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Opinion: Compassion also means not forcing marital charades

In Opinion, homosexuality on January 6, 2010 at 1:40 pm

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By Michael Salamon

Issue of January 8 2010/ 22 Tevet 5770

Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World, the Wurzweiler School of Social Work conference, has created a significant, and generally warranted discussion of homosexuality in the Orthodox Jewish world — and not just among the Modern Orthodox. Responses have mostly been Halachic. There is no debate over Jewish law’s position on homosexuality. We should, however, not lose sight of the very human element that these issues engender. Rabbi Herschel Billet discussed the very Jewish value of compassion (Compassion is also a Jewish virtue; Jan 1, 2010) and made some very important religious points about kindness and consideration. I believe that it is also imperative to present some very humanistic themes in the context of basic psychology that we currently have.
Approximately three decades ago mental health specialists realized that labeling homosexuality as a disorder was simply wrong. This caused a conflict that to a degree has continued until today. While true that many individuals with homosexual tendencies suffer from a variety of depression and anxiety-like disorders, they are no more likely than anyone else to be unable to live and work as most people do. With the increasing ability to analyze cognitive functioning both through the use of more advanced psychological testing and diagnostic medical equipment such as a CT scan and MRI machine, evidence collected suggested that there was only very limited structural and psychological differences between individuals who are heterosexual and those who are not. It became clear that the amount of testosterone available to a fetus’s developing brain in utero may have an impact on sexual orientation later in life and that there may, in some cases, be limited structural brain differences in very discrete portions of the brain for individuals who identify themselves as homosexual. There is also some very limited evidence that individuals who are sexually abused in childhood may have a somewhat stronger tendency toward a homosexual lifestyle.
All of this data is still incomplete but the evidence continues to mount. Whether an individual subscribes to the data that we currently know about gender identity or rejects it entirely is a personal decision. How we choose to deal with people and to the degree that we are callous toward them should not be.

A movie entitled Trembling Before G-d was released several years ago. It documented the conflict and tension Orthodox Jews who are either lesbian or gay had as they attempted to reconcile their sexuality with their faith. In many ways it was a very painful film. The hurt expressed by those interviewed in the film was palpable. The movie was a revelation for many. For me, however, it simply highlighted what I had seen in clinical practice. From the time some individuals are in their teens they are aware that their desires are different. They feel that no one can understand them, or worse. If they tell someone, they are ridiculed or made to undergo therapies that are supposedly designed to change their orientation. These treatments range from strict behavioral and cognitive retraining to painful injections, all of which are likely quackery and may border on malpractice. There is no known proven treatment to change gender identification or sexual tendencies. It is true that individuals may choose not to act on their sexual desires but that does not mean that they do not continue to feel them. The pain and conflict in either event is great.

Over my years in practice I have worked with many individuals who have marital difficulties. These situations are often fraught with tremendous heartache. My job is to keep the marriage together and strengthen it if it can work, and if it cannot to help it wind down with as little conflict as possible. There is a tremendous degree of conflict when a marriage cannot be salvaged because, after several years of marriage and children one of the spouses admits their sexual identity has been a charade. I have seen this situation on several occasions across the Orthodox spectrum. I always ask, if they had this feeling, “why get married?” The answer has always been that they felt forced to. They were forced by the expectations of their family, by their friends, by their community. When it comes to this point it is not only the individual who has “come out of the closet” who is suffering, but there is a spouse who is hurt, children who are damaged and a larger family that will likely carry a label for years to come.

Compassion means that we have a humane quality of understanding for another’s pain and suffering and a desire to do something about it. It is a Jewish ethical quality that we have that causes us to be compassionate. But we must exercise that quality in the right fashion, at the correct time. Forcing a charade that can only result in disaster later is anything but compassionate.

Dr. Salamon, a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, is the founder and director of the Adult Developmental Center in Hewlett, NY and a Board member of The Awareness Center. He recent books include, The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures, published by Urim Publications.

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