Content warning: suicide, homophobia.
You don’t hear of many ex-queer frum (religious) people, but you often hear of ex-frum queer people. The reason for this is because sexuality and gender identity can’t be changed. One’s faith and religious status can.
Religion was and still is one of the most important things in my life. I love God, I love halacha (Jewish law), I love learning, and I love davening (praying). I sound pretty frum, right? Yet, when I lived in Jerusalem a few years ago for my gap year, I went out of my way to find a non-kosher place to eat a cheeseburger. How did someone like me get to that place?
When I first got to Israel, God and I were good. I came there with an intense desire and excitement to learn how to live the most halachic life I could in a halachic system that said I didn’t belong due to my queerness. I had every reason to say halacha provided no space for me to be me. I wanted nothing to do with it, but I wanted everything to do with it. I wanted to be able to live the most Jewish life I could. I thought the institution I was learning at would find that admirable, but instead they could not assist or accept me because I was “a threat to the heterosexuality of other students.”
I was heartbroken. I was told that there was no place for me to be frum and to be me. I could either live a fully halachic life that would have made me so miserable I’m sure I wouldn’t have lived past 40, or an authentic one without my religion. So I said, Screw it, I’m gonna eat a cheeseburger.
But I’m not satisfied with resigning to the fact that these two sides of myself cannot exist together. Something needs to change.
Many Orthodox people seem to believe that queer people want to rebel against religion, that the act of coming out is this great “screw you” and goodbye to their communities. Most of the time, it’s not. We, as queer people, are usually saying, “I want to stay but I don’t know how.” We want help and guidance, not judgment and shunning. We don’t want to leave the community; we do it because we repeatedly get pushed away. We get tired of fighting for our right to exist in our own religion. Eventually, we give up.
It often takes us a really long time to even recognize our identities because we don’t have the language or awareness to put words to our feelings. I always knew I felt different, but I didn’t have the language to express it. These are the lyrics to a song I wrote when I was in the 10th grade:
“I’m an alien, I’m walking alone but they don’t see me / Yeah an alien, there’s just no fitting in / Surrounded by so many people, I’ve never felt so alone / Different, yeah, that’s what I am, I’m an alien.”
I’m no master lyricist, but the pain and hurt I was experiencing is clear. These are not the words of a sinner who has desires equal to that of adultery or bestiality. These are the words of a sad, lonely teenager desperate for acceptance.
I don’t know a single frum queer person who didn’t wish they weren’t queer at some point in their life. There were times when I begged God to change me, to take my life because I didn’t want to exist in a world where I had to choose between my religion and happiness. I was also taught all the same hateful things about LGBTQ+ people that too many in the community still hold onto. I understand it will take time for people to accept me because it took me years to accept myself. It takes years to undo the shame and self-hate that religious LGBTQ+ people are taught. Some never succeed. I still struggle with it all the time.
I know of a very frum transgender woman who, despite being aware of her identity, has decided that she won’t change the way she acts or presents herself. She is not comfortable joining co-ed events because she believes that she should only be interacting with people of her sex assigned at birth. She will continue to present as male because she believes it would be wrong to dress in a gender affirming way due to beged isha, the prohibition for a man to dress in women’s clothing. This is what many official religious opinions recommend, essentially saying: Your queerness is a private struggle that should be fought.
While some might find this approach admirable, to be honest, I’m really worried. Everyone I personally know of who has had the attitude of “I’m going to do what God/my family expects of me,” instead of being true to themselves, has attempted to take their own life.
When speaking to someone who went to a Bais Yaakov school in New York, I was shocked to hear some of the things her rabbis said. One rabbi told a class that gay people should kill themselves. To paraphrase, “Since we don’t have a beis din (Jewish court) to take care of the gay people for us today, gay people should do the world a favor and remove themselves from it.” I was heartbroken but not surprised to find out that 100% of queer people she knew who attended that school had attempted suicide.
I don’t know how more urgently this can be expressed. Queer people exist in Orthodox communities, and they need so much more support. This is a matter of life and death.
And so here’s my plea: Imagine you are a teenager told do the world a favor and kill yourself. Imagine being verbally abused in this way because of something you didn’t choose and can’t change. Imagine being told the God that made you this way also believes that your existence is an abomination.
And then for one second, forget about the halachic ramifications of the matter. For a moment, forget about the threat you think LGBTQ+ people pose to the Orthodox community. Recognize that these Jewish lives, neshamos (souls) Hashem gifted to the world, are at stake. This is an issue of pikuach nefesh, preserving a life.
So how can we begin to fix this? A great start would be actually adhering to the many principles essential to Jewish thought that conveniently seem to get thrown out the door when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues. What happened to “deracheha darchei noam” — the ways of the Torah are pleasant ways? If the path of those who follow the Torah is a path of pleasantness, why do so many shame and hurt us with its words? Why does it seem that “ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha” — love your fellow as yourself — is irrelevant when it comes to queer issues?
The Orthodox narrative around LGBTQ+ issues is not reflective of the loving, compassionate God we serve. This is not the Judaism I love.
There’s another concept in Judaism that states it’s better to do as much as we can than nothing at all: a mumar l’davar echad (one who doesn’t observe one specific mitzvah) is not a mumar l’kol haTorah (one who doesn’t observe any Torah at all). I remember my teachers telling us we will never be perfect and fulfill all the mitzvahs perfectly. Hashem cares more about what we are striving towards than what we do. Assuming even the strictest understanding of the prohibition around same-sex acts, queer people can live mostly halachic lives with a few exceptions. Isn’t that better than living a life with no Torah at all?
Trying to ignore or repress who we are can cost us our lives. So to the Orthodox community, I ask: Can you make space for LGBTQ+ people to be frum in your community? Before answering that question, ask yourself what you think God prefers. If you can’t allow us in your communities, be prepared to tell us you think God would rather we keep no Jewish law than almost all of it.
Many don’t leave the community because they want to; they do it for the same reason I ate that cheeseburger. If there is no place for them to be queer in Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy will be the one to go — because the queerness won’t.