Creating a Community of Support
By: Daniel Atwood
As 2014 ended, so did the life of Leelah Alcorn, a 17 year old transgender girl from Ohio who committed suicide after a short life of suffering. Her suicide made waves, trending all over national news and social media. In her final words, Leelah describes herself as feeling rejected by her parents, aloof from her friends, and as having no choice but to end her own life. With Leelah’s story in mind, I want to address the YU community regarding a sensitive and important issue: creating a community of respect and support on our campus, especially for LGBT students. I do so with the utmost humility and respect for the YU community, which is usually wonderful, but sometimes treacherous.
I presume that my readers understand the difference between condoning a specific political or Halakhic position and providing support for a person struggling through a difficult period in their life. I do not intend to propose anything radical on a policy level, but rather to make a statement that all of our community’s members have the right to feel respected, dignified, and, most of all, safe. If creating a supportive community for all is not a value you share, then I realize that nothing I say will convince you otherwise. However, in the spirit of “love your neighbor as yourself” and “loving the widow, orphan, and stranger,” two major Torah concepts (the former being the most important according to some), I believe we must discuss how we can create more support on campus for those who feel marginalized.
Issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity relate to a theological struggle of mine. I cannot understand why the Torah, which Orthodox Judaism believes to be divine, forbade homosexual activity.While the laws in the Torah are often very cryptic, the law proscribing male homosexual behavior is explicit. I wish there was a compelling alternative interpretation of that verse in Leviticus, unfortunately I have yet to find one. However, the verse is not the end of the story, because the fact of the matter is that in both our community here at YU and in the broader Modern Orthodox community there are LGBT Jews. We must take steps to support LGBT people in our community, despite the fact that Leviticus will always be an elephant in the room.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are at least twice as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers. At least 25% of transgender youth have attempted suicide. LGBT youth in non-supportive atmospheres are also at a heightened risk of depression, substance abuse, and risky sexual behaviors. At the risk of sounding hyperbolical, these numbers highlight the gravity of this issue. Ensuring that this subset of our population feels safe is of utmost importance. In Halakhic terms, it is a matter of Pikuah Nefesh, saving lives.
Because of the religious nature of our community, LGBT issues are obviously more complicated than in secular communities. An LGBT student at YU presumably has significantly more struggles than an LGBT student at some other colleges. Therefore we invest an extra effort to make sure that all of our friends and community members know that we support them, no matter which issues they face. Whether a student is openly gay, in “the closet,” the family member of someone who is LGBT, or questioning their sexuality, they should know that our community supports and respects them and recognizes their struggles.
Unfortunately this is not always the case in the YU community. Certain rabbis at YU have a history of making comments about LGBT students that display neither support for them nor sensitivity for their struggles. When religious leaders make statements that are damning of our LGBT members or their struggles, they are targeting those who are most vulnerable, modern day orphans and widows, underprivileged groups the Torah requires us to protect. Even worse is when LGBT community members become a distant “they,” presumed not to be sitting in present company, which totally delegitimizes their struggles and identity.
I wish I did not have to mention any specific instances, but I feel that I must speak out. I mean no disrespect whatsoever towards the rabbi to whom I will refer. My intention is to raise awareness about a very serious issue, not to engage in debate with a prominent rabbi. In a recorded question-answer session that took place in an American post-high school yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, a Rosh Yeshiva and community rabbi, discussed issues related to LGBT people in our community. I was not surprised that the views he expressed were hard-line. I will not argue with his opinions, as the differences between us are too fundamental. However, I must take issue with the tone employed and with the context in which these comments were made.
In the talk there seemed to be a lack of sensitivity towards the struggles that LGBT community members face. Answers were brash and black-and-white. Rabbi Willig dismissively calls gay couples an “oxymoron.” He states very emphatically that a transgender male is a “she,” and is shocked that he even received such a question, emphasizing with bewilderment “I kid you not, this is a real (emphasis in original) Shaylah!” (Halakhic inquiry). With these words he delegitimizes not only the struggles of LGBT people, but their very existence as such. By acting as if transgender issues are unbelieveable or even humorous (the audience laughs when Rabbi Willig calls him a “she”), he denies that this is a fundamental struggle that many people in our community deal with on a daily basis.
Most disturbingly, when a student sincerely asks about gay couples coming into synagogue, Rabbi Willig states facetiously that he does not think gay men should sit on the same side of the Mehitza (gender partition in synagogue). The room, populated by immature 18 year old students in Israel, bursts into a laughter that lasts seven seconds long. Maybe they think jokes about gays are funny. Maybe, for one of them, it was nervous laughter as he was quietly hurting inside. These remarks do not create a situation in which all the members of our community feel safe and respected.
Though sexual orientation or gender identity is not an issue with which I struggle, I am definitely no stranger to the concept of struggling to find my identity within the Orthodox community. “Coming out” about my personal religious struggles to my friends was hard but, thankfully, today I am very happy and blessed. Knowing that I had friends and mentors--including professors here at Yeshiva University--to whom I could turn is what inspired me to remain strong. Everybody has a right to feel safe, respected, dignified, and supported in our community. While I do not think my struggles were as fundamental as the struggles my LGBT friends face, I use the comparison to my own struggles as an attempt at empathy. When the struggles of my LGBT friends and neighbors are invalidated, I am hurt for their sake. Furthermore, I feel as if the struggles that I have faced are also invalid, even if they are of fundamentally different nature.
As someone who has spent years learning in this yeshiva, I tremble at the thought that my words could be misconstrued as meant to hurt Rabbi Willig, a rabbi who has shown sensitivity to the plight of others on many occasions. Most notably, I very much respect his efforts to advance the “Halakhic pre-nup,” a mechanism for helping Agunot, women not granted a divorce document. The talk I am referencing, however, hurt me and many others in a very profound way. As a journalist, this is how I must respond. I write this article not to shame or “call-out” anyone, God forbid, but in the hope that my words will lead to both introspection and concrete action about what it means to create a community of dignity and respect for all.
Interestingly, the CDC cites a finding published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence that two factors account for the lowest levels of depression, suicide, and substance abuse among students of all sexual orientations: A positive school climate, and not experiencing homophobic teasing. Creating an atmosphere where homophobia is not tolerated and positive support is shown towards all will improve the lives of the entire community, especially our youth. Respecting and supporting those residing on the margins will make all of us, especially our youth, happier and healthier.
Leelah Alcorn’s final words were: “Fix society, please.” I do not know if we can fix all of society, but we can fix our community. Fix it so that it is clear that every single member of our community is free to struggle and grow, and so that everyone is treated with sensitivity and respect, a respect flowing from the Tzelem Elokim (divine image) endowed in all of us.