The Orthodox Community at Penn (OCP) has developed a sort-of ritual for gay Jews coming out. People who have been living in the closet, perhaps out to a few friends and family members, will invite the ~200 person community over for a Friday night tisch. Tisches and onegs usually involve food and singing, but these consist of someone telling their personal story in a speech about their decision to reconcile being observant and being gay. People are met with overwhelming support, there are lots of hugs and accolades, some tears are shed, and the conversations continue into the evening and throughout the weekend.
Two people at Penn came out in this way before I did. Their stories are not mine to tell, but I’ll talk a little about the decisions I went through as I tried to figure out if I needed to come out in the same way.
I decided that “gay” was the right label for me about two days before I started coming out to my closest friends, one week before I came out to my parents, and a month before I came out to the entire OCP. As such, my “closet” was essentially non-existent. I thought of myself as a closeted bisexual for about four years, and told a few people so in that time, but gay advocacy and actualization of this part of my identity was not really something I thought about until I was at the point that I wanted to come out. This all happened in June, when I was working in a chemistry lab at Penn for the summer, and so the observant Jewish community present numbered about 30 rather than 200.
I had many one-on-one conversations with those friends who were here in those first few weeks, which was exhausting. Helpful for defining what I actually believed, wonderful for seeing the amount of support that was there for me, but exhausting. I started to feel a need to talk about my sexuality in group setting, rather than one-on-one, in order to legitimize that this could actually be public knowledge now, but faced the same problem — if I was always coming out, I was always creating social situations that revolved around myself, and aside from being rude that was also exhausting. I guess that I would have eventually reached the point where this stopped happening, but I would have then had to do the same thing all over again in the fall when people came back to campus. And so I wrote a dvar Torah and sent it out to a large list of friends and acquaintances, with the request that the “share it as [they] see fit.”
About 50 email responses and over 600 page views later, I realized something: this was also exhausting.
I concluded my coming out dvar Torah:
I hope to see a day where LGBT participation in the Orthodox community is unremarkable. Until that time, I am happy to join the fight and declare my vested interest in the outcome.
Seven months later, I’ve realized how inconsistent my action of coming out very deliberately and publicly was with the stated goal of making LGBT participation in observant Judaism unremarkable. We joke now that here at Penn, one who wants to come out has to throw a party. This is the right approach for some people, as it probably was for me at that time. But I wonder, could I have sent a more useful message to this community by just continuing to show up while living as openly gay? The coming-out tisch was remarkable the first time and beautiful the second time, but by doing something similar the third time did I accidentally make it a ritual? This is not a sustainable model.
Speaking at KOACH Kallah on February 16 (Dvar Torah, Parshat Terumah) brought this whole experience to some kind of closure. The more subtle nature of coming out in that speech, where my queer identity was an idea introduced at the end rather than the reason behind the entire interpretation, is the way that I wanted to come out from the beginning.
This might just represent a natural progression in the standard narrative. Being gay has to supercede all other identity elements for some time, but then it’s allowed to contract and make room for other interests. Still, I fear that as long as coming out is a big deal, being gay will be a big deal, and true equality can’t happen if being gay is still a big deal.