“There was a deep sense of comfort, of relief, of finally feeling like we could be ourselves.”
“I was amazed at how liberating it was to spend time with others with whom we have so much in common.”
“Being in a community that truly felt like a community for so many reasons that are absent in my day-to-day life experience in our Orthodox community.”
— Eshel Shabbaton attendees
When I was 24, I came out to my parents the day before the gay pride parade in New York City. My parents and I were closer than close, and they knew everything about me, except for this. I carried around this decade-old secret in shame, pain and confusion.
The day I unleashed my secret, I felt like I was walking a foot above ground. It was the end of hiding, a realization that I was not going to change and an indication that I had achieved some degree of self-acceptance. My friend came to pick me up the next morning, to escort me to the parade to march with 500,000 other people down Fifth Avenue, steps away from my parents’ apartment. It was one of the most freeing and jubilant days of my life.
I left the secret behind in that apartment with my parents, not intending to also leave them with their own pain, confusion, and questions. The parallels between my previous decade of hiding in shame and their decade to follow were striking. It took them about as long as it took me to feel resolved and get over the pain, shame, and confusion to a place of happiness about me.
The parallel process of LGBT children and the parents they come out to has never been as crystal clear to me as when I spent Shabbat at an Eshel weekend with forty Orthodox parents and relatives of LGBT people. Over the course of three days I realized just how much pain parents can experience when their children come out to them and how long it takes to feel comfortable with this information.
My son came out to us a year and a half ago and cannot figure out why we are not OK with this yet, reported one mother.
But there are even more commonalities between parents and their LGBT children within the Orthodox world. In the Orthodox world, being in the closet is a form of internal exile – you live in community but are completely alone; cut off from yourself, your community, your spiritual source, and friends who might be able to comfort you. If you do reveal your sexuality, you go into actual exile, sometimes needing to leave your spiritual and physical home.
The same proved to be true for this group of parents: compounding their pain about their children’s identity is the isolation it brings them within their communities. They feel unsafe sharing this new information with their communities, family members, and friends.
This retreat was a first for many of them: it was the first time they did not fear being approached by a friend asking them how their son was; was he dating anyone, all the usual questions. Whether these parents end up feeling happy and resolved as my parents did, remains to be seen. For these three days they could release the burden with each other; share the pain they feel in having an LGBT child; discuss challenges in parenting; experience together the joy of loving their children that brought them together for this weekend. Ultimately, the life-changing experience of being surrounded by people going through similar challenges provided a sense of hope, perspective, and happiness.
For more information on this retreat, read this article in “The Jewish Advocate.”