An Orthodox gay man traces his journey from shame to showing his parents they could love him without guilt.
NEW YORK — For my bar mitzvah, my parents got me a laptop. For what I searched for on it, they got me a shrink.
CyberSitter informed my computer-savvy parents that their son was searching gay porn.
On the ride to my first therapy session, I stuck my head out the car window wanting to be anywhere else. We caracoled along northern New Jersey’s winding streets to a shoddy home office.
The rabbi turned doctor had me sit in his living room as he lectured on what was and was not natural. The dry scent of gefilte fish filled the ungapatchka house, his decor as convoluted as his arguments. Where there should have been DSMs – Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – a row of Babylonian Talmuds sat collecting dust.
Every Wednesday when I returned home, I had to wash myself of the sticky experience.
For a month, I saw the shrink weekly. I wondered what qualified this lanky rabbinical school graduate to be offering such sessions, until it hit me: He went through it, too.
One night, pitching his theory of gay as a phase for the umpteenth time, my shrink let slip that my condition was “not uncommon to boys in our community.” I sat on my excitement, but inside I was a loose spark plug. There were others? I hoped I wasn’t as alone as I’d thought.
In public, not a single feigeleh swished across the wooded streets of my Modern Orthodox Jewish corner of New Jersey. Thanks to shul, everybody knew everybody and her grandmother. A social circuit of Shabbat lunches kept us all abreast of each other’s goings-ons. There was no way of locating others like me, and I, like my parents, kept my secret hidden. Without a laptop or role models, and suffering from JIG – Jewish Intermittent Guilt – my adolescence darkened beneath storm clouds of loneliness.
During high school, my parents stopped asking how my days were. They feared me. My Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school was a blend of traditionalism and selective modernity with an ambiguity that left me stuck in the closet door, neither of one world or the next.
The 10-hour dual curriculum of Judaic and secular studies afforded me little time to socialize. Despite toilsome efforts to succeed, nothing I did overshadowed the lot life had given me. My gay “phase” grew longer. Like a forgotten houseplant, it was ugly. It was something I could not control.
When I was 15, my parents switched me to a second therapist, a tepid old man always in a three-piece suit who asked me to explain my sexuality as I saw it. As a minor, anything I said to him could be relayed to my parents. I learned to practice silence.
The girls in high school called me mysterious. I found it odd how fond they were of my reserve.
“What are you thinking about?” a few would ask in a cloud of giggles at breakfast or during a free period.
“Everything and nothing,” I would reply, pushing my nose further into my notes.
By December of my junior year, I wasn't the only one who noticed my budding handsomeness, reminiscent of my father’s glory days. Soon I was invited to my first New Year’s Eve party, an all-Jewish shindig. It was there that I met my first other gay. He had goofy ears and a crooked smile. He attended another local Jewish high school and told me that I gave off “vibes.” We talked in generalities, and he hugged me goodbye when no one was looking. A few weeks later we were at the movies. As There Will Be Blood flashed onscreen, I had my first kiss.
Soon I had my pick of colleges and left that boy, my parents and my closet to start life anew at a Midwestern university. There, in the dappled light of academia, I quit my hermit-like ways. I joined a gay pride group, went to lectures on queer politics and made a group of like-minded friends.
There were the others in my community. Before I knew it, I was dating a gentile, going to drag bars on the weekends and still calling my parents to fill them in on everything I’d studied that week. I never once mentioned my social life; I had caused them enough pain already.
“And this Judith Butler, she’s a nice Jewish girl?” my mother asked during a phone call. Judith Butler was an author and queer theorist whose work I was studying.
“Not really,” I said.
I came home that winter break in bleak December. Snow was falling. I was driving with my older brother when he asked me about my plans for New Year’s.
“You wouldn’t like it,” I told him.
“Try me,” he said.
“I’m going to a gay club,” I said, my voice cracking like a bar mitzvah boy’s, “because I’m gay.”
“That makes sense,” he responded, matter of factly. “I’m going to a straight club because I’m straight. In case you were curious, too.”
Over the next few weeks I came out to all my friends, riding the euphoria of having someone in the family on my side. But when I faced my mother and father, my excitement came crashing down. How could I tell them that my sexuality was not a phase but a person desperately seeking acknowledgement?
It took me seven years from my bar mitzvah to come out to my parents, this time not accidentally, vocalizing my identity to finally become a man.
“I’m gay,” I said in the summer of 2010, “and plan to be proud and public for a lifetime. If you don’t like it, should I ever have a wedding, the two of you Negative Nancys won’t be coming.”
“Now say it slowly with me,” I said, holding my mother’s hand in her breezy home office. It took her two tries.
“My son is gay,” we said in shaky unison.
It felt like a step in the right direction, but for my Jewish mother it was a leap of faith.
Coming out was not a private journey. After years of therapy, I had finally found my voice; using it, I began to show my parents that they could love me without guilt. The path to self-acceptance begins and ends with the accepting of others.
Isaac Lobel, a student at New York’s New School, is working on a collection of humorous essays.