Growing Up Jewish and Gay

This post first appeared on The Good Men Project.

JewishGayA man shares his story of coming to terms with his sexuality and conservative faith.

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Paul was born into a Jewish family in the South at a pivotal time in history. It was 1960, just 15 years after the holocaust, and four years before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. “Race was an important identifier,” Paul said. “Where I grew up, Jews weren’t really white. We were part of this very tiny minority that belonged to this ‘other faith’ community. It was like we were space aliens, just kind of these oddities.”

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Paul’s family, like their southern counterparts, took their religion seriously. “Our liturgical calendar ruled our lives,” he said. Paul and his brother were active in their synagogue and close to their rabbi. “He was our neighbor,” Paul adds. Like most minority communities in rural places, he describes his Jewish community as close-knit.

Paul didn’t give much thought to feeling differently about himself, perhaps because, by community standards, he was already different. At age 14, his parents sent him to an Episcopal boarding school in Texas. “In retrospect,” he said, “the school was pretty liberal compared to what was around it, but it didn’t feel that way at the time.” It’s where he studied and developed a great admiration for Sigmund Freud, who became somewhat of a solace for him through Paul’s years of puberty.

Freud’s work made Paul see himself as normal. “[My homosexuality] wasn’t so much a conflict. Freud hypothesized the part of the sexual identity process from 14-15, and I totally identified with that,” he said. “The crushes I had on those boys were ways of comparing myself to them, identifying with them, and being a better man.”

Paul said he told himself he was smarter than the other kids and more aware of what he was going through. “They were using ‘fag’ and stuff to put each other down, and I thought that’s exactly what Freud would predict. I’m kind of above that.” Yet, Paul identified as more of a nerd than gay, until he was around 18. He wasn’t quite ready to come out to his parents, yet.

“Anita Bryant was big, my senior year of high school,” he said, “and I remember my father talking about how she was so clearly wrong. Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign proliferated the idea that gay people recruited children and made them gay. Paul said his father knew that wasn’t true. But Paul waited until his sophomore year of college before he finally told his parents he was gay.

“I went to college in suburban Los Angeles,” he said. “[The college] was very accepting before its time. We had an openly gay dean of housing.” As liberal as his parents may have appeared, however, when Paul gave them the news, “they didn’t accept it very well.”

“The Jewishness that I grew up with was basically like fundamentalist Christianity,” Paul said. “We didn’t eat pork; they didn’t drink. They didn’t dance; we didn’t drive on Saturday. The theology was kind of the same, but we just had different rules. My parents believe in a Southern Baptist God, but he’s Jewish.”

Paul said he credits his college experience for saving his life. It was the late 70s and early 80s. The AIDS crisis was just beginning. “I had very idealized views of what love and sex and relationships were supposed to be like,” he said. Between his sophomore and junior years of college, Paul worked as an intern in New York City. “I’d go down to Christopher Street and it was so clear I had no connection with [those gay men]. It was very sexualized and very disco and poppers. It was not my life. I had turned up my nose at all of the male pornographic sexuality and bath houses.” Paul said he was looking for something with more meaning. Sadly, many of the people his age, some of whom were his college cohorts, were some of the first people to contract and die from AIDS.

Later, a professor invited Paul to a conference called the Gay Academic Union. He said, “I went to it and it was full of people just like me; the nerdy professor types who were gay.” Paul described the event as “eye-opening,” seeing that other gay people could be serious and academic. He discovered many Jewish professors, some of whom taught at USC and UCLA.

“So when I got to college, I found there was this Judaism that was much more liberating and intellectual,” he said. “The conflict wasn’t with Judaism itself.” Paul called out the distinction between Orthodox Judaism, which believes in the literal interpretation of the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible, with conservative Jews, who tend to be more socially liberal and see the Scriptures as words of wisdom.

“Because we’re a minority, issues of liberation are really important for Jews,” he said. Paul made a concerted effort to involve himself in Jewish culture that was different from the one in which he grew up. In fact, by the time he reached his senior year of college, he applied to rabbinical school to become a rabbi.

“On the application we had to write about our religious experience,” he said. “I decided to write about my coming out as a religious experience.” The admissions counselor was less than impressed.

During the interview process, Paul watched the counselor’s colleagues interrupt their 45-minute meeting to congratulate him on his new baby. Yet, the counselor’s response to Paul was, “We cannot have openly gay students. I think sexuality is so private. Why would you share this with people?”

Paul exploded. “Nobody’s asking you to keep your sexuality private. Why would you ask me to keep mine private?”

Not dissuaded, Paul went on to attend Harvard Divinity School, where he earned his Masters of Divinity degree and became a Unitarian Universalist minister. Upon graduation, however, Paul said, “At the end of the process, I really wasn’t cut out to lead a faith community. Nonetheless, his drive to help others only took him in a slightly different direction

Paul earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Texas University and became a marriage and family therapist. He specializes in psychodynamic therapy and spiritual issues where he works in private practice in Chicago. He and his husband have been together for 24 years.

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In regards to his spirituality today, he said, “If I had to check a box I’d check atheist, but I don’t think Judaism and atheism are mutually exclusive.” He points out that “before Christianity there wasn’t this idea you had to believe something.” He said he believes that “religions are simply metaphors that people have chosen to help them be good people and to understand something that is essentially incomprehensible.”

Photo – Getty Images

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