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Selfie of ShulliBBC Three / Contributor image

Gay conversion therapy: 'I thought being straight would make me happy'

After struggling to reconcile her sexuality and her religion, Shulli spent over a year undergoing gay conversion therapy

Harvey Day
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“I just want to be straight and that's the only reason I'm here.”

I closed my eyes and clenched my fists; although we were sat opposite each other face to face, I avoided the therapist’s gaze. But I focused intently on his words: “So, your mother worked, you say?" I nodded. That was followed by, “You must feel anxious around boys. Why is that?” I gritted my teeth in response and stayed silent.

I was always terrified before each session as I trudged up the stairs to his office - nervous someone might see me and realise why I was there. I never fully relaxed, my back stiff and my body tense the whole time.

I looked up, trusting him, and he seemed to take that as a sign to continue.

Now, he was asking me to describe how I felt when I saw a girl I fancied in the gym. “I had butterflies in my stomach,” I said. He nodded and then started asking me to analyse why I felt that sense of anxious excitement. Perhaps my inability to feel attracted to men was because I was actually worried they didn’t like me, he suggested.

I sighed. I didn’t know what I felt any more - except numb, and trapped.

No, this wasn’t a bad dream. Instead, I was in the throes of the gay conversion therapy that would dominate my early 20s and leave me forever changed.

I was convinced then that I had to be straight to be happy. As a Modern Orthodox Jew, I was desperate to lead what I thought was a ‘normal’ life - getting married to a ‘good Jewish boy’, having a family - and being accepted by my religious community. While many liberal reform Jewish people accept homosexuality nowadays, some Orthodox Jews still oppose it on the grounds that it is said to be forbidden by religious teachings.

Sitting there in the therapist’s office, I reluctantly tried to engage in his quest to find a root cause for my sexuality. Naively, I thought the pain of picking apart my childhood and subjecting my parents to scrutiny was worth it because, I believed, I was going to come out the other side as a straight woman. That was all I wanted back then.

Star of David in a SynagogueBBC Three / iStock
Shulli's religion made her feel desperate to lead a 'normal' life

Despite the advances on LGBTQ+ issues we’ve seen in the UK and elsewhere in the past five decades, gay conversion therapy - a pseudoscientific practice that attempts to change sexual orientation, or reduce feelings of sexual attraction to others of the same sex - is still carried out in many countries. In the UK, a ban is being considered after a landmark report last year.

The report was based on an anonymous survey of LGBTQ+ people in the UK, which ran online from July to October 2017 and received more than 108,000 responses. It found that, in the UK, 2% of people who responded to the survey said they had undergone conversion (also known as reparative) therapy in an attempt to ‘cure’ them, and a further 5% had been offered it. Of those who said they'd had conversion therapy, more than half (51%) had received it via a faith group, while 19% said it was via a healthcare professional.

Although I grew up in London in an open-minded family, I didn’t know anyone who identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Aged 11, I blurted out to my mum that I fancied a girl my age I knew. But she told me that lots of people fancy the same sex when they’re going through puberty, and I was too young to label myself. 

We didn’t discuss it again for years. In my first year of university in 2010, I tried to talk to my parents about my sexuality again but it wasn’t any easier. I had all these feelings pent up inside me and just needed to get it out.

Once I got to uni, I threw myself into student life and tried again to push my sexuality to the back of my mind. I got involved with one of the Jewish groups there and, at the end of my first year, I signed up to go on their summer trip to Israel.

The trip lasted two weeks and the guy I was dating at the time was there too. One night I got really drunk and let it slip to one of the older people on the trip that I wasn’t actually attracted to him. Instead, I admitted, I fancied girls.

Shulli at UniversityBBC Three / Contributor Image
Shulli took part in a trip to Israel while at university

The next morning, I awoke in a hungover panic. I was terrified the person I had confessed to would tell someone, but when I spoke to him later that day he promised to keep my secret.

I was relieved that he didn’t seem to judge me. After the trip, I started meeting up with him on a semi-regular basis, as he was the only person I'd confided in. I cried a lot but it felt good to finally open up. I told him that I wished I could just be straight and my life be less confusing.

During one of our conversations, he said there was a way for me to find ‘happiness’ - that someone he knew in Israel offered gay conversion therapy. The plan was for me to take a year out from my studies, and apply to live in Israel in a religious school.

I was excited and nervous in equal measure. It was a drastic step but I was determined to give it my all. I was desperate to find a way to feel better.

My parents offered to cover the £1,000 cost because they could see how much I was struggling emotionally, and they just wanted to help. None of us knew anyone who had been through gay conversion and we had no idea of the damage it could do. In Israel, as of 2019, doctors can be expelled from the Israel Medical Association if they carry out the procedure, after the organisation imposed a ban earlier this year, many years after my own experience.

Therapy roomBBC Three / iStock

My therapy lasted 18 months - I continued over video chat once I got back to the UK. One of the methods I struggled to take seriously - and found downright sinister - was past-life regression, a controversial form of hypnotherapy that supposedly lets you access memories from your previous lives. 

In my case, we were searching for a sin I’d supposedly committed in a past life that might have ‘made me gay’. I was made to close my eyes and asked what I could see. I tried to say it wasn’t working, but they kept telling me to try again. Eventually, I cracked and told them that I had owned a farm and tried to kill someone, though of course this was entirely made up. Looking back I can see how off the wall that sounds but I just wanted the experience to end.

Another, for me, unpleasant process I was put through was eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). It’s still relatively new and scientists aren’t exactly sure how it works, but it’s been found to reduce the symptoms of PTSD in some people.

In my case, I was asked to think about things that scared me or that I didn’t find appealing - like having sex with a guy - while forcing my eyes to follow the therapist’s pen from side to side. The idea was to get rid of any negative feelings I had toward straight sex but, obviously, it didn’t work and picturing myself in those situations really messed with my emotions.

Once I got back to London, it was clear that I was in a very dark place emotionally. I was feeling worse and worse without seeing any change in my sexuality and that’s what made me think things had gone too far. In a moment of despair, I asked the therapist for proof that his therapy had ever worked for anyone.

He put me in touch with a woman in Israel who’d been doing the conversion therapy for six years but still couldn’t kiss or have sex with a guy. Hearing her story made me realise that I didn’t want to live my life as a lie any more. That I didn’t want to be without love or sex and that I needed to put a stop to this.

Now, six years later, I’m much happier with who I am - though I find it hard to trust people, and I tend to over-analyse things in relationships. But one positive has come out of this – my parents are now my biggest supporters. My dad, wracked with guilt over how badly the therapy seemed to have affected me, was the first one to tell me to stop it and experiment with the gay world. Having their support gave me the strength to move forward with my life.

Pride themed Shabbat dinnerBBC Three / Contributor Image
Shulli's supportive parents host pride themed Shabbat dinners

These days, my parents host gay pride Shabbat dinners, help other parents of queer kids, and are currently trying to find me a partner by asking everyone they know - rabbis included - if they happen to know of any nice lesbians.

I think many religious LGBTQ+ people struggle to find a place where they can feel fully accepted. In the religious world they might be told their sexuality is unacceptable and in the queer world their faith might be seen as unusual or unwelcome. Until this puzzle is solved, young, scared LGBTQ+ kids will feel they have to choose between religion and their true identity.

For years, the therapist's words haunted me - I found it hard to stop hearing his voice in my mind. But, now, I’ve finally come to a place of acceptance with who I am and I’m much happier because of it.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help and support is available here.