Monday, December 5, 2011

Saying Nothing Really Says A Lot

Yeah, I guess I’m a little upset. Some close family and friends might think that they’re being nice and sensitive…but they’re not. They are ultimately hurting me and affecting my relationship with them.
Amongst most of my friends and fellow University students, conversations about me/homosexuality in general are open, honest, welcomed, and ubiquitous, mostly because I am the only male “out” in my respective communities and because homosexuality is tabooed in the orthodox community. And I like that. It’s a way for me to verbally express how I’m feeling and share my thoughts, but more importantly it is a way to educate other people who may be unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and/or intrigued by my situation.
However, this is (seemingly) not the case when I go elsewhere.
I was asked recently if I have experienced any outright discontent or overt hostility when I have been among close family and/or family friends since I have come out. The answer is no. But that is not a good thing.
There are different forms of acceptance when someone comes out - shunning, partial acceptance, full acceptance, full acceptance with marginalization, etc….the list goes on. When close friends and family don’t think to inquire about the coming out process, they by doing so are subscribing to not complete acceptance. And I know it. And I can feel it. And it hurts me.
By inquiring about anything related to my coming out process, or being gay, or being orthodox, or being both gay and orthodox, you are intrinsically showing you care. When you don’t ask, you are ostensibly showing me that you don’t fully accept who I am or what I stand for.
I welcome conversations about any related topic. And not for me! For all of you close family and friends who haven't yet showed me that you care. If you really care and desire to accept me, show me that you do. Ask questions. Inquire. Even if you don’t agree with my decisions or lifestyle – talk about it anyway so we can have an intellectual conversation about it.
So for my family and family friends and friends of who thought that by merely ignoring the very apparent issue at hand was a good idea, it wasn’t. You have hurt me, marginalized me, and have shown no outright acceptance of me.
I implore all of you to ask. Show interest. By doing so, you will show me that you really care.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Orthodox and Gay: A Cliche

It was my bar-mitzvah torah portion a few weeks ago. It has been 8 years since the big celebration at age 13, but I have yet to miss a year in which I don’t re-read it for a congregation. I continued reading it in high school, I read it in Israel, and I have read for 3 years in college. I really enjoy laining (reading from the torah) and I have been told that I am pretty good at it.
Not to be cliché or anything, but I really sensed a nice coalescence of Orthodox Judaism and homosexuality while I was laining a few weeks ago. As most ba’alei koreh (torah readers) do, I used a yad (pointer) while reading. As I was pointing to each word with the yad extended from my right hand, I noticed my pride bracelet on the same arm. A pride bracelet, for those who don’t know, is simply a rainbow-colored rubber bracelet that represents unity, pride, shared values, and allegiance to other LGBT individuals. The rainbow symbolism also communicates ideas, concepts and identity both within our LGBT community and to other mainstream cultures. I have been wearing one since this summer.
Anyways, my reading of the torah that week reminded me of my grounding in Judaism. Yes, I have realized my sexuality this past year and have come out as a gay, Orthodox Jew. And as much as I have altered my identity or inculcated certain values and ideologies into my life – my origins haven’t change. I’m the same Sam, the same Jew, and the same great lainer that I have always been. I am gay, yes, but I am also a Jew and I am attempting to create a balance between the two seemingly conflicting ideologies. This pride-bracelet-while-reading-the-torah incident was just a personal reminder of that, and I wanted to share it with all of you. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Blast from the Past

I was born and raised in Baltimore, MD. Although I have moved to College Park, Maryland to attend college, I still mentally consider Baltimore my hometown and colloquially refer to it as “home.” So, a few Sundays ago, I went home.

I went home to attend a friend’s wedding. I didn’t think much of this wedding; it was after a long, hard week at school and after a rather fun 21st birthday weekend, so until I actually changed into my suit and arrived at the wedding hall, I didn’t think twice about it. Once I was there, however, new thoughts and manifestations started forming in mind. There are two separate things I want to discuss about this wedding: firstly, being “out” at a public event in my hometown, and secondly, my thoughts on the wedding itself.

The bottom line was - this was the first public occasion I was at in my hometown after coming out. Truthfully, although I only go to school less than an hour from home, I really don’t go home that often. Aside from holidays and the occasional “dinner with dad” evenings, I can say I go home roughly three times each semester. And, during many of those times, I only go to my physical house – i.e. I don’t wander around the streets of Baltimore, have many social run-ins at the kosher supermarket or at the local restaurants, and when I do go to shul (re: synogogue), I tend to stick with my three of four friends who are there that day. So, I haven’t really seen the parents, families, and acquaintances who know me from the community as a child. Yet, as soon as I walked into the 500-guest wedding, my childhood raced past me in a blur or colors. A very surreal blur of colors. Old teachers, moms, Rabbis, friends, peers, family friends – they all popped back into my now-gay life. I wasn’t sure how to handle them. Can I assume they know? Do I bring it up in conversation? Should I fake who I am just because I am back in the community I was closeted in for over 20 years? I couldn’t make an objective decision myself during the socializing time, so thank G-d I had a few friends from Maryland who were there; friends who know me, accept me, and socialize with me on a regular basis.

Mingling with the Baltimore orthodox community again was both anxiety producing and intriguing at the same time. I kept seeing people who I wanted to avoid, making a make-shift list in my head, and ducking behind waiters and carving stations to escape their barraging questions and fake “how are you?!s.” It was intriguing because since I left Baltimore over three years ago, I hadn’t publically socialized in such a large, social setting. The people I grew up with are frummer (more religious) than I remembered. Is her neckline really that high? Did she always cover her hair? Why does she look so damn frafrumpt (ridiculously religious)? While it was intriguing to internalize that either my community got more religious or that I forgot how religious my community was, it was also really difficult. Difficult, because I knew that my true identity would not be so easily accepted – publically - by a lot of people in this community. Obviously there are those who do love me and accept me - but definitely not the majority of the overall Baltimore community. I am so lucky to have amazing friends and a rather open-minded community on the University of Maryland campus. I guess I forgot how religious other communities might be, and as such, how close-minded/potentially unaccepting they might be, too.

Although difficult to internalize, it gave me more strength (cliché, I know, but so true!). I was reminded that this open-minded bliss that exists here on campus might not be the bliss I find myself in once I leave here. Granted, many communities (Jewish ones, too!) have come a long way and are being more accepting, but my 4-hour excursion back to Baltimore reawakened me like a really strong cup of coffee on a Monday afternoon. I need to be prepared to deal with the challenges that may continue to face me even though I’ve come out and have been out for over 8 months now.

On another note, this was the first wedding I had been to since I have come out. Lots of hard, emotional questions manifested during the ceremonies. Will this ever happen to me? Who will walk down first? Will my parents walk me down my aisle? Will my to-be-spouse’s parents walk him down the aisle? Will there even be an aisle? Will there even be a ceremony? What kind of Jewish ceremony can happen at a gay wedding? Forget religion for a moment – will I even be able to get legally married in the state that I want to be in? Will my federal government, who preaches “all men are created equal” and “every person has the inalienable right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” ever legitimize and recognize my marriage? Will my family ever recognize my marriage? What about my dear friends in the Baltimore community? I understand that I have chosen to live a life that attempts to bridge orthodoxy/orthodox culture and being gay, and that is a tough balance to create - but will there be any place for me when it comes time to marry?

I know what the answer is: there is no right or wrong answer (for now). This is the first generation, really, where orthodox gays are finally coming out and attempting to live their lives. Most of these questions haven’t been answered yet, and I think time will only tell for a lot of them.

Mazel Tov, Mazel Tov. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Healthy Identity Development: LGBT Studies at the University of Maryland

I am taking a class this semester called LGBT families. It is a sociology course that discusses LGBT issues as they pertain to the family, including marriage, parenting, LGBT children, etc. This course, which an intensive upper-level course, requires a lot of academic reading. I was never a big fan of academic articles; I find them boring, pretentious, and arcane. However, the articles from this class are some of my favorite that I have come across while at college, and there was an idea in an article I read a few weeks ago that I would like to share with all of you.

In a very simple sentence, the author explained coming out as “healthy identity development for an LGBT individual.”

Now, this might seem obvious, simple, or even cliché – but as someone who comes from an orthodox upbringing and has come out, I am constantly and consistently frustrated at the lack of visibility of gay men and women in the orthodox community. I am frustrated for two reasons: one selfish, and one selfless and caring. I am frustrated because as someone who has been accepted, welcomed with open arms, and ultimately not ridiculed at all as gay individual in an orthodox community, I yearn for all of the closeted gay individuals in the orthodox community to come out (I know you’re there, guys). Selfishly, this visibility will make a stronger community of orthodox gay individuals, a stronger stance of orthodox gay individuals, and with the appearance of more and more gay individuals in the orthodox community, perhaps minds can be changed, opinions can be altered, and “gay” won’t have to have such a taboo attached to it. I yearn for a time when homosexuality is socially accepted and recognized in the orthodox community. I believe that with more visibility, this goal can be achieved.

In a caring manner, I desire for orthodox gays to come out for themselves. As quoted in my LGBT article, coming out is part of healthy identity development. For those of you who might be gay and closeted and think you can “wing this,” and “get married to a woman without any repercussions,” and think that “your community won’t accept you” or “what will my mom say?” or “how will I ever marry a girl?” or “will I ever be normal? How can I be?!”– whatever your fears are: know that they will not come true. I was there once. So many other out, gay Jews have been there, too. I know what fears and anxiety you possess. After having the experience of coming out, please understand me that things will not only be fine, they will be great. Coming out was the healthiest thing I could do for my overall well-being, and, as specified in the aforementioned article – part of my healthy identity development.

This may sound like a plus for Dan Savage’s "it gets better project", and in a way is it – me telling you things will be more than fine once you come out. This post was actually sparked by the blogger Another Frum, Gay Jew and his most recent post, highlighting the importance of being the person you were meant to be, not what your society, family, or community expects of you. Today, I come with Dan Savage’s message from an orthodox standpoint, desiring you to come out both for the community and very much so for yourself as part of healthy identity development that turns you into the person you who really are and the person you are meant to be. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Orthodox Nurture: Whose to Blame?

Ah…the infamous conundrum. Is homosexuality biological? Is it affected by one’s environment? Is it, perhaps, a combination of both? Ask my sociology professor and she will tell you that is it almost completely a social construct. Science professors would likely argue differently, believing that homosexuality emanates from one’s innate, biological essence, and nothing socially or otherwise can change that.
I’ve heard arguments for all sides of the “origin-of-homosexuality” debate. I’m not sure myself which one I believe to be true. However, for this week’s posting, based on comments from my last posting, I wanted to write about my experience with nurture – specifically commenting on the limiting environment (re: “bubble”) that I have spoken about previously.
I would like to clarify that I don’t necessarily “blame” any one individual, community, or institution for turning me gay. If that was insinuated by previous postings, please disregard that. I have mentioned the orthodox bubble a few times, but that is only because growing up in that bubble gave me the mindset that is relayed and indoctrinated in school, at home, and in the community. The orthodox bubble wasn’t like living as a Mormon, or in a chareidi neighborhood in Israel, but the overall sentiment was that gays don’t exist in our community. That being said, I never really considered it as an option for myself. I convinced myself I wasn’t gay because that was the way it had to be in the community I was brought up in – that community that I wanted to be a part of.
It has also been challenged that due to my enrollment at a secular university like the University of Maryland, I should have been widely exposed to different sexualities, thereby realizing sooner that I am gay.  Normally, that would be an accurate expectation at a secular college. However, when I came to Maryland, I surrounded myself wholeheartedly in the orthodox community. I only had Jewish friends. I only took classes with Jews. I spent more time in the Hillel building than in my own dorm room. I was so obsessed with being accepted into the bubble my entire childhood that I desired to maintain that stance at college, too. And since Maryland has one of the largest orthodox communities on a college campus in America, I was able to do that.
The accusations that I overplayed the “bubble” card, or that I must have encountered homosexuality at Maryland are very fair – but, explainable in my opinion. This bubble that I so often criticize wasn’t any more religious or close-minded than a typical, modern-orthodox community; it simply limited my thought processes to ones that could never include gay ones. As for Maryland – there are plenty of gay people and gay groups on campus – I was just too consumed with my desire to fit in to the orthodox community to notice it.  

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Limiting Bubble - With Limiting People

Over the past two weeks, I have received many comments and reactions to my blog – both on and off my page – and I just wanted to specifically address two of them here.

Firstly, a very brave and inspirational woman from NY specifically addressed my first posting. She asked me to discuss if my coming out and “becoming gay” was only a result of an exposure that I may have had to gay culture or gay individuals. As I understand her, she ultimately desires to reiterate that allowing openly homosexual families to mingle and interact with “straight families” will have NO affect the sexuality or sexual orientation of children and family members from these heterosexual families. This woman - who is gay, orthodox, and has children - has experienced difficulty in enrolling her kids in a modern orthodox Jewish day school in New York. I stand behind her and can support her from my own personal experience that my homosexuality is not a testament of being exposed to gay individuals or any form of homosexuality. When I finally realized at age 20, it was not because of any exposure to gay individuals. It only took me so long to realize, admit, and accept it because of the kind of society and community (and bubble!) that I was raised in. Gay, orthodox Jews and their families should not be treated any differently because they are gay. So what if a child has two frum mothers or two frum fathers? What do people have against these children? Are they fearful of catching a disease? Are they scared their children are going to “turn gay?” I do hope that there can be unanimous acceptance of all frum children – from straight parents, single parents, or gay ones – in orthodox day schools in the future. It really shouldn’t make a difference.
Another reader of my blog commented on my first posting, asking me if growing up in an Orthodox community might have masked my homosexuality from myself; namely, that Orthodox adolescents are taught to be non-sexual, and that sexuality and physicality is for marriage only, etc. I think there is a very simple answer to this question: Yes. Since sexuality is a bit tabooed in modern orthodox communities and schools, anything “different” – i.e. homosexuality – is even more tabooed. So if Mike kissed Rebecca (or even hugged her! *gasp*), it would be a "big deal" and the couple would likely not tell any adults because being physical and sexual is not allowed according to the laws followed by orthodox Jews. That being said, since sexuality is downplayed in orthodox communities, imagine homosexuality, which is still struggling to secure normalcy in the secular world, being “normal” or “freely discussed and accepted” in orthodox circles. Yeah. Not a chance. Being raised orthodox, due to the objective and communal negative views on sexuality as a whole, definitely aided in the fact that I did not recognize, discover, or accept my homosexuality until age 20.

Unfortunately, these two responses relate to the same issue, which, according to me, is the primary issue that most orthodox, gay individuals face. There simply isn't (or there hasn't been) any recognition or allowance for gay individuals within in the confines of the orthodox bubble. The bubble can be very limiting, and the people in can be even more so. The one hope I have for the future is that being gay won't be considered "bad" or "abnormal" in the orthodox community. With time, I hope that this idea - that a certain percentage of the population is gay (both orthodox and otherwise) - can be passed down just as readily as the biblical and lawful mesorah. If that is done, maybe one day, being gay can simply be a neutral characteristic of an individual that everyone will accept.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Burned Out and Coming Out

Due to the lengthiness of my last posting, I unfortunately had to stop mid-story, so I wanted to continue today. I hope to post more than once or twice per month, like I had initially intended. I also plan to respond to a few comments today that have been received since my last posting, one week ago.
I left off describing how I didn’t know I was gay until age 20, and I proposed explanations as to how that may have been the case (heteronormativity, modern orthodox bubble, etc). What I didn’t go on to explain last week was how I realized I was gay – what convinced me – and how the coming out process has been after that.
I have recognized (and have been reminded) that I need to be as vague as possible regarding certain parts of the stories on my blog, unfortunately, only because certain individuals may be offended or feel sensitively about this subject and its different facets. If you feel the need for more details or clarification, please feel free to comment or message me privately off of the page.
I will start with this: there was no one experience, or one interaction that made me realize I was gay. When I was away from Maryland during last winter break (January 2011), I was simply feeling very burned out. I use that term on purpose, because, I really felt like I was out of fuel, or that I couldn’t continue anymore. My whole life, subconsciously, I tried to fit into the molds of my society and be straight. That continued through my year in Israel and my first year and a half at Maryland. I’m not sure exactly what changed or caused me to realize my situation. Perhaps it was being in Tel Aviv, a city known for its acceptance of gay life and gay culture. Maybe it was because, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who weren’t all Jewish and/or orthodox. Perhaps it was because I had simply stepped out of my modern orthodox bubble for three weeks and got a breath of fresh air. Maybe it was something as simple as time, and G-d had programmed me to only have 20 years of “straight fuel” in my tank (sorry for that really cheesy metaphor). Whatever it was, I was burned out. I was burned out of pretending to be someone that I wasn’t. I was burned out from living a life that wasn’t really mine. I was completely burned out, and that lead to my ~eight days of grayness, eight days of ambiguity, eight days of slumber. For the last week of January, from when I left Tel Aviv until I started Maryland again for the Spring Semester, I was just confused. I knew something was different, and I was uncovering something new, but I wasn’t sure what. I felt a bit aloof, especially from certain individuals, but then on that first Friday after winter break, it just hit me. I’m gay. Everything just lined up, everything was explained; it was the reasoning for all of the questioning. It was the reason why I had been feeling so burned out.
It was a Friday afternoon when I realized. I was overwhelmed. What do I do? Who do I talk to? I didn’t know any gay individuals, let alone gay orthodox individuals. I was still in a relationship at the time. I was about to start my 4th semester at Maryland. At the time, I was supposed to be ready to go to shul (synagogue) for services Friday night. I was – colloquially – a hot mess.
After that Shabbat, I made an alias facbeook account. I called myself Seth Feldman – I wanted to be as generic as possible. A few months previously, a friend of mine mentioned this gay, orthodox guy’s name in passing and, at the time, I obviously didn’t make any note of him because I was absorbed in my straight, orthodox world. However, when I made my alias account, I decided to message him. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to say, but I figured I would start with him, because I really had nowhere else to turn. I ended up just saying “Hey, I’m Seth, I was raised modern orthodox, I just realized I am gay, help, etc., etc.” He was very supportive. We ended up messaging a few times and he was a great outlet until I ended up actually telling people that Sam (not Seth) was gay.
The first person who knew that I was gay aside from myself was a friend who used to go to the University of Maryland with me. I didn’t even plan on telling her when I did – it was all her doing. It was the second week back from school, and she had noticed that I was acting differently - distancing myself, not being as social as I used to be, limiting my face time at hillel and around campus. So she told me to come over so we could talk and catch up. Somehow, this friend got it out of me. Being a psychology major, she was very forward with her questioning, and after 10 minutes of “what happened over winter break?” and me trying to brush it off with “nothing, I just realized some new stuff,” she progressed to “well, what did you realize?” Pretty much, she wasn’t buying my passive/ambiguous responses. She was asking so many direct questions that she got me to say“…uh….I don’t know….it was something biological!” She responded (this time with a smirk; I think she knew by now…) “what was that biological realization?” And then I said it. “Rachel. I’m gay.” That split second of time was –literally- the most surreal moment of my life. My mouth was dry. My whole body was shaking. I could barely breath. But…I had told someone. It was the first time I had told someone, and from the point on, it simply perpetuated to more and more people with her help and from the help of the boy I messaged from my alias facebook account. I eventually told my roommate, my sister, my parents over Pesach (Passover), more friends….and the only reason why I kept telling more people is because no one cared. During my ~two weeks of closetedness between winter break and the beginning of the semester, I was scared to tell anyone (hence the alias facebook account, etc). I thought my social and religious life was over. But…I was so wrong. Coming out was the best thing that I have ever done. I am a happier person now. I am more content with myself. I am able to forge stronger, closer relationships with my family and friends because I am a more genuine and legitimate person.
I really didn’t intend this blog to be a means to get other closeted individuals to come out. However, since I am writing about coming out now, I do want to specify now, that…it really does get better. If anyone is reading this and is in a similar situation to what I was in – please know, that it gets better. That’s all.
I really intended to write more, but both time and length have gotten the better of me for now. However, Aviva’s and Cindy’s comments (thanks, guys) will be addressed first on next week’s posting. And then I will continue with my thoughts and story/ies.

Have a great weekend. <3

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sam's gay???? Whaaat?!

I never really thought I would write a blog. I always had friends who wrote blogs; I was encouraged to read them, comment on them, follow them – but I never was into the idea of writing a blog myself. I also never had a reason to write one. In recent months, aside from acquiring a reason to write one, someone special has blog-ly influenced me, and that subconsciously convinced me to finally start this one. Welcome!

I write this blog for a few, very specific reasons. I want to share my story with close family and friends. I want to world to hear me, understand me, and to ask questions and comment as they deem necessary. I am an open book. I want to extend that notion here on my blog, and allow this to be a free space where I share my thoughts and ideas, and I hear back from all of you.

Yup…I’m gay. Who would have thought it, right? Well, I’ll tell you. Almost no one. If I were to quantitatively estimate, I’d say about 95% of the people I came out to had responses such as: “Haha, good one, Sam,” or “You’re funny, Sam,” or “Really?! No way!” My all-time favorite coming-out conversation, however, was:

“________, I have something to tell you.”
“Uh oh!”
“Don’t worry, _________, I’m not pregnant! [chuckle]”
“…And I know you’re not gay, so…what is it?”

That was an actual conversation. Most people are so shocked by my homosexuality, I think, because I don’t fit many of the stereotypes that are usually associated with gay individuals. For starters, I’m not excessively flamboyant. I quasi-like sports. I was never really into fashion or pop culture or what designer made Beyonce’s dress on this week’s cover of Cosmopolitan. To cap this all off, I always showed “interest” in girls and even had girlfriends. And, sadly enough (I will touch on this more later in this posting and in future ones, too), just simply being an orthodox Jew has the community as a whole assume you are straight. How many out-of-the-closet, orthodox gay Jews do you know? When I came out to myself 6 months ago, I was the only one that I knew of. For all of this and more, people found it hard to believe, at least initially, that I am gay. Understandable.

However, what is so crazy about my story is that I did not know I was gay until late January/early February of 2011. I simply had no self-awareness of my homosexuality. I never realized I was gay, I never told myself that I was gay, and I never told anyone else I was gay…but this is all entirely because I didn’t know I was gay until – literally -earlier this year. When I say all of this, I almost always get immediately bombarded with such questions as: “How did you not know you were gay until you were 20 years old?” or “How were you not conscious or aware of your sexuality until now?” I always embrace and accept these questions, because, truthfully – they are beyond legitimate. How didn’t I know? How did I live for 20+ years, 9 of which after I had started puberty, and not know that I was gay? These are all fantastic questions, but I think there do exist reasons why this was the case for me. For starters, I was raised very exclusively modern orthodox. I went to a modern orthodox school, I am from a modern orthodox family, I went to a modern orthodox synagogue, I went to a modern orthodox camp, all of my friends were modern orthodox…to sum it all up, I was raised in a very modern orthodox bubble and that’s all I was ever surrounded by.

Because of this bubble, I didn’t know that homosexuality actually existed. I obviously knew what “gay” meant, but (obviously) I didn’t know any gay people, and because I was never really into pop culture that much, I never really saw any themes of homosexuality on TV or the media (glee, modern family, etc). And, because my society culture, religion, and community all emphasized heteronormativity (, I never considered that anything else was an option. It wasn’t an option to be gay. No one Jewish was gay (at least in my community). How could they be?! If they were gay, then they couldn’t get married, have kids, and perpetuate the mesorah (Jewish tradition) like we are all intended to do.

“But, still, Sam…you knew what it meant to be gay, so how didn’t you realize? I understand your society didn’t really recognize homosexuality, but how didn’t you become aware of your sexuality once you started puberty?” This series of questions always comes next.

Some more great questions. Answer: I find girls so pretty. Since I knew I found girls at least somewhat attractive, I sort-of convinced myself that “it’s ok, Sam – you find girls attractive, so you can do this and be straight.” However, what I realize now is that finding someone attractive and being attracted to someone are very much so not the same thing. I was stupid enough to convince myself that I was heterosexual because I found girls pretty. For all my girlfriends, I found them to be awesome individuals and aesthetically pleasing/pretty. That combination allowed me to convince myself that I was sexually into them. So although I may have had homosexual desires, I was able to ignore them for 20 years because I used the fact that I found girls pretty to convince myself that I was into them. And then add to that the fact that my community encouraged heteronormativity and then my inability to discover my homosexuality until age 20 may make some sense now.

I think this enough for my first posting, but I hope to continue the story at some point in the near future. I welcome your thoughts, questions, comments, or reactions.