“Why are you doing this?”
I hear this question frequently when people learn that I write to help parents understand how LGBTQ issues affect their teens’ lives. I am not a professor of gender studies or a lesbian celebrity. I am a middle-aged happily married heterosexual mom, who fits stereotypes appallingly well. (Yes, even the 10 years in a minivan!) My previous careers weren’t even focused around writing.
Usually, I sense that the questioners expect drama close to home: which one of my children has just come out, or which friend of theirs has been bullied or thrown out of his/her home? I almost hate to disappoint them, but my motivation is boringly common. I just want to be a more effective parent. Ok, maybe, a more successfully nosy parent? Maybe it’s the same thing: I want to understand my kids’ world a little better.
I grew up in the 70′s in Baltimore: I joke that John Waters wasn’t even out then. (He did the puppet show at my third birthday party, and some of my friends would say that explains A LOT, but that’s another story.)
Of course, I had lesbian teachers and camp counselors, and surely some of those theater kids I hung out with were queer. Also of course, none was out and orientation was almost never discussed. When whispers came up, the default defense was a denial. Not until college did I know out gay and lesbian people, and experience an even somewhat inclusive setting.
Happily for the world, today’s teens and tweens generally have a different experience. Every day seems to bring us another step closer to equal rights and equal inclusion: same-sex marriage progress is all over the news, entertainment and sports stars come out with less and less fanfare, and queer relationships are beginning to be “normal” in television and movie plotlines. This makes it easier for teens to recognize and be authentic about their gender identities and attractions, but it adds an extra layer of social issues to carefully navigated by people with, let’s face it, imperfect judgment and undeveloped social maturity. And heightened sensitivity! Tween and teen years are minefields of awkwardness, embarrassment and hurt feelings, and it’s often hard for parents to help as it is.
I had promised myself I would be as frank and unflinching as possible in any kind of relationship and/or sex talk with my kids. I thought I was doing a pretty good job. But, a few years ago, despite being comfortable with queer friends and colleagues in my adult life, I found myself stumbling in conversations with kids about LGBT sex and relationships. Yikes! Bias I thought I had left behind? I looked hard at what was making me squirm: it was the newness to me of the idea of same-sex crushes and gender identity crisis at that age.
The idea of one or more of my kids and any of their friends not being heterosexual was fine in principle, but wait, did this mean I should rethink slumber parties? The values I wanted to communicate about intimacy shouldn’t depend on the gender of the partner… but how do you translate “virginity” if the situation isn’t heterosexual and cis-gendered?
When your kids ask you questions it’s a privilege (although I certainly didn’t see that in the moment on that bus). So, determined to have good, current-world answers I went looking for a book of advice. I looked in the Parenting section, but found that most anything related to these topics is shelved in LGBT Interest. But this is just the point, I thought, even straight people with straight kids could use a few more clues and cues. Maybe they’d need a cliché straight soccer mom to write such a book. Of course, I don’t write so much as collect and curate advice from current and former teens and parents, and review the science. After scores of interviews and hours in scientific journals, you can find my work in a blog (ummaboutthat.com) and a book (coming).
One big realization is that “perfect” parenting can happen even when conversations stumble. Saying, “gee, that’s so different from my sixth grade experience” is already the beginning of a great answer. Small things in our actions and reactions can make a huge difference in what we learn from our kids, in what they take away from us, and in how that feels – and that will be the topic of my next post.
Coming out is hard. Coming out to your family at Shabbat dinner is really hard. Take a look at how one family reacted to their son’s news, and help us work towards a truly inclusive Jewish community.
I am a Modern Orthodox Jew. As a Jewish educator, I have written, spoken and taught about homosexuality and our need as a community to address this issue within the framework of Halacha, or Jewish law, for many years. I had already been an advocate for the GLBTQ community for decades when one of our four children, our daughter Rachie, came out more than four years ago.
Why? Because I feel that as religious Jews, we have a moral imperative to insure that all members of our community are safe, valued and healthy. We are taught to use the midah of compassion, as we do for so many other issues.
Four years ago when Rachie was twenty two years old, she called me and my husband, and in the course of our conversation, basically said, “Mom, I am seeing someone I really care about and this person is a woman. I am gay.” Neither of us were surprised.
As an educated person, I am certain that biology and “how we are wired” is just the way G-d makes us. Further, I am aware that 10 to 15 percent of any community is on the gay spectrum, and there is no exemption from this reality in the religious Jewish community.
My husband and I firmly believe that as shomrei mitzvot, or Torah observant, Jews, we have an obligation to accept, protect and value all human beings who are created in the image of G-d, BeTzelem Elokim. Halacha teaches us this.
Of course, many in our Orthodox community and extended family do not see it this way. I am deeply saddened by any community that judges and pushes our daughter away. Any community that does not fully embrace and value Rachie is the one that loses, for she is a gifted young lady and an observant and knowledgeable Jew. I often lament how our observant communities are sending away some of our exceptional people who could contribute so much and would — if only they would embrace and value instead of judge and exclude.
Rachie has not been able to see herself associated with anything “Orthodox,” though she is observant and engaged Jewishly in profound and meaningful ways.
However, this has changed recently, due to her involvement in ESHEL, the Orthodox GLBTQ community, named for the tent into which Avraham and Sarah invited all who came by. Rachie (and the rest of us) now have a home for her religiously observant, gay self, being able to interface various aspects of Halacha with the reality of her life. It is so critically important for us to have ESHEL and KESHET as spaces for our GLBTQ Jews both as safe spaces and to hold the anchor while hopefully more of our community realizes that Jewish law can often be more kind and understanding than we are too often led to think. Our wish as a family is that more of our community would learn to see and accept and value each of our children for who they are and the sexuality they were born with.
Sunnie Epstein is a member of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, a community of parents and family members of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Jews who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community. You can find a chapter or start your own here.
The Keshet Parent & Family Connection is a community of parents and family members of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Jews who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community. You can find a chapter or start your own here.
My loving, caring, and beautiful daughter Julie is gay. When Julie came out, my first reaction was tears; tears for not being aware of my daughter’s struggles before she came out to us. Life is a journey with many different roads to follow, and while I ride a road less traveled, I know that I am not alone. I am joined by the support of my loving family, friends, and the Keshet Parent and Family Connection.
There is so much to learn (Is the right word gay? or is it Lesbian? or Queer?), and I hope I get it right. I have learned that it takes time, years even. It takes time to permit myself to settle into a different way of living life. I still worry about her safety, her rights, and the many detours she will need to maneuver. I feel as a parent, I’m always coming out, always having to explain my family to people. When my daughter got married, I had to say to every venue “These are two women getting married in a Jewish ceremony, are you comfortable?” It surprised me that I had to do that still. Life is not fair and at times I am angry.
So now I am on a mission. I am equipped with my experience from the Keshet Leadership Project, a training program designed to build the capacity of individual leaders to affect institutional change in Jewish communities. I proudly serve on the Keshet board of directors with a team of exceptional individuals, and I helped to establish the Keshet Parent & Family Connection.
I learned that when a child comes out, their parent comes out too. The child is prepared to come out, but the parent isn’t, and when you have other parents to sit with you, to talk about the same thing, it’s very comforting. It is a reminder that you are not alone.
The Keshet Parent & Family Connection is composed of remarkable parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews across the country who come together to transform the Jewish community through peer support, public events, and advocating for change. We come from all streams of the Jewish world, have children of all genders and sexual orientations, and are driven by personal journeys of struggle and celebration.
I hope you’ll join us or share this on to parents in your community who could use a group like this.
We are a group of observant, Orthodox families from across the United States, including Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. On March 7, we will be meeting face-to-face–many for the first time–for the 2nd annual Parents’ Retreat, sponsored by Eshel, an organization committed to creating a safe space in Orthodox communities for its LGBT members.
We are just like most of you, with one exception: Our children are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender). Each of our children told us on a fateful day some months or years ago that they are not heterosexual. It is who they are and who they will always be.
It is with this thought in mind that we would like to have a virtual conversation with you. Let’s assume for the moment that some weeks or months ago a member of your immediate family approached you, telling you that he or she is LGBT. You love them and begin to think beyond yourself and your family and begin to consider your precious Jewish community. Here is where the conversation begins.
We start by asking for your understanding, respect, and perhaps even acceptance of our children as members of the Orthodox community. While the medical and psychiatric community affirms that being homosexual is no longer considered an aberration or an illness, most Orthodox communities have not expressed the same acknowledgement and acceptance. Lack of acceptance, or failure to acknowledge and address the fact that LGBT Jews are–and always have been a part of the Orthodox world–is not a solution. Failure to acknowledge does not make the issue disappear. In fact, closing one eye on this matter leads to fractured communities, family alienation, and documented suicides. No one wants this for their family, their friends or their community.
We are not going to tell you it was easy absorbing this news from our children. We had the same hopes for our children that you have for yours. But as hard as it has been for us, it has been a much more difficult journey for our children. We now see our children as very brave for having told us, their friends and extended family, about who they are. As most have described it to us, it was a frightening and lonely experience to hold on to this secret, and most have held on to it from a very young age. We have come to respect how difficult it was for our children to find the strength to come out of the closet in a seemingly unbending Orthodox world.
We are not asking you to do the impossible and place yourselves exactly in our shoes. Rather we simply ask you to consider having this conversation in the spirit of Klal Yisrael, a community conversation. All of us are in this together. If nothing else this is an issue of bein adam l’chavero, “between man and his fellow man.” All conversations need a setting. Imagine yourselves sitting around the Shabbat table. You have just finished Kiddush and are about to eat with family and a few friends. Think about the statements below and how you would respond. These are in no particular order and we are sure some are more sensitive than others. So, just pick a few, and begin…that’s how most of us did it with our families, slowly, carefully, needing time to absorb and appreciate the circumstances and the people around us.
As Orthodox Jews we believe that all human beings are created in the image of G-d. Have you considered how this core Jewish principle of human dignity might shape your view of LGBT people?
- We believe that being LGBT is not a matter of choice. Do you feel that most people discover rather than choose their sexual orientation?
- If our children could choose, they would likely have chosen to be straight. Whether or not you believe that homosexuality is a matter of choice, how might this consideration that it is not a choice affect your community’s policy of welcoming people who identify themselves as homosexual?
- With regard to respecting privacy, do you or your rabbi ask congregants how they behave in the bedroom? Do you or your rabbi ask people in your congregation if they obey all mitzvot involving family purity laws? Are singles asked about their pre-marital sexual practice? What would you do if you knew that such laws were not observed in private by others? Would you think such people should be excluded from participation in shul?
- Have you asked yourself what would happen if everyone who attends your minyan had to submit to an “Aveyrah (transgression) Test,” that would include Lashone Harah (bad mouthing), Genayvah (stealing), Genayvat Da’at (lying), tax cheating, spousal abuse, and so on, and that flunking such a test would disqualify them from receiving any honors at the synagogue whatsoever? And have you considered that all of these (other) aveyrot are committed by choice? Are you aware that the phrase Toevah (translated by some sources as abomination and by others as forbidden or taboo) is applied to cheating in weights and measures just as it is applied in Leviticus to homosexuality? In our experience the “Gay Test” is one of the few that an Orthodox minyan seems to apply far more often than the “Aveyrah Test”.
- Do you hear homophobic jokes in your community? What do you do when you hear them? Do you perform the commandment of Hocheach Tocheachet Amitecha (rebuke your fellow Jew) and stand up for our children, relatives or friends who are the object of these so-called jokes?
- Have you asked yourself and your congregation if it is just the appearance of openly accepting LGBT individuals or couples into your shul and not any aspect of halakha (Jewish law) as applied to gay people, that bothers you?
- Do you know that anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of the general population are and have always been LGBT and that the Jewish population is no different? (With a congregation of 300 this means 15-30 individuals are LGBT). This percentage does not change based on any dress code. Cloth, knitted, or leather kippot (skull caps) do not change this percentage and neither does the color or brim size of your hat, or the length of your skirt or sleeve or whether or not you cover your hair.
- Do you realize that with these significant percentages someone in your extended family or social circles – child, brother, sister, grandchild, aunt or uncle, niece, nephew or friend – is, or will likely be, discovering that he or she is LGBT and may not have yet shared this knowledge with other people?
- Do you know that when you chase an LGBT person from your congregation – either overtly or via social pressure – you might be encouraging that person to leave Orthodoxy and perhaps even Judaism altogether?
- Do you know that by shunning an LGBT congregant, you are also shunning that individual’s family? Do you realize that very often it is not just the LGBT person who leaves the Jewish community or Orthodoxy but his or her entire family?
- Did you know that twenty- to forty-percent of homeless youth are LGBT, most likely because their families have rejected them and they feel they have nowhere to go? Did you know that suicide rates among LGBT youth are significantly higher than in the general youth population
- How well versed are your rabbis and lay leaders about LGBT issues or about the issues specific to counseling LGBT congregants or their family members? For example, do your rabbis or leaders know which institutions or organizations (Jewish or secular) might help him better help and advise these congregants?
We are hopeful that in a few years all Orthodox communities will be able to have this conversation in an open forum that include all its members. Today that is not the case.
We are asking you to encourage your rabbi to respectfully consider these questions and to learn about the issues specific to counseling LGBT congregants and their family members.
We hope that all synagogues, shuls, shtiebels, and their Rabbis think about the above issues and the serious implications they have for the health of their communities. By avoiding these issues or simply denying they exist, we are ignoring, rejecting, and losing LGBT Jews and their families.
Addressing these issues will not change Jewish law but it will encourage dialogue and begin to lessen needless pain and fear, debilitating isolation, dangerous depression, as well as hatred and discrimination of LGBT youth in the Orthodox world. After all is said and done, these Jewish souls are our sons, daughters, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, parents, neighbors, or friends.
Eshel is a non-profit organization whose mission is to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities. The Eshel Orthodox Parents Retreat is planned for March 7, 2014: to register for the Parents’ Retreat or to learn more visit http://www.eshelonline.org.
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
Here at the Keshet blog, we’re celebrating Mother’s Day with a reminder of how important parental love and support are. So here’s our Mother’s Day gift to you (and your mom(s)): a one minute video by our friends at The Righteous Conversations Project, a project of Remember Us, which brings together Holocaust survivors and teens to speak up about injustice through new media workshops and community engagements. In this short clip, two teens compare notes about their supportive, if slightly overbearing, parents. As these teens remind us, the things that bind families together, like love, concern, and even a little loving parental nagging, are pretty universal.
We know that for many families, Mother’s Day can be a tough time. If you know a mom (or dad) with an LGBTQ child who would like another parent to talk to, let them know about the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, a confidential peer support program for parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews.
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.