As I wrote in the pedagogical, recently paperbacked anthology Youth in Crisis: What Everyone Should Know About Growing Up Gay (edited by Mitchell Gold), I was 18 when I came out to my Orthodox Jewish parents in an 18-page, college-ruled, handwritten letter (with additional reading materials in the back). In this letter, which I made copies of and read out loud to my family, I quoted an article my late aunt had given to me from the right-wing newspaper The Jewish Press called “The Plague of the Gays.” Before I was ready to come out and accept myself, I had read this article, which argued that “gays” are the causes of disease and the potential destruction of civilization. I quoted this in my coming-out letter so my family would better understand how difficult it is to be gay within the Orthodox community. Since I’ve come out, I have made it my artistic mission to be an example for gay youth who feel the isolation and fear of growing up gay in intensely religious or homophobic environments.
Almost 20 years later, last week, as I was hopping into a cab outside a gay club, a 22-year-old man named Chaim Levin stopped me to tell me how much my music and what I had written in Youth in Crisis had helped pave the way for him. He told me that he had recently written an op-ed published in The Jewish Press about surviving bullying and torment within the frum community (which means “observant,” “religious,” or “Orthodox” Jewish community). I was happy and surprised to hear that The Jewish Press would publish an article from the perspective of a gay man.
Only after I got home did I realize that Chaim was the same person I had seen just days before in a YouTube video. In the video, he said he had been sexually abused by a religious leader when he was 19 and undergoing conversion therapy to rid himself of his homosexuality. This happened under the watch of an organization named JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), at which my own parents attended meetings until recently to reconcile their religious beliefs with the fact that their son is gay and perhaps to see if there is any hope for me to live a “normal” life.
I remember my mother calling me after her first meeting there a few years ago, saying that the head of the organization told her that his son was a big fan of mine. He told my mother that I was a leader and role model for these gay Jewish kids—for them, I was a gay icon, and thus it would be futile to try and change me or make me straight. My parents, being what I call “show Jews,” enjoyed feeling like the parents of a celebrity, and I think that’s why they continued to stay involved. From their perspective, JONAH was doing the right thing because it was not forcing anyone to be straight but offering another “alternative.” They were not aware of the kind of “reparative therapy” that JONAH put Chaim and other boys through—a therapist who was making men and boys take off their clothes in front of him in order to get in touch with their masculinity so they could be straight.
After meeting Chaim, I read his heartbreaking article, which was completely respectful of the Orthodox community in which he grew up and is still personally and actively connected to. Chaim wrote, “I now have a sense of pride about who I am. However, I understand the concept of ‘pride’ as combating the years of self-shame and instead promoting a sense of personal self worth … I know that ‘being gay’ does not express anything about personal intimate behavior; it merely expresses an orientation.”
I can completely relate to Chaim’s struggle of not wanting to disavow his Jewish identity for the sake of his gay identity.
Chaim had written his piece because the “It Gets Better” video he participated in got attacked in The Jewish Press last June by one of its op-ed writers. In this first piece, author Elliot Resnick accused Jewish homosexuals of being self-indulgent, and stated, “But many Orthodox homosexuals seem uninterested in attaining spiritual greatness or in struggling with their feelings like so many of their brethren. Instead, they declare that we must recognize them. We must acknowledge their desires. We must affirm their feelings.”
On Tuesday, Prop 8, California’s ban on gay marriage, was called unconstitutional by a federal appeals court. But we’re still not even close to being truly accepted. This past week, the editorial board of The Jewish Press published yet another article, called “The Jewish Press Won’t Be Silenced,” defending its decision to publish Chaim’s op-ed—some of its advertisers had threatened the publication, it turned out. The Jewish Press wrote, “We did not run this article to promote homosexuality. We did not run this article to condone anti-halachic behavior. We did not run this article to intimate that homosexual behavior could be a Jewish life choice … We ran this article because, whether one wants to admit it or not, there is a serious problem that some members of our religious community face—day in and day out.”
In order to get space in The Jewish Press to engage in any conversation about sexuality, you have to maintain that you are still “religious”—if you don’t accept certain terms (like the Torah was written by God, for example), there is no use in having the conversation from their perspective. In Chaim’s blog, Gotta Give ‘Em Hope (getting his title from the famous Harvey Milk speech), he defends himself from the words of hate spewed by the frum community of which he is a part and debates them on their terms.
As someone who grew up Orthodox and went to yeshiva (although not nearly as fundamentalist as Chaim’s upbringing), I feel humbled and touched that Chaim told me I inspired him and even helped him through a time when he thought of taking his own life. I can completely relate to his struggle of not wanting to disavow his Jewish identity for the sake of his gay identity. What Chaim is doing in his personal life requires tremendous courage. Coming out within the ultra-Orthodox community on YouTube and in The Jewish Press is downright heroic.
I refused to talk, sing, or write about my sexuality in Orthodox terms years ago. I think that’s why I ended up on the cutting-room floor of Sandi Dubowski’s important 2001 film Trembling Before G-d, which, as far as I know, was the first time there was even any kind of public discussion of homosexuality within the Orthodox community outside of talking about it as “sin.” But now I am promoting, condoning, and endorsing the “homosexual lifestyle”; I want to lead my fellow Jews to a life of less restriction, shame, and prohibition and more sexual freedom and liberty. For me, that doesn’t mean abandoning my Jewish ritual and culture—I cherish the rich spiritual and historical customs that I grew up practicing on a daily basis. However, I choose not to follow halacha, or Jewish law, as determined by the Orthodox community (or as they would say, as determined by the Torah and God).
If I put on tefillin (phylacteries), I can’t help but remember staring at the other boys, praying beside me, bound in leather straps around their bulging biceps. I grew up being told that Jews aren’t allowed to be buried in Jewish cemeteries if they have a tattoo, but I got one anyway. (Mine is the number 18. I got it when I was 18, to symbolize the age I was when I came out and the Hebrew numerology for the word chai, which means life.) I wear my tzitzit and my chai necklace proudly in photographs.
Will my endorsement of homosexual “perversion” turn innocent Jewish children gay, as these fundamentalists would like people to think? No, it won’t. But it could make people more comfortable with all of who they are, and possibly save lives. Acceptance and liberation affect everyone—straight people, too. This journey of discovering the balance between the spirit and the flesh is “attaining spiritual greatness” for me. This is my favorite religion, and I’ve worked hard and searched long to find it.