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.
In September, a family member came out to me after months of struggling with his sexual orientation. He cited the earlier version of this very blog post, which appeared on my personal blog, as a source of strength. I hope it might help others as well. – GG
He stood up on the fireplace of the room that nearly every member of our school was occupying. He began to speak. He thanked all of us for welcoming him into our community, for making him feel like he had been here his entire life. What he had to say was very sweet, but that’s not what he came to tell us. That’s not why he paused the end-of-the-year festivities.
He and I hadn’t been close until that year. For whatever reason, I never made an effort to connect with him. I figured he was just another typical out-of-towner. But when I began to write for him, when I began to give him a look inside of my head, into my beliefs, that’s when it all changed.
In the middle of the year, I wrote an article calling for the discontinued usage of gay slurs. In my article, I proposed a hypothetical situation in which a Jewish, homosexual student was forced to hide who he was for the sake of avoiding chastisement. I concluded the article by proclaiming my hope that one day, just maybe, a student at my school would have the courage to challenge the Orthodox day school status quo by coming out to the student body. At the time, this was merely a hope. To be honest, I never saw it happening. Though it’s entirely realistic, and even factual, that Orthodox day schools across the country include a large number of closeted homosexuals, I never imagined somebody I knew would have the courage to actually come out. After all, they would be jeopardizing their reputation and opening themselves up to the possibility of seclusion and rejection.
I’ll always remember the night he came out to me. I was giving him a ride home when he stopped our conversation to have one of far greater importance. He beat around the bush for a few moments, but eventually cut to the chase. When he finally squeezed out the two most revealing words, I wasn’t sure how to react. I could have delved into a deep, philosophical conversation about the causes of homosexuality. I could have done the typical song and dance, congratulating him and telling him how courageous he is. Or I could have rejected who he truly was.
But I didn’t do any of these things.
Instead, I drove around the city for two hours, asking silly question after silly question. I felt like a teenage girl. But he fielded them all. He showed me what it truly means to be comfortable with who you are. Not once did he blink, not once did he swallow his words, not once did he feel uncomfortable. He was ready to be himself around me, and that’s something I will never forget.
Our friendship went from one of exchanging the occasional pleasantries, to one of immense depth and closeness. He has become someone I regard as a best friend. He has become my backbone in many instances, offering emotional support whenever I need it. He has become an inspiration.
It was nice of him to thank us for welcoming him into the community, but that’s not what he came to tell us. He paused for a moment, all eyes on him, and somehow mustered up the courage to become who he is:
“One more thing, and I really am feeling quite happy tonight so this is why I’m telling you. I am gay. I am coming out tonight. Thank you so much.”
Being that this sort of public coming out is unprecedented in our community, I didn’t really expect the reaction that his coming out brought.
It seemed like time suspended for a moment, like everything was hanging in the balance as I awaited the reaction of the many who had not yet known his sexual orientation. I knew some would be taken aback by it, because, after all, homosexuality is still somewhat of an uncomfortable topic for many people. I even expected some to cause an uproar, to publicly rebuke his coming out as a sign of disgust.
But I didn’t expect what actually happened.
Almost everybody in the room went ballistic. We yelled, clapped, and celebrated this momentous announcement. Suddenly the diffuse group organized into a line. Students young and old lined up to hug him, to tell him congratulations, to accept him. The moment was so overwhelming that it moved me, along with many others, to tears.
I’ve always been a confident person, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’ve always been courageous. But when I met him, when he came out to me, when he imparted on me that it’s okay to be yourself, suddenly I felt like I could do anything. I began to write about the things many people didn’t want to discuss. I began to let my passion drive controversial conversations within my sometimes rigid community. I began to accept myself for who I am, and do my best to correct my flaws.
His coming out was something he and I have discussed for quite some time now. He was apprehensive about it at first, but after countless conversations in which we discussed the importance of being who you are, he was ready to do it. His coming out in such a public form was one gigantic step toward the rest of his life. He no longer had to hide. He no longer had to keep up a facade. He no longer had to try to stay content being someone he is inherently not.
He could finally be free.
The thing is, though, his coming out stretches far beyond just him. His coming out is going to impact this community, this school, so much. His coming out has pushed many to recognize the reality that is homosexuality within Judaism.
In a Jewish community that is so stagnant, this sort of monumental occurrence is going to have a vast impact on the ideological scheme of things. The topic of homosexual acceptance has always been discussed solely in hypotheticals. We’ve all had our own opinions on how to resolve religion with sexual orientation, but we’ve never actually had to translate those opinions into practice. Now that our hypothetical world has become reality, we must take a definitive stance on what is so sadly deemed an “issue.” This coming out was the first of its kind, and I hope it won’t be the last. Many community members may be up in arms, but many more will not be. And those who aren’t will be supportive, they will be accepting, and they will do their best to spread their attitude of tolerance to the other, more close minded members of the community.
This is a progressive world, folks.
He did something so notable by getting the literal ball rolling on this issue of homosexual acceptance within the Memphis Orthodox community. The hypothetical ball is no more.
When I entered high school, it was the norm to call someone a faggot or a queer. It was okay to throw around gay slurs, despite the fact that those few words could tear someone apart inside. As my years have flown by and the school’s attitude toward homosexuals has drastically shifted, the norm has become acceptance. By the start of this year, many had cut down on their gay slur usage and enhanced their tolerance, especially in a public sphere, paving a pearly path out of the closet for him. With the already growing acceptance within our school, it’s inevitable that more is to come. His announcement slapped many of my schoolmates in the face with reality. They now know someone who is homosexual. They now have a friend who is out. They now recognize that your sexual orientation doesn’t define who you are as a person.
I’m not entirely sure how his announcement will impact his relationship with various students at the school, but I genuinely hope that those students don’t change their behavior as a result of discomfort. His announcement has given us, the student body, a chance to create an atmosphere in which everyone feels safe being who they are. The overwhelming support he met after his announcement only reaffirmed my belief that this school, and perhaps this community, is headed in a new direction than in years past. To see all of my fellow classmates hug him, congratulate him, and even praise him was something I will never forget.
When it was finally my turn to congratulate him, I held him tight and told him that he was my inspiration. I told him that he was my hero. And he is. He’s taught me that, despite all of the struggles that it may bring, being yourself is the only way to live. He’s taught me how to love myself for who I am. He’s taught me that I have a voice. He’s given me a reason to become an even stronger proponent of gay rights in particular, and civil rights as a whole.
When I say that he has changed my life, I’m not simply throwing around cliche phrases that sound nice. I mean it. This year has been one of immense personal growth. I truly believe that how far I’ve come would not have been possible without his help.
An eighteen year old did something no one has ever done in this community. An eighteen year old exemplified courage to the fullest extent. He is so young, yet he’s wise enough to know that he is capable of impacting those around him for the better. I never thought I would be writing a post like this. I never thought I would see someone come out in front of my classmates. But I couldn’t be happier that this is all happening. I couldn’t be more inspired, more moved by the courage he has shown.
When I look back at the beginning of Summer 2013, I’m going to remember the graduation. I’m going to remember the overwhelming sadness that rushed over me as I listened to my best friends utter their parting words. But, above all, I’ll remember when one person changed an entire city.
There’s nothing more to say to him than thank you. We all have a reason to appreciate the person he is and the courage he possesses. We all must note that what he has done is just that – notable.
He’s set me on a path to find myself, and, with his inspiration, I feel as if I have the courage to become who I’ve always wanted to be.
“No freedom until we’re equal. Damn right I support it.”
Gabriel blogs at http://thoughtsofajewishteenager.blogspot.com, where this post originally appeared.
April 4-6, 2014: LGBTQ and Ally Teen Shabbaton:
Join us for a weekend of fun, community, and learning for and by Jewish LGBTQ and allied teens! Meet new friends, learn about LGBTQ organizing and identities, and celebrate a lakeside Shabbat with a warm, vibrant community of LGBTQ and ally teens and adults
A series by Jewish moms and dads with LGBTQ children.
When a child comes out, a coming out process begins for the entire family. In honor of Mother’s and Father’s Day, we bring you our third post in a series by parent leaders of Keshet’s Parent & Family Connection. The Connection is a confidential peer support program for parents and family members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews. We celebrate the support and love that these parents give their LGBTQ children – and the support they now offer other parents. This week’s post is by Ruth Loew, wife of a rabbi and mother of twin gay sons. You can read the previous posts in this series: one, by a mother of a queer daughter in Colorado, here, one by an Orthodox parent from Baltimore, MD, here, one by the mother of a gay son in the Philadelphia suburbs, here, and a celebration of Mother’s Day/Mothers’ Day here.
A couple of decades ago, the synagogue to which my family belongs hired a young rabbinic student, who happened to be gay, as its youth group adviser. In short order, its leadership then fired him, not because of any transgression, but merely because of who he was. The congregation’s membership turned out to be more liberal than its leaders. Shul members, appalled, rallied to the adviser’s support, and he was quickly rehired. Continue reading
A series by Jewish moms and dads with LGBTQ children.
When a child comes out, a coming out process begins for the entire family. In honor of Mother’s and Father’s Day, we bring you our third post in a series by parent leaders of Keshet’s Parent & Family Connection. The Connection is a confidential peer support program for parents and family members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews. We celebrate the support and love that these parents give their LGBTQ children – and the support they now offer other parents. This week’s post is by Carole Lukoff, mother of a gay son and a long-time Jewish professional in the suburbs of Philadelphia. You can read the previous posts in this series: one, by a mother of a queer daughter in Colorado, here, one by an Orthodox parent from Baltimore, MD, here, and a celebration of Mother’s Day/Mothers’ Day here.
When my youngest son Eric was in third grade, our local National Public Radio station asked our family to be part of a documentary entitled “Family Stories.” In short, the program, produced in the early 1990s, focused on different kinds of families and the many similarities and the not so many differences among them. Included in the mix were interracial, interfaith, same-sex and the – so to speak – traditional family (that was us). We were the quintessential Cleaver family (you know, that 1950s-style wife, husband, and two kids “Leave it to Beaver” television family). My husband and I were the Ward and June look-alikes, our oldest son Brian was a dead ringer for Wally and our youngest son Eric rivaled the happy-go-lucky Beaver… at least that’s how it seemed. Continue reading
A series by Jewish moms and dads with LGBTQ children.
When a child comes out, a coming out process begins for the entire family. In honor of Mother’s and Father’s Day, we bring you our second post in a series by parent leaders of Keshet’s Parent & Family Connection. The Connection is a confidential peer support program for parents and family members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews. We celebrate the support and love that these parents give their LGBTQ children – and the support they now offer other parents. This week’s post is by “MBSD,” an Orthodox parent from Baltimore, MD. You can read the previous post in this series, by a mother of a queer daughter in Colorado, here.
A peaceful Shabbat walk in the woods. I neared a bubbling brook, stood on a footbridge and gazed down at the streaming water, contemplating the beauty of Hashem‘s creations. I saw a wide bed of rocks of various shapes and sizes. There were boulders to the left, boulders to the right, even some in the middle. Together they formed their own community; each rock was an integral part of a whole entity that had a beautiful stream flowing through it. It was a metaphor for the ideal harmony we’d like to see in our Jewish communities. We are a people that share the same religion yet come from different backgrounds with different viewpoints. Still, we’re all connected by our love for Torah, that stream of energy that unites us. Continue reading
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbi Karen Perolman examines the Israelites’ struggles with their “coming out” experiences.
Coming-out (of the closet): To be “in the closet” means to hide one’s sexual and or gender identity. Many GBLT people are “out” in some situations and “closeted” in others.
– from Kulanu: All of Us, URJ Press 2007
As first among our days of sacred days, it recalls the coming-out (Exodus) from Egypt.
– from Erev Shabbat Kiddush.
Although the entire story of the Exodus from Egypt can be read as the Israelites’ coming-out story, the exact moment of coming-out occurs when the Israelites finally open the door to the closet and step out into what is literally new land, land that was newly exposed, and formerly under cover of water. In Exodus 14:21, God splits the Red Sea through the hand of Moses and the people walk on dry land toward redemption. Continue reading
A series by Jewish moms and dads with LGBTQ children.
When a child comes out, a coming out process begins for the entire family. In honor of Mother’s and Father’s Day, we bring you our first post in a series by parent leaders of Keshet’s Parent & Family Connection. The Connection is a confidential peer support program for parents and family members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews. We celebrate the support and love that these parents give their LGBTQ children – and the support they now offer other parents. This week’s post is by Francine Lavin Weaver, a Colorado-based educator and author, and member of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection in Colorado.
This is that time of year where we Jews anticipate, we count the days, we count the Omer, and we count our blessings. The idea of counting each day represents spiritual preparation and anticipation for the giving of the Torah which was given by God on Mount Sinai around the time of Shavuot. We actively count in our prayers each day from Passover to Shavuot – all forty-nine of them.
On another note, wearing my many hats, I am a lifelong Jewish learner, teacher and family educator. I am a daughter, a significant partner, and a mom. I learn so much from my children every day. They teach me about life, and relationships, things that I never knew how to verbalize or incorporate when I was growing up.
A few years ago, my queer adult daughter attempted to explain to me what being queer was.
She said, “Mom, I identify as a woman. But, I have had and will have relationships with all kinds of people. I fall in love with the soul of the person, Mom…that entity that makes that person special. It doesn’t matter to me in what gender the person identifies.”
She then explained that being queer is stepping out of societal norms in regards to gender and sexuality — and even politics. This was definitely a new experience for me. To me, queer was a girl in my homeroom in Junior High who wore white socks — and saddle shoes. They didn’t have child development books about this when I was in college (pursuing my chosen career of special education).
I have always used my children as my barometer. If they were happy, they were learning, and they were healthy, then I was happy. My daughter is a very sensitive, caring young adult. She is a physical therapist in a rehab hospital. She volunteers her time to help older people stay in their own homes. She is a fun-loving, passionate social activist and I love her.
What a conversation we had. What a lesson it was. It was the beginning of many more lessons for me. I began to read books, I took classes, I joined the Keshet Parent & Family Connection in Colorado. The more I learn about LGBTQ issues, the more comfortable and proud I feel.
So, now, I anticipate, count the Omer, and count my many blessings:
My queer daughter is definitely one of them.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Amy Soule explains how coming out might be our very first, and perhaps greatest, mitzvah.
Milk may have been designed as a secular movie but if you recall one of its (in)famous lines, you might also be reminded of God’s commandment to the Children of Israel before the final plague was visited on the Egyptians: “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
Exodus 12:21-23 gives our ancestors their first collective mitzvah. They are asked to slaughter a sheep and smear its blood on the lintels of their home to ensure their homes will be protected when the Angel of Death appears.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Maggid Jhos Singer sees Jacob’s flight from his family in Genesis 28 as a unique coming out experience.
Do you remember the first moment you stumbled out of the closet? I don’t mean the first moment that you privately realized you were queer (and by ‘queer’ here I mean whatever differentness you might manifest that isn’t readily apparent to a casual observer), or even when you first acted on your queer tendencies. What I’m thinking of is the first moment that you actually stood in the light of day, as it were, being totally out—just you showing up fully, unhidden, true. You know, your first Meg Christian concert or the first time you marched in an LGBT Pride Parade, the first time you wore a yarmulke/kippah out in the general public, or the first time you corrected a stranger who assumed you were something that you’re not. Thrilling, wasn’t it? Scary, but really incredible, right? I remember feeling broken open and alive in a way that was totally new, awesome, and powerful. While it feels kind of corny to admit it, it really was a spiritual experience. Continue reading
We know that this post is much longer than our usual posts. We do hope you’ll stick with it to the end – Rafi’s story is very compelling. We promise it will be worth your time!
(This talk was delivered at Bonai Shalom, Boulder, Colorado, November 2, 2012)
My name is Rafi. I am a transgender Jewish man. This means that I was born female and transitioned to male. Thanks to advances in medical science, this is not something that you can see when you look at me. I’m an appropriate height for a (Jewish) male, I have lots of facial hair and other fur, my voice has deepened to the level of a higher-pitched male. For the most part, I “pass” as a dude.
When I was a little girl growing up in Colorado, I felt there was something different about me. I yearned with all of my heart to be a boy. I wasn’t particularly masculine as a child. Although I did love going fishing and “fixing things” with my father, my favorite colors were pink and purple, I played with baby dolls almost exclusively, I loved drawing and coloring, and playing make-believe games with friends. But at night, when I was about to go to sleep, I would pray, “Dear G-d, please make me a boy,” and was disappointed when I awoke and was still very much a girl. Continue reading