‘Second class citizens’: LGBTQ students allege culture of alienation and fear at Yeshiva University
Molly Meisels, then a senior at Yeshiva University, was greeted in class last fall with an unusual message from a professor: “I don’t care if you’re a ‘he,’ a ‘she,’ or an ‘it.’”
Meisels, 22, one of only a few openly LGBTQ undergraduates at the more than 2,000-strong university, recalled feeling taken aback but not surprised. In keeping with an increasingly common practice of the remote learning era, Meisels, who identifies as bisexual and non-binary, had placed preferred pronouns (they/she) in a parenthetical alongside their name on Zoom — the only student of the couple dozen in the course to have done so.
“I felt very personally targeted and uncomfortable and unsafe,” said Meisels, who attended the Stern College for Women, a division of Y.U. “For the rest of the semester, for that class, I removed my pronouns from my name, didn’t speak, just did the work, and that’s it.”
It was far from the first time that Meisels had felt targeted at their university. The incident felt like one link in a four-year-long chain of what Meisels and the five other LGBTQ students who spoke with the Forward saw as a culture of alienating silence and constant fear surrounding their sexualities and gender identities, empowered by the Y.U. administration’s policies and the student body’s apparent resistance to change.
Now, in what Meisels has called a “last resort,” they and a handful of recent alumni are suing the school, claiming that in its refusal to recognize the Y.U. Pride Alliance as a legitimate student club, the university violated New York’s anti-discrimination laws.
A spokesperson for Y.U. said in a statement that “our Torah-guided decision about this club in no way minimizes the care and sensitivity that we have for each of our students, nor the numerous steps the university has already taken.”
“At the heart of our Jewish values is love – love for God and love for each of His children,” the statement continued. “Our LGBTQ+ students are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, family and friends. Our policies on harassment and discrimination against students on the basis of protected classifications including LGBTQ+ are strong and vigorously enforced.” The Y.U. office of media affairs did not respond to queries about several specific incidents discussed in the lawsuit and this article.
Though firmly at the center of Modern Orthodox American Jewish life, Yeshiva University is officially a nonsectarian institution of higher education and thus receives public funding, including $90 million through tax-exempt bond financing within the last decade, according to the suit. In a memo from 1995, included in the lawsuit as evidence, Y.U.’s own lawyers instructed administrators more than 25 years ago that under New York City’s Human Rights Law, the university “cannot ban gay student clubs” and “must make facilities available to them in the same manner as it does to other student groups.”
Despite this warning, the lawsuit claims, Y.U. has repeatedly banned iterations of the Pride Alliance – originally called the “Tolerance Club,” and then the “Gay-Straight Alliance.” Most recently, in September of 2020, administrators declined to recognize the club, explaining in a statement to the community that “the message of Torah on this issue is nuanced, both accepting each individual with love and affirming its timeless prescriptions.” Having a formal LGBTQ club on campus, they claimed, would “cloud this nuanced message.”
For Katherine Rosenfeld, the attorney litigating the case on behalf of the Pride Alliance, the case feels “plain and simple.”
“Y.U. cannot just opt itself out of civil rights laws, or select which civil rights laws it agrees to follow,” Rosenfeld said in an email to the Forward. “The same rules apply to Y.U. as apply to N.Y.U. or Columbia or any other eminent New York City research university.” (Y.U. cannot discriminate against non-Jewish applicants, for instance, although non-Jewish enrollment in its undergraduate programs is rare.)
Though Y.U. boasts a rigorous non-discrimination policy, some students and faculty members say that protocols for reporting harassment have never been clear or equitably enforced. Joy Ladin, the first and only openly transgender Y.U. professor, said she is not aware of any rule for faculty regarding treatment of LGBTQ students in the classroom, other than “of course you should treat all students appropriately.”
“There’s clearly not a good protocol in place,” said one Y.U. professor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisal. She recounted an incident from March 2020 when a student confided in her about facing a homophobic comment on their way to class that left them distraught. When the professor asked what she could do to support the student, they said they didn’t have confidence in Y.U. to address the incident. The student had heard of an instance when a peer was advised to leave the school after bringing a complaint of anti-LGBTQ activity to administrators.
“Regardless of what actually happened,” the professor noted, “this is the sense that students have: that they aren’t protected by the university.”
Homophobic comments, according to interviews with six current and former students, are common on campus. In their freshman year, Meisels recalled hearing students casually use anti-gay slurs. They came out as bisexual during their junior year, and although many on campus reached out to express support, Meisels also became the subject of intense public scrutiny – which often turned into name-calling and slur-ridden online debate.
One student, who self-identified as a “heterosexual male,” circulated an unsigned letter telling Meisels – referred to not by name but as “you know who you are” – to “just look in the mirror” if they want to see “true evil.” The writer expressed joy that in a year’s time, the graduating Meisels would no longer be “plaguing” the school.
“I personally felt like a boulder was lifted off my chest to just have that out there,” Meisels said of coming out. “But, of course, it also branded me as the face of this movement.
“I would walk around campus and be myself, but still always look over my shoulder, afraid that people were going to approach me, or start arguments with me, that I was going to be put on the spot,” they said. “I was never at ease on campus after that.”
‘To be queer in that environment is to be an outsider’
One gay student at Y.U., who spoke to the Forward on the condition of anonymity because he is not currently open about his sexuality, said that in his freshman year he considered coming out to his peers.
“I didn’t want to feel like I’m keeping a secret from everyone all the time,” he said. When keeping a secret, especially about such a large piece of one’s identity, he noted, “conversations feel like they’re over before they’ve started.”
But when this student approached a Y.U. counselor about coming out two years ago, the counselor advised against it. The student recalled that the counselor was “honest” with him, saying there would be serious “repercussions” to coming out publicly. On campus, the counselor said, the student would be treated as a “second-class citizen.” Y.U. did not respond to a request for comment about this incident.
“It became very clear to me from the get-go that it was an institutional problem,” Meisels said. “There’s an environment of fear, and not only of fear but just so much silence. To be queer in that environment is to be an outsider.”
Tai Miller, 24, another recent alumnus and a plaintiff alongside Meisels, described a school culture where even the few Y.U. religious leaders who purport to be allies seldom take action.
One rabbi, Miller recalled, asked him what he could do to better support LGBTQ students. Miller suggested putting up a pride symbol in his office, to signal the space as welcoming. The rabbi, according to Miller, expressed discomfort with that suggestion and never followed up further.
In one case that drew campus newspaper headlines, an “Introduction to Sociology” course, required for majors, posed the following as a midterm-exam question: “Since male homosexuality is forbidden in the Bible, but gays are ‘out of the closet,’ how should the Modern Orthodox Jewish community deal with it?” In a classroom discussion, the same professor asked classmates to debate whether LGBTQ individuals should be included in Modern Orthodox Jewish life.
“Nobody really wanted to talk at first and then one girl raised her hand,” said Chana Weiss, who was a student in that class and the vice president of the Pride Alliance. “She had this attitude of, OK, we’re all on the same page, this professor talks about things we don’t want to hear about, so I’ve got you all: Obviously we don’t want gay people outwardly in our shuls or communities. What they do in the bedroom is their business.’”
Weiss, who now openly identifies as queer, said that there were at least three other closeted LGBTQ students in the class. Weiss told the student newspaper at the time, anonymously, “I sat there, sick to my stomach.” The professor was reported for the incidents, but continued to teach at the university, at least through Spring 2020. Two other Y.U. sociology faculty members said they were not aware of any reprimands or consequences for the professor.
That sociology classroom in the fall of 2019 embodied a trend many of the students who spoke with the Forward found throughout their time at Y.U.: For most students, LGBTQ issues make for an interesting debate topic, not part of their lived reality.
“LGBTQ people are often talked about as an abstract topic,” said Doniel Weinreich, a 24-year-old former student. One closeted senior said conversations about gender and sexuality on campus often carry the same distant tone as a discussion of “poverty in India.”
“No one acknowledges the possibility that there might be students in the room who are not going to enter hetero relationships,” one closeted junior said.
And for some, that silence and invisibility, can lead to what Joshua Tranen, a student who transferred out of Y.U., called a “life or death situation.”
“Each morning, when I awoke, I forced myself to gather the strength required to learn, for yet another day, alongside rabbis that had publicly called gay people an abomination,” Tranen wrote in an OpEd in 2017. “I lived in constant fear of being discovered, and in my second semester, my mental health took a turn for the worse.”
Some students said they believe conditions for LGBTQ students at the university have been improving. But for others, one of the biggest blows to acceptance on campus came less than a year ago, when 64% of students at the mens’ undergraduate campus voted against adding an anti-discrimination amendment to the student constitution, amid fears the policy would be used to push the Pride Alliance through the student council. The administration offered no public response to the vote.
On campus, the students who are vocal on LGBTQ issues said they’re often accused of acting out of hatred for the school. But in their view, it’s just the opposite: Students said they feel motivated by a love for Y.U. and its student body, present and future.
“Those of us involved in this effort are united by our respect for Yeshiva University,” Miller said. “Fundamentally we’re not asking Y.U. to change its values. We’re asking for Y.U. to live up to the values it professes to have.”
A ‘glass ceiling’ for LGBTQ faculty
Silke Aisenbrey, a sociology professor at Y.U. who is queer and an outspoken supporter of LGBTQ students, told the Forward she “personally feels that there is a glass-ceiling for faculty who are perceived to be LGBTQ – whether they are formally out or not – or are outspoken supporters of the LGBTQ community.”
In addition to some personal issues, this environment was one of the reasons Aisenbrey took the unusual step of an unpaid leave, “for my own sanity,” she explained. “The administration over and over again decided to ignore the issue and even support homophobic teachers over the protest of faculty.” She cited the incident in the “Introduction to Sociology” course as having particularly pushed her “over the edge.”
“Leadership positions in the last years did not go to anyone who would push the issue publicly or identify as LGBTQ,” she said in an email interview. The leadership positions she had in mind included honors program director, associate dean and cross-campus chair positions.
In one faculty member’s case, his vocal support for the Y.U. Pride Alliance likely contributed to the abrupt removal of his tenure-track professorship position, according to another professor and one student with knowledge of the situation. (Y.U. did not respond to a request for comment on this allegation, and the professor declined to speak about it.)
Ladin, the English professor and poet, herself was put on “indefinite leave” in 2007 when she told administrators she would be transitioning as a transgender woman. A letter from her attorney had the decision reversed – and 13 years later, she’s still at the university.
“I’m openly LGBTQ, but it’s not comfortable,” she said in an interview. In her own classes, although she and fellow English professors often include queer literature in their assigned coursework, “I would never dare” to put that in the course title or even syllabus.
This lack of full control over their own curriculums — and lack of faculty influence when it comes to LGBTQ issues more broadly — felt historically ironic to Aaron Koller, a former chair of Jewish Studies at Y.U.
A 1980 Supreme Court case, National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, barred the university’s faculty from unionizing. Y.U. at the time argued that faculty members should not be considered “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act, and the court ruled 5-4 in the university’s favor, agreeing that professors already exercise “managerial power” in academic matters, like curriculums, and thus should not receive collective bargaining rights.
“Y.U.’s argument was that faculty has so much power that they are management,” Koller said. “And now Y.U. is like, ‘Faculty, shut up, we don’t want to hear your voice.’”
‘My chosen family’: An underground support system
In their first year on campus, Weiss put their faith in a secret WhatsApp group for LGBTQ students.
“It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done,” Weiss, a founding board member of the Pride Alliance, said. “It meant telling a bunch of people this very very personal secret – my biggest secret – just by joining. But through that group, they are really my chosen family. Some of my best friends, who I consider family, are from that group.”
Meisels used the same phrase: “my chosen family.” In their sophomore year, Meisels joined what they called an “underground texting group for queer students” at Y.U., populated over the years by around 60 students, though never that many at any given point.
Group privacy and confidentiality was very important, with 95% of membership closeted. To enter, students were given strict guidelines and interviewed to ensure that no one attempted to infiltrate the group to expose it. The underground club had Shabbat get-togethers at members’ apartments off-campus, but primarily, even after joining, their contact was over text.
“A big reason why this advocacy is so important for me is because I want queer students to have community and space on campus, because I wanted it,” Meisels said. “With the underground group, we did as much as we could, but it’s just students helping students. It’s never enough.”
Plus: “Unless you know someone who’s in the group, it’s a secret, so you wouldn’t really find out about it,” a closeted junior said. She herself discovered the underground group through a friend, but without that friend — and without a publicly available student club — she said she would have been left stranded.
After years of advocacy – from failed club charters and Title IX complaints, to a pride march on campus and guest speaker panels – Meisels is exhausted. Having graduated in January, they’re now living on the West Coast and starting an art history PhD program at UCLA.
“It would have been simple for me to move on — from Y.U., from the activism,” Meisels said. “I did flirt with that idea for a bit, of completely separating myself. But I kept returning to the thought that I would want someone to fight for me.”
To combat the physical and emotional burnout of their uphill climb, especially as the legal process is just beginning, Meisels said they think back to themself as a college freshman.
“I would have felt so loved and supported if I knew that an alum was dedicating their time and effort to ensure that I had the best possible experience on campus,” they said. “It didn’t seem fair for me to just leave the cause.”