When people think of anti-gay places, the gay mecca of New York City does not often come to mind. However, Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish community is a hotbed of homophobia, where LGBT people are shunned, abused, rejected, and told they must change their sexual orientation to be accepted.
Chaim Levin, 22, grew up feeling the sting of discrimination and disgust from his Orthodox family and neighbors in Crown Heights. In his teenage years he was sent away to a strict religious boarding school in France. After Levin was outed, he was bullied and humiliated on a daily basis.
"I remember walking into the grand study hall while everyone was sitting at their respective tables, and suddenly all the attention in the room shifted towards me as I walked past the glaring eyes of about 400 people," recalls Levin. "Over the next six months I was subject to harassment by many of my schoolmates, both in private and in public. I was called 'faggot,' 'diseased,' 'heretic' in Hebrew, French, and in English. As I write this today, I can't remember how I survived those dreadful, seemingly endless months away from home, in a strict religious school surrounded by people who hated me for who I was, in a foreign country with no money, all at the age of 16."
When he could take no more abuse, Levin tried to kill himself by swallowing a handful of pills.
"I felt like I didn't want to live anymore."
Terrified that he would lose his family, his religion, and his identity, he entered the Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH), an "ex-gay program" that was co-founded by convicted felon Arthur Abba Goldberg.
"The one experience that has stood out and has raised eyebrows across the world was my last session with a JONAH 'life coach,' who manipulated me into removing my clothing and touching myself in a locked room as he looked on," said Levin, who first revealed the incident in a video for Truth Wins Out.
JONAH told Levin that if he was serious about going straight, he had to attend an "ex-gay" retreat, Journey into Manhood, which took place deep in the woods. Levin was appalled by the experience, because the group that ran the weekend, People Can Change, had amateurs doing sensitive psychological experiments on fragile people.
"They had a 10-hour exercise that they called 'guts work,'" Levin recounted. "We were split up into groups of 10 and made to recreate some of the most traumatic incidents of our life. I witnessed people go back to some of the most painful memories, such as being sexually abused, being beaten by a parent or classmates, and I watched in fear and horror as every single man 'lost it' and started yelling at the top of their lungs and then were encouraged to hit something that represented that anger. Though I try to erase these images and memories, they are forever seared in my mind."
Last week, Levin joined me in Atlanta to protest an "ex-gay" conference. It was part of his heroic advocacy to help LGBT youth and educate people in Brooklyn's Jewish neighborhoods.
Levin has ruffled feathers and gained notoriety since he published a historic pro-LGBT essay in the Jewish Press, the first of its kind in this traditionally conservative publication. In reaction to his piece, some anti-gay activists urged a boycott of the Jewish Press, and extremist Rabbi Yehuda Levin wrote a letter to the editor calling for the chemical castration of gay men. Levin has also had to endure the criticism of some LGBT Orthodox Jews who prefer a quieter, more closeted approach to advocacy.
Against all odds, Levin has brushed off his critics and pushed forward to break barriers and begin to create lasting change in a hostile environment. This month he started a new blog named after gay icon Harvey Milk's famous saying, "You gotta give 'em hope."
"What I'm doing is really not about getting a congregation or group to accept me," Levin said on the television show Faith Complex with Jacques Berlinerblau. "It's really about letting these rabbis know, these people know, the mothers and fathers and Orthodox community know that you need to be aware of the fact your child may be gay. If you don't deal with it the right way, if you try sending him to these [ex-gay] groups, you are really risking a relationship with your child... You are risking your child's life."
Chaim Levin is on a remarkable journey, and he is accomplishing more than simply giving hope. He is having a tangible impact in his community, opening closed minds, and keeping teens from enduring the pain that he once suffered in silence.