Guest blogger Talia bat Pessi is a teenage Femidox (feminist Orthodox) pro-Israel Jew. Her work has appeared in over 40 publications, including the Jewish Week, Ms. Magazine blog, Jerusalem Post, Girl w/ Pen!, Jewish Press, and FBomb. She’s not quite sure how she manages to find spare time, but when she does, she enjoys going to rock concerts, fuzzying with her rescue dog, eating (a lot), messing around in Photoshop, and procrastinating on the Internet.
As well as being a feminist, I am an Orthodox Jew. While I had always been active in gay rights advocacy through my feminism, I never really thought about how Orthodox individuals who are LGBT+ grapple with their sexuality. I recently did some research into this. Considering that the religious right, including the mainstream Orthodox Jewish community, is known for its anti-gay stance, it may seem surprising that there are observant Jews who also identify as LGBT+. However, they do exist.
Over the past two decades, observant LGBT+ Jews have organized in order to petition for increased recognition and inclusion within the Orthodox Jewish community. In 1994, the Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association (GLYDSA) was established as a social group for Orthodox gay and lesbian Jews. Jewish Queer Youth (JQY) was created in 2001 by observant Jewish undergraduates who “were looking for other people in similar situations that could understand and relate to each other’s struggles” about sexuality, according to the JQY website.
In 2009, Yeshiva University, an Orthodox institution based in New York, held a panel discussion entitled “Being Gay in the Orthodox World: A Conversation with Members of the Yeshiva University Community.” Four gay individuals, all of whom are Orthodox and students or alumni of Yeshiva University, discussed their experiences of growing up observant and LGBT+. The four struggled with accepting their sexualities and coming out to their friends and families, but have learned how to reconcile their religious beliefs and sexual orientation. “[Homophobia] is not what my parents taught me or what my [rabbis] taught me,” Mordechai Levovitz, one of the speakers, said.
Levovitz also spoke in a JQY-produced “It Gets Better” video to encourage LGBT+ Jewish youth struggling with reconciling their sexual and religious identities. Justin, one of the speakers featured in the video, tells struggling viewers, “Don’t worry about being gay. That’s who you are, that’s how God created you. He created me as a Jew and He created me as a gay person.”
The It Gets Better Project was created by Dan Savage, a relationship and sex advice columnist, as a response to the string of suicides committed by gay teenagers in late 2010. Several gay and straight Jewish celebrities, politicians, and organizations have released It Gets Better videos, including singers Sir Ari Gold and Adam Lambert, congressperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz, actor Lisa Edelstein, and the Reform rabbinical seminary Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. However, the JQY video is the only Orthodox one. It currently has approximately 100,000 views on YouTube and has sparked over 800 comments.
While there has been a push towards accepting LGBT+ Jews within Orthodox spaces, many traditional Jews still reject the idea that the Orthodox and LGBT+ communities can intersect. When gay marriage was passed in New York in 2011, some observant Jews, especially those belonging to Hasidic groups, actively protested the decision.
Despite the controversy that Orthodox LGBT+ individuals have stirred within the community, many have managed to find the silver lining in their situation. “It’s taken quite a while, but I love myself – all parts of myself, including my sexuality,” an anonymous Orthodox Jewish lesbian wrote in Yeshiva University’s controversial student newspaper The Beacon. Whether they are openly gay or still trying to maintain a secret identity, LGBT+ Orthodox Jews will continue to advocate for increased visibility at all levels of the Jewish and gay communities.