Can Jewish Drag Help Combat Conversion Therapy?

Yochai Greenfeld in "It Gets Bitter"

Dim lighting illuminates a shiny piano and actors arguing on an otherwise empty stage. The wardrobe: a basketball-orange yarmulke for Si, the protagonist, a black dementor-like cloak for the conversion therapist and a mourning dress for Si’s mother. “It Gets Bitter,” a semi-autobiographical play written by and featuring Yochai Greenfeld, 34, confronts the rejection and acceptance of queer people in the Jewish community. It premiered in June at the Gordon Center’s Queer Jewish Arts Festival in Baltimore, Maryland.

Conversion therapy is the attempt to “cure,” or rewire, an individual’s brain to suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity. The play follows Si as he endures conversion therapy, only to return home to his drag-queen mother, played by Greenfeld himself, throwing Si a fake shiva. “It’s an intergenerational story about parenthood and childhood,” said Greenfeld. “Conversion therapy is such a politically charged topic, but when you use art, you can speak in a less direct way.”

Growing up in Jerusalum, Greenfeld was forced into conversion therapy at the young age of 14. His conversion therapist, Reuven Welcher, was later convicted of molesting young boys who were his clients. Welcher makes an appearance in Greenfeld’s play as “Mr. Vulture,” shrouded in a black cloak. “Being in this play without playing Si, instead playing a Jewish mother figure who doubles as a conversion therapist, gave me the opportunity to meet my inner oppressors without having to be Si and to tell my story from that perspective,” Greenfeld explains. “This is my armor.”

‘It Gets Bitter’ explores how an individual’s confidence continuously shrinks during the years of conversion therapy—for instance, through activities like writing the same abusive phrases over and over again. For Greenfeld—and Si—this abuse was confounded by a felt need to excel and meet his mother’s expectations.

“I dealt with the confusion of being exceptional and talented and being gay. When you grow up queer, you feel different,” says Greenfeld. “Because being gay was the worst way to be different, recovering from homosexuality was something I had to excel in.”

Yochai Greenfeld performs in his original play, “It Gets Bitter.”

Conversion therapists capitalize on those who are fighting an inner battle between their spirituality, exploiting the cultural backgrounds of gay men who have grown up immersed in religious ideals and want to please their parents or have children. Conversion therapy was banned in Israel in February 2022, when Israel’s health ministry stated that the supposed therapy is actually abuse. By passing the legislation, Israel joined Brazil, Taiwan and Argentina in outlawing the practice, which, incidentally, is still legal in 30 U.S. states. However, Rabbi Ron Yosef, with the Orthodox gay organization Hod, told The Times of Israel that “20 to 30 licensed psychologists and social workers and 50 non-licensed therapists practice some form of conversion therapy in Israel.”

Greenfeld, who moved to the United States before the therapy was outlawed in Israel, would like to see conversion therapy banned in all 50 states. He’s hopeful of such a reality due to the work of civil rights activists who have been working to raise awareness and push the passage of legislation banning the practice. Support has also came from President Joe Biden, who in June signed an executive order to halt federal funding of conversion therapy practices.

“The evidence suggests that the legislation is working, but doing this play felt like something different,” says Greenfeld, who hopes people leave the theater more educated. “It is such a hot topic that it may be scary to touch, but ‘It Gets Bitter’ may help people who have gone through conversion therapy come forward with their stories.”

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