Having grown up with a strong Catholic faith, Simon Atkins says he still looks back on his younger years “with fondness”, but became disillusioned when he realised being gay meant he could never marry in the eyes of God.
That changed when he met Jewish boyfriend Matthew, whose synagogue allows same-sex marriage. It offered an answer Catholicism could not, but it would mean becoming Jewish and renouncing his former beliefs, including that Jesus is the son of
God. Was this something he could really do?
Atkins’ poignant journey exploring this question is revealed in My Big Gay Jewish Conversion, on BBC Three from Tuesday.
In the one-hour documentary, the Irish presenter and film-maker speaks to other gay Jewish men who have converted, then flies to Israel, where attitudes towards homosexuality vary from overwhelming acceptance to strong resistance.
Atkins, born in London to an Irish mother and Burmese father before the family moved to Castlebar in west Ireland, wanted to make the film to help other gay people struggling to reconcile religion and sexuality.
“They are afraid to be who they are because of their religious background and afraid they may be shunned from their communities if they act on their sexual impulses,” he tells me.
The ex-altar boy, who played flute in a folk group at weekend at mass and serenaded couples as they walked up the aisle, reveals he too struggled with the conundrum for years.
But when he met Matthew nearly three years ago, he discovered more accepting attitudes from the Jewish community.
“What I believed to be lacking in Catholicism seemed abundant in Judaism,” he says. “Not only could you marry in his synagogue, but you could even be preached to by a gay rabbi. This existing in the Jewish faith seemed like progress to me.”
Matthew, who has never asked Atkins to covert, supported his partner in finding out more about Judaism, but also had reservations.
“Early on, I think he recognised that although I loved so much about his culture, what was really driving me was a search to reconcile feelings of isolation and rejection stemming from my youth growing up as a gay man in a straight, Catholic world.”
Hoping he can find the answer, Atkins travels to Israel, birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity.
He first journeys to Tel Aviv, where Gay Pride has been celebrated since 1979, joins three friends on a night out in the city, where one in four identify as gay, and meets serving soldiers who are open about their homosexuality. He discovers gay soldiers have been allowed to serve openly in the Israeli army since 1994, almost a decade before the UK allowed it.
But where Tel Aviv showcases the best of Israeli tolerance towards the gay community, he discovers attitudes vary widely across the rest of the country. In Ofra, he speaks to Aron, a member of the strictly Orthodox community in the West Bank settlement, who is clear in his views on homosexuality: “Your way
of life is forbidden.”
Although taken aback, Atkins remains unshaken. “While I respect his views and understand that he lives his life by the strict guidelines of the Torah, his viewpoint does not resonate strongly with me,” he says.
But he meets even greater hostility on a visit to Mea Shearim, where by his own admission he “stuck out like a sore thumb, being the only non-religious person there”.
Speaking to community leader Joel Krauss left Atkins feeling not all strands of Judaism are as accepting.
“God did not make you like this, you made yourself like this, that is a fact,” Krauss declares. “You can treat it. It’s a disease like any other disease and you can take medication.”
“I felt really sad coming away from that chat,” Atkins concludes. “I felt deflated that such homophobic attitudes still exist in the world today.”
As he moves on to Jerusalem, he discovers although the city has hosted an annual gay pride parade since 2002, the event has twice been marred by violence. In 2015, a strictly Orthodox man stabbed six people, one, a 16-year-old girl, fatally.
“What made it even worse was the attacker, Yishai Schlissel, was from a strictly Orthodox community and declared that he had been doing God’s will,” Atkins says. “I thought ‘What God would ever will that upon somebody?’ She is someone’s daughter.”
A visit to the places where the son of God is said to have been crucified and resurrected proves overwhelming. As he walks out of the church unable to speak, it’s clear his visit to Israel has posed more questions than it answers.
There’s certainly much to gain from converting to Judaism, including being allowed to marry in the eyes of God. But there are sections of the community that would never accept his lifestyle and he would have to turn his back on the core religious beliefs he has known all his life.
Are the sacrifices simply too great for Atkins to take the next step? Viewers will have to watch this compelling documentary to find out.
υ My Big Gay Jewish Conversion is available on BBC Three from Tuesday, 23 May, 10am bbc.co.uk/bbcthree