I grew up with enough religion to have two sets of dishes, but not enough to name all the festivals that take place in the fall. Yet it’s Judy Blume with whom I credit for teaching me how to talk to g-d. It was in the pages of the eleventh printing of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret that I realized I had some requests beyond needing to increase my bust.
Dear G-d, please don’t let me be gay. Dear G-d, please don’t let me be gay. Dear G-d, please don’t let me be gay.
I didn’t want to feel butterflies at the sight of a girl in JNCOs, and I didn’t attend basketball tryouts because I cared about sports. These feelings terrified me, because they didn’t align with growing up and marrying a Jewish boy.
Coming to terms with being gay was colored by my Jewish upbringing, which was less about religion and more about the responsibility to keep the culture alive. I was told that Jews kept intermarrying and letting their children have Christmas trees, and this watered-down faith didn’t sit well with most congregants. We were supposed to have an active Jewish life, marry Jewish men, and make more Jewish babies. Rinse, repeat. In some sects, like the one in which I was raised, this is almost more important that the belief system itself.
My mother will tell you she doesn’t believe in g-d, but if you ask her about religion, she is Jewish. Like her, I believe in science, energy, third-wave feminism, and evolution, but I am culturally Jewish. I read four Torah portions at my Bat Mitzvah (that’s right – I said four), I played a plant in the summer camp production of “Little Shop of Haifa,” and my seventh- and eight-grade camp boyfriends were named “Ari” and “Avi,” respectively. One year at Yom Kippur services, my best friend ate a Pop Tart and we decided that she was going to the West Side of Heaven for her sins, since there is technically no Jewish Hell (I think).
Judaism played a large role in my formative years until it didn’t. Once I started to picture kissing girls, my vision of the future became blurry. It was around the age of 14 that I stopped talking to g-d and subsequently stopped believing that I was supposed to do anything.
I knew what my life was supposed to look like until I didn’t.
I was never much for doing what I was told, but like most humans, the threat of losing my parents’ – and family’s and friends’ – love was enough to make me try to ignore the same-sex-induced heart palpitations. Their expectations were colored by a deep sense of cultural identity and the idea that I would carry on tradition. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors who sought refuge in the U.S. I don’t know most of my father’s family because they were murdered. The idea that my existence was the result of my grandparents’ surviving genocide became a part of my everyday narrative so much that veering from expectations was an unfathomable betrayal. It was bigger than me.
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It was the mid-to-late 90s when the concept of “lesbians” began to materialize in my consciousness. AOL was charging by the minute. My understanding had evolved from previous lunchroom conversations about how Melissa Etheridge wasn’t a real lesbian because real lesbians had short hair. It was around the time that Friends depicted a lesbian wedding where chef Monica lamented, “lesbian wedding…chicken breasts?” Ellen came out on national TV. Ani DiFranco was getting mainstream radio play. (White) lesbians were everywhere. They wore plaid, they wore flannel, they had tattoos and wallet chains. They did back flips on tables in British pop videos. They talked about their periods, they didn’t shave their armpits, they went to Lilith Fair in bandanas and backwards baseball hats. They loved hummus and Birkenstocks and acoustic guitars.
Dear G-d, please don’t let me be gay. Dear G-d, please don’t let this be my life. Dear G-d, please don’t let me be gay.
As much as I longed to claim the parts that made sense to me, I didn’t want to alienate myself from everyone else around me. In fact, no one blinked an eye when I went from “fluid” to “bisexual” to “lesbian.” I was convinced that my childhood best friend, who went to college in North Carolina, had been indoctrinated with sweet-tea bigotry. But after mustering up the courage to tell her, all she said was: “Finally. I’ve been waiting for that.”
At some point, my issue was no longer everyone else. My issue was me.
Part of the marriage equality rhetoric focuses on saying “we’re just like you [straight people].” And to the extent of being human beings who want to be loved and accepted, we are. But I didn’t feel like anyone else. Everyone was a stranger.
I wavered between guilt and denial and allowing myself to consume all the gay media I could in secrecy. My best friend Joanna, the only non-straight and Jewish friend I had, was my partner in gay crime. And by gay crime, I mean together we scoured Blockbuster in search of any semblance of gayness on VHS. We’d pop the tapes in the VCR in her living room, holding our breath for the moment her parents came downstairs and we’d scramble to hit pause.
It took six more years and two more boyfriends before I came out to my parents. They were not thrilled about my first girlfriend, but that could be because she pretended to be deployed several times and might have committed arson. Oh, and she wasn’t Jewish.
Mom said that Dad said that he would be more understanding if I had just brought home a Jewish girl. Though he never said “gay agenda,” Dad wasn’t sure what gay people wanted because it was OK to be openly gay (Reminder: It was 2003) and we also had Will and Grace. He also said: “I believe it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
Mom told me it was a phase. She might have even cited some now-heterosexually-paired women who also went through a “phase.”
It turned out the liberal household in which (I thought) I was raised was a bit right of center. When did we all of a sudden start taking the Bible literally? I had assumed up until that point that we were in mutual agreement that it was just a work of fan fiction. We ate shrimp. We didn’t observe Shabbas. Mom was in the gospel choir in high school. Grandma agreed to stop keeping a kosher kitchen in exchange for a remodeled kitchen. It was all very confusing.
I hate to say that my father’s death was the watershed that deemed my sexual orientation a moot point. It was in his hospital room that we stopped using pronouns and we spoke openly about my girlfriend to the rest of the family. The world will break your heart like that sometimes.
Since it’s become de rigueur in liberal circles to accept your LGBTQ family members, my loving women is not an issue. It’s the religion that puts a pregnant pause in the conversation, that elicits questions about how the children will be raised or “why would you want to make it even harder?” There is always an underlying feeling that a non-Jewish partner is a letdown, and an even stranger triumph in the case of a partner who has a Jewish mother, but was raised with no religion.
I never started talking to g-d again, but I did get a sacrilegious Hebrew tattoo. I am torn between tradition and not wanting to be associated with organized religion. I can tell you that I believe in left-of-centerism and I worship Judy Blume. I can tell you that I know several lesbian rabbis and I find Jewish social circles to be equally comforting and isolating. Your Jewish grandmother probably wants us to date. But don’t get mad at her for being pushy. It’s what she’s supposed to do.