When LGBT Children Come Out the Closet, Their Orthodox Parents Go In

When a child comes out in an Orthodox community, parents share the burden of hiding. At an annual retreat, participants find comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

Coming out to your parents as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender can be a daunting proposition, more so when you belong to a religious community that doesn’t recognize or accept LGBT members. But it can also be a relief: After years of isolation, you are no longer hiding. For many Orthodox parents, however, having a child come out is the beginning of their isolation.

“We didn’t realize the irony of that,” says Miryam Kabakov, the co-founder and executive director of Eshel, an organization that supports members of the Orthodox LGBT community. “When you come out, you let the secret go and the parent takes on the secret…. And what they do is go into the closet with it.”

After years of working with, and advocating for, LGBT Orthodox Jews, Kabakov launched Eshel in 2010 with Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. Among the organization’s initiatives are a speaker’s bureau and an allies project. But in their efforts to support those struggling with sexuality and spirituality, they soon identified a key demographic that wasn’t being acknowledged.

“It just became clear over time that nobody is really addressing the needs of Orthodox parents and families,” Kabakov says.

Many LGBT people who grow up in religious communities often end up leaving if they discover their community won’t accept them. But parents of LGBT children are stuck: In tight-knit communities, they may risk public shame and thus choose a private exile.

“They go through this disaffection with their spiritual community,” Kabakov explains. “They don’t tell the rabbi, they lie to their friends.”

So Eshel started a call-in support group for parents and, last year, held its first retreat for families with LGBT children. The second retreat took place last weekend at a center outside of Philadelphia and was attended by 35 participants, about the same number as the previous year. Several attendees agreed to speak with Haaretz on the condition of anonymity to protect the identity of their children.

One mother admitted that her daughter’s coming out several years ago “hit me like a punch in the stomach,” but she worked hard to accept her, and continued to do so when her daughter later came out as transgender and began transitioning to male.

When this mother learned about the Eshel weekend from a flyer at another retreat center, she decided to attend. “It is strengthening to meet other parents in similar situations,” she said. “We shared our struggles and our resources without fear of being judged or singled out.”

Another first time attendee agreed: “I decided to attend when I realized that I needed support,” she said. “I was okay with the fact that my son was gay but I needed to be in a place where other people shared my experience and that I was able to talk freely.” She said that while her Modern Orthodox synagogue is relatively progressive on women's issues, LGBT issues are not discussed.

'Homophobia disguised as halacha'

Since the retreat took place just before Purim, the weekend’s theme drew parallels to Esther’s coming out as a Jew. Activities included a number of workshops and discussions, with titles like, “Unmasking Ourselves: Is Coming Out Just For Our Children?”, “Smashing The Glass: What If Your Child Wants To Have A Same-Sex Wedding?” and “Trans Children: What Does It Mean When My Boy Wants To Become A Girl (Or Vice Versa)?” And, of course, there was prayer.

“People commented that it was the highest prayer they ever had,” says Kabakov. “They had nothing to hide anymore. There was a feeling of lack of fear and a feeling of complete trust.”

The participants said they believe there is a growing awareness of LGBT issues in the Orthodox community, to some extent, but that it’s “a slow process.” One said that on an individual level, more people are accepting than in the past but that political and social beliefs remain especially conservative on a communal level.

“I think there is still a very large amount of homophobia that is being disguised as halacha,” she said, referring to Jewish law.

But many parents are beginning to recognize their power to enact change and reshape the conversations within their communities. Kabakov says that at this year’s retreat, many parents were more in an organizing mode.

“What we have to do is provide support to parents so that they feel they have the strength and the right to ask that their communities be open to their children,” she says.

Some aren’t ready for that step yet. Several at the retreat were still deeply upset, confused and in pain. Eshel is learning to strike a balance between supporting those willing to challenge their communities and those for whom the issue is still fresh and raw and who are simply trying to heal broken familial bonds.

“We want to meet people in their struggle and to help them,” says Kabakov, who highlighted several success stories from the past year of parents reestablishing connections with their children or standing up to homophobic remarks by community leaders. “We’re guardians of each other’s secret and we’re going to help each other transform this into something positive.”

For those who are ready to take action, Eshel provides the encouragement of knowing that they’re not alone. As one parent with two children who identify as LGBT said after the retreat, “I am more willing to step out of my comfort zone and rally for my kids’ acceptance.”
 

Two men march in Tel Aviv's Gay Pride Parade in 2011.