Identity / Life

Coming Out: Still Scary After All These Years

This past week’s events marked a watershed in the ongoing battle for marriage equality in the U.S., with a Supreme Court decision (or its decision not to make a decision) effectively paving the way for marriage in Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Wisconsin, Indiana, West Virginia, N. Carolina, S. Carolina, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming. Some states are going quietly; others kicking and screaming. But there is a sense of resignation in the air. They all seem to know where they’re headed.

Credit: Adas Israel DC

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf

As the walls of injustice and inequality crumbled all around the country, another, more personal kind of barrier was coming down in Washington, D.C., at the district’s largest Conservative Jewish synagogue, Adas Israel. The shul’s head rabbi, 45-year-old Gil Steinlauf tore down a wall that had enshrouded him his entire adult life; in an honest, deeply personal and soul-searching letter to his congregation of more than 1,450 household members, Rabbi Steinlauf came out as a gay man. He explained that while he had recognized a difference in himself as early as childhood, that difference, at that time, did not define him. “I sought to marry a woman because of a belief that this was the right thing for me,” he wrote. “This conviction was reinforced by having grown up in a different era, when the attitudes and counsel of adult professionals and peers encouraged me to deny this uncertain aspect of myself.”

But the inner struggle never abated. Steinlauf quotes a passage from the Babylonian Talmud, which offers harsh words for “one whose inside does not match his outside,” and he notes that “the dissonance between my inside and my outside became undeniable, then unwise, and finally intolerable.” The only way to peace and wholeness, he had learned, was by owning his truth and living an authentic, fully integrated life.

It’s important to note that Rabbi Steinlauf was not living a double life prior to his coming out nor he was not a self-hating gay, the sort that preaches abomination but then sneaks it on the down-low. In fact, Steinlauf had openly supported same-sex marriage for years and performed Adas Israel’s first same-sex wedding in 2012. On a personal level, however, he struggled mightily with his inner incongruity.

Historically, Conservative Judaism, though left of Orthodoxy, has had a chilly relationship with the LGBT community. Only in the last decade has the movement made significant changes to its positions on ordination of gay rabbis and same-sex marriage, which it now supports as a movement. So it’s no small feat for the rabbi of one of the oldest and largest Conservative synagogues to come out openly; indeed, it is highly unlikely this synagogue would have proactively appointed a gay rabbi.

This big reveal will have consequences, no doubt. Gil and his wife, Batya, married 20 years and still best friends, will divorce. The upheaval will challenge the couple’s three children. Some in the congregation won’t like this whole gay rabbi business and will try their best to bully the pulpit.

But the opportunity for healing from this one tremendous act of bravery is immeasurable. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual congregants will see a positive image of themselves reflected at the helm of their house of worship. The news will spark conversation and debate, which will then educate and enlighten, as it always seems to do. Young gays might hear their parents defending Steinlauf’s decision to come out, and be emboldened to do the same. Those who might have chosen to live a lie, out of fear or self-loathing, may come to understand the inevitability of truth, and choose another, more honest way.

We need more Rabbi Steinlaufs brave enough to speak out about their journeys. Because, although cultural changes have made it far easier to come out in some respects, coming out is still a massive hurdle for many.

We don’t have statistics on those who are closeted, but we can assume there are tens of thousands of gay teens and young adults still hiding in the shadows, in the darkness, where they are less likely to face rejection and abuse by family members—but also less likely practice safe sex and more likely to participate in risky behaviors. There remains an insanely high percentage of homeless teenagers who are LGBT, those who have somehow found the courage to be who they are, and are paying the heaviest of prices. There are many more who can’t tolerate the bullying, the disapproval, the otherness they experience in their lives, and so, tragically, they choose to end it.

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Credit: Keith Haring

My hope is that Rabbi Steinlauf’s brave revelation will not only inspire youth to have hope, but will move parents to fully embrace their children and to recognize that an honest path is a righteous one, and ultimately the only one worth living, even if it isn’t the one they had planned for them. I still remember my father’s words, nearly two decades ago, just after I’d come out to him. He hugged me and in my ear he whispered sadly, “I’m just so sorry you have such a difficult road ahead of you.” It would be years until I would manage to say, “If I have your love, your support, the rest I can handle.”  More and more parents are starting to get this. In two beautifully moving blog posts last week, two religious leaders, Christian Pastor John Pavlovitz and Orthodox Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow came out as supporters of LGBT youth, whether they be their own or other parents’ children.

This Saturday is the 26th anniversary of National Coming Out Day. It’s a day for casting off shame, for owning our identities, reclaiming our uniqueness and, for the religious among us, being proud of exactly how God made us. It is a day not only for LGBTQ people. It’s also for parents to come out, loud and proud, as loving and supportive of precisely those things our children might be inclined to hide because they are too ashamed or too afraid they will be cast out because of them. Perhaps we can use this day to recognize one thing about our child that is intrinsic to who he or she is, something alien to us, something other than what we would have liked or planned for, and then say or do something that embraces that quality about them.

For me and my two impossibly fru-fru princess girls, that will likely involve eye shadow, heels and a whole lot of hair spray. What will it mean for you?

 

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