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Aug 8 2014

Yes, You Can Be Orthodox & Be Friends With Gay People

By at 9:52 am

Rainbow-kippah

When my generation, the Baby Boomers, was fighting for civil rights, for “women’s liberation” and to end the war in Viet Nam, it would have occurred to almost no one that the next frontier would be gay rights.

Who even knew what “homosexual” meant? Who could imagine that the “fag tag” on the back of our shirts contained what would one day be considered a pejorative? Who thought twice about using “gay” as a rhyme for a word ending in “ay” in poems and songs in our Modern Orthodox schools and camps? Who gave a thought to the “sexual orientation” of the two somewhat nebbishy guys in our group of friends?

The whole thing was just not on our radar at all. It was totally irrelevant to me and to anyone I knew.

But at some point, although I have no recollection of when, where, or under what circumstances, I did learn what homosexuality was. And along the way, we students in yeshiva high school were given the impression that it was “sinful” (although we always skipped the pertinent texts in Leviticus).

Since I didn’t think I knew anyone who was gay, the whole issue was a non-issue.

As I got older, and the LGBT movement gained incredibly fast traction, religiously observant people had to come to grips with the differing messages offered by the gay and faith communities, in much the same way that they had had to deal with the women’s movement decades earlier.

One woman I met at a conference became a dear, close friend to my husband, me, and our kids. At the beginning of our relationship, she called and told me that she wanted me to know that she was a lesbian. I quietly said that if she didn’t ask me what went on in my bedroom, I wouldn’t ask her what went on in hers. Much later I asked her why she made that call; did she do that with everyone? She replied that she knew I was Orthodox and wanted me to know in case I didn’t want to be her friend. I was horrified and hurt for her–that she would have to consider such rejection before starting a new friendship.

It’s true, I was raised in a religiously observant household, but we were socially and politically liberal and always taught to accept people for who they were. Because of this, resolving the conflict between my community’s religious position and the issue of gay rights was probably easier for me than for many others. To paraphrase Hugh Jackman at the Tony Awards, there were people who seemed very upset by homosexuality and then there were people who just minded their own business. I remember my grandmother, daughter of the shtetl, well into her 90s saying, “Well, they can’t help it.”

So we raised our kids the way I had been raised–respectful of others, of differences in religion, ethnicity, race, socio-economic status, and sexual preference.

I didn’t have any (openly) gay friends until my children were in their teenage years. Several of them became regular guests at our Shabbos meals, often with their partners. It was a non-issue to my kids–not because, like me, they didn’t know anyone gay, but, to the contrary, because they did.

But not everybody felt the same way. On a particular Shabbos about 12 years ago, I invited a group of people from our Modern Orthodox shul for lunch, and included a gay friend who was staying over. A close friend of mine declined the invitation, admitting her homophobia.

Some months ago, this previously homophobic friend called to tell me something in confidence. Her son, she said, had come out to her. I asked her how she was doing. “I sat down and collected myself. Then I told him that he was my son and I just wanted him to be happy.” She is now hoping that he marries and gives her grandchildren.

When my younger son was in yeshiva in Israel for his gap year between high school and college, we spoke at least weekly. One Sunday we had a lengthy conversation about an issue he was trying to work through: the conflict he felt between how he grew up and the religious texts and rabbis’ teachings he was studying in the yeshiva about homosexuality.

Some weeks later, I asked him if he had come to any conclusions. I will never forget what he said and I have rarely been prouder of him. He responded, “I decided that I would let God judge, and I will continue to love.”

Good words to live by.

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