Coming out to my family was the beginning of a long, difficult journey. For almost a year, I attended the now-defunct organization JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, which offered “gay conversion” therapies that were later deemed fraudulent. While there, I put myself under intense scrutiny, deliberating over every nuanced detail of my upbringing, my relationship with my parents, and my ideas about God, religion, gender, sex, and sexuality—all in an effort to become straight.
Ultimately, the task that JONAH set before me caused such internal dissonance that I could no longer continue my therapy there; I could no longer subject myself to the shame and homophobia the practice was built on. When I finally summoned the strength to leave, I remember catching up with a close friend who had also spent time there. He told me, “You’ve lost a certain spark, Shloim.” I didn’t want to believe him. I didn’t want to admit that my shine, my personality, my spirit had in any way been affected.
I’ve only recently started coming to terms with the crushing anxiety those eight months caused me. I was recently out for coffee with my boyfriend, taking small hot sips, shaking my head mmhmm to whatever he was saying. My body was there, but my mind wasn’t. It had wandered, flashing back to the time at JONAH when our group was instructed to write down words we identified with onto flash cards and tape them to our bodies. “Gay.” “Jewish.” “Faggot.” “Mormon.” “Queer.” I removed those flash cards from my body but I don’t think I’ll ever get them out of my head.
Although I found the clarity and conviction to leave, so many others aren’t as lucky. Suicide is unfortunately how the “conversion therapy” experience ends for too many people, and I do consider it a miracle that I survived; I identify as a “conversion therapy survivor.”
Some days, I’m tempted to leave it all behind, bury it in the past, and just get on with my life. But I think that like the narrative of Passover, Yom Kippur, and so many other Jewish holidays, it’s important for us to hold on to our own stories. Relive them. Carry them with us and never lose sight. Which brings me to Hanukkah.
One summer, during gay pride month, I posted a picture of a rainbow flag on Facebook. Then my phone rang. “I get that you’re proud,” my father said to me, “but why do you have to shove it in people’s faces?” After a long, exhausting, emotional conversation, I removed my post. But the question stayed with me. Why can’t I just keep it to myself?
On Hanukkah, we don’t light the menorah to brighten up the house within, but rather to illuminate the house without, so that passersby should see it and be reminded of the holiday’s miracle. In other words, the menorah’s purpose is to publicize. That’s why menorahs are set up at prominent windows or near doors leading to the street. You may have even seen oversized menorahs around town, such as in Union Square, which I plan to visit with my boyfriend.
It’s been six years since JONAH. Back then, I called the practice “reparative therapy” because I subscribed to the harmful idea that there was something wrong with me, as if childhood wounds that “caused” me to be this way. That record played with velocity on repeat throughout my time at “conversion therapy,” and still turns today, albeit slower. I’m still healing.
But this Hanukkah, in honor of the festival of lights, and to make up for the picture I removed from Facebook years ago, I purchased a poster of a rainbow flag and got it framed. And before I put it on my wall, I’ve placed it next to the menorah on my windowsill. Instead of facing inward, it will face out to publicize these symbols of hope and light and pride.
To remind me of days long ago.
Shloimy Notik lives in Portland, Oregon, and is working on a memoir about the power and limits of belief.