The Ḥesed Problem with Internet Anonymity

An anonymous listserv for observant LGBT Jews has lately been having some security issues. Spammers have been emailing out unpleasant words, including the standard diatribes against homosexuality. Some of the content of these messages, however, is funnier—a word-for-word copy of an invitation to the NYC pride march, except with incorrect meeting locations noted. A solicitation for an “orthoprax friend with benefits” (what would this relationship entail, talking to each other?) that came complete with a nude photo. I’m sworn to secrecy about what happens on the listserv, but these emails haven’t actually come through the listserv infrastructure, and that’s why, after talking to the moderator, I feel comfortable revealing their content. This situation illustrates the problem with the quasi-anonymous space that gay Jews have constructed as our “community” online.

I say “quasi-anonymous” because nowadays nothing online is actually anonymous. One of the features of these spam emails is that they went out with every member of the (normally blind) list in the the “to:” field, so if one was on this listserv with an email address linked to other online profiles, one’s membership was effectively published last week to every other member. I’m sure this is a scary thought to some people, because one of the promises of a group like this is that it allows for your virtual identity to remain unlinked with your real identity.

The idea of being anonymous is absent from how I usually think about Jewish community. When I show up at Saturday morning services at a foreign synagogue I’m often offered an aliyah, which announces my name and my parents’ names to the whole congregation before I even get invited to Shabbat lunch. Jewish geography is a standard component of any conversation between two Jews meeting for the first time. Jews are not comfortable with anonymity, perhaps because we know how much more useful and fun it is to know something about the people we’re interacting with besides what we’re seeing in the moment. Our school and camp affiliations, or our family names, take care of a good deal of vetting.

One of the beautiful things about this system is that it encourages looking beyond first impressions. If my friend’s brother had, as a camp counselor, the sister of someone who gives me a weird first impression, I’m all the more likely to give that person a second, third, and fourth chance to capture my attention. The inclusive nature of the Jewish community depends on these kind of connections, which give us good reason to continue socializing, eating, and praying with people with whom we may have got off on the wrong foot.

And yet, this unique social networking is largely absent from “anonymous” online discussion groups, perhaps because there’s still a fear linked to people finding out that one is L, G, B or T. The situation here is reversed: people find it more comfortable to know as little as possible about those with whom they’re interacting. Discussions debating halacha, offering support about coming out to parents, or even requests to meet for coffee take on a strange tone when the people writing are identified only by email address.

(The fear is perhaps not misplaced, that offering any detail besides a shadow avatar and screen name will lead to identification. The Jewish LGBT community succeeds at not “out-ing” other community members, even if they are actively involved in these online groups. But once someone comes out in public, in person, there’s little anonymity left among queer Jews—even when we aren’t trying to proclaim our sexuality to the entire world. I can refer to an “observant gay Jew who graduated this year from [East-coast university]” while having a specific person in mind. If you’re around my age and have been through similar educational institutions, you probably also have a specific person in mind, and at this moment when not that many college-age gay Jews are out, odds are we’re thinking about the same person. We can pretend that we’re being anonymous, or speaking in generalities, but that doesn’t change the reality that we aren’t.)

But back to the spammer, a person who’s created false online identities for the sole purpose of trolling a group of queer Jews. It’s possible that the guy looking for an orthoprax friend with benefits is sincerely looking for support and just doesn’t know how to ask. Because we don’t know who he is or anything about his context, however, he gets written off as internet-crazy. This is why internet support groups can’t actually be the solution to the isolation that queer observant Jews feel, as Tablet magazine recently proclaimed. They’re a stop-gap survival measure that reveal how some of the Jewish world still requires us to be on the defensive.

So if the internet isn’t the answer to everything, how does one find gay observant Jewish community when there aren’t that many observant Jews to begin with, let alone gay Jews? In my last year of college, I found that I was able to start synthesizing the types of interactions I would expect from such a community at the interface of gay life at Penn and Jewish life at Penn. This included things like:

  • Organizing a Shabbat lunch-n-learn about homoromantic undertones in the Talmudic story of Resh Lakish and Yochanan, facilitated by a local gay couple*
  • Bringing secular gay Jewish friends to Shabbat dinners and Hillel’s purim festivities
  • Encountering another school’s Jewish community while visiting for an LGBT conference
  • Going to a gay jewish conference, which varies in religiosity from year-to-year, and teaching a session about “queering Jewish ritual”*

And what others facilitated:

  • A discussion over dinner in the Hillel dining hall for gay Jews and allies
  • A “freedom seder” co-sponsored by Queer People of Color and Penn’s LGBT Jewish group, J-Bagel
  • Small dinner discussions with Rabbi Steven Greenberg and Jay Michaelson when each came to speak
  • shiur about halacha and homosexuality by one of Penn’s Hadar fellows

In order to make the support provided by observant gay Jewish community a reality everywhere, we’ll have to draw on the solid foundations provided by gay communities and by Jewish communities, which are already widespread in America. But this will also depend on the actions of queer Jews and allies on their college campuses and in their young adult lives. If you lament the lack of local involved LGBT Jews — plan something, meet someone, start a conversation.

I promise, gay Jewish community gets better than a listserv, and not just in New York.

*I would happily make these resources available to anyone interested. I can be reached at benjamin.a.schneider<at>gmail.com.

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