Updated: Oct 2, 2019
During my third year in yeshiva, I slipped up. I was talking to a friend but my mind wasn’t focused on the conversation. It was focused on how much he resembled a snack at that moment. I had fantasised about him multiple times before. But now I suddenly found myself moving beyond fantasy, leaning in to kiss him, only stopped by his question.
“What are you doing?”
I could read the shock in his expression and I understood why. I had leaned forward, my lips pushed together, eyes closing, and had stopped just inches from his face. I had fucked up really bad. All those years of care had been decimated in an unconscious moment. It was what I had always feared.
“I don’t know,” I said. I shook my head. “Nothing. I just… felt lightheaded…”
Both of us pretended nothing had happened. I didn’t even consider any other course of action. There was no way I would admit to it and if I tried to explain it away any further, I knew I’d just make the reality more obvious.
After this non-event, I did not just feel exposed. I felt guilt, an added layer to the ubiquitous guilt of considering myself a bad person. I had betrayed a friend. I had betrayed him over and over again, by pulling him into my fantasies, vividly imagining doing all sorts of things that he would never consent to.
When I came out to male friends over the years, I was always careful with my language. I wanted to sound as asexual as possible. I imagined they would be wondering if I had ever thought about them “that way.” With those who I had thought about like that, I remained particularly chaste in the way I spoke. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I was somewhat aware of it.
I was afraid of being considered a traitor, and I know that some people do think along these lines. There are people who feel betrayed just finding out a friend is gay. They see that person as a kind of trojan horse, creeping on them while pretending to be straight. And I think there are still people who would feel betrayed by me if they knew about my fantasies from a decade ago. My belief in my own betrayal drew strength from the assumption that others would see it that way.
But I learnt something in therapy recently. Fantasies are, if anything, the opposite of betrayal. If you’re fantasising about something, you are by definition not acting on it. You can fantasise about whatever the fuck you like. It is hurting literally no one.
While I was closeted, not only did I not engage in nonconsensual advances on male friends, but I never advanced at all. I never tested out what certain guys might be into. I never implied that I was interested. When other bochrim (students) were wrestling half-naked, I remained on the sidelines, not even watching. I did nothing but fantasise but I still felt like a traitor for it.
I’m a big fan of fantasy now. As a writer, it’s nine-tenths of what I do. When I write a sex scene, I write directly from the visual part of my mind, and I’m not fucking anyone while I do so. If I was to write a scene in a pharmacy, the same would apply. Fantasy is where my creativity comes alive. It is where I come alive.
Orthodox Judaism tends to see fantasy in a less favourable light. The idea is that not just that God sees what you’re thinking, but even if He didn’t, you shouldn’t be sullying yourself with impure thought. You should only ever think about permissible things, and even those should only occupy your mind only for as long as necessary. You shouldn’t spend much time thinking of making love to your wife, for example. Fuck her when you both feel like it, but don’t dwell on it.
The problem for me as a a frum, queer Jew was that when Torah monopolised my mind, I had to trash the parts of myself that were most me. I saw my fantasies as bad, even when they had nothing to do with sex. Because it was in that same part of my mind that my sexual fantasies were generated*. But when I suppressed those fantasies, I didn’t get rid of them. They continued to percolate in my unconscious. All I ended up doing was suppressing myself. I gave myself no outlet for self-expression. I hid not just from others but from my own fantasy world.
*I’ve gotten turned on by fantasies that had nothing to do with sex. Fantasies of doing something exciting, something I hadn’t had the guts to try yet.
Fantasies don’t just go away. We all know this because we all dream. Dreams are not generally made up of things we’ve actively thought about. Dreams often contain people, acts, ideas, that we had no idea were even on our minds.
The same is true if you’ve ever created something. When I write a character, I barely think about them consciously. They develop while I’m doing other things and when I write I know exactly what they would do or say. The same is true when working on a piece of music or a painting. Sometimes you’ll think about your creation, but much of the time your ideas seem to come from nowhere.
It happened to me in yeshiva, too. I would come up with some chiddush (unique idea) and feel almost like God had implanted it in my mind. At the same time, I’d recognise that it was exactly the sort of idea I would have come up with. Deep down, I understood that the idea came from within. Which is why I would feel so much guilt after waking up after a wet dream that came from exactly the same mysterious place.
All of this is to say that queer fantasies are not a betrayal. In these fantasies, I can fuck whoever I want to fuck and no one will get hurt. I can act however I want and no one will get hurt.
Being in the closet was never just about keeping a secret. It was a continual cycle of denial of everything that made me me, everything I wanted to love about myself. I couldn’t have even comprehended the life I now live while still in the closet.
Coming out liberated much more of me than just my sexuality. Now I don't run away from my own creation, even those that would have terrified and thrilled the young, Jewish queer in me.