The 15-year-old-boy with a kippah on his head approached me timidly—he clearly had a lot on his mind. Just a few hours earlier, he had participated in a workshop I had given at his summer camp, about preventing LGBTQ suicide and how to be an ally to LGBTQ people. It was Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, considered to be the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. Nearly everything terrible that’s ever happened to the Jewish people happened on Tisha B’Av: The first and second temples were destroyed; the first crusade began; Jews were expelled from England, France, and Spain; World War I began; and in 1941, the Nazis approved the plan for “the Final Solution,” which set the Holocaust in motion.
The day is typically marked by quiet, reflective study and prayer, including reading from the Bible’s Book of Lamentations. At Jewish summer camps, the day typically takes on a more modern approach, including activities that center on learning about diversity and programs that emphasize a need for acceptance and tolerance for others. In that spirit, I had been invited back to Camp Ramah Darom, where I had served on staff for 10 summers, to plan inclusive and educational workshops for the campers, who range in age from 9 to 17. The long day had finally ended, and we were about to break our 25-hour fast (one of the traditions of Tisha B’Av) as camp returned to normal. After a few seconds of intense silence, the boy found his voice.
“I just wanted to say, I’ve been struggling a lot because I’m attracted to guys, and you being here today made me feel a lot more normal.” Before I could even react, he turned, walked away, and tried to slip back into the crowd of rowdy—and hungry—campers.
I chased after him: This was huge—it demanded a moment of gravity and respect. It turned out I was the first person he had ever told.
I’ve acted as confidant and de facto therapist to countless kids, teens, and adults in the two years I’ve been the assistant director of SOJOURN, the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity. I’ve celebrated with trans women in their 40s who’ve just begun to find their community, and I’ve been awed by genderqueer teenagers who can take on anti-LGBTQ bigots with the best of them. It’s incredibly powerful and rewarding work.
One of the main focuses of our work is running LGBTQ-specific suicide-prevention workshops. We’re lucky to have received a grant from the state of Georgia to offer these workshops free of charge to groups across the state. Typically, they are attended by school counselors, mental health professionals, group home employees, and other folks involved in the social service world. In the two years we’ve been running these workshops, the response is almost always unanimous support. Recently, that’s changed. In many of these communities, LGBTQ youth aren’t talked about often, and when they are, the conversation is rarely positive. With the recent advances in equality for LGBTQ people, and the realization that even their own communities contain queer kids, many of these folks mistakenly think we’re there to attack them and their religion. (Even though we’re a religious organization, we’re not Christian, which doesn’t always help that perception.)
In the days after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, I was in small town in northwest Georgia named after a moderately famous civil war general. I was particularly excited because word had spread about my workshop, and we would have attendees from as far away as Chattanooga and the surrounding areas. The average commute for the attendees was just over an hour—that’s usually a sign that people are genuinely interested in learning and growing. Man, was I wrong.
To get discussions moving and to ease into the serious topic of suicide prevention, we often ask people to break into small groups and tell us about the first time they heard the words gay and transgender. Eavesdropping on one conversation, I could tell that today would be different. “It’s not something I agree with or support,” one man said. The woman next to him made it clear that she refused to accept that someone could be transgender. It turns out he was a pastor working in a social service agency, and she was a state-licensed foster parent. The pastor, it seems, kept an open mind during the next three hours. The foster parent refused to look up from her notebook where she had been writing Bible verses from memory. She never once made eye contact with me.
In each workshop we discuss vocabulary—for many of these people, this is the first time they’ve heard the word transgender or heterosexism in their proper contexts, so we often turn this section into a fun matching/memory game—we watch a few testimonial videos as teens and adults share their stories of coming out and acceptance, and we discuss the shocking statistics: According to a 2014 study by the Williams Institute, 41 percent of all transgender people and 20 percent of all lesbian, gay, and bisexual people attempt suicide because of a lack of societal acceptance.
It’s always been tacitly understood that no matter what ideological differences any group of people may have, we can all agree on one common goal: keeping kids alive. This time, however, I had to say it out loud. Many times. I had to say it when one woman recounted the day she told her lesbian daughter that she would never accept her because of her sexual orientation. I had to say it when one of the few men in the room insisted the pain LGBTQ people describe comes from turning their backs on God, rather than religion turning its back to LGBTQ people. And I had to say it again to the pastor, who couldn’t fathom that God would ever create someone to be gay or transgender.
I repeated the suicide statistics, and I added the data that show how accepting people for who they are—without any demands or conditions—literally keeps them alive.
I made the pastor cry.
He had finally realized the pain his thoughts and actions had caused. He wouldn’t change overnight, to be sure, but I know that my words and our messages will stick with him for a long time to come.
I didn’t win everyone over that day. While the majority of the evaluations were positive—even from the pastor—one person wrote they felt like they had been tricked into attending an “indoctrination.” The foster mom never filled out an evaluation—her pen never left her notebook of Bible verses in the entire three hours, and she raced out of the room even before I could say, “Thank you all for coming.”
But I also had evaluations thanking me for bringing these issues to their small town and for not being afraid to speak up. I had workers from the juvenile corrections facility who suddenly felt more comfortable working with this at-risk population, I had school counselors and teachers creating lists of ways they could improve the climate in their classrooms for LGBTQ students and families, and I had that 15-year-old boy at camp, and the many others like him who come out because they see someone who’s been where they’ve been and knows what they know—that they are just fine being exactly who God created them to be, and that’s all there really is to it, even in the South.