I couldn’t believe what I saw. A mother smacked her son’s hand and, with a look of disgust, threw what he was holding on the floor. The irate mother was not reacting to her son holding a piece of roadkill. Rather, she did this in response to her son holding a Jewish Pride flag at the Celebrate Israel Parade this past Sunday.
Upon witnessing this interaction, as well as other similar ones along the parade route between parents and children, I had several reactions. As a JQY (Jewish Queer Youth) staff person, I felt angry and protective of our vulnerable teens, who often come from families where their queer identities are not accepted. They took the risk to march at a public event with such a significant Orthodox Jewish presence, and they deserved to be greeted with encouragement, not scorn. And, as a psychologist, I was acutely aware of the ripple effects this mother’s actions would have. The son surely understood the message loud and clear: queer is bad, icky, and something to stay far away from. If this child turns out to be queer, they will likely have a more difficult time understanding and accepting their identity, and they are at increased risk for mental health problems. And, if the child turns out to be straight and cisgender, his mother’s lesson is another thing he will have to unlearn so that he can be accepting of queer people in his life, who may turn out to be his children or close friends.
Despite my shock, this mother’s behavior, while highly problematic, is not entirely surprising given the Orthodox community’s misunderstanding of Pride and queer identity. Because June is Pride month, LGBTQ issues are bound to be discussed in the Orthodox community—whether in sermons, at kiddushes, or during shabbat meals. As such, there is no more opportune time to provide some education about what Pride is and is not, from my perspective as a psychologist.
Let’s start with the basics. Pride literally means “reasonable self-esteem” or “confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” Queer people, particularly those from unaccepting or less accepting environments, such as the Orthodox Jewish community, are highly prone to feeling shame just for being who they are. The manifestations of shame are as diverse as the queer community itself. Whether it’s a gay man who repeatedly makes up stories as to why he isn’t interested in being set up with a woman or an observant trans person who stopped attending synagogue because of not knowing how they will be received, the day-to-day experiences of many queer people in the Orthodox community can be both fear-laden and shame-ridden.
A common refrain heard in Orthodox spaces with regard to LGBQ people is “Why do you need to tell everyone about your sex life?” This question, almost always rhetorical in nature, reflects a vast overreading of what it means to be openly queer. Identifying as queer is not a declaration of one’s sexual behavior. Rather, it is a statement of how one sees themself as an individual given their communal and social context. For example, we cannot assume that because a man openly identifies as gay, he must be engaged in sexual behavior with other men. Gay men, like straight men, vary in their sexual practices anywhere from abstinence to out of control sexual behavior (sometimes referred to as sexual compulsivity). Rather, it is more accurate to understand a man’s identification as gay as a statement about how he fits into his community and its cultural expectations. In other words, for a man in the Orthodox community, “I’m gay” doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than, “something about me and my experience doesn’t fit with the Orthodox man-and-woman marriage model.”
For trans folks, the focus of faulty assumptions is not about sexual behavior but is, instead, about a person’s anatomy. To be clear, publicly identifying as transgender does not indicate anything about the person’s anatomy. Some trans people take hormones, some undergo one or more surgeries, some do both, and some do neither. For a trans person in the Orthodox community, coming out doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than “my gender identity doesn’t correlate with my sex assigned at birth, and as such my experience of the Orthodox gender binary is complex.”
Being queer in the Orthodox world is not only complicated and challenging but also fraught with opportunities for being misunderstood, invalidated, rejected, oversexualized, and seen as other. Pride is the queer community’s intentional effort to counter the psychological effects of these communal realities. We wear rainbow gear, fly colorful flags, and apply glitter — all to feel positively about who we are and reaffirm our worth as people and Jews in the Orthodox community who deserve dignified, meaningful lives. Pride is the queer community’s annual vacation from shame, and it is well-deserved.
The mental health statistics for queer youth are quite alarming. According to data from Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey (ABES) released by the CDC, gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are more than twice as likely to report depressive symptoms, more than 3 times as likely to have seriously considered suicide, and more than 4 times as likely to have made a suicide attempt within the 12 months prior to their participation in the study, which was conducted during the pandemic. And, trans youth fare even worse. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health showed that trans and nonbinary youth reported significantly higher rates of depressed mood, seriously considering suicide, and suicide attempts compared to cisgender queer youth. And, coming from a rejecting family is a risk factor for depression and suicide attempts amongst other health outcomes.
So, the next time the subject of Pride or queer outness comes up in synagogue, at the shabbat table, or at a parade, please remember that they are rooted in mental health. Pride isn’t about anatomy, surgery, or sex; it’s about self.