In Response to “Coming Out, Causing Change”

The following blog post is in response to “Coming Out, Causing Change,” a blog post on Gabriel Goldstein’s blog, The Thoughts of a Jewish Teenager.

 

Dear Gabriel,

I feel like we already know each other in an odd way — not in the sense that we’ve ever met before (because I’m pretty sure that we haven’t), but because you’re the same type of supportive friend that I was fortunate enough to find over the two years since I’ve come out of the closet.

Coming out of the closet is never an easy thing — and is even less so when you’re doing it in an Orthodox high school. When I came out during March of my sophomore year of high school to my best friends, I had no idea they would respond. I was welcomed with an overwhelming support that pushed me further out of the closet, and led me to come out to other friends and the rest of my school. It was these closest friends — the ones to whom I came out first — that led me to begin writing about my experiences coming out of the closet on widely-read blogs, like MyJewishLearning and the Huffington Post.

Even after being out of the closet for almost two years, part of me is still that scared, lonely 16-year-old who had just come out to his best friends, and was too incredibly scared to even think of coming out to anyone else, let alone my parents and family and the rest of my grade. You talked about in your blog post about the fear, rejection, and seclusion that you postulate a queer student would have to endure should he or she come out of the closet. For me — as I’m sure it was for your friend — those fears of losing friends were real, everyday concerns. Every time I was about to come out to someone, my hands would go cold, and I would ask myself: what if they think less of me because of it?

And that did happen: to be sure, I did have friends who couldn’t wrap their heads around the notion that I, contrary to once-popular belief, was attracted to members of the same gender. At the same time, though, coming out made my close friends closer. I wasn’t a fraction of a person around them; I was a whole person. I wasn’t afraid to act stereotypical; I wasn’t afraid to act differently. I became a different person because I came out. That wouldn’t have been possible without my friends.

So, Gabriel, thank you, thank you, thank you for being the amazing friend that you are. I’m sure that I’ve been asked all of the silly questions that you say you asked your friend — and thank you for asking those questions. On behalf of all of the queer kids out there who came out, on behalf of all of them who lost a friend because of it, and on behalf of all of them whose friendships became closer because of their coming out: thank you for being more than just a supportive ally. Thank you for being a supportive friend. It is people like you who  are the drivers of change.

Amram

An Update & Some Thoughts on the Torah Portion

I sincerely apologize for not keeping this blog updated. I have, however, been writing. If you want to keep up with my writing, you can read my pieces on the Huffington Post Teen, or follow me on Twitter find out when I post pieces on other sites. In the meantime, here are some musics on this week’s Torah portion that we will read in synagogue tomorrow:

 

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we see the introduction of Sabbath, immediately followed by the listing of all of the materials used to build the Tabernacle. The two are read continuously, and the implication seems to be that one idea flows right into the other. What does one have to do with the other?

To me, Biblical Judaism seems to place a large emphasis on location. We read extensively about the land of Israel and the commandments that pertain to it. We read about the Tabernacle and how it stood at the metaphorical and literal heart of the Jewish encampment in the desert, and then about the role that the Holy Temple played once it was constructed several hundred years later. The discussion of the construction of the Tabernacle occupies several full portions, and what the priests and the Levites are supposed to do inside the Tabernacle (and, later, the Holy Temple) occupy the majority of Leviticus, the book that we will begin next week. The Tabernacle and the Holy Temple were not just communal gathering places, but were also places were religion was at integral.

Today, however, Judaism looks remarkably different. In an age where we do not have the Holy Temple or the Tabernacle at the center of our religious lives, something else has replaced sacred places: sacred time. Today, practices such as the Sabbath seem to be at the center of our observance, as do other, more ritualistic practices. Tefilin (phylacteries) is laid at a certain point every day, and there are certain times by which we have to pray every day — Shacharit (the morning service) can only be said until midday, Minchah (the afternoon service) until the late afternoon, and so on. Our practices, as opposed to being relegated to a specific place that is central the Jewish community, have been adapted to relegated to certain times, but can be performed virtually anywhere. While it might be seen as better to pray with a minyan, it is certainly not required. In a world where the Jewish community is far less concentrated than it was during its encampment in the desert or its settlement in the land of Israel, times have taken on much more important roles in religion. Now, instead of gathering together in central locations to perform religious rites, we all perform them at the same, regardless of where we are.

This brings us back to this week’s parashah. I think that Moses is trying to incorporate both sacred times and places. The Torah is meant to be a timeless document: even though it was written at a specific time, and given to a specific group of people with very specific circumstances, we are challenged with finding meaning in it today, as Jews living in the twenty-first century.

Here, it seems, the Torah is helping us find the balance between the generation that received the Torah and today, and it seems to be showing us that our connection with Judaism and the Jewish people is no less because we do not have the Tabernacle or the Holy Temple, and practice Judaism in a way that would be foreign to the Dor Ha’Midbar, the Generation of the Desert that received the Torah. How we connect to religion may be different, but the strength of that connection is not. Perhaps the Torah, more than being a book of laws or history or a historical document, is meant to act as a connection between a time when Judaism was a religion of sacred place and a religion of sacred time.

A Defense of Political Animals’s Portrayal of the Gay Son

Blogger Rich Dweck, author of the blog Jewish Gay Elephant, wrote a blog post the other day about the portrayal of the gay son in USA’s mini-series Political Animals, who, in the show, is portrayed as a recovering alcoholic, drug addict, and suicidal. Dweck criticizes the show, and asks why the gay son is portrayed this way, as opposed to his older, straight brother, who is beginning his career in politics and engaged.

Although the mini-series just premiered this week and is expected to run for, I believe, five more episodes, I think I can see why. The central character in the show — the former First Lady and current Secretary of State, played really well by Sigourney Weaver — briefly mentions the hardships and tribulations that her younger son had to go through as a result of being the first openly gay First Son. While it might be nice, on the outset, to have the gay son to endure whatever he had to endure to come out of the closet in a environment which certainly wasn’t conducive to doing so and emerging from that with a burgeoning career as a civil servant, I think this gives the younger son much more room to develop as a character.

Whether or not a six-episode mini-series provides enough time to develop a character  that much is up for debate, and I’m not sure if it is — but that’s a different issue entirely.

From a writer’s standpoint, being gay is an easy segue into being a drug addict and lost, whereas having the gay son succeed while his straight brother is failing would require the writers of the show to produce a completely new storyline for the straight brothers. However, I think this goes a little deeper Dweck points out that now, when queer people are becoming increasingly vocal and are afforded more opportunities than ever before, it is imperative to portray queer characters on television as equally successful.

To me, though, this seems to be strikingly similar to many of the complaints about Chris Colfer’s portrayal of Kurt on the television show Glee before he was joined by a host of queer characters. Colfer, many said, was portraying the only gay character on the show as “too gay,” and was painting the LGBT+ community, and in particular gay men, as a certain group of stereotypes that — let’s face it here — many gay men do perpetuate. Instead, many said, Colfer should be portraying a gay character that was less stereotypically gay to show that the LGBT+ community is really no different than the heterosexual community.

One of the issues I took up with this at the time, though, was the fact that while there is a time and place to show that we of the LGBT+ community is no different than our straight counterparts, television shows are not necessarily the place to do it, least of all in a show like Glee, where originality and deviation from the norm is actively encouraged (just look at The Glee Project). Additionally, Colfer’s portrayal of Kurt as actively perpetuating just about  every gay stereotype that I can think of put him in the unique position to show the world the types of problems that gay teenagers face in the process of accepting their sexuality, coming out of the closet, and dealing with bullying. In doing so, I believe, Glee helped highlight the problem that is bullying and the fact that it needs to be stopped.

I think the gay son in Political Animals is in a similar position. Today, Dweck’s right: there are successful members of the LGBT+ community out there, making names for themselves and showing the world that you can be queer and successful. People like Barney Frank, Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, and David Levithan are all prime examples of that.

However, it’s equally important to note that coming out of the closet — and certainly not in the public way that the fictional gay son in Political Animals seems to have done — can drive people down a very different road that the aforementioned famous queer politicians, actors, and authors and the success that they built up to. In making the gay son the drug-addicted, suicidal, and recovering alcoholic person he is, the show is highlighting the fact that not every gay person ends up the same way as Ellen DeGeneres. For some, the troubles they face as a result of coming out of the closet does lead them down the path to drugs and suicide, as has been pointed out by the numerous and tragic suicides of queer teens in the past year. Depressing though it may be, Political Animals is showing the darker and still prevalent side to coming out of the closet. In doing so, it might highlight the fact that, although it is getting better and easier to come out of the closet, there is still this aspect to it, and that aspect needs to change. Or, rather, we need to change to make sure that queer people coming out of the closet do not end up the same way the gay son in Political Animals did.

On the Difference Between Being Pro-Gay and Indifferent

Earlier this week, as LGBTQNation reports, Chuck Norris published an article in AmmoLand.com (the full text of the article can be found here) that claimed that Obama was working to create a “pro-gay” Boy Scouts of America; he claims that there have been too many coincidences that correspond to Obama’s increasingly pro-marriage equality stance and James Tunley’s (the CEO of Ernst & Young and the only member of the board Boy Scouts’ board to say that gays should be allowed into the BSA) announcement.

As a bit of background, the Boy Scouts have repeatedly stated that openly gay scouts cannot serve as role models most recently in February 2002 (the text of this resolution can be found here), although they have never been explicitly banned from the BSA.

First, I should point out that, in the same press release cited above, the Boy Scouts said that they have a duty to instill values in youth, and that an “[A]vowed homosexual” cannot serve as an appropriate role model for the youth that go through the BSA. According to Norris, the Boy Scouts of America can reserve the right, under the First Amendment, to deny gays, atheists, and agnostics the right to serve as role models or leaders in the BSA (according to the press release, this is not something that can be decided by individual scout chapters).

It’s here that, I guess, would be a good place to differentiate between being “pro-gay” and being indifferent and treating everyone with the same equal rights that should be afforded them.

This blog, I would say, is “pro-gay.” In it, I explicitly advocate on behalf of the LGBT+ community, and advocate for equal rights for gay and lesbian couples, be it in regards to civil marriage or in a religious setting (like a synagogue). I do so unabashedly. In comparison, allowing openly gay scouts to serve as role models for younger leaders would not, in any way, shape, or form, endorse the LGBT+ community. It would be sending out the message that sexual orientation has nothing to do with one’s ability to instill traditional virtues into younger scouts — values such as integrity and equality, which I think are traditional leaders for anyone and everyone. Allowing LGBT+ scouts to serve as role models would not, in any way, say that scouts should march in Pride Parades or go partying in gay bars. It would simply show that effective role models and leaders are judged by the content of their character as opposed as whom they love. That’s not being “pro-gay” — that’s not even special treatment. That’s just being indifferent.

If the Boy Scouts of America wanted to be “pro-gay,” they would create programming specifically geared toward including LGBT+ scouts or funding programming for LGBT+ students. If they wanted to be “pro-gay,” they would create medals and awards for LGBT+ scouts and specifically for them. Allowing openly LGBT+ scouts to assume leadership roles within the BSA would not, in any way, be endorsing the LGBT+ community — instead, it would be showing that sexual orientation is not something that affects the virtues necessary for leadership within the BSA. In fact, showing younger scouts that sexual orientation is not something that is used as a factor in determining a leader would be sending out the message to younger scouts that it, too can be the same character-molding experience that it has been for so many other people before them, people like former President John F. Kennedy, who had this to say about the Boy Scouts of America at their 50th anniversary (this text comes from the same article that Norris wrote):

It has helped to mold character, to form friendships, to provide a worthwhile outlet for the natural energies of growing boys and to train these boys to become good citizens of the future. In a very real sense, the principles learned and practiced as Boy Scouts add to the strength of America and her ideals.

These ideals are not preserving the Bible or religion. These ideals are the creating of the Great American Melting Pot, a place where everyone was offered the same opportunity.

If the Boy Scouts of America really embody and encourage American ideals, then it is time for it to show that, so too, LGBT+ scouts have the same opportunity as their straight counterparts in the organization. If they truly to foster these American values, then they have the obligation to offer gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender scouts the opportunities for leadership and judging leaders based on their character, not on their sexual orientation.

A Defense of Conservative Gays Endorsing Mitt Romney

Although I don’t personally endorse Romney — nor am I even old enough to vote — here’s my approach to why GOProud would continue to endorse Romney even after Obama announced he supported marriage equality, whereas Romney continues to refuse to.

This past Wednesday, conservative gay political group GOProud announced that it endorsed Romney for the 2012 upcoming presidential elections. The group said that they will continue to endorse Romney for his economic policies, although they do disagree with his social policies — namely, his refusal to endorse marriage equality or even domestic partnerships or civil unions.

As someone who has been on the more liberal side of politics from the time I could tell the difference (which coincided with the 2008 elections, where my middle school held a mock debate and elections and I was McCain — I won, by the way, in a 3:1 landslide victory. Many of my peers were crushed when the actual elections did not turn out the same way.),  I guess I owe it to myself to try and find a reason for why GOProud would endorse Romney.

Now, to be clear, the only reason that this is striking is specifically because Obama has recently announced his support of marriage equality. Before then, it really didn’t matter when it came to the presidential elections, as no candidate has ever before endorsed marriage equality.

While the presidential candidates that ran on the Republican tickets for the upcoming elections seem rather, shall we say, lackluster stances when it comes to marriage equality (with the notable exception of Ron Paul), it is important to note that marriage equality is not everyone’s top issue, even if they are themselves LGBT+ and would directly be affected by a president’s refusal to support marriage equality.

Second, and perhaps more convincing, there is a new and growing push among conservatives to support marriage equality. The reason cited by these conservatives is that supporting marriage equality is not necessarily in line with the Republican platform insofar as marriage equality would allow gays to vote, but, instead, it would fall directly under the libertarian belief of limiting government control over who does what in our country. By specifically refusing to support marriage equality, the theory continues, Republicans are contradicting the very libertarian beliefs that they have adopted for their economic policies. (This same libertarian philosophy, by the way, could also be applied to other social policies, such as abortion.)

Now, why don’t Republicans — specifically, Mitt Romney — support marriage equality? There are several reasons.

The first is the fact that the Republican Party, overall, is effectively in bed with the Christian right, which greatly inhibits their ability to support or endorse something that runs contrary to the Christian faith. Separation of Church and State aside, supporting marriage equality would leave the Republican Party without the support of the Christian right, leaving the Republican Party without a key group that has supported them for several decades, and leave that same key group that is the Christian right disenfranchised from the political system, which is something neither group would want — and Mitt Romney has caught so much flack for his Mormonism that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for him to further alienate the Christian right.

The second and perhaps more pressing reason is the ever-increasing partisanship of American politics to the point that neither major party is willing to compromise on issues. Author and vlogger John Green of the Vlogbrothers did a vlog back in April about the lack of will on either side to compromise, citing the lapse of funding of the Federal Aviation Administration, Medicare, and highway planning as just a few examples of issues that one party refuses to let go of despite the need for reforms. The same holds true for marriage equality: as one party (the Democratic Party) becomes increasingly supportive of the idea, the other party (the Republican Party) will become increasingly hostile to the idea. In doing so, it will become more and more difficult to get anything passed in Congress, as the two parties are unable to agree on an issue and work together, across party lines, to resolve the issue. Instead, the two parties will continue bickering and refuse to let go of their stance, either for ideological reasons or out of fear of losing key supporters.

In that vein, in a way, it’s actually good that GOProud has endorsed Romney. By showing that the LGBT+ community can defy the stereotype of being politically liberal and endorsing a Republican (read: politically and socially conservative) candidate for this election, we can actually begin to bridge the gap of partisan politics and move toward finding a bipartisan issue to agree on and work together to solve. GOProud has shown us that, one day, we could make marriage equality a bipartisan issue and has shown the Republican Party that support of marriage equality does not preclude one from a political affiliation, nor does it force a person to define his or her political affiliation solely on the issue of marriage equality. One can only hope that other groups can bridge the gap left between the two political parties on other issues, too, or for other LGBT+ groups to endorse Republican candidates, thereby, in a way, forcing the two political parties to work together on the issue to make marriage equality legal on a federal level.

On Leprosy, Hair, and Yom ha’Atzmaut

Although I don’t generally post things like this, I think this is an idea that merits sharing outside of my school’s Torah publication. Enjoy! -A

As part of the process of re-purification of a metzora (a person who was stricken with tzaraat, leprosy), the metzora must shave all of his/her hair off before rejoining society and B’nei Yisrael’s encampment. Such an act is not, however, unique to the purification of the metzora — this idea is mentioned in other places, too. For example, when a nazir completes the time that he promised to be a nazir, his hair is also shaved off One can ask: why is hair so significant that it should be such an important part of the process of purification?

Last September, Lady Gaga dedicated a song from her latest album, entitled “Hair,” to Jamie Rodemeyer, a high school freshman who took his own life as the result of being mercilessly bullied. She explained that “Hair” was meant to be a metaphor for high school — in high school, she said, all you have is your identity, your own hair. Once you are stripped of that, you have nothing. Perhaps Lady Gaga, known for her eccentric clothing and hair, is right: one’s hair does seem to play a role in shaping a person’s identity. In literature, for example, hair (especially facial hair) is often used to symbolize masculinity. In Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, facial hair is used to symbolize masculinity, and the gruffness and subhuman nature often stereotypically associated with masculinity. When Rose, one of the female protagonists in the book, shaves her fiancee’s beard off, we draw a connection between his beard and masculinity, a defining part (up until that point) in his identity.

So we see how hair can be considered important to our identities. How does this, in turn, relate to the metzora? Perhaps, if we looked at this from a literary perspective, this is meant to be something to humiliate the metzora by, quite literally, “shaving” him of his masculinity.

However, I would like to look at this from a different perspective. In seventh grade, my Chumash teacher explained that the reason the halakhot of birth and the metzora are juxtaposed in the Torah is to emphasize the fact that one who is purified from tzaraat is considered to have been born anew, just like a newborn baby. The former metzora now is tasked with entering society as a new person, like a baby is to fashion a new life for him- or herself.

Perhaps the aspect of shaving a metzora‘s hair furthers this idea of renewal. In a way, it seems to be a physical manifestation of the metzora‘s rebirth and his or her reentering society as a new person, a baby. By shaving off the metzora‘s hair — his identity — we give the metzora a fresh start, a rebirth, of sorts. We allow the metzora to fashion a whole new identity for him- or herself, and allow the metzora to shed his old identity and whatever gave him or her tzaraat in the first place. We allow the metzora to reenter society, to continue the metaphor, with a completely new “hairstyle,” a new identity.

Today, Jews around the world celebreated Yom ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. On May 5th, 1948, the Jewish people collectively “shaved their hair” and started anew, in a new land of their own. Despite the hardships that the 1930s and 40s brought upon European Jewry, these Jewish communities were able to find shelter in Israel after its establishment, developing new “hair,” a new society, in the process.

On Pinkwashing and Israel’s Human Rights Policies

After Tel Aviv was crowned the “Gay Capital” of the world (beating out New York, San Francisco, and Toronto, all of whom are considered to be the top of the “gay friendly” city scale), a new wave of anti-Israel sentiment emerged: the idea of “pinkwashing,” or Israel’s manipulation of its very good treatment of its LGBT+ population — cross-honoring same-gender marriages performed abroad (even though Israel itself does not perform them as per the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate), allowing same-gender couples to adopt, and even funding (at the city level) a youth center for queer teenagers in Tel Aviv — to mask the, what they often say, is the rampant violation of the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Most recently, a group of LGBT+ Israeli teenagers was set to meet with the Seattle LGBT Commission, to discuss combating homophobia while touring the United States. However, Jason Kirchick reports on Haaretz, they were refused the meeting after Seattle University School of Law Assistant Professor Dean Spade, one of the leaders of the so-called “pinkwashing movement” said that such a meeting would only be reinforcing the pinkwashing done by Israeli society today.

The basis of Spade’s argument is that there is homophobia and transphobia present in both Israeli and Palestinian society, and the use of Israel’s acceptance of the LGBT+ community is an unfair portrayal of society and worsens the PR image of the Palestinian community at the same time.

(As an aside, the idea of pinkwashing is not unique to Spade — Aeyel Gross, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, also supports the anti-pinkwashing movement, as seen in a video from the AP that I cannot seem to find a direct link to right now, but can be found in slide 7 of the slideshow at the bottom of this article from the Huffington Post.)

This is true — there is, without a doubt, homophobia ever-present in Israeli society. And although I’ve only been in Israel for a brief week, I’ve spoken to several leaders of the LGBT+ movement while I attended this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., including one of the founding members of the Labor Party LGBT Circle, the LGBT+ faction of Israel’s Labor Party. While homophobia and rejection of the LGBT+ community does exist, particularly in regards to the religious right, Israel has never sanctioned the punishment of queer citizens for identifying as LGBT+ (as has been done in the territories).

Secondly, as Kirchick points out, no one before the rise of the pinkwashing movement has ever even tried to equate the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza with Israel’s (or the Palestinians’) acceptance of the LGBT+ community. The two are inherently separate issues, and, in my opinion, cannot be equated. While there is an occupation in the Palestinian territories — even Yossi Klein HaLeivi, an Israeli journalist to the right of the political spectrum admits this in an article for Foreign Affairs — there is no reason that Israel’s acceptance of the LGBT+ community should be used in the same equation as the occupation.

Additionally, as Queerty’s Dan Avery points out, the organizations sponsoring the meeting with the Seattle LGBT Commission, chiefly the Association of Israeli LGBT Educational Organizations (AILO for short), is a non-government organzation — it has absolutely no bearing on Israel’s foreign policy, particularly in relation to its treatment or regarding of the Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Additionally, this delegation was not travelling for political reasons — Avery points out, via A Wider Bridge — that the group was working with PFLAG boards and chapters on combating homophobia and acceptance by parents of LGBT+ children, and HIV prevention and treatment. By refusing to meet with the delegation, the Seattle LGBT Commission missed out on the opportunity to question the legitimacy of the group and even to discuss what can be done in relation to the LGBT+ Palestinian community or other civil rights issues in Israel (even though whether or not asking the delegation about other civil rights issues is subject to a debate that I’m not going to get into here).

However, by refusing to meet with the delegation of Israeli teenagers — many of whom might even disagree with their government’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the Seattle LGBT Commission is sending out the message that we, as progressive Americans, cannot effectively enter any sort of discourse surrounding any issues revolving human rights in Israel, lest we lend legitimacy to the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. We are sending the message that the two issues are directly connected, even though, I’ll say it again: these are two separate issues that really have nothing to do with the other. You can criticize and praise a country simultaneously: I applaud President Obama’s signing the repeal of Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell, but criticize him for not having ended the Iraq War sooner. See? Was that so hard? By not meeting with the delegation, the Seattle LGBT Commission is sending out the message that some acceptance or social progress is worse than no progress.