This article appeared in the Fall, 2014 issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Vol. 89, No. 1. It is disseminated with the permission of the publisher, the JPRO Network. Subscriptions available at JPRO.org. Download the full article, here: The Parents Are Our Future
The Parents Are Our Future
Orthodox Communities’ Openness to Their LGBT Members
PARENTS AS CATALYSTS FOR CHANGE
When Orthodox parents find out that their child is LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender), their hopes and dreams for their child’s future—which are usually based on the presumption of the child’s heterosexuality—are often shattered. Orthodox parents of LGBT children report experiencing loss; grief; fear; isolation; depression; alienation from community, rabbi, and friends; threats to quality of life for themselves and their children; and fear for the future of their child. Some of these challenges are particularly acute because Orthodox families are part of religiously (and often socially) conservative communities. Yet precisely because Orthodox families with an LGBT member face these specific challenges, they also are presented with unique opportunities to create a more open space for their child within those communities. My work with such parents as the executive director of Eshel, a support and advocacy organization for LGBT Orthodox Jews and their families, has suggested that when parents of LGBT children receive support, they are empowered to advocate for themselves. In doing so, they become key players in opening or widening the door to their communities’ acceptance of their children. In this article, I argue that parents of LGBT children, more than those children themselves, serve as catalysts for change in the Orthodox community. This article is based on my work with parents of LGBT children. Very little, if any research has been done on this topic.
COMING OUT: FOR PARENTS TOO
“Coming out” is a term that usually applies only to a person with a minority sexual or gender identity who publicly acknowledges that identity. But it is a term that also accurately captures the difficulties that family members of LGBT individuals face when they reveal that they have an LGBT person in their close inner circle. Wherever parents fall on the spectrum of acceptance, once they start to grapple with their children’s coming out, they all eventually have to form a new identity as the parent of an LGBT person. If Orthodox parents decide to share their new identity with their community, thereby reestablishing themselves as a family with an LGBT member, they place themselves on the frontlines of the constantly negotiated tension within Orthodox communities about the extent to which they are inclusive.
This is no small decision; to come out about one’s child has grave consequences. For example, the “marriage-ability” of their other children can be com- promised if the parents reveal they have an LGBT child. Yet being in the closet about their children is a painful experience. As one mother writes,
My son had come out to me as transgender (female to male) a few years back and the fallout from what felt like a nuclear explosion was still very much impacting my life and all around us. So the landscape was such that I was “in the closet” in my very black hat community about my son. Every time someone inquired about the well-being of my “daughter,” I answered in a deceptive but truthful manner… How- ever, it never felt right, and I was living a life that felt deceptive—I felt like a fraud.
Although some parents choose to remain closeted, others—however painful, as in the account above—do develop the courage to come out to their friends, community members, rabbis, and other community associates about their children. In fact, some of the challenges Orthodox parents face when they “come out” about their children have prompted these parents to work for systemic change within their communities.
One of the coping mechanisms of Orthodox LGBT people, when they understand themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, is to move away from the Orthodox community in which they grew up. Most Orthodox LGBT Jews of various upbringings, from Modern to Hasidic to Yeshivish, find moving to a different location and community, in which they feel relatively comfortable, a better alternative than staying within their community of origin. For such Jews, leaving the fold is often the preferred choice, even if it is a painful one.
The typical path for parents of those who choose to leave the community differs from that of their children: parents of late-adolescent or adult children are less likely to leave their Orthodox community when they discover they have an LGBT child. Usually in their late forties or older, they are deeply rooted in their community, jobs, and homes. Staying rooted forces a conversation in their communities that may not otherwise happen. As a result, some of these parents— some who are leaders within their communities—are able to counter the negativity with dialogue and discussion among their peers.
COMMUNAL CHALLENGES: RABBINIC RESPONSES
In many Orthodox communities, people turn to their rabbis with a range of questions regarding life choices and situations from large to small. When parents learn about their LGBT child, their first impulse may be to tell their rabbi to seek support and advice. This places the rabbi in a unique position as a first responder.
But many parents report feeling let down and disappointed with the response of their spiritual leaders. Although the rabbi may give halakhik (legal-practical) or hashkafik (normative-theological) advice on how to treat the child, as they would regarding any nonconforming child, many rabbis feel at a loss and admit to not having enough information to help the parents understand their child’s sexual or gender identity. A systematic dearth of information on LGBT issues from a modern psychiatric and medical perspective remains typical of Orthodox rabbinic education. As a result many rabbis remain in the dark about current thinking regarding being LGBT and are unable to provide adequate responses to members who come to them seeking advice about their child. As one mother put it, “the rabbi in shul has been trying to understand but he does not get it.”
Parents have reported that their rabbi has confessed to them this lack of knowledge and awareness on how to deal with an LGBT child. As one father reflected,
I think the Rabbis are not knowledgeable about the LGBT situation regarding Orthodox Jews. They don’t know what to answer them or how to guide them. They are ignorant of many basic facts about LGBT people and react based on stereotypical and false premises.
Some parents have reported that their rabbis suggested they consider having their child undergo reparative therapy, even though the Rabbinical Council of America withdrew its support of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality) in 2012 after a lawsuit was brought against the organization.
Orthodox rabbis who are relatively open to hearing news of an LGBT family member often do not know how to convey acceptance. On a variety of levels, they often do not feel comfortable welcoming the child back as a full-fledged member of the community. For reasons related to Jewish law, the rabbi may not feel willing or able to have the child participate fully in synagogue rituals. In not fully accepting the child, clergy are asking parents to choose between their community and their child. For example, a parent of a transgender child told me that the rabbi asked that the child not come back to the synagogue since he feared it would be a hostile environment because of the reaction of other congregants. While having good intentions, the rabbi has created an untenable situation for the family.
Another effect this rejection has is that LGBT children are more likely to walk away from Orthodox Judaism. For an Orthodox parent, the prospect of their child leaving Judaism can be more disturbing than their being LGBT. As one parent put it,
One of the parents at the regional meeting said what was most painful is not the fact that their child was gay or trans but that their child was leaving Judaism…. This comes back to our rabbis, they do not realize that we are losing wonderful Jews because—to put it mildly—they are apathetic about our children.
Without fully realizing the impact of their words, rabbis can make stinging comments from the pulpit that have a great impact on the family. Parents often hear derogatory language about LGBT people from the pulpit or while being a guest in a friend’s home at a Shabbat meal. One mother lamented,
Our rabbi said [Hurricane] Katrina happened because there were so many gay people in New Orleans…. You hear something like that from the bima…and think if there are any teenagers here who are struggling…you push them away…
In these moments parents feel the tension of the choice before them: if they admit to being offended by such comments, this identifies them as an ally, parent, or friend, or as someone who has more “liberal” views than their friends, which might ostracize them from peers. If they choose to remain silent they experience a complicit betrayal of their child.
Although it is extremely difficult to stand out and speak up in public, for fear of being ostracized by peers, the power of this act can create opportunities toward change. In one case, one parent walked out of his synagogue for the last time after his rabbi made an offensive comment during a sermon. Because he was a long-time member of the synagogue, the leaders of the community took notice when he decided not to return to the congregation until after the current rabbi left his position. This resulted in a community-wide conversation about how the synagogue treated LGBT people. In another case, when siblings experienced teasing and bullying because of their LGBT brother, the family decided to move to a more hospitable community. They were able to find an Orthodox community where they knew the rabbi and members would be welcoming.
FROM RABBINIC AUTHORITY TO PEER SUPPORT
Because community leaders (rabbis, educators) are often at a loss as to how to counsel parents about their LGBT child or, worse, reject these families, parents must draw on their own internal strengths and resources. Many rely heavily on their intuition about their child, and this, in turn can affect their religious beliefs. Said one mother about her experience in her community and her attitude toward her child, “All the people have been amazing…I know in my heart that Hashem wants us to love our children. No child would choose this.”
In addition to shoring up their own internal resources, parents look for friends who will not turn them away and, in so doing, start to form a ring of allies around them. These are people in their community whom they know they can rely on, turn to, and not be worried that they will be ostracized. When parents have a group of friends, these allies can and do support them in their inclusion efforts, thus broadening their community of support. For example, one couple felt particularly excluded when the birth of their daughter and her partner’s newborn was not announced in the same way as was done for other members’ grandchildren. When the parents shared this experience with their friends, a number of community members were quite upset on behalf of the new grandparents. Since then, the rabbi has become more attentive to the parents’ concerns, and during one Shabbat, the rabbi of the synagogue provided a forum to discuss LGBT issues in the Orthodox community by having the couple teach on the topic on a Saturday afternoon.
Through the various emotions of disbelief, grief, confusion, and hope, parents are able to mentor each other in the process of accepting their new reality. They eventually learn, from each other, how to advocate most effectively for their children. They compare notes on how their children have been treated by their community; they share how they have handled similar situations with community and clergy. Through mutual support, a transformation occurs: parents be- come a part of a larger community they did not know previously existed.
Some parents have expressed that, although they have sought out support from non-Jewish or non-Orthodox support systems, these systems do not adequately address their unique challenges: they need other Orthodox parents to draw from as they navigate the inclusion of their new family construct in Orthodox community. As in most support groups, when parents find each other, they expand their community to include not only others in a similar situation but also allies who can provide solace and support; these allies eventually become friends and like family.
Often anonymously, parents have used the internet as a tool to share their process and progress in their relationships to their children and community. Through blogs, articles, and opinion pieces, Orthodox parents have been outspoken about their and their families’ needs, challenges, and struggles. For example, the anonymous blog, “Frum Gay Kids Mom,” began in December 2013; here is an excerpt from the first post:
I’m hoping this blog will evolve over time. Right now I’m writing it for myself. So I can get my feelings out in writing. In the future, I hope this can be a resource for anyone else dealing with a similar situation. A recent post, from June 2014, testifies to the importance of advocacy and locates its beginning in the support of peers:
Over the past eight months I’ve gone out of my comfort zone in so many ways. This blog takes me out of my comfort zone. Not the writing, but the writing so many personal things (even though I do it anonymously). I’ve gone out of my comfort zone to contact people I may not have otherwise met and contacted. I went to a retreat with 30 people I NEVER met before and I had an amazing time. I can’t stress enough how not “me” that is. I’m mostly proud that I have figured out that if I want change, I need to be part of it. And I’m willing to be part of it. Can’t say it doesn’t frighten me on a daily basis because I really prefer not to put myself “out there.” But if I want change, I can’t sit back and think that everyone else will make it happen.
GAINING RABBINIC SUPPORT
Because seeking rabbinic advice is a high priority for many Orthodox people, parents help each other navigate this relationship so that it benefits them and their families. When approaching clergy for support or advice, parents need to know what they are asking for and what they hope to receive. Framing the conversation can be vital to a positive outcome.
When one couple began a conversation with their rabbi about their LGBT children, they asked him to listen as a parent and not as a rabbi. Thus, before they asked for any advice, the parents guided the rabbi in taking an empathetic response. The subsequent communication between parent and rabbi was effective because it drew on the rabbi’s ability to empathize and respond as a parent.
Because Orthodox leaders are often neither informed nor equipped to deal with the needs of their LGBT members, parents are in the unique situation of being the ones to educate their clergy toward understanding their children. Similar to how LGBT children have had to educate their parents or point them to resources, parents have the opportunity to educate their rabbis or suggest how they can gain the needed information to better help their congregants.
Lastly, parents have learned that with controversial topics like this one, Orthodox leaders are vulnerable when voicing their opinions. Their peers often marginalize those rabbis who are outspoken on behalf of LGBT people, and rabbis who do speak out may divide their congregation. They risk their jobs or losing credibility as a leader and as an authority figure.
Parents are often left leaderless in the usual ways found within the Orthodox community, with no rabbinic authorities helping them holistically navigate the challenges of having an LGBT child. Thus parents have relied on other sources of support. Temicha and Eshel are two groups that provide resources to them and their children.
Temicha—operating under the auspices of JQYouth, an organization that focuses on serving the needs of LGBT Jewish youth and their families—has a Listserv for parents. In the New York area it runs JQYs Long Island Teen Group, a structured support group for local teens from Orthodox backgrounds.
Eshel has a national parent support network and sponsors an annual retreat for parents to meet each other for support, education, and community building, as well as regional meetings in the Midwest and West Coast, and several on the East Coast. Its monthly national phone support group is moderated by a trained social worker, and its Parent Advisory Board focuses on making synagogues and Yeshiva day schools more hospitable environments for their children.
Both JQY and Eshel have a list of rabbis and mental health professionals who will assist parents in navigating the complexities of having an LGBT child in the Orthodox community. In addition, Eshel’s Rabbinic Advisory Board meets quarterly to discuss pastoral issues pertaining to LGBT Jews. Eshel also convenes an Orthodox Allies Roundtable (OAR) to give allies a forum for demonstrating support for LGBT community members and their families.
A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
Many parents report that the challenge of having an LGBT child has put them on a spiritual quest. They wonder why this particular parenting challenge is happen- ing to them, why God has given them this challenge.
Rabbis are in a unique position to serve as a spiritual guide for parents on this journey—to recognize that this is a spiritual journey for parents as well as the child. Their approach should include taking in the totality of the child; sexual identity is not just about a sex act but rather about the growth of an individual who may care deeply about integrating his or her religious and sexual or gender identity. Ultimately, how the child is treated in the community can determine whether he or she will leave Orthodoxy. For the parents, the rabbi can use this opportunity to guide them to make positive parenting choices that do not push the child away. Since some parents wonder what is the spiritual message that they should be receiving from this challenge, rabbis are in a position to help parents make meaning out of their new reality, thereby helping them grow as Jews as well as parents.
Key leaders within Orthodoxy have expressed a new openness to hearing from LGBT people. In some communities the time is ripe for change and dialogue on how to support families with an LGBT child. Parents can rely on leaders trained and educated about the needs of LGBT individuals for guidance that combines current knowledge with wisdom and fidelity to halakha—which is what Orthodox individuals should expect from their religious leaders.
Although Orthodox communities tend to move much slower on controversial topics than their non-Orthodox counterparts, now is a particularly potent time for opening up dialogue about their LGBT members. As youth in America come out to their families more frequently and earlier than ever before, traditional Jewish communities will, over time, encounter more members whose gender and sexual orientation do not conform. According to the 2013 Pew study, A Survey of LGBT Americans, “12 is the median age at which lesbian, gay and bi- sexual adults first felt they might be something other than heterosexual or straight. For those who say they now know for sure that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, that realization came at a median age of 17.”
Another 2013 Pew Research Center survey, A Portrait of American Jews, found that 27% of Jewish children are being raised in Orthodox households. It is clear that in the next 20 years, the make-up of the traditional Jewish family will be changing. Traditional Jewish communities need to be equipped to deal with these changes. As executive director of Eshel, I am often asked whether I feel hopeful about the future for Orthodox LGBT people and their families. I have seen how parents occupy a unique position in the quest for LGBT inclusion in Orthodox community, and it is parents’ involvement that makes me feel hopeful. Dr. Kenneth Prager, in his 2010 article, “The Answers Lie in Our Love for Our Daughter,” wrote that the “process of re-examining the Orthodox position on homosexuality has begun—and there is no turning back. A proud and outspoken parent, I am a part of a growing community of parents who are partially responsible for animating this process of reexamination. It is for them, as much as for their children, that this process must continue.”
Pew Research Center. (2013a). A portrait of Jewish Americans. Philadelphia: Author.
Pew Research Center. (2013b). A survey of LGBT Americans. Philadelphia: Author.
Prager, Kenneth. (2010, October 29). The answers lie in our love for our daughter. The Jewish Standard.