What I Wish I Had Known at 13

When the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would decide on the legality of California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June, I decided to take a look at a speech I gave about lesbian and gay families for my synagogue’s oratory contest in 2004. At the time, Multnomah County, Oregon (a mile from where I lived) had briefly legalized same-sex marriage, bringing LGBTQ rights to the local forefront for the first time I could remember; I, as a not-yet-aware-I-was-queer 13-year-old, wanted to share my thoughts from a Jewish perspective. My speech (which won second place in the middle school division!) was well-intentioned, but often misguided. Among other things, it:

  • Called homosexuality a lifestyle
  • Discussed the Torah’s call to kill men who have sex with men in a “well, we shouldn’t kill, but obviously it must be bad if the Torah said it was worthy of death” kind of tone
  • Acknowledged that same-sex couples could make great parents and that adopting was a mitzvah

Creative Common/sgt fun
Creative Common/sgt fun

In the years between giving that speech in 2004 and now, I grew and changed: from a middle schooler to a grad student, from a Conservative Jew to a humanistic one, and from a closeted boy to a proud queer man. During many of those years, I struggled to understand and accept my sexual orientation. I recently reflected upon what I wish I had known before that struggle, when I gave my speech nine years ago:

Sexual Orientation is About a Lot More Than Sex

The Torah’s condemnation of homosexuality only discusses sex, but sexual orientation involves much more than what happens in the bedroom. My Jewish upbringing included nothing about the feelings of attraction and love a person may have for someone of the same sex, nor did it mention that sexual orientation is simply a part of who a person is. Thankfully, there is a greater awareness of that today.

There are Lesbian and Gay Families in Our Communities

As a child in Sunday school, I learned about the family as an important unit within Judaism, but the families I learned about were all heterosexual. This masked the existence of lesbian and gay families, including some I had been unaware of within my Jewish community. Having an awareness of these families and other LGBTQ people in the Jewish community would have made it easier for me to embrace my own identity and desired family structure.

Most Jews are Accepting (and Increasingly So)

While Jewish texts are not LGBTQ-affirming, Jews often are — over three-fourths of us support marriage equality. I did not realize how quickly Jews would embrace equal rights given an understanding of sexual orientation and the experiences of LGBTQ people. Being different and experiencing prejudice for being Jewish can help us to empathize with other marginalized groups.

There are Resources for LGBTQ Jews

If Jews are roughly 2% of the population and LGBTQ people are about 4%, then LGBTQ Jews are only 0.08% of the population, or 1 in every 1,250 people in the U.S.! That can be isolating, but there are also a number of Jewish LGBTQ organizations that recognize Jewish LGBTQ youths’ intersecting needs and experiences. These include LGBTQ Jewish youth groups (such as NUJLS), Jewish Gay Straight Alliances, university organizations, and online resources such as the Jeff Herman Virtual Resource Center and, yes, Keshet. Raising awareness of these resources is essential: while LGBTQ Jews may range from
to cultural and closeted to out-as-can-be, bringing together and affirming these two important parts of an LGBTQ Jew’s identity can be informative, meaningful, and inspiring.

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