An Israeli lesbian dressed up as an ultra-Orthodox Jew at the annual Gay Pride event / Getty Images
What do you do if you’re ultra-Orthodox and gay? You almost certainly hide.
On Thursday, Israeli daily Yediot reported new figures released by religious-gay support group Hod indicating that “two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox homosexuals [in Israel] have chosen to marry women despite their sexual inclination”; almost all of the more than 1,100 men included in Hod’s report admitted to having sex with other men at least once a month.
According to Hod founder Ron Yosef, an Orthodox rabbi and gay activist:
The situation of homosexuals in the Haredi society is much more difficult because of the social isolation they live in. A gay Haredi man cannot share his situation with his friends in the community or the yeshiva, his family members or rabbis, and “coming out of the closet” is definitely inconceivable.
It should be noted that Hod’s statistics are based on information received from gay ultra-Orthodox men who turned to the organization for help — which is to say: They reflect a self-selecting population, men who have heard of the group and reached a level of stress, or degree of openness, that would allow them to reach out. It’s hard to know how much the two-thirds figure actually tells us about the lived reality of gay Haredi men, but then, that’s a community about which it would be particularly hard to produce solid polling results.
Yosef reports that “more rabbis have stopped sending the guys to ‘conversion therapy’ and are instead referring them to psychologists or reliable and professional social workers,” but also notes that “most gay Haredim are married to women who are unaware of their situation, and they are leading a double life. This carries a major mental price.”
What goes unmentioned is the mental price that this double life no doubt also carries for the men’s wives, knowingly or not, not to mention potential health risks. In April Yediot also reported that the publication of “a new first-of-its-kind booklet for religious homosexuals aims to guide them on how to avoid contracting [HIV],” a response to the rising number of new HIV diagnoses in Israel’s religious community.
Yosef told the paper that Hod conducts quiet outreach among the ultra-Orthodox, “such as lectures, closed seminars and dialogues with rabbis” and ultimately, while the new figures might not meet academic standards, we can hope they will serve to start constructive conversations (including, perhaps, concerning everyone else on the LGBTQ spectrum in the Haredi world), and point to the dangers of silence.
When the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the gay community in the 1980s, activists waved banners that read “Silence = death; knowledge = life.” But one needn’t die a physical death, wasted from disease, for silence to kill. Any human being taught to reject their very nature dies a thousand deaths every time they must hide or lie, and those lies in turn cause their own collateral damage. Witness the double lives of the men surveyed by Hod.