A New Jersey jury recently convicted 20-year-old Dharun Ravi of hate crimes for using a webcam to watch as his college roommate kissed another man. Days after the incident, the subject of the video stream, Tyler Clementi, jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Clementi’s tragic death was one of a recent spate of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender suicides that drew attention to the consequences of homophobia and bullying.
In response to the events, sex advice columnist and journalist Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, founded the “It Gets Better” project, a series of videos designed to remind vulnerable kids — especially LGBT ones — that life does indeed get better, and to encourage them to hang on. Now comes the “It Gets Better” book, a compendium of essays (many transcribed from the web project) with the same purpose.
In honor of the publication, the Forward asked three young people from Nehirim, the national community of LGBT Jews that I founded in 2004, to share their own “It gets better” stories. These three very different individuals show how Jewishness and LGBT identity intersect, how each can enrich the other, and how the deepest values of our religious tradition are upheld precisely when we hear those voices that have been excluded in the past. Although the rate of LGBT teen suicide has not decreased, hopefully these voices can inspire us to make it get better, for all our sakes.
Gotta give ’em hope
Chaim Levin, 22
I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., as a deeply religious Orthodox Jew, and attended some of my community’s greatest yeshivot, or Orthodox religious secondary schools. Yet, dealing with daily bullying and alienation for being gay, and subsequently going through reparative “therapy,” I felt hopeless and alone. Before I came out three years ago, I was deeply ashamed of myself. I believed that I was never going to be someone. I let the bullies, naysayers and those who would have me either stay in the closet or change get the better of me.
I was fortunate to meet people in the Jewish gay and lesbian community who had learned to reconcile themselves as both gay and as Jewish. I started accepting who I am. And it has gotten better and better for me every day. I never thought I would see my friends and family accept me as they do today. There have been ups and downs, but everyone in my life has come a very long way, just as I have, in finding not only peace, but also pride in who I am. I used to think that there was no future for me, but now I cannot wait for the richness and fullness that I know tomorrow will bring.
Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official, said: “I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you…. And you…. And you…. Gotta give ’em hope.” This quote has guided me to let everyone know how much they have to live for and how they are worthy, loved and beautiful.
In the past year, I’ve tried to spread this message as best I can. I participated in an “It Gets Better” video by and for gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, which sent a very powerful message to Jewish LGBT youth. I talked about my experiences in reparative “therapy,” and I played a role in persuading Orthodox rabbis to reconsider their support for it. And in March I launched a blog called Gotta Give ’em Hope (gottagivemhope.blogspot.com), which has received an incredible response and generated much discussion.
Most important, I have grown and learned more about myself through the love and support of thousands of people who are motivated by the challenges young gay people face today. I am deeply humbled and honored to be part of the great fight for equality for all people. I hope that I can continue being an activist and an inspiration to those out there who feel hopeless and who need reassurance. I want them to know that it really does get better.
Kayla Higgins, 22
‘It gets better” applies not just to LGBT people, but also to all of us who are marginalized. One of my greatest anxieties growing up in New York with a Jewish mother and an Irish-Protestant father was that my Jewish peers would not consider me “Jewish enough.” At the sleep-away camp I attended for six summers as a preteen, the Jewish girls said that I could not possibly be Jewish because of my skinny nose and red hair. I didn’t look “Jewish enough.” Then, several years later, at the post-bat mitzvah Hebrew school I attended, I was socially exiled for claiming one day at bagel break that my celebrity crush was Leonardo DiCaprio — a statement met with awkward silence and then a bewildered exclamation from one girl: “But he’s not Jewish!” I was left to wonder what she would have said if I had mentioned that my second-biggest celebrity crush was Keira Knightley.
After that experience, I almost gave up on ever feeling “Jewish enough.” It wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I decided to tap into my Jewish identity again, by going on a Taglit-Birthright-Israel trip during winter break. I found myself surrounded by a lot of students who, like me, came from interfaith and progressive Jewish backgrounds; however, my newfound comfort evaporated during one bus ride, when I got into a heated argument with an Orthodox Jewish student over his claim that if one did not believe that “Jews were God’s chosen people,” one was not truly Jewish. I argued with him vehemently that the belief that Jews were holier than non-Jews contradicted Jewish beliefs about the equal value of all people, and that it was not so different to say that Jews were holier than non-Jews than it was to say that straight people were holier than gay men and lesbians!
The passion that arose inside me as I said those words made me realize that this was a conviction I had been carrying inside me for years, along with the knowledge that I was queer and for that reason also might never be considered “Jewish enough.” These two beliefs, I realized, were linked: My experience as a queer Jew enabled me to see the wrongness of deciding who is Jewish enough in other cases.
Gradually, it did get better. I learned in college that I was not alone in my convictions; that many progressive and even some Conservative Jews had subtler understandings of the “chosen people,” and that all movements except Orthodoxy have lifted rabbinic prohibitions on homosexual conduct. While the benchmarks for what is “Jewish enough” may vary, they all claim that there is some single standard of what it means to be Jewish. But what I know now is that the concept of kavod habriyot, respect for all living creatures, makes this benchmarking of “Jewish enough” irrelevant, because Judaism ultimately upholds the dignity of all human beings, even bisexual redheaded half-Jews like me.
Rafi Daugherty, 29
If you had told me in high school that “it gets better,” I wouldn’t have believed you.
My name is Rafi. I am 29 years old and I live in Denver. I was raised as an Orthodox Jew in the Midwest. I was born female, was raised female and, due to my religion, very segregated from boys. I went to school and camp with all girls, and yet I knew from a young age that I didn’t feel like a girl: I wanted to be a boy. At some point, I gave up thinking that God would transform me into a boy, and I tried to be the best girl I could. But I had painful pangs inside, especially around the holidays and in situations where I felt out of place. I used food and eventually alcohol and drugs to cover up my depression and to push away my anxiety. I thought about suicide on a regular basis, and even when I was having a good time, I never felt truly happy.
I managed to survive high school, thanks to some very loving friends and teachers. I feel lucky that I was appreciated for my masculine traits in an all-girl school. Some of my peers even thought it was cool that I was a tomboy. When I was finally living on my own in New York in 2002, and had gotten and stayed sober, I “came out” as queer and started living more authentically. I cut my hair short and started wearing pants, which helped me feel much more comfortable in my skin. Although I was attracted mainly to boys, I dated girls because it validated my masculine appearance.
I met transgender people, but felt that my religious beliefs prevented me from transitioning myself, although the reality was that I had slowly stopped observing Orthodox Judaism already. In 2007, I finally realized that I was the only one holding myself back from transitioning to male. And so I did it: I moved forward with the transition and started testosterone in July of that year. I have never looked back. I feel more comfortable in my skin today than I ever have. I have more friends than ever. And I feel that I am living honestly and authentically at all times. I don’t regret my past, and I don’t ignore the fact that I was raised female. I love being male, but value the life I had prior to transition, as it helped me become the kind, loving, intelligent man that I am today. It really does get better when you can make your own choices and start to live as the person you really are.