Modifying approach to LGBT – a life-saving priority

  • DavidBilchitz
The recent tragic death of Adam Seef is a wake-up call for the Jewish community in South Africa to examine its attitudes to LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people. According to his family, in his final note, Adam revealed that a significant part of his feelings of alienation and loneliness related to his sexuality. The question we need to grapple with in this regard is not “what was wrong with Adam?” but “what is wrong with us?”.
by DAVID BILCHITZ | Jul 11, 2019

Repression and shame around sexual orientation and gender identity play a significant role in generating suicidal thoughts and attempts amongst LGBT+ persons. In a 2004 OUT LGBT Well-being South African study, 21% of the sample reported that they had attempted suicide in the past. These numbers are consistent with a meta-study published in JAMA Pediatrics last year, which found that sexual minority adolescents were 3.5 times more likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers. Changing the approach of the Jewish community to LGBT+ persons is necessary, not just to have children that are happy and flourishing, but to save their lives.

The problem doesn’t lie exclusively in the approach of parents to children. It’s also about a socially toxic environment exacerbated by religious and communal leaders who fail to demonstrate understanding towards LGBT+ people.

I have experienced this first-hand on multiple levels. My teenage years were beset with a personal struggle between what I was told religion required, and a growing, powerful attraction to fellow teenagers of my own sex. Discomfort with my sexual orientation was further cultivated by explicit homophobia, but mostly because of a silence that led me to think I was the only one of my kind at King David.

When same-sex attraction was discussed, it was usually within the context of subtle, unpleasant jokes and comments that littered everyday conversation among family, friends, and teachers alike.

On occasion, it got worse. I recall a fire-and-brimstone sermon at a prominent orthodox synagogue I had attended my whole life, where the rabbi suggested that gay people were fundamentally twisted. I realised on that day, after this tirade of hate and failure of understanding, that I would not willingly attend his synagogue again.

Another orthodox rabbi more recently told me that he would welcome me at his Shabbat table, but not with a male life partner. He didn’t really want “gay” David at his Shabbat table, but a “straight” or “asexual” David who doesn’t exist.

Fortunately, since my teenage years, South African law has evolved, providing equal protection for LGBT+ rights in the Constitution – though much of the society remains deeply phobic of LGBT+ people.

Within the Jewish community, there have also been important positive changes. About 13 years ago, I helped to form an LGBT+ organisation, Jewish Outlook (sadly, it is currently inactive); an annual Pride Shabbat is held at a prominent progressive synagogue in Johannesburg (Beit Emanuel); and an LGBT+/straight alliance was formed at King David Linksfield. Yet, there remain few Jewish communal leaders who are openly LGBT+; communal leadership has hardly ever sought to address issues of sexual orientation and gender identity; education is limited regarding these issues; and, whilst this newspaper has occasionally reported on LGBT+ issues, the dominant experience in the Jewish community remains one of silence.

It’s news to me that orthodox synagogues are welcoming places (as the chief rabbi suggested last week). LGBT people I know feel forced to leave their communities if they want to live openly.

I don’t raise these matters to make accusations, but rather to identify the problem in our community. What can be done to improve this situation?

The fundamental change that needs to take place is to move questions of sexual orientation and gender identity from invisibility and condemnation to visibility and acceptance. To do so, we need leadership from a range of institutions in our society.

•     The South African Jewish Board of Deputies must actively build a Jewish community that is open and welcoming to persons of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. It started an excellent campaign in the Cape with a panel discussion and welcoming posters but, sadly, a similar initiative has not taken place at the heart of the community in Johannesburg;

•     The South African Jewish Board of Education (and all Jewish schools) must educate students about LGBT+ issues. Books in the library that deal with diverse families should be included, and we should implement the excellent educational programme developed by Commonwealth Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (in conjunction with the Keshet LGBT+ organisation). Time needs to be dedicated in lessons for conversations, and further LGBT+/straight alliances must be established;

•     Youth movements must expressly offer programming, and indicate acceptance of both LGBT+ chanichim (camp attendees) and madrichim (leaders);

•     Spaces which are affirming and diverse such as Limmud need to continue to provide programming around LGBT+ content;

•     It’s not enough for orthodox rabbis to desist from making condemnatory sermons from the pulpit. These influential leaders need to admit that lives are at stake, and find ways actively to embrace LGBT+ persons even though it is challenging for them. They can draw on the wisdom and experience of orthodox rabbis internationally, who have sought to grapple with and find humane approaches to these issues;

•     The Chevrah Kadisha should devote specific resources to developing support programmes run by mental-health professionals for those who are struggling, and these need to be advertised prominently. They should include spaces for parents who struggle to deal with their children’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Apart from these important institutional changes, it’s also crucial that our community nurture and actively seek out senior leaders in our community who are gay, lesbian, or transgender. Those who are already there should come out.

The SA Jewish Report should have a monthly column on Jewish LGBT+-related issues. Educational curricula should include LGBT+ persons such as Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish gay scientist who changed our understanding of human sexuality.

Parents, importantly, must have conversations with their children affirming that no matter who they are attracted to – or how they identify – they will love them unconditionally. And, every person needs to check themselves before making a snide joke about someone being gay. If they do, others must call them out for it.

These steps do not guarantee that there will never be another suicide of an LGBT+ adolescent, but they will render it less likely. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not reasons for shame, they are fundamental facets of human beings which can be the source of pride, celebration, affirmation, and fulfilment. It’s time to make it happen.

  • David Bilchitz is a professor at the University of Johannesburg. He co-founded Limmud South Africa, and was a senior international leader of Limmud. He is openly gay, and is committed to making society better for LGBT+ people.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Stephen Finn 13 Jul
    Thank you for this splendid and necessary article, David.  You've been at the forefront of LGBT+ acceptance in the Jewish and wider community for years and I've always admired and respected you for this, among so many other issues where you've set the example.  Let's hope that your suggestions are implemented by all.


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