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.