Where are the Pitchforks? Being an Openly Gay Student at Yeshiva University
I was in seventh grade, one year into my depression, when I first believed that there was something horribly wrong with me. My rabbi had just shown the class how to wrap tefillin straps around our arms, as we prepared to become Jewish men. After he did so, he went into an elaboration of the rules behind wearing the small, leather boxes. “You can never be naked while putting on tefillin,” he instructed. “You can never put them on in a bathroom; you can never be thinking about women while putting on tefillin.” I knew that these three scenarios would never be applicable to me, since, up until that point, I had followed Jewish law to a stringently unhealthy level of observance due to my very religious upbringing.
My rabbi finished his instructions with a hint of comedy, “But don’t worry, you can think about men, but no man would be thinking about another man unless he’s crazy!” This comment shot a flash of panic down my spine. Embarrassment rushed to my face as I wondered, “Am I crazy?” I outwardly laughed with the rest of the class, but inwardly took note that I was the insane one my rabbi referred to. He made the comment assuming that people like me didn’t exist. This one ignorant comment, stated so matter-of-factly, plummeted me into a deeper form of depression: a depression that bordered on hopelessness.
Until that point, denial had played a funny trick on my mind, and I had let myself believe something that wasn’t true. I lied to myself about my attraction to men and shrugged it off as, “I see men as attractive, and soon I’ll begin to find women attractive as well. It’s all just a matter of waiting for the attraction to kick in.” But that attraction never came.
In my elementary years, every time a teacher or student made a similar condescending comment about people like me, I laughed with the rest of the class and hoped no one would realize an imposter sat among them. A teacher’s comment during the day meant crying myself to sleep that night, pleading to Hashem to change the way I viewed the world.
Unfortunately, my cries were never heard.
Self-acceptance didn’t happen overnight. It took years until I realized that my perspective on life would be something I’d cherish, rather than detest. It was a long journey, and I’m still working to get there.
Towards the end of elementary school, a student once interrupted my seventh grade math class to make a declaration. “Brimm is gay!” he confidently stated, for some purpose I will never know. His comment destroyed me because it was a clear message that I would never be welcomed into the community I was raised in.
As my academic career progressed and my mental health regressed, I formed a new coping mechanism. Rather than allow myself the luxury of feelings, I repressed my thoughts. I entered a Modern Orthodox high school with an unspoken no-gay policy and a principal who openly made anti-gay remarks. It was known that if anyone came out of the closet, it would be a declaration of halachic neglect severe enough to be grounds for expulsion. I stopped experiencing emotion altogether and let myself travel through life knowing that I would never let my deepest secret out, and understanding that I would be alone forever.
I remember counting down the years until a shadchan would try, and inevitably fail, to marry me off to a woman. I would be the son that people whispered questions about in sympathetic wonderment. Why is there a single son in the family who never dated anyone? The community I grew up in would never assume I was gay; they would be saddened by the idea that I had not yet met the proper wife. “Gay” was a vulgar word, a secret which shouldn’t be talked about. If a gay reference sneaked its way into a children’s book or movie, I heard statements like “Isn’t this meant for children?” or “That’s gross, I cannot believe they would show something like that on here.” Why would the existence of people like me be anything unsuitable for children? I didn’t know anyone with the same struggle who I could talk to about the battle I was going through.
I felt, and knew, I was alone.
Freshman year. I had developed my first crush on a boy in school and was horrified with myself. At the time, I still viewed homosexuality as the worst sin imaginable. I made a vow that no matter how strong my desire to sin was, I would never act on it. I saw my fantasies as the extent of any sexual experience I would ever have, and I was ready to buckle up for a torturous existence.
And for a while, it was.
High school went by slower than a child’s long wait for their birthday party, and it was a lonely road. I had a secret weighing down my chest, letting me breathe less and less each day. I started dating a girl who was an amazing person, yet it was a futile attempt to conceal my true identity. Everyone still talked behind my back and wasn’t fooled by anything I did. People would tell me that it made sense for me to attend the girl’s gym class, or constantly told me I was gay before I was even ready to tell myself. “You’re my gay best friend,” was one of the most commonly expressed insights, meant to be a compliment. “My gay best friend.” Not a true best friend, but a good enough listener who could play a supporting role in their life. Not a friend, but a good person to drag to Starbucks just to vent to about their most recent breakup.
When people tell me that they always knew I was gay, I’m tempted to respond by saying, “I knew I was gay too, but we all don’t have the luxury of being ourselves when we’re outliers from society.” Throughout my four years in the high school cinderblock asylum, there was one student in particular who made my life a living hell by informing a room full of people that I was gay whenever I was around. We now attend YU together and have both grown up from the people we used to be.
High school ended on a low note, followed by the anxiety bubble that my year in Israel was. I went to the Holy Land because it was expected that everyone from my school would take a gap year before starting college. I had no confidence in myself and no plan of ever revealing my secret. However, in Israel something shifted unexpectedly. When I moved away from home, I was forced to depend on myself more than anyone else. I realized that I needed to stop letting my anxieties turn me into a person I hated being. Instead of caring about the way others perceived me, I needed to care more about the way I perceived myself. I made it a mission to like myself first, which would inevitably cause others to like me in return.
Retrospectively, the method worked better than expected.
Unfortunately, I never came out in Israel, but I replaced my vow to never be with a man with a new one. I refused to accept that being gay was wrong, regardless of what my religious leaders dictated. My new vow was: “My parents will be the first people I’ll tell, and, after them, I will tell everyone else. One day, I will be fully out of the closet.”
Israel ended with new friends and a new life away from home. On a last minute whim, I decided not to attend the secular college I was intending to go to and instead enrolled in Yeshiva University in some act of hysteria. To this day, I cannot pinpoint what compelled me to make this crazed, impulsive decision to attend this university, but nevertheless, I still jumped into what I expected to be homophobic shark infested waters.
I never looked back.
I have never regretted my decision to come to YU. It has changed my life for the better and was the turning point for life moving forward rather than backwards. I remember thinking while on the plane home from Israel that this could easily be the worst mistake of my life. I was riddled with anxiety, convinced that this was the most foolish move possible. Two short years ago, I had promised to never come out of the closet; now, as I planned on coming out in the near future, I was headed to a place where it seemed impossible to ever do so.
Ironically, YU was the place where I finally felt able to come out.
Freshman year I came to YU knowing only one person: my roommate from the kibbutz where I had lived in Israel. He would be one of the first I would eventually tell after my best friend. I developed a large group of welcoming friends, and finally began to feel comfortable being my true self. I took a huge leap in my comfort level of privacy and made an account on JSwipe, a popular Jewish dating app. I set my profile in search of other Jewish men my age. I was terrified to make the account, but I didn’t know any other ways to meet other gay, Jewish men who were battling the same struggles as me. No one else was openly gay in YU at the time and there are still no LGBTQ support groups on campus. JSwipe opened up doors for me that I didn’t know were closed. It was a huge stepping point for me; it was the first time I was comfortable publicly revealing who I had been hiding.
Within a few months of having the app, a friend found me on there, and I realized it was time to tell my parents before somebody else did. When I went home for Purim and told my parents, they were more supportive than I could have possibly imagined. Their unconditional love was like an open set of arms ready to embrace me in a long awaiting hug. I returned to YU apprehensive to open up about my sexuality to others, but I pushed through and told my closest friends.
And no one minded.
After telling others, they all reacted with open hearts. A few days after I told my parents, I texted my roommate letting him know the identity I was hiding. He excitedly asked me to FaceTime him that night so he could ask about my experience and commended me on my bravery. He was so proud and happy for me.
What I realized was that none of my friends were really interested in my sexuality, as it wasn’t what defined me. Instead, they cared about who I was as a person. I also came to realize that everyone was facing a deeper battle of their own anxieties or stresses that inhabited their personal lives. Where was the crowd of angry protesters ready to chase me away from this religious establishment? Where was the mountain of hate I expected to crush me, or the homophobic slurs that would be spray-painted across the door of my dorm room?
They never appeared.
Since coming out of my hidden sexuality cocoon, I have joined two life-changing organizations: JQY (Jewish Queer Youth) and Eshel, both designed to help LGBTQ, Jewish members feel part of a community which they no longer feel welcomed in. Both are small, united communities, filled with love and an abundance of acceptance. Through these organizations, I’ve met a number of amazing people who have changed my life. These people empowered me to feel safe, comfortable, and confident as a Jewish gay man. I even hosted two events of my own for LGBTQ Jews and allies in my home on the YU campus. I never imagined a life like this would have evolved in an environment as religious and constrictive as Yeshiva University.
While I consider myself one of the luckier warriors to walk the halls of YU, I still face my own struggles while being here. The heteronormative expectation can get out of hand, and I cannot express how many times I’ve been told that I will build a beautiful Jewish home with my future wife. When speaking to a class filled with men, our professors always talk about our future spouses with the pronoun “she.” It gets tiring to constantly hear about a world where couples are always expected to consist of a man and a woman, with no wiggle room in between. Awareness of this issue is the first key to implementing change in an age-old system.
In my past YU experience, I’ve had a gematria-obsessed professor proclaim the unforgivable sin of homosexuality, talking with complete disgust about people like me. I dropped his class and rid my life of him. It’s hard to feel welcomed into a community that doesn’t want you. There needs to be a change in YU so that students can feel that they are welcome and that the community wants them to be a part of it. For so many years I was scared to come out because I felt unwanted and ostracized by a community that commends itself on its unity.
I rarely felt like I belonged and felt like an outcast.
My JSS Hebrew teacher was the first professor I had at YU who addressed a class of male YU students with, “In your future, when you have a wife or a husband, I honestly don’t care….” That comment uplifted me with an incredible amount of elation. I experienced an incredibly euphoric moment when I heard a YU professor not assume that we were all the same. Better yet, we were allowed to be different.
It was not until I recently attended my first Eshel retreat, a Shabbat full of queer Jews, that I sat in shul amazed the entire time by the fact that every person sitting there was someone like me. I didn’t feel like the only one who was hiding something. I didn’t feel like I needed to bolt the moment someone turned their head and realized an outsider was sitting with them. We were all outsiders sitting together before the Torah. YU needs to create an environment where the closeted gay students who sit in shul don’t feel scared to be themselves, a place where they feel that they will be embraced with open arms and that their future is not only possible, but also probable.
An important part of the process that I will always remember is that in my very first JQY meeting, we were asked to give a piece of advice to our past selves, a piece of information that would have been beneficial for us to hear. My response was: “What is impossible today is not impossible tomorrow.”
I look forward to a possible tomorrow.
If anyone is currently dealing with similar issues, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image credit: npr.org