Senior Year: APs, College Prep, and Coming Out in My Orthodox High School

Amram Altzman and Rachel Leah, co-founders of the Sexuality, Identity, and Society Club at Ramaz High School in New York City, at the LGBTQ Teen Youth Shabbaton, August 2012

Amram Altzman and Rachel Leah, co-founders of the Sexuality, Identity, and Society Club at Ramaz High School in New York City, at the LGBTQ Teen Youth Shabbaton, August 2012

When I tell my friends who are not Orthodox that I’m out of the closet and attending a Modern Orthodox high school, many of them do a double take. Why would I subject myself to that, they ask. One even asked why I hadn’t left and fled to the comforts of public school. Why would I choose to stay in a community where, my friends thought, I wasn’t accepted?

Those were the very same questions that I asked myself when I first realized that being openly gay was something that I wanted to do. To be fair, though, it wasn’t quite a realization that I wanted to be completely out, but rather, something that happened almost accidentally and that I realized ex post facto. I knew that my closest friends, the ones whom I had come out to first, wouldn’t have a problem with my being gay, nor would they out me to anyone with the intent to hurt me. I knew that the friends whom I had told at first had other friends who were LGBT, and who could — and would — be supportive of me as I proceeded to come out to my parents and more friends.

I had known that these friends would be there for me, but as I started coming out to people with whom I wasn’t particularly close, I headed into uncharted territory: outside of my circle of friends. How would I know that they wouldn’t run off, screaming at the top of their lungs? How could I know that my telling them that I am gay wouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable? After all, going to a Modern Orthodox school where I was the second student in the history of the school to have been out of the closet, there was little to no precedent for how people would respond. (The other out student graduated before my grade even entered high school.) For many people, I would learn later, I was the first out person they met.

When I first realized that I was coming out to more and more people, and the secret that I had fought so hard to keep private was slowly becoming public knowledge amongst a student body famous for not being able to keep secrets, I began asking myself those same questions that my friends outside of school had been asking me. In a Modern Orthodox day school, acceptance of the LGBT community is not something discussed seriously within the student body; since there were no out students, there was never really a need to discuss anything about the LGBT community. As such, when I first started coming out, I didn’t know where or how to find the acceptance amongst my not-so-close friends, which I eventually did find. The idea of having a friend, a classmate, who was gay had genuinely never crossed their minds. For the average student in my school, this wasn’t an issue that mattered to them. In the dual-curriculum, hyper-competitive environment that my school is famous for, there are far more pressing issues than a student who comes out of the closet — there are test scores, papers, APs, trips, after-school clubs, and commutes.

Thus, when I first became more and more openly gay, as well as more vocal about the LGBT community, I was surprised by the support or the nonchalant nature of many of the responses I received. While the Orthodox movement as a whole has yet to embrace the LGBT community, that hasn’t stopped individuals from being accepting of me as an individual. It was then that I realized that there is acceptance within my school — I just had to find it and cultivate it. I cultivated it through impromptu conversations with classmates in the hallways and through a discussion group that a friend and I co-founded that was designed to facilitate conversation about sexuality (including the LGBT community) within the student body.

I think the idea that there is no acceptance of the LGBT community at all within the Orthodox movement is an exaggeration. Yes, the Orthodox movement as a whole has yet to officially accept the LGBT community (whereas other denominations have already), but the lack of official acceptance doesn’t stop people from being accepting as individuals. When I came out to my classmates and even teachers, I found acceptance from individuals, independent of the Statement of Principles or the Torah Declaration. The key, though, is finding that acceptance within the movement.

As the end of the summer approaches, I’ve slowly come to appreciate the ways that I have grown and changed as a person since the start of the last school year in September. I’ve started cultivating that acceptance within my school, be it through facilitating discussions or just being out of the closet and present as a student who is both active within the school community and openly gay, and letting people know that not only does the LGBT community exist, but a fellow classmate is also LGBT. And while all this nostalgia about how I’ve been able to come out of the closet and find acceptance not only within closer group of friends, but the rest of my classmates, is great, I still have one more year of high school left — one more year to make that final difference, to find that acceptance. Now, as a student who is out to virtually all of his classmates, I’m in a very different position than I was last year, or even just a few months ago when summer began. I’ve started connecting with other people and finding the tools I need to build acceptance within the traditional Jewish community.

For the first (and also the last) time, I’ll be returning to school as someone who isn’t necessarily scared of being found out, and I can use that to my advantage. As opposed to finding that support from coming out to people, I can begin to find that support by being out and openly advocating for the LGBT community within the student body. In some ways, I want to take this acceptance to the next level: I want to further develop the acceptance that I found from individuals, from my classmates and friends, and end my career as a high school student by leaving a legacy of tolerance and acceptance within the student body. While I might not have found acceptance from a movement, I’ve found acceptance from individuals who manage to accept me as a person. In many ways, though, the acceptance by individuals is more important to me than acceptance from a denomination, and I’m happy to have achieved even just that. I can only hope that, eventually, it will lead to acceptance from the movement as a whole.

Posted on September 5, 2012

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