Ami wrote this right before he left for college this fall. He bravely chronicled coming out at his Orthodox high school while still a student. He was recently chosen as a “young visionary” of the Jewish community by The New York Jewish Week. You can follow Ami @thesubwaypoet.
A Kavanah for College
Shushan Purim — the day after the Purim that Jews outside of Jerusalem celebrate — is the day that I came out of the closet to my closest friends. I was barely 16 years old, and came out not knowing a single other LGBT person, let alone another LGBT Jew. The irony of coming out of the closet on Purim was lost on me until recently.
Coincidence though it might have been, on a holiday we celebrate by dressing up and hiding who we really are, I chose to share my deepest secret with my best friends. In doing so, I embarked on a journey that changed the way I would view both myself and the path my life would take.
For many, coming out of the closet was a way to escape from religion — some were chased away, others left voluntarily. Coming out in high school, however, was the exact opposite for me. Instead of distancing me from religion, it changed how I approached my Judaism. Ultimately, it brought me closer.
I grew up in a very religiously right-wing community in southern Brooklyn. I was the only one of my peers to attend a coeducational high school, and one of a few to be attending college in the fall. I felt alienated even before I realized I was gay and came out of the closet. Coming out, for me, only served to reinforce the divide that I felt between myself and my community. That gap became so wide that my family eventually felt forced to leave the community, and lost contact with all but a few people from the neighborhood that I considered my hometown.
I came into high school expecting mostly to pass through without being noticed. I wanted to be lower on the radar than I was in middle school, where I was bullied for being effeminate and un-athletic, and for living in a neighborhood farther away from everyone else. I didn’t want to “find myself” — whatever that meant.
Instead, I did. In coming out of the closet, I found my way back to religion, I found a community, and I found my passion. High school, for me, was as much about academics as it was about incidentally finding a group of friends who were accepting enough for me to open up to them about the secret that I had sworn I would never reveal to anyone, and who would encourage me to seek out — or create — opportunities to make a change in my high school. When the door to one community shut me out completely, the window to another community opened. It was these friends, and this community that I sought out and ultimately found that would redefine the way I would approach religion and my identity as a gay, Jewish teen.
When I came out, I did so to virtual silence. I was one of a handful of students to have come out while still a student at my school. Few people I came out to had ever met a queer teen before, and fewer still had met one who was out in an Orthodox Jewish day school like mine. (To be fair, though, when I was coming out to these friends, I hadn’t met a single other openly LGBT Jewish teen attending a Jewish day school, either.) It was this silence that prompted me to cultivate a community inside my school of people who cared about the LGBT community, and seek a community outside of school that would allow me to synthesize my gay and Jewish identities.
In school, my friend and I co-founded the Sexuality, Identity, and Society Club, which helped me find people who were passionate about discussing issues that were often pushed to the side, and also helped put the same ideas into the minds of the rest of the student body: now, others were beginning to think of the same issues that I had to face when I was coming out of the closet. Outside of school, I became connected with Keshet and Eshel, where I met other queer Jewish teens (through the former, at their shabbatonim), and queer Orthodox Jews (through the latter, at their retreats and through their Speakers’ Bureau training). For the first time in my life, I felt as if I no longer had to hide an integral part of who I was. I was a gay, Orthodox, Jewish teen. And for the first time, something felt right.
As I look forward to college, I realize that my opportunities were somewhat limited. I was only able to go so far in high school. College — and especially the program I will be attending — will allow me to study my Judaism not only from an academic perspective, but from an experiential perspective as well. There, I will be able to study the Jewish community’s history and philosophy, which will give me the background I need to create a lasting change in the Jewish community.
High school was a time for me to help myself find the resources that I need. Now, I have those same resources at my disposal, and more. In college, I hope to begin creating resources for queer, Orthodox teens that can be much more readily available than just one club at one school, and to find ways to reach out to communities that might be more isolated than my high school. I hope that college will be a time when I lay the groundwork for work that will help others come after me, so that no other queer Jewish teen will ever have to feel the alienation that I once felt as a quiet, closeted Jewish teen in southern Brooklyn.
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.