Danny died today
This article was originally published on 24th August 2008 on
Hod's website (the gay
religious organisation in Israel) and can be found
was written by Golda, a friend of Danny's family. She first tried to have it
published within her Chasidic community without any success. It is published
here with her kind permission.
Danny died today. He might not have been, probably wasn't, your son or
brother or friend, but he was somebody's son or brother or friend. He died
because we, as a community, do not educate our children about the things that
can kill them. We pretend, as a community, that all children are born the same
and there is no room for variation on the common theme of humanity. We do not
believe there is room in our community for people like that.
Danny was gay.
There. It's been said.
He died of HIV/AIDS because no one ever told him about that preventable
disease. No one in our Chassidic community wanted to accept that he was really
gay. They all hoped he'd forget about it, that it was a phase, and that it
would just pack up and go back wherever it came from if only they ignored it
Learning disabilities, child molestation, spousal abuse, alcohol addiction
all of these have been "outed". They've all had their day in
the orthodox press, committees have been formed, plans have been made, programs
have been developed. Having a handicapped child is no longer stigmatizing. An
orthodox alcoholic can find an orthodox AA meeting in New York City, and find
sympathetic support from others with his religious beliefs. But a boy or a girl
who is born homosexual not only doesn't have that opportunity, their actual
existence is denied. They are invisible.
If worldwide statistics hold true, one out of ten children in our classrooms
is born with an orientation other than heterosexual. The last time I looked,
there were upwards of a million Orthodox Jews in the United States. Leaving me
to wonder: What has become of the 100,000 gays and lesbians we should have been
blessed with? Are we so successful at educating our children in the fine art of
being a mother or father that their gayness is lost? Or is there, sadly,
another reason that there are apparently no homosexuals in the Chassidic world?
Perhaps it is not their gayness which is lost, but rather, they themselves who
are lost, forever excluded and excluding themselves from the rich source of
their spirituality. How terrible to feel that one is denied the spiritual
aspects of oneself in order to express the sexual aspects. How terrible to have
to deny the sexual aspects of oneself in order to feel that one can express the
When Danny was four, he lit Shabbos candles with his sisters until his
father told him it wasn't something that boys should do. When he was five, he
asked his mother if he could marry a man instead of a woman, and understood
from her horrified response, that there was something deeply troubling about
the idea, something "unclean".
Nevertheless, when he was sixteen, he had his first homosexual experience
with another boy in his yeshiva. He had never heard anything about desire,
homosexual or otherwise, but he had spent many hours fretting that he might not
be normal in his love for other boys. He loved boys. He loved everything about
Many of you will be thinking, and I know this because I've heard you say it,
that homosexuals are "disgusting animals." One feature associated
with most animals is that they are incapable of deceit or trickery. They cannot
"choose" to be homosexual. And yet, homosexuality is common amongst
many species, including our own. While animals often operate on very primitive
levels, it would nevertheless be wrong to describe an anteater as
"disgusting" for sticking its long, sticky tongue into a termite nest
to extract insects. That is a G-d-given, instinctual action common to all
anteaters. It would be wrong, and would in fact lead to the death of the
anteater, were it not to act on its instincts. That same anteater might have
the instinct to cohabit with another male anteater. Anteaters, remember, aren't
deviants. An instinct, by definition, cannot be deviant. Anteaters aren't
homosexual just to send right-wing religious folk into paroxysms.
Is this hypothetical anteater then to be shunned and excluded from the
community of anteaters because it behaves instinctually? Because it was created
with the desire to cohabit with the same sex? We understand, that in the
anteater, homosexuality is inborn. We understand that it is inborn in penguins
and dolphins, cats, dogs, whales, sheep, monkeys, giraffes, you name
.but somehow there is reluctance when it comes to our own children, to
accept that their gayness is inborn, not something they choose for themselves
out of rebellion or psychosis.
Danny's parents noticed that he was different from their other boys but they
hoped he'd "grow out of it." They closed down conversations in which
Danny tried to express his feelings. As Danny grew older, they responded to him
ever more rigidly and dogmatically. They knew the name for what their son was,
but they didn't share it with him. They were afraid to say the word aloud, even
to themselves. They were unable to give Danny the skills he needed to live as
himself, because they couldn't admit what that was. They couldn't give him an
acceptance that they didn't feel. They never told him about HIV/AIDS, even as
it became a very real possibility. They gave him silence.
G-d gives each and every one of us a great gift when we are born. He gives
us the chance to choose the way we will live our lives, the mitzvos we will and
will not do. The religious police are not sitting in our kitchens or on our
headboards at night to make sure that we are following each and every dictate
of the Torah perfectly. That would be the job of our consciences.
If I, as a Jew, decide not to use Chalav Yisroel milk, that is ultimately
between me and G-d and it is no one else's business. If Danny, as a frum Jew
who also happened to be gay, decided to have sex with other men, that was
nobody's business but his own. Everybody gets to make their own choices about
how they are going to live as a Jew in this world. That is the way G-d, in His
infinite wisdom, set it up. That is the only way we can receive any credit,
because if all the choices were premade for us, there would be no greatness in
choosing wisely. Thus, choice becomes the very foundation stone to our presence
here in this world.
If life is a test, only G-d can grade the papers. Not us. We're not wise
enough or kind enough, and most importantly, we don't understand the questions,
so how can we hope to understand each person's answers?
All of this is to say that there is no way of knowing if Danny's choices in
life were any better or worse than mine. They were simply different. Just
because a Jew does not observe each and every mitzvah in precisely the same way
as everybody else does not mean, cannot mean, that he is disconnected from G-d.
He is just as loved as every other Jew. He is just as precious. When Danny had
sex with other young men and did mitzvos, he was gay and frum. No
But there is a widespread perception that one cannot be frum and gay at the
same time. How strange.
One may be a gossip and frum at the same time. One may cheat in business or
incorrectly weight ones scales and still be considered frum. One may be
arrogant and frum. All of these things are described in the same way as
homosexuality, as an abomination, and all of these types of people are freely
accepted as members of orthodox and Chassidic shuls. We are, after all, flawed
human beings who are doing the best we can with what we have, and everyone
seems to understand that.
The Torah does not forbid homosexual desire. It does not even forbid
homosexual marriage. It does forbid a certain homosexual act. Even performance
of that act does not make somebody less Jewish, or even less frum. It makes
them human. It indicates that they are indulging in the very human right to
make one's own choices. Everyone makes little excuses for their own deviations
from the "norm" but for some reason homosexuality has been left out
of the loop of forgiveness.
A disciple of the Baal Shem Tov once came to him, all hot and bothered, and
eagerly reported the grave sin of another man. "What shall we do,
Rebbe?" asked the disciple. "Shall we shun him? Excommunicate him?
"No," said the Baal Shem Tov, "We shall love him even
I would like to imagine our community a little different than it currently
is. Dare I say a little better? A little wiser, a little less judgmental, and a
little easier to live in, a little more loving. We are, after all, the
spiritual descendents of the Baal Shem Tov.
I imagine a shul where gay men and women feel welcome. I imagine a school
which acknowledges that some of its students are gay, just as it acknowledges
and assists those students who have alternate learning styles, or those who are
gifted with photographic memories, or those who come from dysfunctional homes.
I imagine a community in which there is knowledge and understanding instead of
fear and intolerance and shame. I imagine a family in which Danny was seen as
an individual, where his differences were noticed early and he was supported in
his choices; a home where he was given resources to keep himself safe and
healthy, mentally and physically, instead of learning about HIV/AIDS that cold
winter morning in the social worker's office in Manhattan, when he was told
that he was probably going to die. I imagine a eulogy in which Danny's life was
celebrated as it was, as Danny chose it to be, instead of as the Chassidic
community wished it had been.
Healing can only come with acceptance. Until there is acceptance of the gay
men and women in our community, we can never hope to have a whole community. We
will continue to lose children to assimilation, to loveless straight marriages,
to infidelity, to divorce, and to HIV/AIDS. We will continue to lose many of
the most spiritually attuned children in the classrooms, often those who are
most likely to add truth and richness to our understanding of what it means to
be Jewish. And we will lose them to the pain of suppressing their unvoiced and
unvoicable desire for a partner of the same sex.
Danny died today. Directly, because of HIV/AIDS. Indirectly, because of our
It's time to talk.