Jeanne Schwartz called her husband John at work one afternoon in June 2009. “Joe has taken a lot of pills,” she said. Their 13-year-old son Joe, who’d just come out as gay at his middle school, had tried to commit suicide.
In Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle To Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality, John Schwartz tells Joe’s story, as well as his own and his wife’s. This is a family memoir, not a self-help book. But like Schwartz’s earlier book Short (which I raved about in Tablet a couple of years ago), Oddly Normal mixes personal anecdotes and science reporting in a way that adds resonance to both. A national correspondent for the New York Times, Schwartz tells us about his son’s difficulties as a gay teenager while also examining research into gayness, homophobia, and teen suicide.
Jeanne and John had suspected Joe was gay since he was 3. He’d loved pink and rhinestones and Barbies and fabulousness; for Halloween he asked to be “a disco yady.” Joe later said that he’d known he was gay since he was 8. But knowing who you are isn’t the same as being comfortable with who you are. He called the burden he struggled with “the secret,” and for a long time he refused to name it, even to his parents.
Even though they tried to help their son in his secret struggle, John and Jeanne may inadvertently have made it harder for Joe to accept who he was. When Joe started kindergarten, for instance, Jeanne quietly put away all his Barbies and their spectacular outfits. She worried that if Joe talked to kids at school about his love of all things glittery (his favorite word was “prettiful”), he’d be teased. Joe wondered where his treasures had gone, but his parents told themselves that at least they’d let their son’s plastic castle draped with beads, his trove of costume jewelry, and his prettiful crystal globes remain in his room, so he could enjoy them in private. They meant well, but as Schwartz ruefully writes in retrospect, “We had built his first closet.”
There’s a lesson here for all parents—even well-intentioned, open-minded ones. And it’s a lesson that Jewish institutions, leaders, and teachers should heed as well, as they wrestle with notions of inclusion, acceptance, and tradition. Being tolerant doesn’t necessarily mean being helpful. We may tell ourselves that the Orthodox are the ones who need to pay more attention to the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning kids, but guess what: A lot of us—even those of us who consider ourselves accepting—are doing a mediocre job.
Joe, who’s now 16, survived the suicide attempt. In the book, John tells the story of how he and Jeanne grappled with how best to help their son afterward. Joe had trouble with impulsiveness, anger, and certain teachers, in addition to his “secret.” His parents got advice (sometimes conflicting) from psychologists, researchers, and all kinds of therapists, as well as an ad hoc group of friends and colleagues John refers to as The League of Gay Uncles.
One of those “uncles” is Mark Kaiserman, then the Schwartzes’ rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Livingston, N.J. “Mark is much younger than me, but he brought a sense of calm and wisdom to our discussions about Joe,” John Schwartz told me in an interview. “After the suicide attempt we went to him, and he had a lot of good advice for us, with a sweetness we would always treasure.” For years, Schwartz attended a weekly Torah class led by Kaiserman. “One of the enduring intellectual pleasures of my life is this study group,” Schwartz said. “And we spent a lot of time on Leviticus, discussing and debating the text. I didn’t just pick up the Cliffs Notes. I am a proud member of the Reform tradition that says that Judaism is a living faith. It doesn’t mean you go all loose and floppy—‘Oh, I’ll do the rules my way’—but it does mean there is a grand tradition of adaptation; it’s thoughtful and reflective.” He paused. “I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with combining wool and linen in a single garment.” He paused again. “And I eat chicken parmigiana.”
Kaiserman, now the interim rabbi at a congregation in California, told me, “You can argue with someone that they’re misreading the text or that times have changed. But no argument will be compelling to someone who insists that being gay is an abomination.” He went on to explain: “With my community I have the same conversations I would about any social issue I’m on the left about. The Torah is not an obstacle to believing what I believe. Subjecting someone to a life of misery and shame and humiliation and lying is not the way we intend for people to live.”
But even in left-leaning communities, acceptance can be more theoretical than actual. Joanna Ware, lead organizer and training coordinator for Keshet, an organization that works for the full inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life, said, “It’s great to have our hearts in the right place, but we need the skills and tools to figure out how to make acceptance real. It’s great for a rabbi to think, ‘If I were asked to officiate at a same-sex union, I’d be open to it,’ but if he doesn’t communicate that, he won’t be asked. It’s one thing for Hebrew school principals to respond to bullying, but something else entirely to be proactive. Our leaders need to think, ‘What is the community I want to create, and how do I foster norms that facilitate this kind of environment?’ ”
For example, congregations and religious schools could consider ways to engage cool sixth-graders to model the way to behave for younger students. Synagogues should think about language, communication materials, how often leaders speak specifically to LGBTQ inclusion. Ware said, “A lot of times we hear, ‘We welcome all people!’ but then it turns out, ‘Oh, we didn’t mean people like you.’ That can be true of Jews of color, Jews by choice, Jews with disabilities, interfaith families.”
Ware says that religious schools can support a climate of acceptance by sending a clear message that they value all students. “We need visibility in a visual sense. For instance, LGBTQ safe-zone stickers are physical indicators that say this is a safe space for all kids.” And we need to accept that words can seriously wound. Schwartz points to a 2010 study that found that more than 72 percent of gay students said they frequently heard slurs like “faggot” at school, and almost 90 percent had heard the word “gay” used in a negative way. Nearly 87 percent reported they were distressed by the language (as Joe was). So, teachers, support staff, custodians, and parents all need to play a role in nipping such language in the bud.
“Judaism should be associated with support,” Ware said. “One way is for religious schools to be clear, in words and actions, that this is where you can be protected to be yourself.” Ware tells the story of a gay man who recalled being teased by Hebrew school classmates for being, in his words, “not the most masculine kid.” When he was around 10, another student muttered, “I don’t want to sit next to that fag.” The teacher literally dropped her books and made it unequivocally clear that that such language and behavior were not acceptable in the community or in the sanctuary. “What was striking to me,” Ware said, “was what the student said: ‘I was terribly embarrassed at the time, but when I look back now it was the first time anyone stood up for me, and it was in my synagogue, in a Jewish community … and because of that the Jewish community has always felt like a safe space for me.’ ”
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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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.