Identities in Conflict: Forging an Orthodox Gay Identity

Naomi Mark. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health. Volume 12, Issue 3. 2008.


As gay men and lesbians find greater acceptance in American society, traditionally observant gay and lesbian Jews have begun the exciting but frightening process of negotiating their sexuality and identities in religious communities. Until recently, the notion of a gay or lesbian Orthodox Jew would have been considered an oxymoron. However, today there is a critical mass of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews. Their self-identification with both the gay and lesbian and religious communities requires some reevaluation of the issues and challenges they present not only to the latter communities but also to mental health professionals as well.

There is no official count of gay Orthodox Jews. However, anecdotal reports from activists and informal networks suggest they number in the thousands. Furthermore, given the extraordinary interconnectedness of the Orthodox Jewish communities, it is likely that nearly everyone in the community—as either a family member, potential spouse, neighbor, student, teacher, fellow congregant, or business associate—is directly affected or will be by the way in which their search for acceptance will evolve. For mental health professionals attempting to address the needs of this population, it is useful to understand the unique philosophical, psychological, and social tensions that can arise for Orthodox gay people.

It should be noted from the outset that in clinical practice, Orthodox gay patients, like secular heterosexual or gay patients, span the spectrum of mental disorders and mental health. In other words, they are not a homogenous group and individuals will differ in personality, beliefs, temperament, family background, and interpersonal relatedness. There is no singular feature of what it means to be gay and Orthodox—“gayness” is just one feature of the totality of the individual. Different individuals will have had various, even contradictory experiences within the Orthodox community.

Nevertheless, there are some common struggles and challenges that Orthodox gay men and lesbians do share by virtue of living or having lived in the Orthodox community as a gay person. Growing up as an Orthodox Jewish person is a different cultural experience than having been raised in a different setting; being gay within this community is altogether different than it is for heterosexuals.

The growing search for acceptance by Orthodox gay and lesbian Jews—and a growing awareness among heterosexual Orthodox Jews of their presence—raises a number of questions. For instance, how do gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews come to terms with the inherent tensions and internal contradictions posed in trying to balance a traditionally Orthodox lifestyle with one that affirms their sexual identity? How do these men and women attempt to resolve their value conflicts? What factors contribute to their decision to remain in this difficult position? What does a double-life look like?

This paper, based on the author’s clinical practice, is an initial attempt to address these questions and to explore some of the unique cultural features, experiences, reactions, and challenges facing the Orthodox gay man and lesbian. These include difficulties such as delay in the coming out process, an increased sense of guilt and betrayal, the impact of the Holocaust, and increased isolation and difficulty acclimating to secular gay communities. The paper addresses particular issues that come up in treatment of Orthodox Jewish gays who experience great pressure to conform to communal norms, such as the risk of much grief and loss if they come out and theological questioning. The paper makes note of untoward consequences in the Orthodox community, such as an increased tendency to seek out sexual conversion therapies and the transmission of HIV by closeted, married Orthodox Jewish men. This paper mentions existing networks of Orthodox gay and lesbian Jews and makes note of the unique role of the Orthodox Jewish therapist in treating gay and lesbian patients.

Unique Features of Orthodox Gay Men and Lesbians

Delayed Coming Out

Until recently, Orthodox gays, living in a community where all overt expressions of sexuality tended to be suppressed and delayed, tended to come out later than their secular cohort. Studies (Boxer, 1989; Freedman, 2003) of adolescents’ sexual orientation have found that the average age of “coming out”—disclosing oneself as gay as lesbian—is dropping steadily. Yet for Orthodox gays and lesbians, coming out may still take longer. Orthodox culture highly values physical and sexual modesty; while married heterosexual activity is encouraged, there are strong injunctions to avoid sexual activity or experimentation before marriage. As in many religious traditions, masturbation is frowned upon. In very traditional communities, there tends to be an avoidance of any discussions of sexuality—with the intended aim of preventing nonmarried individuals from even thinking about sexual matters that may then lead to forbidden action. In the words of a Hassidic lesbian mother of three children: “People ask how I got in touch with my gayness. Try asking about when I first got in touch with sexuality in any sense!” For an individual to come out in this environment is to confront oneself and the community with the fact of a gay social identity. This is further complicated by the traditional Orthodox position: “There is no such thing as a homosexual orientation—only homosexual acts.” Until recently, in the more modern day schools, neither homosexuality nor heterosexual sex issues were discussed. Traditional gender roles are frequently reinforced. From an early age, boys and girls are increasingly separated in schools and in extracurricular activities. Consequently, there is both less experimentation and less opportunity for mutual exploration of any kind. Some adolescents struggling with unwanted same sex attractions will actually seek to transfer into these schools, glad to avoid the overstimulation of the secular teen world.

However, one result of living in a sex-segregated world during adolescence, where interaction with the opposite sex is minimal, is that some individuals develop increased discomfort around heterosexual interactions in general. For adolescents unsure of their sexual orientation, the lack of exposure to members of the other sex can sometimes deepen their growing confusion.

Increased Sense of Guilt and Betrayal

Unlike secular culture, which encourages personal freedom, the Orthodox Jewish world defers to rabbinic authority and accepts many limits on personal autonomy. There is enormous respect and preference for a way of life passed down from previous generations. Fearful of any assimilation of modern secular values, members of this community are wary of innovations that will substantially alter the status quo. In contrast to modern people who study the past but look toward the future, traditional Orthodox Jews study the past and strive to emulate the leaders of the past (Heilman, 1992).

The emphasis is on group identity and solidarity, rather than on individual ideologies and desires. Consequently, Orthodox Jews experience themselves at odds with contemporary culture, which highly values self-determination and forsakes tradition. Anonymity is rare and undesirable for a practicing Orthodox Jew. On the contrary, there is collective and communal intimacy. This is true even in communities that exist in large urban areas because of the interconnectedness that exists among a relatively small pool of members.

Rather than the pursuit of individual happiness, perpetuation of the community, in terms of both its numbers and its values, is celebrated. Expectations are clearly spelled out. At birth, the infant is formally welcomed into the Jewish fold with a familiar communal blessing: that the child be raised to learn Torah (Jewish law); to stand under the chuppah (marriage canopy); and to practice good deeds (maasim tovim). In addition, there is a blessing involving the Yiddish word, nachus, which is roughly translated to mean that one should be a source of pride to one’s parents and community. Both blessings are repeated at births, birthdays, bar and bat mitzvahs (communion for boys and girls, respectively), and so forth.

Orthodox Jewish gays and lesbians have the added burden of a value system, influenced by Old World traditions, where deference to the older generation is more important than finding oneself. If being a source of nachus is a set expectation for Orthodox children, then its obverse, becoming a source of disappointment and shame to one’s parents, is a particularly harsh burden. Orthodox gays and lesbians know that if they come out, their sexuality may reflect upon their entire family. For example, whether stated openly or not, an openly gay man or lesbian may diminish a sibling’s shidduch (arranged marriage) potential. As traditional Jewish community tends to be close-knit and homogenous, members’ knowledge of each other’s lives and histories is either readily accessible or not difficult to ascertain. Unlike most secular households today, in the Orthodox Jewish world, having an openly gay immediate relative will often have a measurable, practical, and adverse impact on the prospects for other family members. Orthodox Jewish gays often describe their families’ sense of stigma when siblings seek a marriage partner once it is known or suspected that a family member is gay. The burden of ruining a sister or brother’s marriage possibilities can lead to long-term damage to family relationships.

The enormous pressure to conform and to avoid shaming the family adds significantly to the difficulties facing Orthodox gays and lesbians as they try to accept themselves. In fact, the barriers are much higher because the costs can be so great.

Impact of the Holocaust

In all the years following the Holocaust, the sense of communal devastation and the imperative to survive as a community have added even greater emotional power and urgency to the traditional mandate to reproduce and to ensure the genetic survival of the Jewish people. In therapy, gay children of Holocaust survivors explain that the experience of being children of survivors delayed their coming out. They attribute this deferral to the stress of adding even more grief and disappointment to their parents’ lives, especially in light of homosexuality being perceived as a shirking of the responsibility of reproduction and Jewish survival. This “survivor anxiety” can also cause a gay son or daughter to be more reluctant to accept another stigmatized identity—that is, in addition to that of survivor—as they may already experience themselves as victimized and damaged. For example, a lesbian daughter of a disabled parent did not want to be considered disabled like her mother. “Why don’t I just wear a sticker—[Dr. Josef] Mengele come get me.” For Holocaust survivors and their children, the idea of representing the “end of the line” with regard to future generations of family can reactivate earlier trauma.

Increased Isolation and Difficulty Acclimating to Secular Gay Communities

As they come to terms with their sexual orientation prior to coming out, many gay men and lesbians often struggle with a sense of isolation from family and friends. For Orthodox gays living in close-knit, structured communities, there is an additional layer of perceived “necessary secrecy” due to communal pressures and stigmas. Because Orthodox Jews are raised to remain somewhat separate from those in the secular world, it becomes that much harder for Orthodox gays to seek out and make use of secular supports and resources. The Orthodox gay person may anticipate rejection from those in the secular world who are not familiar with his or her religious practices and mores.

When an Orthodox adolescent begins to confront and explore his or her possible gay feelings and impulses, he or she is at a vulnerable point. The prospect at the same time socializing with others from a secular culture without any prior experience can actually add an additional layer to adolescent stress and may be perceived as more of a burden than a promise of relief.

Positive Benefits: Ba’al Teshuva Phenomenon

There are, paradoxically, some aspects of the Orthodox Jewish life that are particularly attractive or at least comfortable to gay men and lesbians. The ba’al teshuva (“A Master of Repentance”) phenomenon refers to one who adopts Orthodox practice on his or her own, not as a result of being raised that way. Several Orthodox gays and lesbians, not originally raised in this community, were initially drawn, in part, to become more observant during the conflicted period of adolescence. Entering into the Orthodox community allowed them to further avoid a confrontation with their own sexuality. Many activities are sex segregated, and social structures such as the shteibel (small, informal synagogues) function as all male worlds. Some remember life in the single-sex Yeshiva as a positive time. Women recall dormitory life in girls’ seminaries where mutual physical massages led to increased intimacies and where romantic love between two close girlfriends could flourish.

Nevertheless, most Orthodox gays and lesbians describe how jarring it is when a community that is so safe in many significant areas of life becomes extremely unsafe in others, particularly when ignorance about the lesbian and gay experience becomes manifest.

Clinical Issues in the Orthodox Gay Jewish Community

In the words of an Orthodox lesbian patient, “I feel as if in a state of disease—at war with my own parts. My lesbian self is at war with my frum(observant) self, which teaches us to hate our bodies and to negate our sexuality.” Clearly, the work of constructing an identity, both individually and collectively, as gay people, as Orthodox Jews, and as Orthodox gay Jews, is a complex task. The therapeutic experience therefore can be an important resource during this process, providing what Winnicott (1986) describes as a “holding environment” where the various, still disparate selves can be respected and maintained. By offering a contextualized understanding of the inherent conflicts and tensions, and an opportunity to unravel these fragments of identity, the therapeutic relationship can provide a framework for integration, although such integration is not yet perceived to be possible outside the therapist’s office.

Fine and Gordon (1992) coined the term “braided subjectivities” to describe how identity formation is forged from the interweaving of many strands of self-experience. The therapeutic work involves recognition of the different strands of identity, to understand how each strand affects the other, to identify at what stage of identity development a patient may be in and, finally, to be aware of how all of these factors can affect the therapeutic relationship.

Theorists like Vivian Cass (1979) have developed models charting the progression of minority identity development. A person starts at a stage of conformity—identifying with the values and culture of the dominant group and internalizing the negative attitudes towards the self held by the dominant culture. An individual may move to a final stage called “synergy,” characterized by positive self-esteem, affirmative identification with the minority culture, and an ability to negotiate the experience of living in more than one culture. Through the intervening stages, the individual questions the sources of their negative self-evaluation, leading to anger at the dominant culture, immersion in minority culture, ultimately (or at least hopefully) leading to a balanced recognition of the positives and negatives of each.

Whatever surface issues Orthodox gays and lesbians bring to treatment, four or sometimes five core areas of struggle can be identified. These include:

  1. Internalized homophobia or self-hatred;
  2. Pressures to conform to communal norms;
  3. Grief and loss around changed relationships, their own diminished status in their families, communities, and theological challenges or crises of faith;
  4. Difficulty forging a new identity, either in the gay world or in the Ortho-gay community; and for some
  5. Challenges of composing a life, carving out new pathways, or living life without a set script.

Various symptoms can originate with or become exacerbated by each of these areas of core distress. One of the primary tasks of insight-oriented therapy is to deconstruct the seemingly irrational, dystonic aspects of a symptom to reveal its underlying truth about the person’s life circumstance. The validation provided by connecting some of their current conflicts to these core areas can be an important function of the treatment as well.

There is a great deal of theological questioning on the part of the gay person. He or she may experience conflicts stemming from a sense of being abandoned or punished by G-d. Some people come away with a strong profound sense of being betrayed by G-d, thus triggering a spiritual crisis, with anger toward G-d and community. The tolerance of ambiguity modeled in the therapeutic encounter may also give permission for an individual to doubt G-d in the quest for faith. Having these feelings tolerated and accepted can sometimes be a relief, bringing resolution closer.

In the past, coming out often used to coincide with leaving Judaism. For many, it still does. Yet more Orthodox gays and lesbians are choosing to try and stay and juggle both sides. While some Orthodox gays and lesbians do not feel understood, let alone accepted in the Orthodox world they knew, many cannot imagine being any more accepted or understood in the secular gay world where they may not fit in for other reasons. This group’s shared identity could be summed up in the statement, “I cannot be non-Orthodox any more than I can be nongay. Gayness is not a contradiction to being Orthodox. It just makes life more challenging.” What are the distinguishing psychological factors contributing to the decision to stay Orthodox rather than to leave? In the words of a formerly Orthodox lesbian, “I think it comes down to trust. Based on our individual temperaments, family histories, and experiences in the world, how much can we trust, believe, imagine that we are entitled to be listened to, taken seriously and considered? Perhaps those who stay and insist on change and remain optimistic about forging a way have been able to withstand the challenges since they have a healthy sense of entitlement that I don’t have!”

Untoward Consequences of Orthodox Community Norms

Sexual Conversion Therapies

In a study of heterosexually married homosexual men, Richard Isay (1996) analyzed the many contributing factors that motivated about 15-20% of gay men to marry. These included societal pressures and the craving for the “normalcy” that marriage confers, factors that make Orthodox gay people much more likely to undergo a sexual conversion or “reparative” therapy. Orthodox Jewish gay and lesbians are often vulnerable targets for reorientation therapies and programs since they often reside in communities where gayness is thought to be shameful.

Despite a paucity of scientific evidence that successful reorientation is possible or that reparative therapies can functionally change a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Drescher and Zucker, 2006), many in the Orthodox community still choose to refer young gay people to this therapy. Many in the Orthodox community are under the impression that change is possible if enough effort is made and if the right therapy is provided. These promises can sometimes appeal to some suffering from low self-esteem, internalized self-hate, and fear of disapproval from others.

Young people who turn to their parents, rabbis, or teachers to make sense of their feelings are often directed to pursue conversion therapy for the purpose of changing their sexual orientation and eliminating all same-sex desires and behaviors. Orthodox gay persons are usually highly motivated to change so they can remain in their home community comfortably and live according to their understanding of tradition.

A young man, Avi, said he went to his teacher and rebbe, a very prominent man, and confessed his pain and grief about his homosexual impulses. To his great surprise and relief, the rabbi’s response at that first meeting was extremely empathetic and sensitive. Days later, the rabbi followed up with Avi, offering him the option of a referral for reparative therapy. When Avi could not accept this as a resolution for his conflict, the rabbi pulled back, probably seeing Avi as being less than cooperative or motivated.

The prevalence of a community belief in the effectiveness of sexual conversion therapies often leads to less, rather than more empathy. In fact, the notion that one’s sexual identity cannot change as a result of therapy seems to be a difficult idea for many in the Orthodox community to accept. Because most Orthodox rabbis interpret the tradition as prohibiting homosexual behaviors, they are inclined to want to view homosexuality as “a choice”—and therefore changeable. Their thinking goes like this: “If the Torah (law) prohibits homosexuality, then it must be within our control to refrain from these behaviors otherwise the Torah would not prohibit it.” Therefore, a homosexuality that is “chosen,” as opposed to innate, does not pose a theological conflict.

On the other hand, if homosexual feelings, identity formation and orientation are beyond the conscious control of a person, the theological question would arise as to how they can be forbidden. This is a difficult concept to accept if one is a traditional Orthodox person. It is therefore more consistent for those in the Orthodox community to believe that change therapy is possible and effective. If change is possible through therapy, they do not have to face any religious conflicts or cognitive dissonance surrounding this issue. Consequently, as long as reparative therapy is believed to be a legitimate alternative to homosexuality, the burden of change falls upon the gay person, not on the community’s beliefs.

HIV Transmission and the Closeted, Married Man

There is no hard data on the number of Orthodox gay Jews, or for that matter Orthodox Jews in general, with HIV or AIDS. For several years, HIV medications have been included in the annual Orthodox publication that lists all items that are kosher (religiously clean) for Passover (the Jewish holiday celebrating the Exodus from Egypt). HIV infection has always been under extreme cover in the Orthodox community, but now that there are effective medications for treatment, resulting in fewer deaths, it is even more invisible. Yet according to Tzvi Aryeh Foundation, there are Orthodox Jews in AIDS housing programs, in the New York City Division of AIDS services, on all the services that New York State offers for people living with HIV. The Foundation is also aware of Hassidic women who pay cash for medications in order to avoid a paper trail. There are anecdotal reports that the Chevra Kadisha of Queens (the Orthodox Jewish burial society) has performed more than 300 known taharas (ritual preparation of the body for Jewish burial) for people known to have had AIDS. This is quite a high and revealing number, considering that most Orthodox people who died of AIDS named “cancer” as the cause of death on their death certificates.

As homosexuality is not acknowledged and directly addressed, it is likely that infections in the Orthodox community will continue to occur. Shame and stigma are two of the forces that helped spread AIDS in the United States (Shilts, 1987; Rotello, 1997). In one striking example of the ongoing power of stigma and denial, at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the gay community, an Orthodox Jewish married man, a father of young children, was suddenly diagnosed with and dying of AIDS. The cover story—meaning the story the family used to save face—was that he had contracted the virus by patronizing female prostitutes.

Some rabbis, in what appears to be a misguided effort to salvage some form of heterosexual conformity, have advised gay male students to marry and “to do what they need to do on the side.” The approach to homosexuality in the Orthodox community appears to encourage what Drescher (1998) refers to as dissociative splitting and can be damaging not only to the gay person but to the straight spouse as well.

Sometimes dissociative defenses can be extremely powerful, and the homosexual impulse is completely unacceptable to a man. He may define such feelings as “not me” (Sullivan, 1953) and completely exclude them from his consciousness. For example, a young, married couple came for consultation in great distress. In addition to their problems around intimacy, the husband discovered he was HIV positive and could not recall or admit to any behavior or occurrence that could have led to his infection.

Often, the naive straight spouses in these situations have not been sexually active before marriage and they may be more susceptible to this deception than their secular cohort. Dating mores are essentially short, focused courtships that provide a viable option to Orthodox, closeted gays trying to “pass” as straight. Initially, some men get away with these deceptions because of the high value placed by the community on early marriage and the strong religious prohibition against sexual activity before marriage. However, only recently has there been open consideration of the impact on the straight spouse resulting from these misguided recommendations to future gay husbands. In part, the growing awareness of the threat of transmitting HIV to an innocent spouse has served as a “wake-up call” to those advising gay men to satisfy themselves on the side.

Closeted, Orthodox gay men may be especially vulnerable to HIV infection because they may know little about prevention. They are unlikely to get such information from their religious communities—yeshiva boys are not taught basic prophylactic or safe sex measures. Furthermore, in some cases, as Drescher (1998) has pointed out, in early stages of gay identity development, there may be no differentiation between degrees of moral or halachic (Jewish law) lapses. This can be experienced as “If I am breaking the rules about homosexuality, then I suppose none of the rules apply to me.” Such an individual may dissociate from a wide range of superego functions, possibly leading to self-destructive and sometimes even sociopathic behavior. A treatment challenge then for the clinician is how to introduce the notion of moral responsibility to others without losing the trust and connection with the client.

Ben, a young single man, came to see me, stating that he was gay and that he had no conflict about that. He came for help with his difficulties forging close intimate relations and an excessive fear of rejection that impeded his success, both professionally and personally. Within a few months of treatment, Ben met a woman at a synagogue who pursued him eagerly. They dated and made plans to marry within weeks. This time frame is not unusual and, in courtships such as theirs, there is no physical contact with each other until marriage. This was, from my perspective, Ben’s “flight into health.” My dilemma as his therapist was how to avoid being directive (which I do not see as my role) while watching a disaster in the making. I urged caution and to further explore the meaning of this new relationship. This precipitated a crisis in the therapy and Ben left treatment. A year later, he returned, newly divorced, but with an increased motivation for this type of exploration.

Role of the Orthodox Therapist

While I usually shirk from labels and categories, in many therapeutic encounters with Orthodox gay and lesbians, my Orthodoxy did serve a positive therapeutic function. My attempts to create a safe and supportive holding environment were facilitated by my being an Orthodox authority figure who accepted and valued their perspective, tolerated their different selves and validated their realities.

In doing this work, there has been a parallel process of my own professional “coming out.” Until my involvement with this issue, my professional persona as a clinician and my personal role as an Orthodox Jew and wife of a rabbi were maintained with minimal overlap. In my practice, I did treat many from the Orthodox community, but in the interest of therapeutic neutrality and professionalism, these worlds were separate and compartmentalized. As a clinician, “coming out” in the Orthodox community as a gay affirmative therapist was frightening at first; not only because of the potential communal reactions but also because the experience of self disclosure of any sort ran counter to any of my clinical training and experience. The courage of those who have faced these conflicts as well as the passion of people such as Sandi Simcha Dubowski and Rabbi Steve Greenberg inspired me to want to be involved, to try to make a difference and to attempt to be a constructive presence in the lives of Orthodox gays and lesbians in the community.