Including LGBT Jews
Despite recent advances in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights and visibility, both in the world at large and in the Jewish community, homophobia is still endemic in our society. Anti-gay bias is also acutely felt in our schools.
The severity of the problem may be news to many educators because these same students rarely report incidents of verbal and physical harassment to school authorities or parents, in part because they doubt any action will be taken. This perception is fueled by the fact that nearly 20% of respondents reported hearing homophobic remarks from faculty and staff, and over 83% reported that faculty and staff do not regularly intervene when they hear anti-LGBT language.
Although the GLSEN data covers students at all schools, public and private, the world of Jewish education is not immune to the problems of homophobia and exclusion. A survey of seven Jewish day schools conducted in 2003 by Rachel Timoner, now a rabbinical student in her 4th year at Hebrew Union College, found that “almost every Jewish day school reported anti-gay name-calling, teasing, harassment, or use of gay epithets.” Timoner’s research also found that “gay and lesbian students and teachers in Jewish day schools reported experiences of ostracism and judgment.” The lack of response from educators, rabbis, and other authority figures is pervasive. “Teachers, students, or parents complained of discrimination, invisibility, harassment, or a ‘deafening’ silence,” the report found.
Without a more recent follow-up to Timoner’s 2003 study, we have no way of confirming that the situation in Jewish day schools has improved, although the anecdotal evidence points to progress. For example, Keshet (www.keshetonline.org), a Boston-based LGBT advocacy organization, has seen incredible interest in its powerful new film, “Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School”, documenting teenager Shulamit Izen’s courageous fight to establish a gay-straight alliance at her Boston-area Jewish high school. Keshet’s Shalem Education Project, which includes Safe Schools trainings for Jewish educators and other school staff, continues to expand.
Scheduling a screening of Hineini, or holding a diversity workshop for faculty and staff are both important and highly recommended steps that every Jewish day school should take. But deep and sustainable progress will only come when the leadership at Jewish day schools pro-actively makes LGBT inclusion a systemic element of school culture. Steps toward systemic change include:
Adding formal and explicit language about LGBT inclusion to the school’s public outreach materials (newsletters, website, etc.), the school’s student conduct policies, and all formal employment policies and procedures;
Planning regular professional development opportunities for faculty and administration around LGBT issues and diversity in general, including intensive training for the school’s counselors and other key staff;
Evaluating the school’s curriculum to find age-appropriate opportunities to incorporate LGBT-relevant content, particularly within Judaic studies;
Demonstrating commitment to an inclusive culture through a leadership that models respect for everyone in the school community.
Some school leaders might agree that pro-active change around LGBT inclusion is all fine and well, but in a world of competing priorities and limited resources, they simply can’t push this to the top of the agenda. And besides, how many students would this really impact, anyway?
All Jewish day schools have lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students, and most have LGBT faculty. With LGBT people comprising between 3-5% of the population, it is nearly statistically impossible for a school to claim it has no students who currently, or will in the future, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. And any school with 100 or more students is sure to have LGBT students in every grade level. But perhaps even more important than creating an affirming environment specifically for LGBT kids, is fostering a climate of respect for all people. The bulk of anti-LGBT harassment in schools is directed at kids who identify as straight, but who are the victims of the pervasive efforts of their peers to police behavior along rigorously gendered lines. Calling someone a “fag” may not reflect a bully’s belief that the student in question is actually gay, but is a way of humiliating and marking the student as other, as outside, and as suspect. It should come as no surprise, then, that kids who are questioning their own sexual identities find they have no one to confide with and nowhere to turn.
Elementary and middle schools are not immune, either. Although we may prefer to avoid talking about the sexual development of Jewish adolescents, according to researchers in the field, the average age at which boys who will later identity as gay or bisexual first become aware of same-sex attractions is 9. For girls it is age 10. On average, boys have their first homosexual experience by age 13, and girls by age 15. Whether we’re ready for it or not, students in our schools are already grappling with these issues at ever younger ages.
For elementary schools, kids may not yet be exploring such feelings (although for people who will later identity as transgender, research indicates that most are aware from as early as 2-3 years of age that their gender identity does not match their biological sex, or social expectations about their gender role). But more and more day schools have students with LGBT parents, and the numbers are growing as more LGBT people have kids, and more LGBT Jews live more openly in their communities.
One of the most enriching aspects of being a Jewish educator is the opportunity to expose the next generation of Jews to our community’s deep commitment to inclusion, openness, justice, compassion, and respect. As a recent Jewish Mosaic study of Colorado’s Jewish community showed, Jewish institutions that are open and welcoming of LGBT Jews tend to be open and welcoming of all Jews. And as one participant in the study stated, “Being open and welcoming is a sign of a healthy Jewish institution.”
It takes leadership to transform our sometimes insular school environments into communities that are open and welcoming of all Jews. But such leadership is essential if we want our Jewish day schools to continue attracting the best and brightest Jews from across the country, as American Jewish society becomes more and more diverse.
As a father, as someone who has taught Jewish teens, and as someone who has worked with Jewish educators from every Jewish movement and in every type of educational institution, I consider the opportunity – and duty – to share Jewish values of inclusion with our youth to be an honor and a blessing. ♦