7 Orthodox Values to Guide Jewish Institutions on the Treatment of LGBT Community Members
Lessons from the Mental Health Conference on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Orthodox Community
April 19th 2015, NYC
Summarized by Mordechai Levovitz LMSW, Conference Co-Chair
I:) Preserving the Jewish Family Unit
A. It is important before adopting sociological changes or modern progressive notions, to think about how these things can affect the values that we hold dear. Preserving the traditional Hallachic (law abiding) Jewish family structure is always a valid concern and, no doubt, part of the mission of organizations like the RCA, OU, IRF and Orthodox Institutions everywhere. However, like any decision, there are consequences and costs at both ends. There has been much rhetoric about the potential damage to family life that "embracing a homosexual lifestyle" may have long term on the Orthodox family, but this conference illuminated the already demonstrated cost of not "embracing" homosexuals. One must look at the actual status quo in our community as well as the long term collateral damage to family life if Orthodox Organizations do not take a proactive role in providing support, guidance, warmth and safety to LGBT Jews in the Orthodox community.
1. Cost to Jewish Family life if we continue the way we have gone and offer no proactive support to LGBT people in the Orthodox community:
a.) The consequences of the current atmosphere that exists in the Orthodox community result in the majority of Orthodox gay men staying closeted and marrying women. This undoubtedly causes unhappy marriages, messy divorces, lying, adultery, introduction of STD's into our community, emotional harm to both parties involved, and trauma to their innocent Jewish children. Certainly this is a very real threat to Jewish family.
b.) The pressure to stay closeted in the Orthodox community has introduced a culture of systemic deception. Gay children end up lying to their parents, their schools, their friends, and even themselves. They feel they must lie because they believe they do not have the support of the community if they were to be honest. This results in most LGBT Orthodox Jews, including youth, creating "double lives". The first life is a life of constant lying, and the hidden life is an anonymous life of no accountability, no guidance, no ethics, and no safety. This is a recipe for disaster. It is surely a threat to the stability of Jewish family structure and morality.
c.) The consequences of not providing the support resources for those who need it, result in vulnerable people finding support for themselves in anyone that will offer it to them. Unfortunately that is sometimes people with less than sincere intentions. It has been reported in multiple Orthodox synagogues that closeted Orthodox gay minors are falling victim to older closeted gay older men in their community that are offering them "support and understanding". However, all too often this "support" is a grooming technique used to develop dependence and is ultimately sexualized. These minors are more vulnerable to this because there is no other healthy and responsible source of support offered in their community. This creates a situation where children in our community are more at risk for abuse from people who take advantage of their desperation. This is certainly a very real threat to our community family values.
d.) The New York Times estimates (based on Federation Study) that 74% of Jewish youth in NYC are growing up Orthodox (NYTimes, 2013). If we do not provide support resources for all the of LGBT Orthodox Jewish youth who are about to come of age and want some level of acceptance in their homes, schools, camps and communities, we will surely lose hundreds to thousands of young Jews who will leave Orthodoxy, leave their families, or worse, leave the world. This is the greatest threat to ensuring the healthy survival of Orthodox families.
II.) Preventing Sin, illicit Sexual Behavior and Promiscuity
A.) There is nothing more basic to the job of the rabbinate than trying to minimize and prevent our Orthodox constituents from engaging in sinful behavior that violates the Torah. Often it is the job of rabbis to set up Gedeirim (fences) to help distance Jews from committing sin. The conventional thinking is that expressing positive attitudes about homosexuals, or providing support resources for LGBT Orthodox Jews will promote people to violate Torah and engage in more proscribed sexual activity. While on the surface this might seem intuitive, The conference asked us to question whether this strategy actually holds up in the research. In actuality, negative messaging about homosexuality does NOT prevent homosexuals from engaging in sexual behavior. They have just as much, if not more sex; they just do it in secret, anonymously, many times irresponsibly. In fact, research shows that gay people with lower self esteem are more prone to more risky sexual behavior.
1. Pressure to stay closeted and feel shame actually cause men to have MORE sex with other men. Our current approach is actually causing more sin:
a.) Anonymity and low self esteem promotes promiscuity, unsafe sex and HIV. Research has demonstrated this over and over
(J. Martin, J. Knox. (1997) Self-esteem instability and its implications for HIV prevention among gay men, Health Social Work, (4):264-73)
(T,J. Finlayson.(2007) Effects of Stigma, Sense of Community, and Self-Esteem on the HIV Sexual Risk Behaviors of Men Who Have Sex with Men, Psychology Dissertations, George State University)
b.) Closeted gay men often find sex anonymous on craigslist and grindr and thus fall into a dark anonymous world of moral free promiscuity
c.) Closeted gay men with low self esteem are more prone to inappropriate sexual relationships, like sex with post-pubescent minors. Our negative attitudes toward homosexuals and resistance to offer any positive messages may be one of the causes of sexual abuse in our community. (Mark Blechner Ph.D, Keynote speaker at Conference)
III.) Preventing Jews from Suffering
A.) Preventing Jewish People, particularly those most vulnerable, from suffering is one of the most basic of our Jewish values. Causing suffering to others is the ultimate moral sin and everything that we stand against. Sometimes it is easy to blame the Biblical prohibition for the suffering of gay people. One could assume that it is the law itself that causes gay people pain, and such, there is little that we can do in the Orthodox community, because we do not change the laws of the Torah. However, this conference told a very different story. It suggested that the suffering of LGBT people in the Orthodox world actually has little to do with their understanding of a Posuk (biblical passage), and more to do with their feeling silenced and shamed by their family, community, schools, camps and rabbis.
1. Silencing, loneliness, shame, feeling dirty, and family disappointment are the cause of most suffering for LGBT people in the Orthodox world and lead to significantly higher rates of suicide and suicide attempts:
a.) Research finds that "Family and Community Rejection" not religion is the thing that is most related to suicide attempts in LGBT youth. LGBT youth from highly rejecting family or communities are 8 times as likely to attempt suicide than LGBT youth from families where they do not feel rejected.
(C.Ryan (2009) Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults, Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 123:1 346-352).
b.) In fact the latest research on gay Orthodox men shows no correlation between the level of religiosity and mental health disturbances (Harari, 2012). Instead it suggests that trauma is more related to how religious one's parents or community may be. This shows that it is rejection, not biblical understanding that is related to risk.
c.) The pressure to stay silent about one's orientation reinforces the shame one feels about it. The silence of others about this issue also works to reinforce that there is something so tririble about 'being gay' that it is almost unspeakable. Talking about this issue is what is healing. Silence about this issue creates unsafe environments where percieved homophobia may be stronger than the realistic attitudes.
d.) The lack of resources for LGBT people in Orthodox organizations also reinforces the shame, because it sends a message that there is something so terrible about this issue that we are not even going to deal with it. This sends the message that gay people are toxic, and will cause harm to the organization, family or school.
e.) A negative family response such as asking a child to stay closeted, being sent to a therapist to try to "heal", or not talking about a child's life while the famlily speaks about their other children, is ostracizing and traumatic for a child's development.
f). Not allowing an LGBT youth to meet other LGBT youth causes severe loneliness and isolation. It reinforces the notion that something is wrong with him/her. It causes long term harm. Meeting other LGBT youth should be the first level of intervention for vulnerable LGBT Jewish youth in the Orthodox community. Research shows again and again that the best way to fight Minority Stress is to create Collective Self Esteem among minority constituents. LGBT Orthodox Support groups can save a kid's life.
g). "Coming Out" is natural and a sign of health and normalcy. Nobody should live under a false assumption about who they are. False assumptions annihilate self esteem. It is a misconception that heterosexual people do not "come out". Straight people don’t "come out" because they do not have to. The assumption is that they are straight. Just as easily, if you assume that a straight person is gay, he will undoubtedly immediately tell you that he is heterosexual. So straight people do come out when they feel they need to. They also publicly display their heterosexuality publicly by discussing shidduchim, tzniut, inviting hundreds to their weddings, engagements and anniversaries, and publicly displaying their spouses as their partners. LGBT people not being able to do the same, sends the message that they have to live with the false assumptions about them. This causes irreparable harm to their self esteem. "Coming out", telling people that they are gay, and displaying "Pride" is a way for LGBT people to deal and counteract all the reinforced shame of feeling silenced. Straight people in the same situation would certainly do the same.
h.) You can not assume that LGBT youth know that they won't be rejected from their Orthodox family, community, school, camp or rabbi. Unless you explicitly say otherwise, LGBT youth will think that they will be rejected, so the feeling of rejection is completely real for them unless it is otherwise proactively stated by the community, school and family leaders. This assumed rejection is just as dangerous and life threatening.
IV.) Learning, Training, and Always Encouraging Expertise
A.) Learning, training, and becoming experts in our related fields are hallmark values of Judaism and in line with the Mission of every Orthodox institution. It is near impossible to be an effective rabbi, teacher or leader if you are not familiar with the issue and can not master the language and nuances involved. Yet with respect to sexual orientation and gender identity there are no training programs that help rabbis, and high school teachers better understand these issues.
At the Conference it was evident and expressed that most Orthodox teachers, therapists and rabbis need for training in issues of gender identity and sexual orientation.
1. There is a need for better education and training on the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity:
a.) Ignorance in these issues is actually causing harm because the first -responders to LGBT youth are not ready for these conversations and often say ignorant and harmful things, words or ideas. An example of this is the usage of the word "lifestyle" which LGBT youth report is a triggering and pejorative word concerning their coming out. Yet, Orthodox rabbis and teachers tend to use it during the most sensitive conversations. An gay 14 year old does not have a "lifestyle". When he is telling you that he is gay, he is saying nothing about a "lifestyle"; he is merely telling you something about who he is.
b.) Statistics and research tells us that in any class of 25 there is an overwhelming chance that one of the students will be LGBT (4% of population). It is time for Teachers and Rebbeim to approach every class knowing this reality. When a teacher assumes that someone in the class is LGBT, sensitivity in language and content will come naturally.
c.) There is no way to "encourage" at teen to become a homosexual or heterosexual. Sexual Orientation is not dependent on kindness, punishment, tone or information. Research has shown that no amount of expressed positive attitude towards gay people will turn someone on the fence gay, and no amount of negative attitudes will turn someone on the fence straight. Parents who are pro-gay do not tend to have more gay children, and parents who are anti-gay do not have any less gay children. The same is true for teachers. It is unreasonable (and a bit ridiculous) for a teacher to be worried that he/she may encourage an adolescent to turn gay.
d.) Basic language and verbiage around gender identity, transgender, transsexual, transvestite, gender nonconforming, gender disphoria, gender-queer, gender non-conforming, inter-sex, androgynous, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, queer, questioning, biological sex, assigned sex, gender expression, etc etc etc, is all not taught and remains a knowledge vacuum for most rabbis, teachers and leaders in the Orthodox community.
How can we be resources if we do not even understand the basic words?
e.) teaching about sexuality and gender, how to be a resource, how to counter-act shame, and how to create safe and welcoming environments have nothing to do with answering the questions of whether it is hallachically permissible to engage in sexual behavior. Too often people confuse best-practice as a teacher with some how giving permission to engage in sexual behavior. There is no sensitivity training that encourages teachers to give permission for students to have sex. Yet this is often the reason why LGBT sensitivity training programs are rejected.
f.) The number 1 reason why schools do not have these training is because they are "controversial" and lack any cover or endorsement from Rabbinical Organizations like the RCA, OU and other Orthodox Institutions. The positive impact that an Orthodox Institution can make by endorsing an LGBT Sensitivity training program is immeasurable. This is the easiest and most practical way of ensuring that Orthodox schools, camps and synagogues are safer for this vulnerable population.
V.) Promoting and Celebrating Those Who Help Others
A. It has always been a value to celebrate those who step up to help those in need. It is why Doctors and Baalei Tzedaka (charity givers) are so highly respected in our community. However, when it comes to those who speak up for LGBT Jews in need, they are often labeled with the stigma of advocate or activist. This stigma both prevents people from speaking up and prevents the advocacy itself to be effective. The conference asked us to examine why we feel the need to distance ourselves from "gay advocates", and why we make this distinction between helper and advocate? What does this distinction means? and the harm that this distinction may cause.
1. Those who advocate for better treatment for LGBT people in the Orthodox community are not necessarily advocating for the changing or reinterpreting of Hallacha, or promoting sexual behavior. It makes no sense to dismiss all gay advocates with one fell swoop:
a.) Resources that have been labeled as "gay advocacy" like JQY are actually NOT places people go to have sex, but places they go to seek support.
b.) While there are some organizations and leaders who's public positions seem to espouse a change or reinterpretation of Hallacha, JQY has no such agenda or affiliation. It is unfair and counterproductive to assume that every organization that offers support for LGBT people in the Orthodox world wants to change the hallachot of sex and marriage.
d.) Distancing oneself or ones organization from "gay advocates" only reinforces the stigma of being an advocate and standing up for suffering people.
e.) It is irresponsible to dismiss support organizations as advocates when the only reason they are providing their support services is because your community won’t. We end up hurting the people who need those resources who have no alternatives. If we de-legitimize a resource without offering a substitute resource, then we are actually hurting the people who are most vulnerable by taking away their support systems.
VI.) Dedication to Reason, Logic and Consistency
A. As Orthodox Jews we often use comparisons and precedents to understand new situations. This is a hallmark of religious and hallachic thinking. Often, finding the right analogies are the subject of dialectics in our Talmud and commentary. Respecting consistency in our analogies is a value that we hold essential in our beis medrash (house of study) learning and everyday rhetoric. At the conference we were challenged to stay consistent when making analogies about gay people in Orthodoxy. Saying that you are gay is NOT the same thing as saying that you engage in prohibited sexual sin. This is especially true when youth identify as gay. Yet most of the analogies that we use confuse the two.
1. When making hallachic or rhetorical analogies, we must keep in mind that "gay" is not the same as "engaging in anal sex":
a.) Public Shabbos violation is often compared to being publicly "out", but this is an illogical and unreasonable comparison, because Public Shabbos Violation would only be comparable to one who engages in public anal sex. This is very different from being publicly gay.
b.) Often analogies for gay people involve sins that blatantly cause harm to others, like being compared to someone who wants to commit murder, molest his sister, rape an animal or commit adultery. These analogies are particularly insidious because the stigma for these other sins are based in people causing harm to others. The comparison implies that gay people are threat to others.
c.) More helpful analogies to gay people in Orthodoxy could be used to help our community understand and relate to their plight. Agunah (chained woman who's husband does/can not grant a divorce) is very good analogy, because an Agunah is someone who, by no fault of their own, is hallachically prohibited to engage in sexual relations with other people. Hallachically we realize that some Agunah's can not be unchained. Our Orthodox communal response does not stigmatize the agunah for WANTING to be romantic again. Although sometimes we don't have hallachic answers, we would never punish an agunah that we know for dating a person. Our communal response is only compassion, understanding, and a dedication to dialogue. The same compassion and understanding can and should easily be applied to gay people.
VII.) The Importance of Humility
A.) Judaism is not afraid the unknown. Many great debates in the Talmud end with the conclusion of "Tayku" (Undecided), and certainly many of the great philosophical questions that man faces do not have obvious answers. An Orthodox Jew learns to live with questions. One of the most important lessons reiterated at the conference was the healing value in honestly expressing our inability to answer some things about sexual orientation and gender identity within Orthodoxy.
1. Sometimes the best rabbinic response to a 16 year old gay congregant who comes to you wanting to to know what Hashem expects from him is simply to take his hand and say “I don’t know, but we can try to figure it out together”:
a.) Much like it is demonstrated in medicine, clients are more likely to stay engaged with you if you answer honestly.
b.) When dealing with issues that may not have obvious answers, it is more important for the congregant/student to feel that the rabbi is on his/her side and that he/she is not alone in facing the unknown. This actually can result in the congregant feeling closer towards religion and his/her community instead of feeling rejected by it.
c.) Understanding what we can not do much about, can help us clarify what we can do things about. We can and must provide support and safety to LGBT Jews in the Orthodox community. If we do not, then we, as leaders and institutions surely are the ones responsible for the harm, suffering, deception, pain, abuse, bullying, ostracizing, silencing, and suicide that result from doing nothing.