It’s mid-October in New York City. Autumn lagers and pumpkin spice are in full season as the chilly weather moves its way in. Every day, glimpses of the oncoming winter flash before me as the air turns brisk and the sun sets earlier. It’s the eve of Sukkot and the streets of Flatbush are chock full of young Jewish men headed to Synagogue for evening services. All around me, sukkahs are perched in driveways, balconies, and some kosher restaurants have sukkahs right on the sidewalk of their storefronts. I can feel the holiday setting in just as I always have.
I was raised in an orthodox Jewish home in Brooklyn by my parents who are both educators in the New York City Dept. of Education. My early life pretty much took on the regular mold of young orthodox kids growing up in New York City. Studying at Yeshiva, (religious school) with the intent of following its whole system of practices and social “norms.” Classes were separate for boys and girls from kindergarten all the way through high school. We stayed mostly within our communities for all religious, family, and social engagements. We only knew what was in front us. East Flatbush and trips to Monticello in the summer to vacation in the Catskill Mountains. We didn’t go to many other places. Shopping at Wal-Mart was probably our degree of cultural diversity. It was the only time we really got to see all different kinds of people each pursuing different lifestyles and personal choices. We had one mission: Conform to the sheltered “one size fits all” lifestyle which the rabbis at yeshiva preached, and be married with two kids by the age of twenty six.
Well, let’s paint the picture right now: I’m sitting at a Dunkin Donuts a few blocks away from home drinking coffee and listening to some music on my iPod. I just finished a sit down holiday dinner with my parents and older brother in our Sukkah. I am twenty six years old. I recently moved back home to save money as I plan to return to college next semester. I’m the maître-d at a popular kosher restaurant on the upper west side.
I’m also bisexual, and I’ve been pretty open about it for the past few years. It’s been extremely tough, but I plow through it. Somehow. The ultra-orthodox community is not one which accepts or supports LGBTQ people. It’s plain and simple. I’ve been out for a while and I hold a job at an orthodox establishment, yet I’m still not really welcome or accepted by my own people and community. At home with my parents it’s still a don’t ask don’t tell situation when it comes to areas of my personal life relating to sexual preference and the fact that I left orthodoxy a while ago, because I could no longer find a place in the fold as a bisexual. I was forced to resign from a job last summer for no other reason than the fact that I was gay, and that it was creating too much controversy amongst religious co-workers. Some patrons also despised the fact that a gay man was working in their neighborhood and complained to the management. I’ve put up with plenty of brash homophobic slurs and people who were clearly troubled by my presence.
Aside from the fact of all this being extremely rude and even bordering on a legal conversation, I find its blatant hypocrisy most troubling of all: How can a group like the orthodox, who so heavily utilize the liberties of a modern democracy to live their lives of ancient ethics in full freedom, be so discriminatory and unaccepting? Why are they allowed to get away with such serious infractions on the basic principles of acceptance and equality, the very foundation on which their religious freedom lies? Last I checked, my parents still submit religious observance forms at their respective schools, allowing them to take off on Jewish holidays while not having paid sick leave days deducted. When I went out for a walk earlier this evening, there was full police patrol at all the synagogues in the area as worshipers ushered in the holiday which started tonight. Civil liberties. Religious freedom. Indeed. How then can they undermine those very same beliefs and value systems by completely closing the door to LGBTQ members of their own families and communities?
It’s especially disturbing to see this kind of bigotry and discrimination coming from a people who narrowly escaped the genocide inferno of World War II Europe, to a land of freedom and opportunity where they have become a successful people living peacefully. Have they forgotten about the land of the free which allows them to practice their religion so freely? Who are they to pick and choose which civil liberties they’re interested in, and which to totally disregard because they aren’t in sync with their religious values?
Recently, in a published letter to the editor in the Jewish Press, someone wrote how he too was gay and orthodox and was very upset about how certain other gay people in his own community are too proud and flamboyant in their lifestyle. He suggested how it was immodest and improper. He complained that many orthodox and (ex-orthodox) gay people, (like myself) “don’t just want to be accepted as Jews struggling with the desire of same-sex attraction. They want to be fully embraced when they act upon their desires and publicly lead that lifestyle—a lifestyle that blatantly contradicts Jewish law.” I was obviously very infuriated by such words, and I wrote a lengthy response expressing how perfectly happy I am identifying as an LGBTQ Jew, and how I absolutely despise being labeled as one who is just “struggling” along with life’s desires. I am very proud of who I am, and not ashamed and embarrassed about it. I also brought to light some of the sheer craziness and abuse I went through while in reparative therapy as a teenager, to “rid” myself of these “evil” desires because they were against Torah Law. I along with many others were brought to some of the darkest places of our lives when our own very existence was under attack and we were told that we had to change or we risked being expelled from school and disassociated from the community.
There seems to be this notion amongst the ultra-orthodox, that the LGBTQ need not celebrate who they are, and that we be content with the short end of the stick that God gave us in being Gay because homosexuality cannot be reconciled with Jewish law. I’m sorry. Give me liberty or give me death. How dare they suggest that we settle with being second class citizens because of the way god made us? Such prejudice is no different than what Dr. King along with millions of others marched on Washington to stop some fifty years ago. Let’s wake up. It’s 2014. Every day we watch on the news how people are charged with hate crimes for similar acts of discrimination, yet the Orthodox get away with it right in front of our very eyes. It’s about time that this gross humanitarian crime is stopped in its tracks.
Last week, the New York Daily News reported how Pope Francis and his top cardinals and bishops were visited by a married couple with four children to talk about sexual well-being. In an aim to demystify sex for the clergy, “Francis, a progressive spiritual leader, whose pragmatic approach to religion has reinvigorated the Catholic Church, hoped the conference would make it easier for priests to advise followers on family issues. “That includes, marriage, divorce, homosexuality and sex, he said.” As a non-religious but god fearing homosexual myself, I humbly salute the Pope for his very progressive and accepting ideas towards such issues. I firmly believe in his exemplary leadership role and the responsibility he has taken upon himself since arriving at the Vatican to bring these issues to life in a more accepting Catholic Church. I can only hope that the ultra-orthodox religious Jews follow in his example in creating a more just, and accepting community amongst themselves, and allowing its LGBTQ people to thrive in its own society just as they do in the mainstream. This can only happen and begins with basic education and awareness. Sexual education continues to not be in the general studies curriculum of many ultra-orthodox schools. Children are growing up clueless about sex and gender identity, while parents refuse to have “The talk” with their children because anything involved with intimacy other than marital sex is too unholy.
As I once again walk the very same streets here in Brooklyn where my childhood and adolescence took place, it’s very difficult for me to find pleasant memories sometimes. More often than not, being back at home evokes very bitter feelings and vivid flashbacks to my youth where I suffered greatly at the hands of an uneducated community subjugating me to dangerous “therapeutic” treatments to make me straight because it was NOT okay to be gay. Not long ago, I went on camera for a few film school students who were creating a documentary film about gay youths who were unaccepted by their communities and were forced through the horrors and dangers of reparative therapy. I sincerely hope that if and when the film does ever receive enough of a public eye, if any, that my message be clear and uplifting: You are perfectly Okay with who you are, and there is absolutely no reason to feel that a change must be made. Mother Nature made us the way we are, and tampering with her doesn’t usually yield good results.
Maybe the sex ed duo who visited the Vatican, ought to pay a visit to some of the ultra-orthodox rabbis, and educators right here in New York City? They would certainly benefit. I would certainly benefit. All of us would benefit from a more informed and educated society where we can all celebrate who we are together, where all of our unique qualities and differences shine together as a beautiful beacon of hope for a brighter and better tomorrow.
In what year do you think the orthodox will finally recognize gays? Find out at 4torah.com