne Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out, has spent much of his career tracking “ex-gay” organizations and exposing the fact that many of the male leaders will either eventually say conversion therapy does not work or will even be caught having relationships with men or seen in gay bars.

“We want to replace the fiction with the facts,” Besen said about his group following conversion conferences around the country and protesting them, including Saturday’s conference in Villa Rica.

“You cannot pray away the gay. If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender,
you are fine just the way you are. Those promoting discrimination are the ones who need to change,” he added.

By stating a person cannot be LGBT and religious, the groups force shame and guilt on people who feel they must make a choice between who they are and who they wish to be, Besen said.

“The most damaging part is this idea is that we don’t heal you, god does. They are  just the middle man between the client and God to justify their salaries. And when it doesn’t work, they [the clients] believe God doesn’t love them,” Besen said.

Groups such as Exodus International are also attempting to reach out to wider audiences as their core base dwindles, Besen added.

“But they are not mainstream, they are extreme,” he said.

“These groups are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” he said.

Photo: Chaim Levin recalls the torture he went through when he went through an ‘ex-gay’ conversion program. (by Dyana Bagby)

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