Coming Out to Strangers at Shabbat Lunch

Two weekends ago, I went to Yale for the Ivy League LGBT conference, IvyQ. It was a fun weekend, great especially for meeting people in the Penn queer community. I discovered a long time ago that the best way to get to know new people at Penn is to leave campus with them, which held true. However, I had just as interesting and meaningful of a time at Yale doing Jewish things as gay things.

On Friday night, there was a Shabbat dinner for conference attendees, but I welcomed Shabbat not really knowing what I was doing for lunch. I found Egalitarian/Conservative services on Friday night, and was then excited to hear that minyan was davening in the morning as well.

There was a huge blizzard along the East coast that weekend, happening Friday night into Saturday morning, which actually worked out well because I didn’t feel like I was missing out on much by staying inside on Friday night and reading a book. Saturday morning, I woke up and trekked through the completely snowed-in campus to Hillel, where I joined the six people who had already arrived at the Egal minyan during psukei d’zimra.

It was nice to see that this minyan both attracts the same type of people and has the same struggles as Penn CJC. I had started to think that I would never find other young people interested in Egalitarian Judaism once I left Penn, but that’s clearly not the case, and it was even more comforting to see that I probably could have had a similar religious journey at Yale Hillel as I did at Penn Hillel. It wasn’t all about the place that I randomly ended up for college.

One of the gabbais invited me to lunch after services, and so I found myself sitting at a long table with 25 Orthodox and Conservative Jews—none of whom I had known more than twelve hours. People asked me why I was at Yale that weekend, with no obvious connection to anyone at the table, and so I identified myself as a gay man attending the IvyQ conference.

Coming out to strangers in spaces which belong more to them than me often leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The feeling of hijacking conversations, even if people are asking questions to keep them going. The impossible desire to share my life story in 20 minutes, and the inevitable sense that I’ve failed when I can’t.

People were even more interested when I told them that I hadn’t grown up frum.

“How do you reconcile being gay and being religious?”

Well, I’m going to Israel for a year to figure it out.

“How has being a ba’al teshuva affected your journey?”

I don’t like that label, but the fact that I had a gay Rabbi when I was ten is certainly the main reason that I’ve been able to believe that I can reconcile these identities. It’s hard to believe…

“…that God would have made you this way and then planned for you to be unhappy.”

That left our end of the table in silence for a good two minutes, after which we sang some songs and then benched.

Even though it’s the most gay-friendly college in America, even though I expect that observant Jews at universities are by and large the most liberal population I’m ever going to find, it was still surprising for me to find how unconcerned I was about coming out in this setting. There are settings where I’ve known that coming out would be ill-advised (Shabbat lunches while staying with friends’ families come to mind), but in order for observant Judaism to be truly gay-positive, this kind of acceptance needs to be the norm.

The other thing that struck me about this experience is the place of privilege from which I’m coming. White gay men were well-represented at Yale two weeks ago. Maybe I just haven’t seen enough, but it’s hard for me to believe that a trans person, or a bisexual person, or even a lesbian, could come out in this way at Shabbat lunch and have the expectation of being in any way heard or understood. I don’t know what to do to change that besides being more out, in more places, myself.

4 thoughts on “Coming Out to Strangers at Shabbat Lunch

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