The Gay Question: Time for Modern Orthodoxy to Take Off the Blindfold
Originally published on 1st November 2009 by The Commentator, the official student newspaper of Yeshiva College and Sy Syms School of Business. Republished here with their kind permission.
The scientific mentality and socially liberal outlook of our times has tried the viability of many ancient religious doctrines. In our Modern Orthodox community, we proudly (and hopefully modestly) maintain that our religious beliefs don't run counter to our rational tendencies. Science enriches and adorns our religious lives. Our halachic worldview is imbued with true morality. Discrepancies between modern moral standards and the Torah's edicts are explainable, and don't truly oppose the moral backbone of contemporary society. However, one pressing issue facing the modern world, one which has applied uncomfortable pressure to the Orthodox world, has been shamefully swept under the rug. The moral and religious dilemma that this issue poses has not yet been dealt with in an adequate fashion. That issue is homosexuality.
The number of openly gay individuals in the secular community overwhelmingly outweighs the number of openly gay individuals in our Orthodox community. If we assume that sexuality is not a matter of choice (the most accepted approach today) then we are confronted with an unsettling question: Is it really possible that the Orthodox world breeds fewer people wrought with the inner conflict of sexual identity? Probably not. It seems, rather, that Orthodox individuals grappling to balance their sexual desires, religious values, and social pressures are either forced into hidden lives of suffering or are driven from the derech of Orthodox life altogether in search of happiness elsewhere. Of those who stay in the Orthodox fold, many fall into marriages racked with complications, while others remain single, living bitter lives of quiet desperation. Of those who fall away from Orthodoxy, many are estranged from their families and friends, harboring a deep resentment for the Orthodox community's failure to help them and their loved ones with a painful issue. Allowing such heartache to continue in our midst without open and honestdiscussion of this issue amongst rabbinical leaders and laymen is a failure to engage in the obligation of tikkun olam and a callous neglect of individual suffering.
I have firsthand experience with the tribulation and confusion that mark the life of an Orthodox, gay individual. I am a member of the Mazer Yeshiva Programin my first year in YU, and I am gay. At age eleven I knew I was gay; it was a realization marked by the same innocence of a fifth grader who has a crush on a pretty girl in class. Since the age of fourteen, I have known that I would eventually have to face unpleasant truths in dealing with my supposedly divergent identities. I am comfortable with myself, but uncertain of the best way to tackle the next few years of my life. I have no long-term plan.
It is a constant struggle to determine what the Creator wants from me. Do I remain in the closet and single for the rest of my life? That doesn't sit well with me. Should I come out and remain single? Should I look for a relationship with a guy with whom I will have no physical contact? Is that possible? Will I someday unceremoniously collapse from the pressure and end up not frum but in a fulfilling relationship? These questions race through my mind in a perpetual cycle every day of my life. The thought of telling my family that I am gay – and probably incapable of getting married and having children – is one that douses me with waves of paralyzing fear. How does anyone bring heartbreak to unsuspecting loved ones ill-equipped to cope with the issue at hand? How does a family cope with the homosexuality of a loved one in a community where the issue is stigmatized and worthy only of hushed, whispered discussions? My situation is not unique. The questions I confront and the distress my family would face if I let them in on my secret are only the beginning of the struggle for all Orthodox, gay individuals.
Ultimately, I am not just writing to raise awareness and lambaste our collective treatment of the issue. I am writing with a rough proposal. Last year, a heart-wrenching testimony was published anonymously in Kol Hamevaser (II:4) by another gay Yeshiva University student. The author highlighted both the existence of gays in the Orthodox world, and the inconspicuous nature of their presence amongst the most frum crowds. He thought that marriage was the most preferable, though seemingly evasive, solution to his problem. Although I salute his strength and conviction, and firmly align myself with his call to awaken others to our existence, I disagree with several facets of his approach. First, the option of marriage for a gay individual is one which demands wary and cautious endorsement. I am cynical about the possibility for success in a heterosexual marriage tainted by homosexual tendencies. The fact that the Orthodox community has historically adopted this approach is problematic. Do we really want to encourage people to enter sexually dysfunctional marriages? Second, I think that the author failed to pressure the Orthodox community to take concrete action in addressing the needs of all individuals faced with the challenge of being gay.
I want to suggest a few baby steps we can take towards helping people like me. The first step we must take towards helping gay men and women in our communities is waking up our leaders. The time has come for our rabbinic leadership to realize that gays are as common in the Jewish community as they are in the secular community. If the rabbinic leadership shuts their eyes and ears, they will not make gays disappear. They will not make me disappear. It is an immature and destructive way to deal with a real problem. I urge the rebbeim of Yeshiva University and other rabbinic leaders to recognize our existence, and to take a proactive role in organizing open discussion of the issue of homosexuality. The attitude of cavalier indifference must come to an end in our community.
This will pave the way for the second, and most important, step I am proposing. We need to eliminate the stigma. In the secular world, interacting with gays and discussing gay issues has become mainstream. I think we need to follow that example. That is not to suggest that we need to accept or embrace homosexual behavior. But we need to cultivate an atmosphere of acceptance and open discussion. If we sincerely work towards this objective, we will create an environment where those confronted with this issue will feel comfortable expressing themselves. Then, we can weave support networks focused on finding comfortable solutions for affected individuals and families. This would be following the model that we embrace for all other communal problems.
The last suggestion I want to make is the creation of a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) on campus. I am, admittedly, a bit skeptical about this last suggestion, but I am curious of the results. GSAs are prevalent on campuses across the country. They are not only found on college campuses, but in high schools and middle schools as well. They promote the comfort of gay members of the school and nurture a sensitive, accepting environment. GSAs also create a forum for discussion of gay issues and concerns. The beauty of a GSA is that it can be started by a straight activist. In fact, all the members can be straight. On our campus, in particular, if someone had the guts to start one, and many people joined it, gays would feel comfortable joining under the veil of being straight. A GSA could become the mainspring in provoking progress on our treatment of homosexuality.
Hopefully, I have drawn some ears and prodded some hearts in Yeshiva University and the Modern Orthodox community at large. Properly dealing with homosexuality in our community will accomplish more than meets the eye. We would be performing a tremendous act of chessed for countless suffering individuals, both in the present and in the future. We would decrease the number of gay individuals that fall away from Orthodox life because they don't see futures for themselves in our communities. We will alleviate the pain of families who have nowhere to turn in dealing with homosexuality. And, finally, we would be true to our own Modern Orthodox values. By honestly approaching the realities we are confronted with and finding ways for our divinely dictated halachic system to solve the issues at hand, we defend the integrity of our religious beliefs. Through an honest and intensive search for the best solution to the gay question we can end a dishonorable period of apathy, and infuse Torah life with fresh credibility and esteem.