I’ve never been one to have high expectations. I tend to take situations as they come and to be spontaneous in my decision making. That being said, I didn’t have any idea what I was in for as I stepped out of van and onto the cold snowy ground of the Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut this January.
Maybe I was subconsciously hoping the sky would be teeming with a myriad of rainbows, the clouds would part, and beautiful, teenage, gay women would fall from the sky, dancing to the hora and studying Torah.
Well, that didn’t happen. However, the weekend Keshet had in store for me and other LGBTQ Jewish youth at the second LGBTQ Jewish Teens and Allies Shabbaton was equally as magical.
“If it doesn’t bring more love into the world, it probably isn’t religion.”
The date was October 13, 2010, and I was at Tufts University’s Coming Out Day Rally. At the rally, Tufts University’s Jewish Chaplain, Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, spoke about the importance of not just tolerating people’s differences but embracing them and told the crowd the statement quoted above. This message was so simple, yet so powerful — and so powerfully different from what I expected a religious leader speaking about LGBTQ issues to say.
Growing up, I attended a Conservative Jewish Day School from kindergarten until 12th grade. Throughout high school, I struggled to come to terms with my sexual orientation and my religious beliefs. I was forced to grapple with these issues alone, as my high school did not offer any support for queer students and in general ignored their existence. As far as I know, no one has ever come out in my high school (though one student who was already out transferred in) and homophobic comments, including the commonly repeated phrase “that’s so gay,” went unchallenged. Consequently, I never felt safe coming out in high school.
We’ve been really inspired by the posts penned by some of the teens and staff who attended the LGBTQ Jewish Teen and Ally Shabbatons organized by Keshet and The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. Participants have been writing about their experiences, their identities, and the complicated and intricate ways that they navigate both. They’ve already covered coming out at an Orthodox day school and deciding to go “stealth” about trans identity, and one BBYO professional who staffed both retreats shared what it means for her, as a Jewish professional, to be an ally to LGBTQ teens.
These teens have shared their written words, and now we’re excited to for you to meet them in this short video! We’ll continue to run regular columns form LGBTQ and ally teens — stay tuned!
“I have friends I can be Jewish with, and friends I can be queer with, but I’ve never had a space to be both Jewish and queer.”
– Shelby, 16
“I feel really isolated at my high school… it’s good to come to a place like this and finally feel like I’m part of a community.”
– Frankie, 18
“Being in a place where so many of us share the same labels means we can shed them at the door – Here, I don’t have to be the Jewish kid, or the gay kid; I can just be myself.”
– Sky, 18
Sentiments such as these were common at the Jewish LGBTQ and Ally Teen Leadership Retreat in early January, a joint project of Keshet and the Isabella Freedman Center, with support from the UJA Federation – and the second ever event of its kind. The weekend was a follow-up to the first LGBTQ Teen and Ally Shabbaton in August, when about a dozen LGBTQ Jewish teens and allies met for the first time to share their stories and make new friends. This winter, those teens, along with some new additions to the group, came together not only to create new memories as a now inseparable group of friends, but also to develop their leadership skills. They also came together to begin to plan and design a future event that will attract close to 100 Jewish LGBTQ teens and allies, to create and connect a critical mass of change makers for the queer Jewish teen community.
Even in a society that is making progress on LGBT issues, as demonstrated by the victories for marriage equality in the recent election, it’s incredibly challenging to be an LGBTQ youth. From our series “Jewish LGBTQ Youth Voices”:
When I heard that there was going to be a workshop on “De-stigmatizing Stealth” at the Keshet LGBTQ youth Shabbaton, I was a bit skeptical.
As a trans* person who had done an extensive amount of thinking and research on the issue of being stealth, I was sure there was nothing anyone could say that would make me lessen my opposition to the practice of trans* people living in their preferred gender roles full time, and not telling people that they were assigned a different gender at birth. (A note on terminology: These days there isn’t just one type of transgender body or identity. Some people are transgender, transexual, bigender, a-gender, genderqueer, etc. The trans-asterisk is used as a way of recognizing and respecting this diversity, while still keeping a condensed title for the community as a whole.) The topic is a heated one both in trans* and queer communities and in the larger culture. On one hand, I understood the desire to be stealth. If you are a trans* identified person who has gone through so much to transition, and you acknowledge that you are and have always been, say, female, then why would you want to keep coming out all the time, and permanently call attention to your gender identity and choices?
But as I always saw it, trans* people have a responsibility to come out to people and live openly as trans* people. I was sure that this second option – not being stealth, but rather always coming out – was the moral high road. It was our responsibility to bring visibility to an incredibly underrepresented minority. The importance of continually coming out seemed an extra burden assigned to one the day they decided to start using their preferred pronouns, but it was a burden I felt was necessary. The idea of “de-stigmatizing” stealth made me a little suspicious.
In the workshop, we were led through an activity where we imagined ourselves in two scenarios: one speaking with our friend’s grandmother, and the other a club or organization at our high school interviewing us for membership. In both situations we were supposed to think of three responses to the other person saying “So, tell me a bit about yourself.” We discussed what parts of our identity we disclosed and what parts we didn’t. This, of course, prompted the question, “Why?” Why not tell the other participant in the conversation that you were queer, or that you were Jewish, or anything else for that matter? The answers varied. Some based their decision off the listener, deciding what to put forward based on the other person’s age, relation to them, politics, and the like. Others said that it just didn’t come up, or that it wasn’t something that was in the forefront of their mind. There was a real diversity of responses.
Everyone has their own reason for being stealth. It’s not just that coming out is hard/awkward, sometimes it’s dangerous, sometimes it’s just not that relevant to the conversation. Whatever the reason, I realized that no one should have to disclose their full biological history (or any other kind) to someone whose business it just isn’t. I was changing my mind, softening towards the idea that maybe being aggressively out, as opposed to stealth, wasn’t necessarily a responsibility or requirement, but wasn’t being out still the “right” thing to do?
Gender-Stealth, Religion-Stealth: My First “Aha!” Moment.
Later I was talking with a friend about how I no longer desire to be “out” as a convert to Judaism either. That is not to say that I want to stop being identified as Jewish – I want to stop being described as a different and, to some minds, lesser-than Jew. I was tired of explaining the story of why and how I “decided to become Jewish.” I was tired of biting my tongue when I wanted to say that I never had to become Jewish, because Jewish is what my soul has been all along. I grew weary of being looked upon with judgmental eyes and fielding questions about my Jewish knowledge and observance, as if it was some sort of pop quiz to prove my Jewishness.
I was tired of all eyes watching how I dressed, spoke, carried myself, all breaths held as they searched for signs that there was some deceptive disconnect between who I said I was, and who I actually was, who I used to be. I knew I’d fail if I didn’t meet some stereotype. I was ashamed that I began to question myself and allowed these questions to slowly chip away how valid I felt in my identity. I was comfortable in my own skin, and didn’t feel like “convert” was a necessary labeling. I didn’t feel a need to highlight the differences between myself and my peers; I’d rather just focus on the similarities.
And at the end of the day, my background is nobody’s business. It doesn’t affect them and shouldn’t affect how they relate to me. I had already gone through a transformative process to have the powers that be legitimize my identity; I didn’t need anyone else’s validation (and I no longer needed to hear “I would’ve never known,” or, “You don’t look like a ______.”)
In the face of all these complaints, I realized what I had to do. I had to try on being a “stealth convert.”
Was I betraying my roots, erasing my history, being selfish?
I’m not sure. I don’t think so, though. Maybe not every person needs to know that I wasn’t “born and/or raised Jewish.” But if I were to encounter a person considering conversion, and wondering what the process is like or how it feels to come out on the other side, I would tell them my story. For those I didn’t choose to disclose to, it wouldn’t make me a liar, poser, or “trap.”
Replace every reference in the above paragraph regarding my own Jewishness/“convert” with “Transgender;” “other Jews” with “queer community;” and “Gentile” with “cisgender.” Now you can join me in a groan over how silly I was being attaching stigma to my trans* brothers, sisters, people who choose to be stealth, instead of continually coming out.
I’m not sure how final my decision is on the matter of being stealth, either as a trans* guy or as a “convert” to Judaism; but in the mean time I’ll choose who I want to or don’t want to disclose to, and I certainly will not waste any of my time judging those that choose to keep that part of their lives private.
So my friends, I submit this article anonymously. A way of affirming and embracing that being stealth, in any context, is an intensely personal choice and should be respected (even if you don’t necessarily agree). Maybe one day I’ll reveal my identity, maybe I won’t, but either way it is my journey and I intend to take control of it.
LGBTQ Jewish youth: Let us know if you’d like to write for the Keshet blog! We want to feature your voices as you explore your experiences, speak your minds, and challenge your communities to be more inclusive. You can read a previous post in the “Jewish LGBTQ Youth Voices” series on “Senior Year: APs, College Prep, and Coming Out in My Orthodox High School.”
It’s September and students across the country have headed back to school for a new year. But are they heading back into safe and inclusive spaces? Our friends at The Aleph Project at Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGALY) created two great resources for Jewish schools and settings.
National Coming Out Day: Planning Manual
A step-by-step guide to planning a National Coming Out Day (October 11) observance in a Jewish educational setting, with information about why this day is relevant to Jews and Jewish organizations. This guide provides everything from a timeline, to an FAQ, to sample planning meeting agendas.
Creating a Jewish Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA): Youth Organizing Manual
A guide to help students who want to create a GSA at their Jewish institution make the “Jewish case” for why it’s important. With a list of ten easy steps to starting a GSA, along with definitions of important terms and information on useful resources, this manual will get help get your GSA off the ground.
And here’s a bit of inspiration for starting that GSA: Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School, the story of one student’s courageous fight to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance at a Jewish high and the transformative impact of her campaign on her entire community. You can purchase a copy of the film here to show at your school or synagogue.
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.
With back-to-school season upon us, Julie Sugar reminisces on what she learned at college…as an educator, not a student. Julie’s reflections remind all of us, in turn, about the immense, powerful, and sometimes under-appreciated role allies play in creating inclusive space for everyone.
I found my voice in college—though not as a student.
I worked for nearly three years at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, where I wore (as all Hillel professionals do) many hats: running internships, staffing trips, advising clubs, and more. One group I advised was Keshet, NYU’s club for LGBTQ Jews [no relation to the Keshet that runs this blog!] and their allies. Keshet had been larger and more active in the past, and was quite small when I started. Then, with time, incredible student leaders, and staff support, the group blossomed and became a renewed presence on campus. On a personal level, I learned so much through the experience:
At first, I felt insecure and tongue-tied. I was sensitive enough to know the impact of insensitivity, and the fear of saying something wrong (LGBT? GLBT? Add the Q? What’s the deal with the word “queer”? Can I call myself an “ally”?) was overwhelming.
An NYU student-led SafeZone sensitivity training brought home what I started to feel intuitively: good intentions do make a difference. When you speak with someone, and you say something that is not perfectly up to speed with the lingo, it’s okay. Yes, learn the lingo—but don’t silence yourself as you learn. You care. That does make it better.
I worked with three consecutive student presidents of Keshet. When I started working with the third student, we would darkly joke that she was president and sole member of the club. We met for an hour every week. We felt confident—as the previous president and I had felt—that there were students who would greatly benefit from the presence of a group for LGBTQ Jews and their allies. So we kept going. Another student stepped up as vice-president. We kept going. The group came together over time, and I’m sure that every moment we kept going was what brought us to the next.