In July of 2010, Chaim Levin and Ben Unger first spoke out about the mistreatment they experienced at the hands of “life coach” Alan Downing, to whom they were referred by the Jewish ex-gay organization JONAH. Last month, JONAH announced it was permanently closing, having lost a consumer fraud lawsuit last year in which Levin and Unger were plaintiffs.
Both have frequently detailed the graphic and disturbing experiences they had with conversion therapy, including stripping in front of mirrors and being encouraged to blame their parents for their homosexuality. But their stories didn’t end there. Indeed, escaping ex-gay therapy did not immediately repair the trauma they had been subjected to. Both talked with ThinkProgress about life after ex-gay therapy, the impact of the trial, and how JONAH’s closure has brought their lives closure as well, allowing them to move on in important ways.
The (eventual) power of coming out
Leaving ex-gay therapy and embracing a gay identity is not an easy process. After abandoning JONAH, both Unger and Levin came out as gay, but like many other ex-gay survivors, they still had a lot of baggage to unpack.
“It was really really hard for me to adjust to general life,” Unger explained, noting that he struggled with major depression and anxiety. “JONAH constantly put in our heads that everybody hates the gays, the gay lifestyle is terrible, you’re setting yourself up for a miserable life.” Growing up in a conservative Orthodox Jewish community, he’d been exposed to such messages much of his life before his year with JONAH reinforced it even more intensely. “It sticks with you.”
Unger vividly recalls struggling with simple everyday experiences in the immediate aftermath. “I remember being on the subway after JONAH and thinking — neurotically — how everyone was looking at me and talking about me and thinking about what kind of a faggot I am. That’s just the word that was in my head. It was hard.” Very expensive therapy was required to help him work through the anxiety, depression, and haunting voices he dealt with on a daily basis.
Levin’s baggage looked a bit different. For the longest time, he’d been love with his (straight) best friend; the friend even attended sessions at JONAH with him in an attempt to help him work through his feelings. “I didn’t believe there would be anyone as perfect as him,” he told ThinkProgress, “until I walked into a room of gay Jews and it was like, ‘Holy shit! The menu’s quite large!’” That room was a Purim celebration hosted by JQY, an organization that serves LGBT youth in the Orthodox Jewish community. Levin would later write about how relieved that evening made him feel, even if he wasn’t totally ready to come out in that moment.
“That was the one thing that made me know that coming out was exactly what I have to do. I knew that I had not found peace for so long over the fact that I was in love with this boy who I couldn’t have, and then suddenly it was like a switch went off and I was able to start making peace with it and realizing that I’m worthy of being loved by someone else or go on dates. It was kind of a message from the universe that I’m on the right path.”
When Levin did finally allow himself to identify as gay, it made a huge difference. “I drew so much power from coming out,” he recalled. “Once I came out I was able to stop focusing on who I’m attracted to and start paying more attention to being abused and things I experienced at school.” Unfortunately, dealing with the abuse of his past, including sexual abuse by his cousin, would create many new obstacles for him moving forward.
The confusion of entering the dating world
Levin’s first encounter with a man rocked his world. “I met someone who was from my Chabad [Hasidic Jewish] community and we had this fling. It was the first time in my life that I just was with someone and didn’t feel any guilt or shame. It was so special, it was so like… ugh! Like all the feels were there! Like so great.”
Unfortunately, that fling did not last very long at all, because the other individual was actually about to enter JONAH. “We were a thing for like a week but you know, to me, in a lot of ways that was my first almost-boyfriend experience.”
Unger really struggled entering the dating scene. In terms of sex, he said there were “major issues” after leaving JONAH. “It was so hard for me to be intimate with another man, because if I would start to get intimate, all these thoughts would come back racing in my head. I would start questioning, ‘How do I really feel? Is this real? Is this perversion?’ Just all these thoughts. It would make it impossible to relax and be intimate with guys I was dating.”
As a result, he became a serial dater. “I was constantly just from one guy to the next, dating, dating, dating, dating.” He was constantly searching for affirmation wherever he could find it. “Because I felt so insecure with guys, I always needed someone there to accept me no matter what, even if I didn’t like that person that much.”
One of Unger’s favorite quotes comes from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” At the time, he says, “I thought I deserved no love.”
The risks of going public
After Unger and Levin first spoke out about their experiences in JONAH in 2010, they took very different journeys. Unger put much of his previous experiences behind him and attempted to move on with his life. Levin, in contrast, chose to be very public, starting his own Harvey Milk-inspired blog, and trying to create change within the Chabad community.
Levin’s advocacy efforts were effective. In particular, he is responsible for the first ever pro-gay article published in the Jewish Press. After his op-ed was published, the magazine had to defend it from detractors while reasserting that “the Torah itself is very clear on where it stands on homosexual acts.” Levin was not prepared, however, for his role in the spotlight.
“I really did not know how to handle being public and being a ‘public figure,’ which I hate the sound of. I had no idea,” he admitted. In fact, he acknowledges that he became so dedicated to the idea of creating change that he didn’t have the time or energy to keep a job. He also pressed charges against the cousin who had abused him, which left him estranged from his family. At times, he struggled with homelessness and he was hospitalized on multiple occasions for major depression.
These struggles were exacerbated by new abusive relationships that he fell into. According to Levin, a stalker found him after hearing his story and worked his way into his life by offering to support him in his advocacy efforts. He unwittingly shared much of his personal life with this individual, who then used this trust to emotionally manipulate him. “He tried to totally incapacitate me from taking care of myself,” he explained. “He made me completely dependent on him.”
Though he eventually escaped the relationship, Levin still distrusts messages he receives over social media. Levin explained that, to this day, the individual creates fake profiles trying to gain Levin’s trust again before dumping more abuse on him. “I had to make the decision that what he has been doing to me is typical abusive behavior, which is sending me things — emails, long messages — to question every life choice I ever made in a very judgmental way to make me think that I’m crazy or sick. He was gaslighting me, he was really gaslighting me.”
Levin says the relationship led him to a very dark place, but the lawsuit against JONAH, which started in 2012, “really kind of woke me up and brought me back to life.” Unfortunately, it was not his last abusive relationship.
Fortunately, he has since learned to identify such patterns in his life. “I’m a survivor of abuse, and many people have helped me kind of understand that because of that, I’m more prone to potentially end up in abusive relationships, especially when I wasn’t fully aware of all my problems and my triggers.”
The struggle of escaping your demons
Unger, meanwhile, continued to be haunted by his self-doubts. In almost every context, he worried that every person he encountered would reject him for being gay.
For example, when he first left JONAH, Unger withdrew from many of his friends. “After I came out, I had many straight friends who still accepted me and said, ‘It’s fine. And we still love you.’ Even Orthodox Jewish friends from my Jewish school days and my community, they were fine with it. But there was a point where I just didn’t want to see them, because I thought that it couldn’t be that a straight person can accept a gay person. I thought it couldn’t be.”
He explained that he thought that all straight people, including his friends, shared the stereotypes that JONAH promoted — that “they accepted me because they had to or because I was their token gay friend it was cool to have. I didn’t really think that straight people were able to accept gay people. There was a lot of separation from my friends who were straight because I just thought they disowned me or they looked down me because of that.”
These insecurities impacted his professional life. He served as the director of a music school, in which his primary job was speaking with families to recruit children to attend the school. “I was so careful about the way I talked, the way I sat, the way I crossed my legs if I crossed my legs or not, my hand motions. Everything was so stressful for me because heaven forbid they should know I’m gay, because gay people suck and are disgusting and all straight people hate gay people. That was kind of my thinking.”
Unger and his boss even still laugh about his interview for that job. It was going well, but in the middle of the interview, he interrupted to say, “You know, I don’t know if you’re going to want me here.” When he was asked why, he explained, “Well there’s something I need to tell you, because this is a family school and a family environment,” then whispered, “I’m gay.”
The supervisor responded, “Aaaaaaaaand?” He couldn’t even understand why it was worth mentioning.
But for Unger, that was the epitome of his lasting damage. “I was so insecure with who I was I felt like I need to tell people up front, to get it out of the way, to get rid of my anxiety.”
The trials of a trial
Agreeing to be part of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s lawsuit was a big decision for both men. “I didn’t say yes right away,” Unger confessed. “ I didn’t want to relive this anymore, I didn’t want to do this anymore.” Levin similarly opined, “This lawsuit was the most difficult thing I have ever gone through and I’ve been through a lot.”
The trial required them to recount the disturbing, graphic ways that they were treated in JONAH, and this time, they had to do it while being cross-examined.
Unger described it as having to “relive everything, but this time having two sides making you relive it. One side was trying to make you feel horrible about it and trying to show that you’re a liar. That was hard.”
Levin really struggled with the accusation that they were claiming to be the victims just to gain fame or notoriety. “Really? I want to be known as the guy who took his clothes off in conversion therapy? Are you fucking nuts? But I was the victim. I absolutely was.”
He specifically called out the Breitbart.com reporter who attended the trial and reported on it daily, one of the many conservative reporters who entertained this myth. “He really is disgraceful. He heard us pour our hearts out and he has the audacity to say that we were looking for attention, that we were part of a conspiracy — when all we wanted was exactly what we deserved, and that was justice.” Such reporters “should be ashamed of themselves,” Levin said.
“There’s so much stigma around victimizing. You know what, if you’re a victim, you have to own it, because then, if you can own it, if you can confront it, then you become a survivor. And now, I’m more of a survivor, I’m less of a victim.”
Indeed, the trial even proved to be therapeutic in some ways, helping both men learn how to be better survivors.
“I’m extremely happy I did it,” Unger insisted. “It took three years and it was a pretty wild three years, but the process itself getting up to trial was so important to me. When I talked about the things going through my head and the voices, literally going through this court case actually helped me get rid of those. Before that, I was like, ‘Move on, forget about it,’ and I had these subconscious things that didn’t go away. During the pre-trial, I had to actually confront them and go through them and be questioned about them. On a therapeutic level, that helped me on a personal level tremendously.”
For as nerve-wracking and emotional as the trial was, Unger also found it exciting. “I think deep down we knew that we would win. I had this feeling that we would win. I couldn’t see how we wouldn’t win.”
And both men found friends and mentors as a result. “These lawyers, they are friends for life,” Unger gushed. “It was the honor of a lifetime being represented by these incredible lawyers and law firms who were doing this for free just for the cause and they cared so much. They cared about the case deeply, but they cared about us, Chaim and I, so deeply. It’s a beautiful thing to have these friendships.”
Levin similarly celebrated these relationships. “Now, I have mentors. I have safe people who I can count on, who I can call, who I can text, who are not out there for anything other than to support me.”
The opportunities from closure
Winning the case and now watching JONAH close has helped both Unger and Levin close the book on their traumatic pasts.
“It’s hard to describe in words the emotions,” Unger recounted. “I would say that for the first time in my life, there was closure. As long as JONAH was running, I still had that small subconscious thing going on where, ‘Oh, there’s still something going on like this. There are still people going to this.’ And it hurt knowing that an organization that hurt me and others so deeply are still doing it, but now that they’re gone, it’s a lovely feeling. It really is. I think this is going to help a lot of people moving forward. A lot.”
Levin has similarly turned his life around in pretty drastic fashion. “I work full time. I’m finally back in college and starting in March. I might be getting a better job at the end of the month. I’m in therapy and I’m happier and stronger than I’ve ever been. I have money in my pocket and I can pay my rent. And not only that, I’m extremely extremely productive. I’m doing things that are historic, that are going to change my home community for good and make it a safer place for gay people.”
Most recently, Levin has launched an LGBTQ Chabad and Allies online support group to reach out to others like him in the conservative Jewish community in which he was raised.
Both survivors acknowledge that the work is not complete. They continue to hear from people who have undergone ex-gay therapy, who still identify as ex-gay, and who are even still in fake marriages. Unger hopes the victory will spur new conversations, opportunities for education, and perhaps other similar efforts.
“It’s important to remember that JONAH is one organization and this is the start. We put conversion therapy on the map as far as in the public eye, but I think it’s important to remember there are still a lot of other ones still going. I think it’s important that we have a real public discourse and start talking about — yeah we won JONAH, but what about all these thousands of people in these other organizations that we need to deal with?”
Unger believes that “we need to educate people, especially parents who are sending their kids there. It’s so important that parents know the harms that this conversion therapy does. It’s not this little non-profit religious organization that’s just trying to help that the big bullies are shutting down. It’s torture, it’s emotional and mental torture.”
Or as Levin described it, “It’s literally brainwashing, in every sense of the word.”