My Greatest Magic Trick? Escaping Gay Conversion Therapy

Coming out was my biggest secret, finally revealed.
02/10/2017 07:05 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2018

I knew I liked magic long before I knew I liked boys. As a child, I spent thousands of hours sitting in front a mirror practicing sleight-of-hand.

I would shuffle an ordinary pack of playing cards, and somehow cut right to an ace. Each shuffle and cut produced another ace. For the last one, I would flip over what was supposed to be an ace and reveal an arbitrary card – say the Two of Spades.

Uh-oh.

If you were my spectator, you’d think I had made a mistake. But with a wave of my hand, the wrong card would visually transform into the right one – the fourth and final ace.

Upon witnessing something astonishing like this, most viewers respond the same way: “How’d you do that?!”

They are asking for the truth. But after twenty-three years of performing modern miracles, I’ve found that most people – no matter what they may claim – don’t actually want the truth. They’d rather believe the lie.

Growing up so close to the art of deception, you’d think I would have known that a lie was being sold to me when, at eighteen, I came out and was told there was an organization that could help “cure” me of my homosexuality.

But as it turns out, it’s not just magic crowds that would rather believe the lie. As Elizabeth Gilbert recently said, “Most of us grew up in families where our parents demanded the truth, but they couldn’t deal with it… so we all learned how to lie.”

In magic, the audience benefits from not knowing the truth. The whole underpinning of a magic show is that what you see will be fake. No matter how well-crafted the illusions are, how closely they resemble reality, everyone knows they are not. But the audience wants to be wowed. So they willingly suspend their disbelief, entering into a sort of contract with the performer.

Houdini spent years debunking frauds.
Houdini spent years debunking frauds.

“There are two ways to be fooled,” said the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. “One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”

I must have been no older than sixteen when a rabbi approached me after I’d performed a magic show at a synagogue. “You know Houdini was raised frum?” he said, using the Yiddish word for Jews who are committed to observing religious laws.

“Really?”

“But he went off the derech,” the rabbi continued.

“Derech” is Hebrew for path. Orthodox Jews frequently say “off the derech” when someone intentionally stops practicing their orthodoxy.

“Even married a goy,” he said, using the Hebrew term for a non-Jew. The word came with the familiar offensive tone I’d come to expect. “He was a great magician,” the rabbi went on, “but he was obviously missing a few screws.”

A beat of silence filled the space between us. “Obviously,” I said, throwing some silk handkerchiefs and lighter fluid back into my case and closing it shut. This wasn’t the first time I’d learned to keep the truth to myself, and unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last.

One of the paramount rules you learn as a young conjuror is never tell the secret. In magic, the fun lies in the mystery. Divulge the secret, and the fun is spoiled like a carton of milk left on a windowsill in late July.

Since magic requires holding onto secrets, I was good at keeping them. So coming out to my parents was difficult. What are we to do when telling the truth is the right thing, but it will hurt the ones we have to tell?

For most of my youth, when I had to choose between being kind and being honest, I chose kindness. I thought I was doing people a favor by telling them what they wanted to hear. It took me years of awful hardship and heartache to realize that, unlike in magic, I wasn’t helping anyone by hiding the truth from them.

Coming out was my biggest secret, finally revealed. It shattered the illusion that I was just like all the other boys my age who would grow up to marry a nice Jewish girl, have children, and stay “on the derech.” The news hit my parents like an eighteen-wheeler falling from the sky. They didn’t see any signs of me being gay because they wanted so badly to believe the illusion I was selling them, they were selling themselves.

After poking around, my parents found “JONAH”, Jews Offering New Alternative to Homosexuality. At the time, an organization that claimed the ability to turn gay men straight sounded so attractive, they didn’t really investigate too carefully.

When I reminisce on the memories I collected drinking the “conversion therapy” Kool-Aid, most of them feel unreal, like bad dreams. In one, I’m naked, running through a forest with thirty men in an effort to tap into my masculinity and un-gay myself. But unlike most dreams, I was wide-awake for this one.

It happened on “Journey into Manhood,” a 48-hour weekend retreat designed to help gay men become straight. I think it was on day-two when I ran through the woods in Pennsylvania wearing only an apprehensive face.

“Abracadabra, alakazam!” says the magician, casting his hands in the direction of a birdcage. “I will convert these canaries into a cat!”

I took the train to Jersey City, NJ twice weekly until, after almost a year of “conversion therapy”, I could no longer ignore the inner voice that screamed: Fraud! These non-licensed “therapists” were no different than those self-proclaimed “psychics,” who steal money and cheat their customers with false narratives.

Finally, one cold night in February 2010, I stood up in middle of what would be my last “conversion therapy” meeting and debunked it with my exit.

Later, bitches.

Looking back, I’m baffled I ever believed any of this could turn me straight. I still ask myself how I, a magician with years of experience fooling people, almost fell for such a con.

Who knows?

Maybe refusing to believe the truth had something to do with it.

You can follow @shloimynotik on Instagram.

CONVERSATIONS