Gays, It’s Time To Come Out of the Closet Again

Jewish Queer Youth marching in the NYC Israel Day Parade (6/2/24)

Every June, gay people of all stripes and deviations from societal expectations celebrate how we shed our shame and embraced our pride. It is the most moving time of the year and a moment when I look at my younger self, see how scared he is, and tell him that everything turned out okay. 

Coming out of the closet is an experience few others can grasp. Unlike any other minority, we know what it’s like to live in terror for most, if not all, of our childhoods. “How are your parents?” is a question that undoubtedly comes up on every first date, which is another way of asking if our parents are okay with us existing. What other minority can say the same? It is this unique heartbreak that unites us. There’s a reason so many of us lost it when Jennifer Garner’s character in Love, Simon tells her son “you can exhale now,” because most of us held our breath for 13, 18, 25, even 30 years, or more. 

But we also know the Closet isn’t fixed. We can feel the threat of excommunication and lost love coursing through our nervous systems long after coming out. We can feel the Closet beckon us when we feel unsafe, and continue to feel its pull years after having the courage to step into our truest selves.

As the son of an Orthodox rabbi, I was particularly afraid to come out because of how public the pronouncement would be. And it was difficult.

But I survived. We all did.

And yet I feel the pull of the Closet again. This time as a Jew.

I am not alone in this sentiment. Since October 7th, Gay Jews have been feeling the whiplash of being back in the closet as we enter familiar spaces, now unsure whether it’s safe to say that we love our homeland, or that we have friends or family in Israel after 1200 of our people were slaughtered in the most barbaric way possible. It is a familiar fear and a familiar dread that we knew too well as children: the fear of being vilified for who we are. It is heartbreaking to say that this hatred is alive and well, and, irony of ironies, it is now coming from the communities we escaped to.

In the months since October 7th, I have walked into far too many bathrooms lined with antisemitic vitriol, the most recent example was at a queer event at Knockdown Center, a venue in Queens, with “Glory 2 Al Qassam” and “#martyrsbrigade” scribbled along the walls. For a movement that is vehemently concerned about bathrooms as safe spaces, it is not lost on me that it has nothing to say to the Jews who are forced to look at phrases that celebrate our death. On Wednesday, friends recounted the need to protect the Baruch Hillel after a group dressed as terrorists protested the school’s one Jewish club. Another wrote that he was attacked and verbally assaulted at Metropolitan Bar in November for wearing his Star of David. Three Dollar Bill, a Queer bar in Brooklyn, waited to cancel their Eurovision event until Israel’s contestant qualified for the Grand Finale, and only rescheduled it after hundreds of people commented and asked if Jews would be welcomed at future events. A New York City art collective for queer and trans people of color posted a message of solidarity with the Palestinian cause and a message glorifying Palestinian martyrs. Drag Race stars-turned-geopolitical-experts are expressing their desire to dissolve the indigenous Jewish homeland, and other Queer influencers like Jonathan Van Ness said it wasn’t their place to speak up on October 7th, but have suddenly found the moral clarity to use their platform. Last week a group of protestors on Fire Island, perhaps the most sacred gay space of all, tore down a flag honoring Ritchie Torres, an ardent Israel advocate and the first Afro-Latino LGBT Member of Congress. Here’s an unsolicited tip: if your movement rips down a flag honoring the first Afro-Latino LGBT Member of Congress in the name of progress, you’re not in the club you think you are.

Last week I received a message from someone telling me I supported genocide, which for those of you who seem to have lost your dictionaries, is the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group. Never mind that the term is a modern-day blood libel meant to justify hatred of the one Jewish state. Never mind that my family member was in Gaza last month protecting Palestinians from Hamas while anti-Israel protestors were scrolling Instagram. Never mind that the ICJ ruled Israel’s war of defense is not a genocide. Never mind that Israel has, as of June 5th, provided over 649,700 tons of humanitarian aid to the population of the enemy that murdered their own people. Never mind that Israel evacuated close to a million civilians from Rafah before a cache of munitions that Hamas kept in a humanitarian zone exploded. And never mind that Egypt still refuses to shelter a single Palestinian eight months into the war. The internet has desensitized our civilities and respect in the way we address even the people we know.

Another person wrote me on October 7th itself after I shared a clip of someone lambasting the antisemitic reactions to the ongoing atrocities. His response was that this person was a problematic figure with questionable views. He never once asked how I was. He never once asked if my friends and family were ok.

They’re not by the way. My close friend’s aunt was murdered, his four- and two-year-old cousins were taken hostage, and his uncle remains a hostage in Gaza. Another close friend’s cousin was hospitalized after a car-ramming and stabbing incident in central Israel. My own family sheltered 15 people in their home, found housing for 100 more, and my mother’s non-profit, Operation Embrace, continues to aid tens of thousands of displaced Israelis and other victims of terror. Most recently, she provided baby clothes and a stroller to Machol, a mother of three, whose husband was murdered while they hid in their bomb shelter and who escaped through the window after terrorists set her home on fire.

And so we Zionists, individuals who believe in Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation in the Jewish people’s indigenous homeland, feel compelled to support Israel in its existential fight against six active military fronts.

But while Gay Jews are being forced to come out of the Closet again, it is shocking to see how many gay men and women are afraid to speak up.

A disclaimer: I don’t expect the people who justified the October 7th massacres to understand what I’m writing. I am not writing this for them. I am not writing this for the groups that hosted rallies days after thousands of terrorists murdered 1200 Israelis, especially the one that used the image of a paraglider in honor of the murderers who flew into the Nova Music Festival and massacred the crowd of Jewish, Christian and Muslim ravers, killing special needs children, raping women, and tying their naked bodies to trees.

I am not writing this for the artists who have never been to Israel and continue to spread falsehoods about the freest democracy in the Middle East, home to millions of Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Druze citizens who share equal rights and live in peace, thereby making a mockery of those who had to endure the actual racist policies of countries with histories of apartheid. 

I am writing this for the majority. I am writing this for most of the gay population, good people who hate war and wish for coexistence but are watching silently as the loudest voices in the room support some of the most fascist, misogynistic, homophobic, genocidal, oppressive, and imperialist regimes today.

But despite my disappointment in the silent majority, I also understand. Because after finally achieving community, who would risk anything to mess it up? Especially when public shaming is so commonplace. When a people so traumatized by shame have to face the possibility of being shamed again by the very ones we found communion with, why would anyone tempt fate? But what should have strengthened the hearts and backbones of young boys and girls who lived in absolute terror, instead conditioned them into doing whatever it took not to be pushed away again.

But I survived. We all did.

And so we need to come out. Again. All of us. We need to draw strength from our lived experience because experience is the greatest teacher. We need to be brave in our integrity. We need to be brave in support of our Jewish friends. We need to be brave in calling out pro-war, anti-coexistence rhetoric that seeks to divide us further. And if the gay rights movement is going to retain any shred of credibility, we are going to have to stand up for one of the most pro-gay countries in the world.

I can already hear the anti-Israel mob scream “PINKWASHER!,” but for a country as picked apart as Israel, we know any positive attributes one can associate with Israel will be viewed as a ruse. For those unaware, “pinkwashing” is a term used to discredit Israel’s gay rights achievements as a way of pulling focus from its treatment of Palestinians. But as comedian and influencer Daniel Ryan Spaulding put it, “pinkwashing is an ideological propaganda tool created to discredit Gay men who visit Tel Aviv, and dismiss Israel‘s fantastic LGBT community.” He writes that with it, we are “supposed to ignore that Gaza is run by Hamas: an Islamic terrorist regime funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran who started a war by killing 1200 people and taking hundreds hostage — and we’re supposed to believe the true bad guys are Israelis — the Jewish nation, the multicultural, multiracial democracy.”

While “pinkwashing” slander is the real culprit of propaganda, the truth is that Israel has done more for queer Palestinians than Queers for Palestine ever has. It is estimated that there are hundreds of gay Palestinians who have escaped to Israel in the last several decades, and in 2022, 66 Palestinians who were either members of the LGBTQ community or victims of domestic violence received temporary residence in Israel.

The truth is that when you support a deadly homophobic society, you disgrace men like Ahmad Abu Murkhiyeh, a gay Palestinian who sought asylum in Israel and whose severed head and torso were discovered on the side of a road in the West Bank in 2022. It is a disgrace to the countless men and women in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death, and to the Palestinians who have nowhere else to go except Israel.

Israel was the first country in Asia to recognize same-sex unions in any capacity, and decriminalized homosexuality in 1988, long before many European countries and fifteen years before the state of Texas. Israel honors same-sex marriages performed outside of Israel, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and allows transgender people to legally change their genders without undergoing sex reassignment surgery. LGBT people have served openly in the military since 1993, seventeen years before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed. Israel is only one of a handful of countries in the world to legalize gay surrogacy, and same-sex couples have had the right to adopt since 2008, a right that was illegal in some US states until 2017.

Meanwhile sex between two men is illegal in 9 out of 18 countries in the region, and punishable by death in 4 of the 18 countries.

To all of the detractors: Israel’s stellar LGBT record is not pinkwashing, but rather the result of decades of activism by hundreds of thousands of gay Israelis and their allies, as is the case with LGBT progress in any western democracy.

The truth is that when you purposefully amplify the problems of a country that your own country cannot live up to, it is time to take a deep dive into your subconscious biases and reflect why. Because when you discredit the progress a country has made for its LGBT community, you discredit those who have fought tooth and nail for equality. Because when you criticize Israel, you don’t do it in good faith. You do it to delegitimize a country where gay people of all religions and ethnicities already coexist. I will forever be gobsmacked how anyone in the queer community was convinced to champion the society that throws gay people off of buildings instead of the one that throws the only pride parade in the Middle East.

The truth is not propaganda. The truth is just truth. 

To be clear, problems exist. Despite honoring same-sex marriages from abroad, Israel still doesn’t grant same-sex couples that right within Israel, and only last year did the Knesset recognize same-sex spouses of fallen soldiers as widows and widowers when Omer Ohana’s fiancé, Sagi Golan, was killed trying to rescue people from Kibbutz Be’eri, a kibbutz in southern Israel where terrorists massacred, tortured, and/or abducted 136 residents, burning their homes to the ground and leaving their community in ruins. Gay Palestinians who have sought asylum in Israel were only granted the right to work permits in 2022, ending years of being allowed to live in Israel but little else. There are also members in the Knesset with extreme, hateful views of the LGBT community, and in 2015, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, killing one, and was then sentenced to life in prison. 

But with all of these problems, Israel is a better and freer place to live for gay individuals than any other country in the Middle East. In fact, it’s almost as if Israel is like America. Or France. Or Spain. Or Germany. Or Italy. Or any other democracy that has made progress on LGBT rights while still having work to do. The fact that some don’t agree proves how lucky they are to be so removed from the realities of countries where actual subjugation and inequality exists, and the double standard and obsession of Israel only exposes the antisemitism layered in one’s subconscious views about the one Jewish state. 

So how can my gay friends look at the hypocrisy and not speak up?

Since when did a community that learned to sing out loud and proud start to whisper? When did we become so afraid of a hateful mob that burns American flags and harasses Jews and Jewish businesses. We survived the name-calling and bullying before and we will do it again. The reason to come out of the Closet now, to speak up in support of the only gay refuge in the Middle East, and for your Jewish friends, is the same as it was when you came out the first time. Because you refused to let fear run your life. Because you refused to let the hate control you.

Since I have a tendency to be an emotional masochist, I recently went through my Instagram to see who unfollowed me after October 7th. It was not fun, to say the least. In a time when we place so much importance in digital connections, it is brutal for anyone to see that someone has unfollowed you, but perhaps more so for gay people because we know the fear of abandonment so well. So many of us are still those little boys and girls seeking acceptance from people whose love was supposed to be unconditional. Some of us are still excluded from holidays and family events. Some of our parents still refuse to talk to us. Some of our parents still refer to our boyfriends as our “best friends, and some of them still wish we hadn’t ruined the expected futures they created for us long before we were conceived.

But less than a day after I went through the list of people who cannot hold space for both Israelis and Palestinians, something incredible happened: It didn’t hurt as much. It stings still, for sure. It is hard to stomach at times. But the beauty in facing your biggest fear as a gay individual is knowing you survived. That is the power of the gay experience. The knowledge that you will be okay and knowing you endured at least one or two decades of hiding the most beautiful parts of your identity only to come out on the other side, not only alive but grateful beyond belief that this is the body and mind in which we get to live out our days.

This year, June has arrived and with it an opportunity to come out again. It’s not just Jews who need you to be brave. It’s anyone who wishes for a better future for everyone who lives on that holy piece of land. We need you to come out again for the sake of western democratic values. We need you to come out again for your gay Jewish friends who are being ostracized and excluded by more and more venues with “warm and welcoming” anti-discrimination policies. We need you to come out for a country that does more for its LGBT population of Israelis and Palestinians than any other country within almost a thousand miles. We need the silent majority to not be silent anymore.

So, gays, it’s time to come out of the closet again.

But it will be easier this time because you have the lived experience of survival. And when you stop reading this, send a message to your Jewish friends that you care for them. When you are in conversation with others and hear hate speech, call it out. When you see campus protestors intimidating Jewish students and chanting for the death of all Zionists or to bomb Tel Aviv, don’t stand for it. When you see antisemitic graffiti, tell a staff member or get rid of it. You don’t need to be an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to recognize what is hateful and what is not, to discern what is constructive and what is driving the world further apart. 

So gather your courage and come out again.

Your younger self will thank you.

About the Author
Roniel Tessler is a Jewish educator at Bnai Jeshurun Congregation and the Assistant Youth Director at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. As a screenwriter, his work has been recognized by the Academy Nicholl Fellowship, the O'Neill Conference, and the Writer's Guild of America. Roniel lives in New York.