Friday, November 23, 2012


The post below first appeared in Tribe Magazine on Nov. 22, 2012.  I am neither the author nor do I know his identity. 

Growing Up Gay in an Orthodox World: My Final Game of Tag

When I was in the sixth grade, I would count the minutes every morning until recess. I was pretty athletic, though I wasn’t into most organized sports. But I loved playing tag. It was simple: all you had to do was be faster than the slowest runner. If you could outrun the weakest player you wouldn’t lose, and if you didn’t lose you won. But I never really felt like a winner.
I remember there was this one boy who always wanted to play. Shlomo (this wasn’t his real name) was thin and lanky, and not exactly popular. He was obsessed with Britney Spears, and liked to sing and dance to pop songs. Most of the other kids in my class didn’t like to play with him, but when they did they would make sure to keep him tagged “it” for almost the entire game. They battered him with insults, shouting at him and calling him “homo” and “faggot,” and sometimes they even got violent. It was hard to tell who was really chasing whom. At the time, I didn’t understand what it was about Shlomo that made others so angry. I felt terrible about the way most of my classmates were treating him, inside and outside the classroom. And yet I did nothing.
Almost a decade later, I found myself in a position similar to his, only the playground was bigger. At the end of my freshman year of college, I came out to my parents. It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. At the time, there was nothing more humiliating to me than admitting I was gay. So when my father asked me, I panicked. I could not bring myself to utter those three letters, but I thought that if I lied again I would only be dragging out the inevitable. Then I realized that a few seconds had already gone by. I was silently answering the question I had been debating with myself every day since the fourth grade. There was no going back. I thought my life was over.
As it turned out, my parents were far more understanding than I ever could have expected. But they could never really understand my experience. They would never know what it was like to believe as a child that at some point in my life the ones I loved most would not want me anymore. That all my fears would be realized, and all my dreams would be dashed.
When I first arrived at yeshiva in Israel two summers before I started college, I was optimistic. I thought that I had been given a chance to fix myself. I thought that if I could just stick it out and make myself into the person I wanted to be, everything would be fine. But that’s not how things turned out. It seemed like everywhere I turned my friends would be talking about girls. Girls they knew, girls they saw in movies and on TV, girls they had been with, and girls they wanted to get with. And every time I sat silently. Eventually, people began to notice. They prodded me about whether I liked this girl or that. Being a terrible liar, my answers were always obviously forced. I fooled a few, but not everyone.
Then they started asking me whether I was gay. I tried wiggling out of answering, and often found myself saying, “If I were gay, I’d lie to you anyway.” Wasn’t I clever? But one time there was this huge third-year who replied, “So you’re not gay? Good. Because I’d kill a gay person if I had the chance.” He explained that the Torah had told him to. That was my dorm counselor. He was considered a masmid.
I was always a good student, I followed the rules, and I like to think I was a good friend. But at the time, none of this seemed like enough for anyone. I had to be more than all that. I had to be more than I could be. I don’t know whether I can fully express in words what it is like to realize that no matter how hard you try you can’t change. To be constantly worried that someone will eventually figure you out. To be told, and to believe, that you are an abomination. I can’t tell you how badly it hurt for me to learn that perhaps the greatest halachic authority of recent times had written in eternal words that I was the way I was because I wanted to rebel against God.
My sexuality is a drop of who I am, but it’s a drop that paints the way I interact with the people in my life, both guys and girls. It has helped determine so many of the decisions I have made and so many of the conclusions about life I have drawn that I can’t think of a single one unrelated, in some way or another, to my being gay. My experiences dealing with bigotry from rabbis, neighbors, and “friends” have helped mold me into the person I am today. If I weren’t gay, I am sure I would be an entirely different person.
Still, being gay in the frum community is difficult and has led me to reconsider my past beliefs and my feelings toward my community. There are many, several of my rabbis from shul and yeshiva included, who continue to propagate lies about gay people being mentally ill, being sinful, being a source of societal corruption, and even being the cause of recent natural disasters. I have heard my own neighbors say that they would not marry their children into a family with a gay member. Among my peers, it’s been joke of the day for as long as I can remember to call anyone and anything that is annoying, gay. But it just isn’t funny when you consider that by law I could get fired in most states just for being gay, regardless of how I lead my life. It isn’t funny when you learn that forty percent of homeless youth in New York City are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), and that in parts of the world people are still being hanged by their governments for being gay.
I’m a regular guy who wants the same things in life that everyone else wants. I want to build a family, I want job security, I want to be treated equally, and I want to be valued not for whom I love but for how much I love. And I hope that by coming out to my closest friends and family, and by telling a bit of my story to you fellow friends, classmates, and Jews, I have begun to help turn the tables. With every day I am more proud to tell people who I really am. I am done running.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day: Religion, Politics, and Sexuality.

Like shepherds leading flocks, religious leaders attempt to regulate the practices of their believers.  It is understandable that the men and women herding the faithful would want their constituents to follow a path of spiritual propriety.  I cannot extend the same understanding to religious attempts to affect the secular rights of adherents of other religions.  Specifically in the context of Judaism, we believe that G-d bequeathed the Torah solely to the Jewish people.  Though our sages mention and discuss the Sheva Mitvot B’Nei Noach – the Seven Noahide Laws that, we believe, all gentiles must follow—never once are we commanded to meddle in political affairs or exert rabbinic influence to sway non-Jews from violating either the Torah or the Sheva Mitvot B’Nei Noach. 

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, one Jewish man decided to blame the devastation on New York’s recognition of same-sex marriage.  Audio available here.  Two aspects of this rabbi’s statements are flawed at their core, one of which approaches blasphemy.  First, he claims that “the great flood in the time of Noach occurred  . . . was triggered by the recognition of same gender marriages.”  The sages list a number of reasons why G-d caused the biblical flood.  While “sexual immorality” often appears on this list, most agree this references bestiality and not homosexuality.  Setting this point aside for the moment, this rabbi claimed that the heavy flooding in New York City represented a localized version of the biblical flood because of New York’s recognition of same-sex marriage.  It appears that this man’s theological education lacks one of the central precepts of Judaism: The inability for man to divine the will of G-d without prophecy.  Unless he claims to be a prophet—and Orthodox Judaism believes that no prophets exist in the current era—his claim lacks any validity.  Certainly, we can see this disaster as a message from heaven to “clean up our acts,” but to claim that a single lesson must be learned is unsupportable.  Addressing the substance of the statement more narrowly, he appears to have forgotten that: a) Sandy affected far more than just New York City.  The resulting devastation impacted many states and many Jews and gentiles in those states; b) Same-sex marriage is legal all over New York State, yet only one corner of the state suffered from the flooding; c) eight other legal jurisdictions (five states, D.C., and two American Indian tribes) allow same-sex marriage . . . and they were hardly touched by Sandy. 

Unfortunately, he isn’t the only Jewish voice to try and inject religious conservatism into secular politics this election year.  A friend recently drew my attention to the religious banter surrounding Question 6—the Maryland state referendum that could extend the right to marry to same-sex couples—in Baltimore.  I found this article informative.  Admittedly, I do not view religious support for gay rights the exact same way I do those opposing these rights.  I think its normal that I have a bias towards Jewish support for the LGBT community.  But the issue is so much bigger: Should Judaism allow pulpit figures to try and influence the votes of their constituents?  Though America’s founding fathers relied on faith when they established our country, the nation has since tried to stem the power of religion over politics and government.  With so much diversity, it would be unfair to impose any one set of religious beliefs on the entire nation.   Various factors socialize the way people vote.  Upbringing, economic status, racial interactions, religion . . . these are but a few of the subconscious voter influences. Obviously, to silence these often subconscious voting cues would be impossible.  Peoples’ voting preference will always be based on their religious upbringing—it serves as a moral compass and guides people towards understandings of reality and their surroundings.  But when religious leaders use the pulpit as a platform to direct the votes of their followers they commit two cardinal wrongs: 1) they provide the false impression that religion, whichever one  they affiliate with, demands a specific vote from its followers; and 2) they  attempt to allow their interpretation of religious doctrine to affect the political rights of millions of people  who subscribe to different ideologies.  Granted, there are times when, to preserve religious rights, leaders should ask their followers to vote one way or another.  That situation is different from the one at hand because same-sex marriage does not diminish the political rights of religions, it only broadens the rights of people who identify differently. 

I won’t tell you who to vote for, I won’t tell you who I’m voting for.  I will recommend that, in voting, you exercise independent thought and consider whether and how an issue affects you and the other people in your state and country. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Around the table

I met the gaze of each the six men and women staring at me.  I carefully considered what I would say next.  And then, for what now seems like the umpteenth time, I jumped off that proverbial cliff.

A friend I hadn’t seen since the summer invited me for Simchat Torah dinner.  Eager to see her, I accepted and spent the days prior to the holiday looking forward to what promised to be an enjoyable evening.  Naturally, the large table of slightly over a dozen young professionals split into two conversations.  Immediately I hit it off with the people on my end.  We were all loud, opinionated, and eager to poke fun at new acquaintances.  The perfect meal.  By night’s end I, like many of the others gathered, still hadn’t caught the names of those on the other end of the table.   An icebreaker ensued.  The prompt: sharing your high school nickname.  I was one of the last people to share and seemed to disappoint the people gathered.  I didn’t have a nickname.  I dropped out before I underwent that rite of passage.  Interests piqued, the people closest to me with whom I’d been speaking the entire evening wanted to know why I dropped out.  I wasn’t eager to get into the struggles of my youth, my depression, and learning to come to terms with my sexuality, so I tried to downplay any interest.  The conversation restarted but soon the spotlight once again fell upon me.  People really wanted to know why I didn’t finish high school the normal way.  I guess they sensed a story. 
If you’ve read my blog consistently over the past two+ years you know that, though far from closeted, I don’t believe in placing my private life and my sexuality on display for the world to see.  Perhaps its rooted in tznious, perhaps I’m still afraid of having to deal with bigots in otherwise docile settings, or perhaps I just don’t think its anyone’s business but my own.  Maybe its all three.  Anyway, on this occasion I decided to just go for it, again, and briefly cover all the bases that led to my dropping out.  Necessarily, this focused on my sexuality.  I think people were . . . shocked, fascinated, intrigued, compassionate, and sympathetic.   And then, when I finished the speedy version of my life, the questions started.  None based on ill will, and none stupid, but still, this was not one of the topics of conversation I considered upon entering the meal. 
Coming out is always both annoying and terrifying.  I don’t know how people are going to react and, frankly, I find the experience bothersome (after all, heterosexuals don’t need to announce their sexuality to the world, why should I?).  So why did I do it? Why did I give in to the peer pressure and share my story?  There was one major reason.  Over the past few months I noticed a shift in the gay demographic within my community.  Specifically, the more vocal and visible gay men moved elsewhere.  Though there are new members of the kehilah, young blood so to speak,  my limited interactions with these men and women leave me doubtful that they would do a good job expressing the needs facing the larger gay frum community.  Let me be clear, I do not want to fill anyone’s shoes and take on a public role.  I’m content with my privacy and don’t want to change that.  But, and perhaps this is me being conceited, I think I will at times have to be the local individual to vocalize those needs and work on causing change on a slow but steady basis.  I guess I saw last night as the first of what will probably be too many question and answer sessions on this topic.  I just hope I’m up to the task and that I can accomplish it without infringing on my privacy too much.  

*minor spelling edit, 10/10/12

Sunday, September 9, 2012


I abstained from writing for the past few months because I could not find the words to describe the emotions and thoughts running through my heart and head.  I think I finally possess the perspective necessary to share. 
Tuesday marks an anniversary of sorts. For the American people this day will serve as a reminder of our precarious position in the world as a force for good facing incomprehensible evil.  Personally, September 11th has an entirely different meaning: it marks the day I officially came out.  This Tuesday marks my 7th coming out anniversary.  I approach this date differently each year. This year I find myself frustrated, confused, uncertain, and downright scared.  These are the emotions that prevented me from writing for the past quarter of a year. 
This turmoil resulted from a series of compliments.   A few people called me some synonym of courageous for speaking in public on the topic of the LGBT in the greater Jewish community.  Another few people remarked on my “unique” position in life.  Though not a single one of these people intended to do so, these comments coupled with a realization that many of my frum colleagues have been diminishing their religious practice left me feeling very alone and very lonely. 
I will never not be frum.  That sounds like a bold statement, but it’s not.  You see, for me being frum is not a choice, just like being gay is not a choice.  Both are essential components of my self that I cannot alter.   Truthfully, if being frum was a choice I would likely not choose to continue. I cannot fault the men and women who leave the frum world because of the inherent conflict in being gay and observant. 
I also feel as if I spent the months butting my head against a wall.  For the longest time I couldn’t figure out what that wall was.  At first I thought it represented that orthodox community.  But the slow and steady progress in the community – much of which occurs far from the public eye – is amazing and heartwarming.  I finally realized that my frustration ran deeper.  My association with Judaism, the root of my connection to this faith and community, rests in my parents’ home.   I only became strong because they taught me to be so.  I am unchangeably frum because they showed me many variations of this world and I learned that this one is the right one for me.  But my parents fail to provide me with the support I need as I move forward with my life. 
My dear father, in his kindness and genius, fails to appreciate the emotional turmoil I often encounter. For him, this should be a non-issue, I am who I am and there should be no need for discussion.  My mother . . . I think she is still confused, scared, and ashamed.  With the bedrock of my community not present in the way I need it to be, it’s no wonder I feel frustrated with my community.  This also brings up a pang of jealousy, envy of the men I know whose parents adopted a rally cry of love, compassion, and, as I perceive it, openness for their gay children.  Yes, I am aware that I have been blessed because my parents’ reaction could have been far worse, but there is definite room for growth. 
Juxtaposing this with my single status has amplified all the angst because I haven’t felt the intimacy that I would like to express all this in private.   I also miss the love and affection of a man, delicacies that I have not tasted for quite some time.  I have even begun considering whether I should alter my rule against dating non-frum men, or at the very least open myself up to formerly frum men.
As you can see, I’ve been a bit of an emotional mess recently.  I do want you to know that this hasn’t consumed me as much as this post might make it appear.  Attempting to condense three months into one blog post  probably exaggerates some of my predicament.  My life beyond my sexuality, so professionally, academically, and (non-romantic) socially, has seen many positives.  Those are the factors in my life, friends and challenges beyond my personal life, that allow me to persevere.   I simply pray that G-d will grant me the ability to understand what He has in store for me and when these moving pieces will settle down. 
Shana Tova,
Benjy L. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Pulpits Consumed in Flames.

We gays confront bigotry on a daily basis.  We gays start new jobs with trepidation, unsure of how and when to come out.  We gays don’t hit on guys unless certain that he “swings” the same way, because hitting on the wrong straight guy can send you to the hospital.  No matter how liberal our city, we gays retain some aspect of fear that the people with whom we interact have fallen prey to the angry, hateful message propagated by individuals who claim G-d as theirs and theirs alone.
We gays suffer from the same flawed, limited world view that judges and hates.  We gays are no better than our adversaries.
If you are reading this blog you are probably aware that a cultural battle over the place of gays in society rages in America.  While I, and the majority of my gay peers and our allies, speak the language of equality and advocate the removal of secular law from within the tentacles of religion, the right leaning, conservative, Judeo-Christian caucus more often than not labels us as sinners and condemns us to Hell.  Two groups of people waging a rhetorical war, each adamantly believing in their cause and neither willing to budge an inch.  This conflict is steeped in hate that pollutes both parties and detracts from the validity of both arguments.  We frequently see this exemplified by those on the religious side.  Consider, by way of example, the recent viral Youtube video depicting two young boys singing “ain’t no homos gonna make it to heaven” in church while standing before a cheering crowd of worshipers.  (  Watching it made me sick to my stomach.  But, I am ashamed to say, we gays do not always take the high road.  Recently (not as recently as I’d like but I haven’t had time to write), at a speech to a group of young adult journalist-wannabes, Dan Savage took a few minutes to preach his message that young Americans should overcome the “bullshit” of the Bible.  (  If you watch the video you will note that dozens of attendees left the hall, offended by the hateful message Savage spewed.  Nothing suggests that they left because Dan Savage is gay and his presence offended them.  Nothing in their actions connotes homophobia.  They responded to Savage’s theophobia--his intolerance for the religious beliefs of others.  I won’t go into the ways Savage misrepresented both the Jewish and Christian understandings of the Bible.  I’m sure many individuals better versed in the intricacies of this subject have written extensively on the topic and I would fail to do it justice. 
I firmly believe that fighting fire with fire, wielding a tongue barbed with intolerance because someone attacked you with a comparable weapon, leaves no one uninjured and results in absolutely no progress.  As the saying goes, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”  I understand both sides of this feud.  After all, at the end of the day being both religious and gay means I stand with one foot in each camp.  G-d, as I understand “Him”, loathes hate.  He created the emotion for the rare occasion where nothing else would suffice.  The one place I recall hate being condoned is with the relationship between the Jews and Amalek.  Love.   Pity.   Compassion.  These are the tools we should use to counsel people and make them understand our perspectives. 
To the faithful believer who cannot fathom a world where homosexuality is morally acceptable, don’t challenge me with fire and brimstone.  Don’t claim a superior  connection to a god neither of us has yet encountered.  Tell me about everything included in the Bible.  Preach to me with love, embrace me as your brother, and, if you must, pity me because you think I have gone astray (thought I would never concede that final point).
To my gay peers, I understand the pain and anger felt when someone bashes you for being true to yourself.  But be warned, you will never succeed in changing their minds and winning support by digging your heels in and responding with a bull-headed argument that religion, or that understanding of religion, is out of vogue.   Rather, paint a fuller picture.  Use the colors of the rainbow you so proudly display to prove that you are not limited by your sexuality and that you are a complete person.  It warms my heart to know that I am not alone in this belief system.  ( 
Accept your disagreement and fight in the courts to determine the future of the country, but don’t hate.   There’s no need.   You will accomplish nothing by adding more strife and bitterness to the world.