This past Saturday, people gathered outside Barnes & Noble in El Paso, TX to protest a book signing by Pastor Tom Brown, a local clergyman who gained notoriety during the midterm election for organizing a ballot initiative that stripped health benefits from unmarried partners of city employees. He was promoting his new book Breaking Curses, Experiencing Healing, a guide to healing depression, fear, anxiety, anger and homosexuality through the Christian faith. In an interview with El Paso Times, Brown referred to the last point, claiming that “through a step-by-step process of cleanliness” one can rid oneself of these unwanted feelings and “find healing through Christ.” Outside, 12 protestors from the LGBT-rights group El Paso for Equality waved signs reading “Homosexuality is not an illness” and “Keep sex and religion in the bedroom.” Drivers of passing cars honked in support.
Brown said he was surprised by the negative reaction he received from the LGBT community and their allies. “Once people read the two chapters that deal with homosexuality in my book, they will see that there is not a word of hatred in there,” he said. “It’s all about understanding those who struggle with the same-sex issue and how to find healing through Christ. For those marchers, I would first challenge them to read the book before making a prejudgment.” In an interview with NBC El Paso, Brown said that he is not attempting to single out the LGBT community – despite his book and his contributions to the controversial ballot measure – but is doing his job as a minister to “spread the word.”
“He takes the teachings from the Bible and misconstrues them,” El Paso for Equality member Daniel Rollings told El Paso Times. “I’m openly gay and a Christian myself, and Christ does not teach hate. Tom Brown uses the Old Testament verse and Jewish cleanliness laws to make things about how one can be healed of homosexuality.” This statement should give members of the Jewish community pause, as it implies that prohibitions against homosexuality are halakhic territory. When looking at the compiled Jewish and Christian Bibles we find three specific passages that refer to the forbidden nature of same-sex relations, one in Leviticus (18:22) and two in the New Testament (Romans 1:26-27 and I Corinthians 6:9-10, both Pauline letters to early Christian communities). The weight of prohibitions is spaced across the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Some have construed other passages as referring to homosexuality – such as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis – yet these contain oblique, rather than explicit, references.
The rhetoric concerning the “healing” of homosexuals is largely Christian. Organizations like Focus on the Family, the National Organization for Marriage, and the American Family Association are a tangible presence within national debate. This raises the question: Are there Jewish groups with a similar “pro-family” agenda? Are community leaders like Tom Brown exclusively a Christian phenomenon?
In 1998, two Jewish couples in New Jersey founded an organization called Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH). According to their website, they “[believe] that homosexuality is a learned behavior and that anyone can choose to disengage from their same-sex sexual fantasies, arousals, behavior and identity – if motivated and supported in that process.” This past year they debuted a new logo to reflect an “increased professionalism,” expanded services, and growing staff made necessary by high demand for their services.
Although there have been voices from within the Orthodox community who have expressed opposition to LGBT rights–take the rabbis who opposed repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell–JONAH is unique in its organization and its alignment with ex-gay Christian organizations. According to a July 2010 press release from Truth Wins Out–a group for LGBT individuals who have experienced ex-gay therapy–one of JONAH’s therapists, Alan Downing, who also worked for the ex-gay organization People Can Change, was accused of sexually harassing his male clients.
Where was our indignation when this case was brought to national attention? It is easy to lose sight of these conservative constituencies within the Jewish community; we populate the most liberal cities in America and boast a large, progressive presence on national media and within the blogosphere. It is tempting to dismiss people like Tom Brown as a Christian problem. Yet–quietly–organizations like JONAH have a real impact on LGBT members of the Jewish community. It’s time we take notice.