Monday, March 21, 2011

Marriage: Secular, Religious & Fraudulent.

A few weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder, in a letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner, announced that the Department of Justice would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. Holder, in the name of the Obama administration, determined that §3 of DOMA (defining marriage—for federal purposes—as between a man and a woman) violates the 5th Amendment (guaranteeing citizens equal status in the eyes of the law). He continued to explain that, because of the nature of the group affected—gays—the law needed to be reviewed with “heightened scrutiny.” On this standard of review, there needs to be an important government interest being furthered by this law. Holder stated that, because the administration deemed there to be no such interest, the Department of Justice would no longer defend the law in court (though the other departments of the executive branch will continue to enforce the act).
What are the actual effects of this decision? One friend of mine, an attorney, found this to be the most powerful progression towards gay rights that we’ve seen so far. I don’t really see that. This certainly sends a strong message to the legislature, Supreme Court and American people that Obama wants to see DOMA repealed. But Congress will go on to defend the act and the pending cases will hopefully find their way to the Supreme Court. This is progress, and will hopefully have some influence on courts’ decisions, but doesn’t really do too much for us right now. Basically, I’m still planning of moving to a state where gay marriage is legal.
The right to marry is very important to me. Though I did not always feel this way, I cannot imagine a future without a husband, someone with whom I will build a life and a family. DOMA was passed with the intent of promoting the religious idea that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. As a secular law, I expect this to be changed. That being said, I do not expect a change in Halacha to permit gay marriage, only secular marriage.
A few months ago, I attended a panel discussion regarding the respective attitudes of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism towards gay marriage. The divisions were pretty clear: the Orthodox rabbi saw no room for such a union within society; the Conservative rabbi was more open, expressing willingness to marry two Jews regardless of their sex; the Reform rabbi was willing to marry anyone, including intermarriages. I respect each of these opinions as they each correspond to the respective sect’s interpretation of the Torah. I agree with the Orthodox stance that, from a religious point of view, marriage is defined as between a man and a woman. Specifically, between a heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman. However, the religious attitude should not encroach on my right to marry as a citizen in a secular state. I also disagree with the contention that, because this is the theological definition of marriage, homosexual men and women should be forced into unions that meet this definition. If you are reading this blog, you have probably seen a number of other authors discussing the same point recently.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently published an article about an attempt by some right-wing Israelis to wed gay men to lesbian women so that the couples would be able to procreate (through medical intervention) and lead “normal” lives. Some of the couples married through this initiative are divorcing one another. One of the “successes” described their relationship as platonic, compared it to a business relationship and said they chose this path because of their commitment not to violate Halachic prohibitions of gay sex and their desire to raise children.
The rabbi spearheading this movement recognizes that some of the individuals he marries do slip up and have relations with members of the same sex. He doesn’t, however, “see this as a betrayal. Generally, it's between them and their Creator." He is also quoted as saying that “a family isn't just sex and love. It's an instrumental partnership, though not just a technical one."
As a young man to whom a similar route was suggested, I am shocked and disturbed that there is now an organized front enabling these unions.  What I see when I read articles like this is a misconception that I had emphasized before: automatically correlating a same-sex relationship with a sin. This is not always the case. Moreover, we are willing to recognize that the act of one who transgresses Halacha is “between them and their Creator.”  I respect and condone the religious desire to help one shy away from sinning, which, I believe, is the intent of this rabbi. I disagree with his chosen approach. First of all, the individuals “slip up.” He recognizes this. Second of all, in his zealous attempt to purge society of one sin, he is filling it with another. Midvar Sheker Tirchak- Stay away from false words. These marriages are lies and promote a culture of dishonesty. Marriages such as these send a message to gay men and women around the world that the only way to live a religious life is to deny their true emotions enter in a heterosexual marriage. This is the very same course of action the rabbis and lay leaders around the US and the world decried in the Statement of Principles last year (¶12).
Furthermore, same-sex relationships are now capable of meeting the “instrumentality” aspect of a marriage.  The view that marriages are only recognizable if they can satisfy the requirement of procreation no longer preempts same sex unions. Thanks to technology, adoption and the foster care system, there is a growing number of religious same sex Jews who are raising children together. While these sham marriages are capable of producing children, they are lacking in the sex and love elements of a union and fail to meet the standard of marriage proposed by their advocates.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Esther: Queen of the Masquerade

The story and miracle of Purim focus on Esther’s ability to keep her Jewish identity secret. As the niece of one of Jewry’s most respected leaders this cannot have been a simple task. Her identity was surely known to many, yet no one exposed Esther as a Jew. The Talmud (Megilla, Daf 13a) tells us that Achashverosh sent gifts across his empire in the hopes of discovering her origins. Those who knew of Esther’s identity must have, on some level, appreciated the significance of her decision to keep it a secret. And Esther, surrounded by all the luxuries of the known world, lived in the fear of exposure.
She bid her time and, when the moment was right, approached Achashverosh with the truth, saving Jews across the Persian Empire from certain death.
Gay frum Jews are not something new. What is new is that now, in the 21st century, we are beginning to make others aware of our existence. Most recently, a young woman at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women wrote about her experiences in the closet (the entire article can be found here). Though YU has, over the past couple of years, served as an outlet for discussing homosexuality within Orthodox Jewry, this was the first time a lesbian spoke out. Her contribution is important because, by bringing the often overlook existence of lesbian frum Jews to the limelight and expanding the dialogue to reveal yet another layer of truth, her article offers more validity to our struggle.
I often find myself wondering “Why now? What is it about this point in Jewish history that makes this the right time for us to awaken Judaism to our existence?” Obviously, we gay frum Jews can only come out now because of the social progress made across the western world. Still, I think there must be both a purpose and a lesson to be learnt by Jews around the world in the fact that we are coming out. The veil Esther kept over her identity allowed her to save the Jews, what reason can G-d have for allowing all of this to transpire now?
I acknowledge that we can never truly know G-d’s master plan, but is there harm I curiosity?
I have some thoughts, but I would like to  challenge my readers to contemplate this question.

On a side note, I think this is the perfect opportunity to reiterate a point I have made in the past: If you are gay and struggling with that fact, revealing your true identity—coming out of the closet—should only be done when you are ready. Do not let people pressure you into making a rushed decision. This doesn’t mean postpone it forever, I don’t think that decision would be mentally sound, but take the steps necessary at your own speed.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Can I swab your cheek?"

The past few weeks have provided me with ample material on which to opine. I am going to reserve the conversation on the Obama administration’s decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) as well as the recent article by a lesbian at Stern for a later date.
Those readers affiliated with a Jewish organization will, I am sure, have at times come across a booth asking them for a donation for something that is seemingly odd: their saliva. “Gift of Life” is an organization that, in partnership with the National Bone Marrow Registry in the United States, seeks to catalogue the DNA of individuals across the country. This is done so that, when someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness and in need of a bone marrow transplant, a simple computer search can be conducted to find a genetic match. Through my various roles as a Jewish activist I have asked perhaps hundreds of people to swab their cheeks for this cause.
I myself have never been swabbed.
What possible reason could I have for abstaining from partaking? The reason is simple: while I can easily swab my cheek and add my DNA to the database, there is a good chance that I would not be able to donate my marrow—in fact that it would be rejected—if it was needed. Let me share a story to provide some background.
As a college freshman, I eagerly spent my first Halloween in the secular world waiting in line . . . to donate my blood to the American Red Cross. Upon entered the donor waiting area I was given a medical history form to complete and a sheet with a list of candidates whose donation would be excluded. On the list of rejected donors, amongst drug users and “working girls,” was any male who has had sex with another male since 1977. I spoke with the administrators at the site and they determined that I could not donate blood. My social security no. was entered into the database of prohibited donors. I was warned that, should I try and enter a donation site and enter my personal information, I will be removed from the premises. Not a good experience. Side note: I am NOT conceding to having violated Halacha. I vehemently deny that allegation.
The Food & Drug Administration (“FDA”) and the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) regulate blood and organ donation. To be frank, gay men are excluded from donating. This exclusion stems from the HIV/AIDS epidemic that first took the world by storm in the late 70s and early 80s. The fear of this disease has, rightfully so, altered health policies around the world. While the FDA, as far as I am aware, does not permit the donation of blood from any male meeting these criteria since 1977, the CDC’s regulation are slightly looser. The CDC prohibits donations from men who have had sex with men within 5 years of donating an organ. However, in life threatening situations when there are no other viable options, the donee may be made aware of the risks that would accompany the donation and select whether to accept the organ and the risks to which they may be exposed .
I have not swabbed my cheek because there might come a time when I will be a match and I will be forced to label myself as “high-risk” of transmitting HIV to an individual. I will either be rejected outright or an ill individual and his/her family will be forced to scrutinize me and decided if they want to risk accepting an infection that I would, G-d willing, not even have.  Side note: Donors are often anonymous, but I assume that, at the very least, the donee would be given my history and basic information to assist them in evaluating the risks.
The policies requiring this disclosure, while based in an understandable fear, are ill formed. The promiscuous stereotype applied to gay men, the foundation of these rules, may have some basis in fact, but it is no more true than the rampant promiscuity and exposure to HIV and other STDs that exists in the general heterosexual  community. Among the most common carriers of HIV/AIDS are black women. I am not advocating for their inclusion onto this list. I concede that some of the activities undertaken on the list do represent unwise choices that, if persistent, create a higher risk for disease. However, in this day and age, when an HIV test takes less than 20 minutes to process and is considered fool proof (granted, the testee must not have engaged in any of these activities within 3 months prior to the test), the continued enforcement of these regulations is ludicrous.
Were the policy to be altered so that blood samples/tests determined the risk of a donor’s exposure to HIV on an individual basis that disregards stereotypes, I would register with “Gift of Life.” Until that day comes, I refuse to place a family in the position of deciding whether to save a loved one’s life while “exposing” them to HIV. And I refuse to face rejection of my marrow (or other bodily organ) because of an outdated policy that promotes the view of my body as one large vial of disease.