Parenting an openly gay Orthodox teen
The conversation over Shavuot lunch at a friend’s house three years ago started innocently enough — we were talking about the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s reluctance to provide kosher supervision to food served at non-Orthodox events in Israeli hotels. One of the guests at the meal responded with, “The rabbis have to control who comes in. What if homosexuals come in?”
Like me, this guest was a mother of four sons, an immigrant who came here as a young girl, a woman who did not grow up observant but became observant as a young adult. Our kids were close in age. Perhaps these similarities made her comment even more shocking to me. Like her, I love my children and care about their happiness, education, and religious commitment. Unlike her, I have a gay son.
My oldest had come out to us a few months before, at the end of his sophomore year in high school. At 16, he was secure enough to come out first to two of his closest friends, then to us, and then to all his friends outside our community.
But in our neighborhood and our shul in Brooklyn, he remained completely closeted and knew his chances of being accepted, or even allowed to remain in the shul he grew up in, were slim. He tested the waters some, mentioning that a friend from a summer program was gay, an acquaintance was a lesbian. A neighborhood friend told him gays are disgusting. Another informed him he would burn in hell for being friends with a lesbian girl. An adult leader of the youth minyan, where my son leads services and reads Torah regularly, railed against the lifting of “don’t ask, don’t tell” one Shabbat morning, as part of his discussion of the weekly Torah portion, telling the kids in attendance that homosexuality would lead to the downfall of our society. Another adult shul member told him that someone like him, a teen who was accepting of gays, did not belong in the shul we had been members of for over a decade.
How much worse would it be if he were out as gay himself? We feared the repercussions on all our children, the emotional trauma that would result when our son would be rejected by the community he grew up in. That Shavuot conversation reaffirmed our fears. Our son quickly said goodbye and left the holiday lunch; our younger kids were playing, and my husband and I were thankful that they were unaware of the conversation.
Outing our son to everyone at the lunch would have been wrong, but so was letting the comment go. We told the woman that violating laws of nidda, family purity, which surround a woman’s menstrual cycle, have roughly the same weight as the prohibition against homosexual intercourse in the Torah. Would she suggest that rabbis question every straight couple whether they keep those laws?
No, she said, it’s not the same; homosexuality is an abomination. But abomination is the way toeva, the word used in the Torah, is translated now, we said; we don’t know the exact meaning of the word as it was used in that time. The same word is used to prohibit improper weights in the marketplace, something we would probably equate with unfair business practices today.
No, she pressed on, homosexuality is wrong, abominable, disgusting. The man who started the conversation rejoined with, “Does it matter what other people do? Live and let live,” and the talk finally turned to something else.
We collected our younger kids and walked home. We found our oldest on the couch in the basement, his face stained with tears. “She said I don’t even deserve kosher food,” he said.
If my son did not deserve kosher food, how could he expect a seat in shul, a place in the community? How could any of our children? If forced to choose between their religion and their brother, they would choose him. This was the first time we witnessed a homophobic comment made in front of our son, and the first time he could openly cry with us about it. We spent the rest of the afternoon playing board games, insisting that all four kids play together.
At the time, the only place to connect with other parents who may have had similar experiences was an online support group for Orthodox parents of LGBT children, and nobody in that group had teens. Nobody fully understood the challenges of parenting an openly gay Orthodox teen and his younger brothers, who knew about their brother’s sexual orientation, supported him fully, loved him unconditionally, and would be hurt almost as much as he would if they heard homophobic remarks.
A few months later, Eshel, an organization that supports traditionally observant LGBT Jews and their families, started a phone support group, and a year later it hosted the first retreat for parents, which has since become an annual event. But at the time, this was a parenting task we had to figure out on our own. With our lack of hope in the community confirmed, we made two decisions.
The first was the decision to move, for the sake of all four of our children. A community that would welcome our oldest son would be one that would likely be right for our whole family. Just as experiencing homophobia would hurt all of our children, and would undermine their religious commitment, experiencing tolerance and acceptance would show all of them the good in their religion and reaffirm it.
The second decision was to be completely open about our oldest son in our new community. LGBT acceptance by a community became our litmus test. We moved to our new home in Linden, NJ, two weeks before Shavuot, a year after the lunch that catalyzed the process for us. At many meals since, we have discussed numerous topics with our new neighbors and friends — Israeli politics, kashrut, and LGBT issues, just to name a few — and we discovered that we were right about our new community. All four of our children feel accepted and loved, and so do my husband and I.