Building True Acceptance
By helping gay kids, synagogues and Jewish schools can make the community better for all of us
Little gestures like that can have huge impacts. “In the shul where I’m currently working, they’ve always had women light the candles,” Kaiserman said by way of illustration. “That’s the tradition. I said, ‘But what if it’s a single father whose child is having a bar mitzvah?’ They said, ‘Oh, then Grandma lights them.’ I said, ‘What if it’s a gay couple?’ They’d never thought of it, because they’d never had it. But they are positively inclined toward acceptance, so they were open to the reminder that some of the models we have about how to do things don’t work in the light of gay and lesbian families and kids.”
Creating an atmosphere of true acceptance helps everyone. Keshet offers a poster for Jewish schools presenting seven Jewish values on which to build inclusive Jewish community. They are:
Shalom bayit: Peace in the home
B’tzelem Elohim: In God’s image
Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh: Communal responsibility
Sh’mirat halashon: Guarding one’s use of language
Vahavta l’reicaha kamocha: Love your neighbor as yourself
Al tifrosh min hantisbur: Solidarity
These values support all kids, not just gay kids. But sadly, some conservatives view all efforts to encourage mutual respect through a homophobic lens. This October, the American Family Association led a boycott of Mix It Up at Lunch, an annual event begun by the Southern Poverty Law Center 11 years ago, designed to encourage kids in school cafeterias to sit next to other kids with whom they don’t usually sit. Mixing up the usual cliques, the theory goes, will help bullies and passive bystanders start to see potential victims as people, and thereby lessen the prevalence of bullying. But the AFA declared that the program was designed specifically “to establish the acceptance of homosexuality into public schools” and convinced around 200 of the 2,500 participating schools to drop it. As faux-conservative pundit Stephen Colbert pointed out on his nightly TV show, “It’s a devious plot: Get kids to learn that despite our outward differences, in our hearts we’re all pretty much the same. That leads to open-mindedness, which leads to open-pantsedness.” (This year’s event took place Nov. 13.)
Despite the homophobia of groups like the AFA, the casual brutality kids are capable of and the benign cluelessness of many well-intentioned Jewish liberals, it’s important to note that not every LGBT kid is destined for trauma. As Schwartz told me, “Some kids come out and it’s no big deal. For others, it can be a fraught and difficult process. My best advice for parents is to go back to Dr. Spock and say, ‘Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.’ I’m not saying I know more as a parent than someone else. But I can say it’s up to everyone to be good parents in the way they know best.” Indeed, how we parents respond to our children’s sexuality can have a major impact on how happy they are. A study by Caitlin Ryan of San Francisco State University, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that LGBT kids who experienced rejection from their parents were six times more likely to suffer from high levels of depression and were eight times likelier to have attempted suicide than peers from families who didn’t reject them.
Acceptance of LGBT people is growing. A 2001 Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans said that gay or lesbian relations are “morally wrong,” and 40 percent found them “morally acceptable.” Only a decade later, those numbers had flipped: In 2011, 56 percent said LGBT relationships were morally acceptable and 39 percent said they were morally wrong. Schwartz cites statistics showing that the number of Americans supporting gay marriage went from 27 percent in 1996 to 53 percent in 2011. The world only spins forward, as last week’s victories for same-sex marriage and gay elected officials demonstrated.
As for Joe, he’s doing well. He read and gave notes on his father’s manuscript. He’s out and proud, doing theater, playing Dungeons and Dragons on weekends with friends, doing fine in school. He can still be fragile, but so can a lot of us. And we all deserve support. As Ware put it, “We need to say to all kids, ‘Who you are is fabulous; you are made in the image of God.’ That’s part of what the sacred work of our Jewish community is about.”
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