By: Dasha Sominski  | 

A Call for Safe Space

In many ways, my upbringing was what one would call classically Chabad. 14 children (7 girls and 7 boys - the ultimate embodiment of justice), pictures of the Rebbe on the walls, stockings in the summer. I, too, akin to, presumably, the majority of this audience, harbored genuine hopes of one day, creating a Bayit Neeman with a man. Perhaps in my mind he would secretly play the violin in the attic instead of learning or write poetry on the margins of his notebook but in my dreams, he was very tangibly and quite decidedly a man.

And then, when I was 15, I met this girl. She was beautiful and smart and very free-spirited and we got along wonderfully. Soon enough, we began spending all of our time together. I mean, we even woke up every morning at 5:30am only to meet up at a coffee shop for the purposes of what was officially called "doing homework" (in reality we would alternate between napping on each other's shoulders, reading Allen Ginsberg aloud and drinking loose leaf tea). A few months into our friendship, I felt something obscure beginning to take shape within me. I was too poorly equipped to understand but the feeling became pervasive and implanted in me this peculiar urge to cry or run away every time the two of us would be left in a room alone.

And then once, on my way from home, I witnessed a scene that was rather uncommon for my hometown: two girls, in a corner of a bus stop, were kissing. And then it hit me. I was in love. Hopelessly, helplessly in love.

I cried the entire ride home and all through the night. I never confessed my love to that girl. I never told anyone about my secret. I interrupted that friendship and spent the rest of the year isolating myself in futile attempts to reconcile my divergent identities. I was horrified and depressed. Not the way you envision your first love to be, won't you agree?

Fast forward 6 years. I'm turning 21 in a month and I'm entirely open and comfortable with my non-heterosexual identity. Thankfully, I have all the love and support that I need.

But let's think about the following for a second: according to the most exacting research by Williams Institute, 3.8% of all American population are gay. And that's only by self-report; National Bureau of Economic Research takes it up to the astounding number of 20%. That means, that regardless of how you put it, there are gay and bisexual students that attend our school of whom you simply don't know.

Did you know that according to Lambda Legal, LGBTQ people account for 30% of all suicides in the United States? They, too, comprise 20-40% of all homeless youth. Their depression and substance abuse rates are substantively higher than that of their heterosexual counterparts. Nomi Mark, LCSW demonstrates in her paper titled "Identities in Conflict: Forging an Orthodox Gay Identity" that the tension within this population is even greater. For instance, "coming out" process is on average delayed within our community which means additional years of unnecessary suffering. All of that only serves to highlight that those of your peers that have or will eventually identify as non-heterosexual, are likely to be now experiencing extreme distress and discomfort.

The unfortunate reality right now is that while the student body is generally quite accepting and progressive, an attitude of silence has been adopted by our administration. One could argue that it is not only emotionally irresponsible, but is also, quite plainly, ungodly. Rabbi Norman Lamm, in his article titled "Judaism and Modern Attitude toward homosexuality" says that "[...]Jewish groups should not hesitate to accord [gay Jews] hospitality and membership, on an individual basis" and recommends "to retain moral composure" when dealing with these issues. President Joel, in his statement released in year 2010 admitted as well that those individuals "require[d] due sensitivity".

Other universities have come up with incredibly effective networks for their LGBTQ students. Now, I understand YU's reluctance to cater to that population in a "loud and proud" fashion, especially after the hideous backlash the gay panel received in 2010. It is also quite clear that the Halakhic stance on homosexuality within Modern Orthodoxy is adamantly negative; and it is consequently understandable that YU wouldn't want to endorse it, even by implication.

But there are other solutions that, while still being low-profile, would be moderately effective and helpful. Let's take an example that is closer to home: several years ago, a panel created by gay alumnae for faculty only was hosted at SAR to better their staff's understanding of the struggle of a gay adolescent in an Orthodox environment. Do we have any such trained faculty? The Counseling Center offers a variety of resources for eating disorders, sleeping disorders, depression, suicidal thinking but there is not one pamphlet or hotline number available for those struggling with or questioning their sexuality (same goes regarding abuse but that's an entirely separate issue). In context of such a private establishment, it would seem most appropriate to direct students to relevant organizations if not introduce especially tailored therapy.

An additional solution would be to make free Safe Space training* available to students as well as faculty - gay or straight . With the help of those certified, awareness would be spread on campus, aggression minimized and students in question would have somebody who is readily identified to approach in a moment of distress. Inclusion of such resources in booklets given out to students at the beginning of the year/ semester as well as stickers with hotline telephone numbers are among the list of efficient yet unobtrusive ways of disseminating pertinent information to those who may need it.

In either event, one thing is resoundingly apparent: a safe and sensitive network for non-heterosexual students must be introduced at Yeshiva University.