As the psychologist at JQY, I know first hand the sadness, fear, and pain that queer youth from Orthodox backgrounds experience as they struggle to figure out their place in their communities and families. The dominant perspective for helping queer youth views the child as the one who needs support. While youth do, in fact, benefit from highly-specialized support that marry expertise of the Orthodox community with expertise in queerness, direct service to youth is not enough. Once a child comes out, the entire family is forced to face many of the same questions and challenges experienced by their queer child. Just as the child needs support in reducing shame and closetedness, and improving self-acceptance and how to self-advocate, so do families, especially parents. Only through working through their own issues with queerness can parents parent their queer child most effectively.
Ten years ago my mother and father attended the first-ever Eshel parent retreat for Orthodox parents of LGBTQ kids. On his way home from the event, my father described it as “transformative.” In the following weeks and months, my parents told me when they would attend local support groups for Orthodox parents of LGBTQ children. As a gay man who had benefited so much from having a community of other queer Orthodox Jews, I was thrilled, even relieved, that my parents had a community of other Orthodox parents.
While, sadly, both my parents have passed away in the last 4 years, most recently, my father about 3 months ago, I attended the Eshel parent retreat earlier this month in my role as the psychologist at JQY. I delivered a session on approaches to parenting LGBTQ teens and young adults, facilitated support groups, and spoke individually with many parents.
The weekend was an excellent example of what is needed: safety and support for those impacted by the queerphobia in Orthodox communities. Attendees are able to be present for a few days without worry that they will be judged, rejected, or blamed because they have an LGBTQ-identifying child. For one weekend a year, parents can be sure they are not alone. Parents come at different places along their journey of acceptance—some are highly secretive about their queer child; some are angry at their child, still hoping they can change them; and some have come to peace with their child’s queer identity, want to reconnect with other parents, coordinate advocacy efforts, and even give back and mentor parents who are earlier in their journey. Parents can speak to each other openly, exchange stories and ideas and provide words of encouragement. The milieu is embracing and loving.
Over my years in practice, I have come to appreciate and respect the process that many parents go through, and see parental acceptance of a child’s queer identity as dynamic and evolving. Given the research that links parental level of acceptance to the health outcomes of their LGBTQ children, parents need their own support system so they can be the most effective parents.
It is often counterproductive when parents are demonized when they struggle to immediately accept their child’s queer identity. We know that the systemic, communal-level stigma associated with being queer impacts queer youth in and outside the Orthodox community. And, we too often view parents solely as perpetrators of this queerphobia rather than also seeing them as victims of it, and that they struggle in good faith. Queerphobia impacts children and parents alike, and everyone needs support in healing these wounds. Orthodox parents and their queer children experience conflict, but they are not parties in conflict. They are one family, and the entire family needs support with its queerness.
Herschel Siegel’s untimely and tragic death by suicide earlier this month put the mental health of LGBTQ young people back into the public discourse of the Orthodox community. Given that I did not know Herschel and he was not a public figure, I will not comment on the specifics of his situation. Instead, I see Herschel’s passing as a signal to reflect and reassess whether we, as an Orthodox community, are employing the best approach to promoting the mental health of our queer youth.
Eshel and JQY are essential resources for healing within the Orthodox community, but it is a tragedy that thousands never connect with either of them. Those queer youth suffer alone as do their families. If you are a rabbi, teacher, friend, or therapist, please know the positive, life-altering resources available. Yes, send LGBTQ youth (ages 13-23) to JQY, and also send parents to Eshel. The entire family will be better for it. Mine certainly was.