Last year, a nineteen-year-old Jewish South African kid died by suicide. In the note he left for his parents, he said that while he saw his friends finding success and heterosexual love, he knew he would always be different. He wrote that “trying to pretend to be someone I’m not in front of all of you is becoming more tiring by the day as I’m not the heterosexual being I portray for you.”
When I read about this, it hit me hard. I did not know him, but I knew his experience. I went through the same struggle, and the fact that I made it through had nothing to do with strength or courage. Only circumstance divides us.
At the time, I felt intense sadness and anger. Sadness and anger for a community which had oppressed me and people like me for so long. But I also felt a huge amount of guilt. A part of me still felt like I should have stuck around in the Orthodox Jewish community. Because I cut myself off so decisively, he knew no other gay Jews and saw no way forward.
Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. But I was an au pair for a close friend of his around the time I came out, and I kept the truth of my sexual identity between friends and family. Now it feels like a missed opportunity.
There have been so many similar missed opportunities for me over the past eight years. Guilt felt about right for a while. But I know that I couldn’t have made different decisions at the time.
The problem is that systems of power shut out anyone that threatens them. They erase us and it is incredibly difficult to do anything other than leave.
Erasing gay Jews
People were really torn up about this boy’s death. Some even felt driven to make a change in the community. A year on, I wanted to see what that looked like, and came across a website made in his name. Its stated purpose is to help people speak about mental illness. The idea is that if he could have only told people what he was going through, they could have helped him.
Sadly, with this website they prove that they probably wouldn't have made a difference. There is no mention of his sexuality. None. The site claims it is for everyone, male or female, gay or straight, but that is the only time sexuality is even hinted at.
Fuck that. This is from his suicide note:
“The difference between me and my friends is insolvable. Deep down they know I’m different and it’s about time I accept it too.
“All I see is them moving on from me and finding success and heterosexual love, leaving me isolated and alone. Trying to pretend to be someone I’m not in front of all of you is becoming more tiring by the day as I’m not the heterosexual being I portray for you.
“I wish I could have told you guys everything and I know you would have understood but deep down I know our relationship would have changed.”
I have suffered from severe depression and know that it is an illness that does not necessarily need a trigger. However, he made it clear that his sexuality played a huge part in the way he felt and why he kept it quiet. He did not keep quiet because of the stigma around mental health but because he believed his relationship with his loved ones would have changed.
Was he wrong? If the people in his life would have treated him exactly the same, I don’t believe they would have erased his sexuality from the narrative after his death.
I know that no one intended to erase his sexuality. They probably did it unconsciously, or at the very least with no malicious intent. The reasoning probably went that depression killed him and encouraging people to “speak out” implies speaking out about any issues. But he pinpointed one particular issue, which is why its absence is glaring.
In fact, considering his sexuality as an issue that contributed to his depression is nothing more than a pathologization of queerness. Sexuality was not the problem. The implicit and explicit stigma around it was.
Systemic bigotry and racism
It’s not lost on me that he went to King David, which is the same “secular” Jewish school I went to. He was not surrounded by fanatics. Many of his classmates have very little to do with Judaism now. But the homophobia in Orthodox Jewry is so systemic that even in a secular school with a queer headmistress, acceptance is far off.
Orthodox Judaism is inherently a system of racism and bigotry. If you don’t think this is true, consider the fact that an Orthodox Jew’s tolerance for diversity even within the community rarely goes beyond the walls of their shul. Charedi Jews are not okay with Chassidic Jews. Different types of Chassidic Jews are not okay with each other. Religious Zionists are not okay with non-Zionist Jews and vice versa. Reform Jews are not only not considered Jewish but are despised for calling themselves that.
Wearing a blue button-up shirt into an Ohr Sameyach shul is seen as disrespectful. Imagine showing up with a queer personality.
This is all natural in a system which prides itself on rejecting converts, on its exclusivity, on remaining unassimilated. Assimilation is seen as an existential threat. I learnt that at King David, the secular school.
Diversity of thought
It is not just on a social level that the Orthodox community lacks diversity, but on a thought level as well. Orthodox Jews learn about some complex issues in school and shul, but these issues are within a limited scope. They learn a very particular version of the Israel-Palestine conflict rather than learning to grapple with the facts, politics, philosophy, and social theory themselves. They learn to accept Judaism as the only rational religion, without wrestling with it in a context that allows for all conclusions.
Compounding this reality is the belief that Jewish thought is superior and more profound than anything the gentile world has to offer. Diverse reading and discussion threatens to expose the fact that people not constrained by Jewish thought actually have much greater capacity for critical thinking.
Even when the opportunity for open discussion is offered in the community – as it is to some extent within Limmud – it is boycotted by Orthodox leadership. This in turn limits what Limmud and similar settings have to offer, as they end up grappling with a limited scope of ideas so as not to alienate the more moderate Orthodox Jews.
As a gay Jew, I lived in a system within which I saw no accepted queerness. I had no tools to grapple with my identity or the suppression of it. I was scared to ask questions that might cause the entire edifice to collapse.
Only when I had found those tools myself did I manage to break out of that limited system of thought. And only once I had started diversifying my thinking was I capable of being truly honest with myself about my sexuality.
I used to be a religious Jew who held the same values as the Orthodox community that oppressed me. My inherent difference made this unsustainable and I was driven to question everything. It’s not because I’m better than everyone else.
So while I am angry and frustrated, I’m also aware that no individuals are to blame for a gay Jew’s suicide. Not the friends, parents, teachers. Not even the rabbis. It is not anyone’s fault. But everyone is accountable. Everyone is responsible to do better.
Systemic problems require systemic change. Small changes only affect the quality of oppression “different” Jews face. A community with no discernible diversity cannot foster diversity in its youth.
I don’t have any answers and it’s not my responsibility. If anything helps, it might be the fact that, whether you know it or not, there are already gay Orthodox rabbis in the community. There are already LGBTQ business owners. There are more queer counsellors at youth movements than you can imagine. With some diversified thinking, some of these individuals may find the courage to come out and demand change from the inside.
I also suspect that modernisation will make it into the Orthodox community no matter what. Ultimately, money talks, and some of the traditional safe Jewish jobs are not going to be needed in a changing economic landscape. When young Jews recognise that businesses are looking for people who grew up in more diverse environments, who have much greater breadth in their thinking, they will have little choice but to start adapting.
But let me reiterate that this is not my responsibility. This is not the responsibility of the queer people who are disenfranchised and looked down upon. I want to be vocal and visible so that scared young Jews know that they do have options, but putting myself back in that toxic environment helps no one.
If Orthodox Jewry really wants to make a change and show it has the capacity for unconditional love, the next move is theirs.