I grew up feeling like a round peg in a square hole. I came from a busy and joyful Orthodox Jewish home in St. Louis, Missouri, yet I felt somewhat detached. I was constantly looking for a group that I could fit into, but never quite made it. I searched for my place in our community, to no avail. In my synagogue, being different not only made me feel uncomfortable; it made me feel like I was a bad Jew. I felt as though I was missing something that everyone else seemed to understand – like a joke someone tells a group, and you're the only one not laughing.
This sense of distance, of never quite fitting in, had everything to do with me being a gay person in a straight world. Almost everyone I knew identified as heterosexual, so my identity – deeply rooted in who I loved and how I imagined my future – neither felt normative. In this reality I could never fit in, because my world was not accepted by society as “right,” or by my Jewish community as sacred.
I worried what my future would look like, whether I would ever be able to get married, and what form of Judaism I could be a part of. As an adult at rabbinical school, where I had to be closeted because the Conservative movement was not fully accepting of homosexuality at the time, I wondered whether my success would be limited by who I loved, and if I would ever find a community that I could lead as a gay rabbi.
It was during my time at rabbinical school that I finally began to find a new reality. I had begun coming out to certain friends and family, and in the private world I shared with those individuals, I began to get a sense of who I was and how I fit in. I found myself, at times, in the world of acceptance and openness. Living in that world gave me a profound sense of relief. Among those friends, who were to become my future colleagues, I began to feel completely accepted, wholly known, understood and seen.
I began to understand in these early moments of coming out why I felt like such an outsider, why I felt so frightened: there had been no room for me in the communities of my youth, no acceptance, no access and no equality. And it was in these moments that I realized why it was incumbent upon our society and our communities to create avenues of equality and acceptance for homosexual people.
The U.S. Supreme Court's decision last week to recognize gay marriage as a constitutional right was met in some corners of the world with great joy and celebration. In others, it was met with tremendous fear and concern. For me, my partner and our twins, it was the former, of course – it meant we mattered; our family fit in and could gain all the practical and symbolic benefits of civil marriage.
Yet, I can understand why there are those who are worried that this means our society has changed and is headed down a new, dangerous road. In a certain sense, they are right. Marriage is the ultimate symbol of acceptance in American society. Once you widen access to it, you begin to create a new reality for young people. You in effect tell those children who suspect they are different, as I did nearly three decades ago, that they are equal and full members of this society.
Limiting access to the institution of marriage was one of many barriers that kept homosexual Americans from feeling a part of society, and was one of many reasons why young gay people felt ostracized and different. When our society and our communities advance the values of equality and acceptance, they send a clear message to our children that being different does not make them an outsider, that being different need not be a source of pain or suffering.
Elianna Yolkut is a Rabbi Without Borders, a thinker, writer and educator who seeks to help shape innovative and dynamic religious communities steeped in Torah. Ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, she now lives with her partner and their twins in Washington D.C. Learn more at www.rabbielianna.com.
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