Monday, October 11, 2010

Speaking to our GLBT Youth - a pledge to do better

This sermon was delivered last Friday at Congregation B'nai Israel. It is posted on the blog today in honor of National Coming Out Day.

On September 24th the Jewish Standard, the Jewish newspaper of Northern NJ, published an engagement announcement. We get the Jewish Standard because it covers the area where Suri lived until this Summer, and where she still teaches part-time. The announcement caught my eye because one of the young men in the announcement was Avi Smolen, one of Suri’s students some years back, and the son of the past Head of Middle School. And it caught my eye because they were announcing his engagement to another young man, Justin Rosen. We delighted in the announcement. These two young men met at Ramah camp, and both are working or training for professions in Jewish community service.

The following week, the newspaper published an editorial explaining that, after an unnamed group of Orthodox Rabbis met with them, they were apologizing for publishing the announcement, for any pain and consternation it caused, and would not be publishing same-sex engagement or wedding announcements again. Since that announcement, the newspaper has been deluged with letters, has met with a larger group of Rabbis from all denominations, has had this story covered in almost every Jewish publication, and many non-Jewish ones such as the New York Times and the Huffington Post blog. The editors have since stated that they may have been too hasty in their decision…

I think we are all aware, this Jewish story emerged in the very same week that a young gay man from Northern NJ took his own life, and so this story has taken on significance far beyond being a parochial Jewish community issue.

In recent weeks, the media has helped to make us aware of the tragic suicides of several teens. All were subjected to relentless bullying or humiliation and all were gay. The death of Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University, gained most attention, due to the shocking circumstances where two students recorded and broadcast a private encounter to their friends. But there was also Asher Brown, 13, who shot himself when the anti-gay bullying at school became too much for him. Billy Lucas, aged 15, hanged himself in his grandmother’s barn, following unending taunting and bullying at school because of his sexuality. Seth Walsh, 13, also killed himself by hanging, as did Raymond Chase, an openly gay 19-year-old student at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. Unfortunately, these are not rare occurrences, although they’ve received more attention recently; approximately 1/3rd of all teen suicides are gay teens.

We can all, I’m sure, feel the enormous pain of parents who lose a child this way. We can feel for these poor young men who felt so isolated or humiliated or doubtful that it would ever get better and they would ever be able to enjoy their lives that they were driven to such extreme measures. But, if we really care about these young men and feel pained by these stories, then we have to do something more.

Many GLBT adults have stepped up in just these past couple of weeks, gaining new confidence that there is something that they can do to make a difference in the lives of our youth. Something about these recent events, and the fact that so many suicides were publicly acknowledged in the media in such a short period of time, has enabled a new grassroots response to spring up remarkably quickly. Dan Savage, who is better known as a syndicated sex advice columnist, launched a simple and powerful project called ‘It Gets Better’. He and his husband posted a very honest and heart-felt youtube where they shared that they had both experienced bullying and challenges as awkward teens, but yet they had kept going and made a life, and found each other. Beyond the teenage years, they said, ‘it gets better.’

Dan explained that he realized that we had allowed those who won’t permit GLBT adults to speak directly to teens and who, by doing so, make us invisible, to control access for too long. But today’s technology, and especially youtube and facebook, means that we don’t need to ask permission. Since launching the ‘It Gets Better’ channel on Youtube 2 weeks ago, the channel has been viewed well over 1 million times. Dan’s video has been viewed over ½ million times and there are literally hundreds of short youtubes that have been posted on the channel by ordinary GLBT men and women, including teens and college students, all speaking directly to teens, sharing some of the difficulties they went through but telling them that they are not alone, help is available, and things will get better.

Turning to Judaism, and the Jewish community … what is our role? Aside from offering a social commentary, why is this Shabbat sermon material? The Union for Reform Judaism, the Religious Action Center, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and NFTY have done much work in recent years to ensure that Reform Judaism stands for Judaism that is welcoming and open to all, where everyone is seen as an equal with a God-given soul, and where no-one should have to hide some aspect of that soul and essential self in order to belong and fit in.

In addition to the advocacy of the movement for civil marriage for all, equal protections in the workplace, and equality recognized in all aspects of Federal and State law, we understand, as Reform Jews, that an essential aspect of one’s spirituality and religious expression is deeply connected to being able to feel whole. Being open about who one is, and who one shares their life with, is an aspect of that spiritual wholeness. And so, for Reform Judaism, the inclusion and equality of the GLBT community is a matter of religious and not only social or political significance.

When one is talking about the spiritual, there is nothing so painful and jarring as looking at the face of suicide. People can endure terrible things, but when the spirit is crushed and one feels so deeply trapped, it can seem that there is only one way out. When the spirit is so utterly crushed it can seem impossible to reach out and seek help.

That is why we must do more to ensure that the GLBT experience is a visible and explicit part of our communities – school communities, youth communities, and religious communities.

Now, I know that it must seem to many of you that this is something of a non-issue at B’nai Israel; after all, here I am on the bima addressing you all this evening. Suri and I publicly celebrated our marriage with this congregation this Summer, and we were delighted to share that with our community.

But the truth is, even I am self-censoring in how and when I share this aspect of self. Someone who is heterosexual doesn’t usually hesitate to refer to ‘my wife and I’ or ‘my husband and I’ in the normal flow of conversation. A heterosexual norm is implied and not something worthy of special attention when a man says ‘Susan and I saw a great movie last night’, or ‘My wife and I just returned from a fabulous vacation’. Yet, when I open my mouth, I am always conscious that these basic sentences are potentially charged, depending on my context. Each time I am potentially ‘coming out’ and each time, in so doing, I am making homosexuality a visible rather than invisible part of the everyday landscape. And there are many times when I self-censor and question whether it is wise or appropriate to do so. I think this is because, to some degree, I, like many other GLBT people, carry a degree of internalized homophobia where to say something that is a completely natural flow of conversation for a heterosexual person becomes ‘making a point’ or ‘pushing a homosexual agenda’ or is, in some other way, seen as a political act beyond simply mentioning who you went to the movies or on vacation with.

And one of the places where I self-censor the most is with our youth. I worry about whether their parents will react. I worry about whether I’ll get pigeonholed as ‘the lesbian rabbi’ and what that will mean for my ability to reach people and do my job. But what I have come to realize in these past few weeks is that this self-consciousness and self-censoring in certain situations essentially makes me invisible as an example of a GLBT Jew to some in our community. And that is what the Jewish Standard in NJ is doing when it decides that it will not publish our engagement announcements. When Suri and I wrote our letter to the newspaper, we acknowledged that we had been guilty of waiting for someone else to be the ‘first’; we didn’t want to draw attention to our celebration, the way that others delight in a NY Times listing, or an announcement in a community newspaper. And, in so doing, we have failed our teens.

Last night, at the temple board meeting, we voted to sign Congregation B’nai Israel on to a pledge from Keshet, a Boston-based grass-roots organization committed to the full inclusion of GLBT Jews in Jewish community. The full text of the pledge is on our Temple website, and specifically on our GLBT outreach page. The pledge reads as follows:

Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge to Save Lives

‘As members of a tradition that sees each person as created in the divine image, we respond with anguish and outrage at the spate of suicides brought on by homophobic bullying and intolerance.

We hereby commit to ending homophobic bullying or harassment of any kind in our synagogues, schools, organizations, and communities. As a signatory, I pledge to speak out when I witness anyone being demeaned for their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. I commit myself to do whatever I can to ensure that each and every person in my community is treated with dignity and respect.’

Our congregation has had a GLBT outreach group, Kulanu, for nearly 7 years. Some of its members are known to you, and others are not. We run a program for BIFTY almost every year, and we aim to run an educational event for the whole congregation each year. We are available as a resource to any adult or teen who needs support, and both Rabbi Prosnit and I want to be there for anyone who is struggling with their sexual or gender identity, experiencing homophobic bullying, or is a parent wanting to know how to help their child. We also want to celebrate with you as you recognize your true self and God-given soul; Rabbis in our movement have written blessings for coming out, for it is indeed a blessing to feel more complete and whole for who you are. This Monday is National Coming Out Day – we want to celebrate the diversity of identity that is part of the tapestry of humankind, and not only mourn the tragedies.

I pledge to do better by our teens. The cost of invisibility, whether in society at large, or the Jewish community in particular, is just too high.