After I converted to ultra-Orthodox Judaism, I began to take on an entirely new life. I moved 200 miles from my native Baltimore to Brooklyn, guided only by faith. I spoke Yiddish, my style of dress was distinct, my thought process was Talmudic -- I was a Hasid of Brooklyn. I had had a brief arranged marriage, I was working in Boro Park, I had learned years in yeshiva.
But I was still gay. And this would eat at me the entire time. In summer of 2005 I met a man online -- who happened to be observant and Jewish. He would encourage me to come out -- and I would call him names like "heretic" for doing so, for daring to have a belief system that allowed such. He convinced me to go to Pride 2005, and I reluctantly agreed -- for him, and because I knew deep down that I should be there, that I shouldn't hate myself as much as I had in the past for being gay. I put on my most nondescript clothes, and went.
One of the Hasidim from my sect -- a guy named Nathan R. -- had heard a few months before about a match being arranged between me and one of his cousins. He decided to arm himself with proof that I was gay -- perhaps he had heard a rumor from Baltimore (later, he would tell my friend he only "happened to be there for work") -- and went to Pride 2005, digital camera at the ready, and collected his proof. He saw me in the parade -- a parade I joined only at my boyfriend's behest -- and began taking photos.
An entire photo CD full of photos.
He took the photos to almost every rabbi I had -- the rabbi who did my conversion, rabbis from the neighborhood, rabbis I had learned with. Perhaps he was trying to have me ex-communicated. Perhaps he was trying to have my conversion nullified. Whatever his motive, he succeeded at getting me out of my sect. After my rabbis told me about the photos, I had no idea who had seen them. I was assured "the CD was destroyed," but I had no idea how much damage was done. I dared not show my face anywhere for fear of who knew. I no longer felt welcome anywhere -- despite all the smiling faces around me.
I withdrew from my entire world. I spoke to almost none of my neighbors. I had begun having anxiety attacks after my mother's death in 2004 - after this, I became a paranoid, panic-stricken wreck. I felt I had no one in Brooklyn. But I was also unable to leave - people would say I "left Judaism". I would spend years in that basement in Flatbush, drinking heavily every night to try to escape. Sometimes I would sneak out to an Israeli restaurant with no Hasidic employees to eat. My friends would come in from places like Long Island.
I would sign to Shemspeed Records that year and begin working on "This Is Babylon," my first album. I was always surrounded by "love" and friends (most of whom had no idea I was gay, of course) but to me, my community was gone, and my community was my world. It was what had sustained me for years. By 2009 when I left Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox community, I was a nervous, depressed wretch using PHP programming as my way out of the "ghetto."
This year I will be performing in the NYC Pride Festival -- my first time going to a LGBT Pride parade since that day in 2005, and my first New York City performance since coming out as gay in OUT magazine last month. Nathan R. would go back to Pride year after year, possibly with that same camera, and told one of my friends last year that he was "looking for me" at Pride 2011. It was the fear of that camera that kept me from Pride for years, and after seeing the outpouring of love I've received (including ultra-Orthodox Jews) since coming out (shooting to #1 Most Popular on OUT, and reaching CNN Entertainment and Israel's Haaretz), I know that he is in the minority.
Now, for the first time, I'm ready to stand up to Nathan R, and all the other Nathan R's of the world this year at Pride. I'm going to be performing at Pride on the float of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST - the "world's largest LGBT synagogue") representing in hip-hop fashion for all those kids who can't come to Pride because of their Nathan R's. Those religious protesters "exercising their free speech" on the sides of 5th Avenue are each making sure someone in one of NYC's insular faith-based communities dare not show their Pride because of who may see them from the sidelines.
This year at Pride, I want to help everyone stand up to their own Nathan R's in their lives whoever they may be, religious or secular, family, friend, schoolmate or coworker. I will be marching in solidarity with all those who can't show their pride this year, in hopes that they'll be able to confront their Nathan Rs in time for Pride next year. I've come a long way, and I hope to help others make the same journey.
To this end, this year I will be also launching Confront Your Nathan -- a Web campaign where people can share stories of courage about how they confronted their own personal Nathan R's and share resources with other victims of bullying and prejudice. People will be able upload videos and share stories via Facebook, and share resources via a wiki.
This year at NYC Pride, I am taking my stand for the first time. Together, we can make sure everyone else can too.