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.
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.
On Christmas morning, 2012, I woke up to an email from a friend, responding to an email I had sent in June. In that June coming-out email, I had announced my intention to live as an Orthodox Jew and a gay man. It’s amazing how much things can change in six months, as one way that I make sense of Fall 2012 is as an extended break-up with Orthodoxy.
But my first thought on reading that second email was “hmm, maybe this is not an entirely hopeless enterprise.” It’s taken two months (or six months, or eight months…) to finally start the blog because I’ve been busy having life experiences to write about.
There’s a repeating pattern with Jewish rituals and identifications in my life. I gave a sermon in my Reform congregation during high school in which I discussed why I always remembered, but never expected to keep, Shabbat. Three years later, I was keeping Shabbat in college. When I started constantly wearing a baseball cap, in order to cover my head without wearing a kippah, I said “I would never wear a kippah under the baseball cap. That seems like overdoing it.” One week later I was doing just that, and two months later the baseball cap came off. When I came out to my parents in June and they expressed concern not for my sexuality, but for the difficulties I was sure to face in my adopted denomination, I told my mom “I am gay, and I am Orthodox, and that’s not going to change.” In November, I told them at Thanksgiving “I doubt that Orthodoxy will become gay-positive enough in the next 50 years that I’ll feel comfortable raising kids with that label, but I’m comfortable with this level of observance and I’m working on finding halakhic egalitarian spaces.”
I want observant Judaism in my life, and I look forward to finding the spaces that I’ll feel comfortable. If those spaces don’t yet exist, I look forward to building them. I’m starting this blog in order to join the conversation about Judaism and homosexuality on the internet and to share my experiences. Welcome!