Living in a new place surrounded by new people has given me a new appreciation of how great it is to move past the “coming out” stage with Jewish communities. Coming out with subtlety, in individual conversations, is exhausting, and when I’m around large groups of people who don’t know I’m gay I try to simplify the process prettyregularly. I recently found myself in what I believed was an “unsafe” space to come out, risked coming out anyway, and only after doing so realized that my assumptions were wrong.
It takes time to get to know a community’s standards and practices and to find the true “safe spaces.” But something I took for granted in the liberal enclaves in which I’ve found myself are literal labels on safe spaces — stickers on teachers’ offices, classrooms, and Hillel offices indicating that one can identify oneself as LGBT there and be met with support. At this time where changes are happening so rapidly in the observant Jewish community regarding LGBT individuals, I now see the value of labeling those spaces where one knows one can be out and proud.
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.
Certain reagents used in chemistry are called “pyrophoric,” for a unique property they possess: spontaneous reaction with oxygen or water vapor to ignite. These reagents are strong bases and are extremely useful in synthesis, but their inherent danger demands an absolute focus on the task at hand whenever they’re being used. When I’m working with pyrophoric materials, I’m thinking of nothing but the pyrophoric material in front of me.
Prayer experiences with this same intensity are rare but incredible. Lately, a major distraction of mine in trying to get to that state are structural issues with prayer that come from being gay. Thinking about my sexual orientation is the main distraction which infringes on my religious life in a way that it doesn’t in my life in the lab, and one of the main things that causes me to think about my sexual orientation while praying is the mechitza. It can cause certain distractions of attraction.
Full integration of queer people into observant Jewish life will require unique restrictions as well as unique leniencies. The presence of one without the other doesn’t seem to align with Jewish thought. In every area where Jews set ourselves apart, privilege comes with restriction. Shabbat is reserved for princely rest, but controlled with a long list of prohibited activities. Observing kashrut while traveling is costly and sometimes difficult, but rewards those who do with community wherever they may find themselves. Heterosexual sex has the potential for holiness, but only if the biological restrictions of niddah are followed.
The idea of fighting for unique leniencies for queer people (loosening restrictions on same-sex sexual contact) without also fighting for special restrictions also opens up queer people to the criticism that we’re just ignoring or denying certain parts of halacha. I can’t think of what I’m doing in that way, and if the most satisfying answer that can be given for the parts of halacha that conflict with a queer identity is to ignore them, then I don’t understand how anyone can claim that it is now possible to live as observant and actively queer. I don’t want to ignore halacha; I want to figure out how halacha applies to this category of people who aren’t addressed in the Hebrew Bible: men who are predominantly attracted to men and women who are predominantly attracted to women.
As a part of Penn’s Sex Week, Jay Michaelson spoke here last Wednesday. I’d read his book (God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality) over the summer and knew that he had a similar background and world-view to my own, and I was thrilled to find that his talk exceeded my already high expectations. The title was “Reclaiming Pleasure: Constructing a Non-Oppressive, Non-Repressive Sexual Ethic in the Shadow of Religion.” A lot of the subject matter was directly linked to sex, sexual energy, and the ways that religion tries to control sex, but the biggest takeaway for me was a distinction that he drew between “good gays” and “radical queers.”
The labeling is something that had never occurred to me, but the issue that it raises is something that I now realize I’ve of course been dealing with since I came out. What it comes down to is this: “good gays”, now that they are largely being admitted to the metaphorical “country club” of straight society, are happy to exclude or are at least complicit in excluding others from the club. “Radical queers”, on the other hand, recognize and remember the oppression that they themselves dealt with when seeking admission and want to use their new-found power to improve the system. A conflict arises when you’re someone who recognizes oppression, remembers the struggle, and wants to change the system while also being informed by tradition: a religious “radical queer.” Continue reading →
עוד ישמע בערי יהודה ובחוצות ירושלים קול ששון וקול שמחה קול חתן וקול כלה
May there be heard again in the cities of Judaea and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.
I have to admit that Jewish marriage announcements make me wince. This language is an ultimately inconsequential barb that says, “you’re different.” It’s poetry and it’s tradition, and it shouldn’t go away, but it’s one of those little elements of this religion that I want the people I am praying, eating, and learning with to recognize as problematic even while accepting its durability.
This line comes from the sheva brachot, the seven wedding blessings recited for the bride and groom at the wedding ceremony itself and, in traditional circles, for the week after the wedding.
The idea behind this language, that the voice of brides and grooms is the epitome of the sound of joy and gladness, isn’t a problem for gay positivity.
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.