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.