Those familiar with the "It Gets Better Project" know that author Dan Savage and his partner Terry created the original YouTube video "It Gets Better" to encourage LGBT teens to overcome adversity and bullying. Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, Cody Barker, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Raymond Chase and Tyler Clementi are tragic examples of teens who would never get to know a life that got better.
Following is the interview I conducted with Ely Winkler, 23, a gay Orthodox Jew and student at Hunter School of Social Work who is one of the young men featured in the video.
Please tell me a little about the group that made the video and what the goal of this project was for the organization.
The group that made the video is not a formal organization, but a meeting group of Orthodox and formerly Orthodox gay Jews known as Jewish Queer Youth (JQY). JQY has a meeting once a month at the JCC of the Upper West Side to discuss various topics facing the GLBT, Orthodox or both communities. The group also has a listserv of about four hundred individuals who communicate almost daily via e-mail. The informal leaders of the group decided to do this video, and being an activist via my blog and my Facebook, I felt that I had the obligation to speak out against the bullying and share my story -- so those who are suffering like I did for so long would not have to feel so alone. This was the motivation of all the speakers, because we have been silent for too long.
How did Sandi Simcha DuBowski's 2001 hit documentary Trembling Before G-d impact the mainly closetted gay, orthodox/religious Jewish community?
The priority of being an out gay Orthodox Jew, and running events and posting videos and writing a blog, is all for the purpose of awareness. This is how I feel about Trembling Before G-d. The documentary was instrumental in teaching the Orthodox world that this was a serious struggle and not something that individuals were doing to corrupt Orthodox Judaism. The conversations all over the world that have been sparked because of this documentary has done an immeasurable amount to change the community. I don't know if I would've ever been able to come out had it not started the conversation first, 10 years ago.
Are there rabbis that have seen the video? If so, what were their responses?
The Rabbis I have been in touch with regarding this video have all been very supportive. These are the Rabbis that I keep around in my life. They range from Ultra Orthodox to Modern Orthodox, and have been nothing but loving and caring given the struggles that a gay Orthodox Jew faces. As such, the Rabbis I know that have seen the video have loved it, and felt it is only a step forward for the community.
If there are Rabbis who do not approve of such a public statement, I wonder what they do to help those who struggle with this issue. Because while I was struggling, very few were there to help me and it hurts when the people you look up to as role models turn a blind eye to such a serious issue.
What age were you when you came out?
After feelings of depression and anxiety persisting throughout my teenage years and early adulthood, I realized at 21 the only way for me to find inner-peace was to accept who I was, and come out so I felt accepted by others as well. It started with telling my parents, who were a bit surprised but knew I had been struggling with this. I just don't think they ever expected to hear me actually say it.
How has your family reacted?
My parents were the first people I told. It was difficult, and after that it was only mentioned once or twice for about 18 months. I felt like I hadn't come out at all. But six months ago, since a panel at Yeshiva University brought the issue to the forefront of Orthodoxy again, the channels have been a bit more open and my father specifically has has been a huge guiding light, willing to be open and honest about the issue and support me in many channels throughout the Orthodox world. I know that I will always have their support and more importantly, their love.
I waited a year after I was out to my parents and friends until I officially came out to my siblings. They are all older than me, and we are all very close, so I was scared of ruining our relationship. One sister has known since I began struggling at a young age, and she has been very supportive. With two others it needed to be confronted as full "coming out," and with my oldest sibling it just had to be mentioned in passing. Either way, since then they have only been supportive and I love that I can still be a part of their lives as much as I always have been, and they are my four best friends in the world.
Do you still consider yourself to be an Orthodox Jew, despite the fact that many in the Orthodox community have issues with homosexuality and say it is against the Torah?
I do still consider myself an Orthodox Jew, although many individuals would like to strip me of that title because I am out of the closet. I choose to be observant because, honestly, I don't feel it an option. While I have tested the waters not keeping every law or commandment, I know that the Orthodox world, and following God's law in the way all my friends and family does, is what I want to be doing as well. Just because I am gay, doesn't mean I am different from any of them or have to exclude myself from their world. What has kept me in the community is the love and support of those around me and the understanding that just because I struggle with one issue in the Torah, does not mean I can't be Orthodox.