I recently gave a podcast interview about my work building the modern Jewish pride movement. During the conversation, I was asked about the similarities between my gay and Jewish identities. While I address how my experience of LGBTQ+ Pride led directly to my work with Jewish Pride in my first book, revisiting that experience led me to reflect on an important facet of each experience; the concept of coming out.
Coming out and staying in
No matter what closet you’re coming out of, to exit it is to reveal to the world who you really are. This might seem inconsequential, were it not for the emotion of hate. For when you come out as gay or as Jewish, you are making yourself vulnerable. Why? Because as our histories have more than amply attested, the world does not always treat gay or Jewish people kindly.
It can sometimes feel easier to stay in the closet. To pass as the majority and to blend in. Curiously, the act of passing is often referred to by the Left as some kind of privilege. Because they tend to see the world in binary, either/or terms, they are oblivious to the varied manifestations of anti-gay or anti-Jewish prejudice. More seriously still, they fail to understand the reality of internalized prejudice, whereby one sees one’s authentic identity as something to be ashamed of. This, in turn, engenders a kind of psychological abuse, which leaves its own special kind of scars.
From any angle, it is definitively not a privilege to be forced to hide who you are. I have written at length about my struggles with my sexual orientation, and while I managed for a time to remain in the closet and pass as heterosexual, I always felt the sting of homophobia.
Coming out as a Jew
My partner is not Jewish, but he is a proud and active ally to the Jewish people. Since we moved to London and he started working in a new industry, he has come home to tell me about Jews coming out to him at work. On the one hand, these stories are an inspiring indicator of the power of allyship. But they’re also a sad indictment of a non-Jewish world which often forces Jews to hide their Jewishness in the first place.
Being free of the burden of Jew-hate, my non-Jewish partner never feels the need to hide his connection to Jewishness. He was the vice-principal of the Jewish school in Hong Kong and has been my own partner for seven years. When discussing his life with his colleagues, he’s able to freely describe my work and identity alongside his own career history. This openness allows his Jewish work colleagues to feel comfortable enough to come out to him.
This is something to celebrate. And yet, the stories he related to me were tinged with sadness. On two separate occasions, his colleagues felt the need to surreptitiously tell him that they were Jewish. One was wearing a Magen David necklace under his jumper. After my partner mentioned Jewishness and Israel, he pulled my partner aside one day to privately show him his Magen David.
On another occasion, after my partner brought up the subject of holidaying in Israel, his colleague quietly mouthed “I am Jewish” to him across the table. And yet, when asked, this same individual admitted that, as a Jew, he had “not experienced any open Jew-hatred” at work. In other words, even in the absence of overt anti-Jewish hostility, he nevertheless felt that had he been open about his Jewishness, he would have experienced anti-Jewish racism as a consequence.
ALL THIS was not lost on my partner – a proud bisexual man – that these conversations only occurred because his open discussions about Jewishness and Jews had created an environment where Jewish individuals, occupying a tiny minority in a company of 167,000, felt able to reveal their Jewishness. Not knowing how they would be received, they had purposefully hidden their Jewishness from their other colleagues.
This embodies the unfortunate reality of being a Jew in the non-Jewish world. We have to contend with the fact that our most authentic selves are not always treated with the respect that we deserve.
Consequently, we end up dealing with this phenomenon in different ways. I respond by telling people that I am Jewish with such speed that it’s often the second thing they learn about me after my name. Other people may hide themselves until they are sure they can trust those around them. Such are the choices we make when navigating our identities in the wider world.
Recognizing our experience
Coming out is thus a part of the Diasporic Jewish experience. It’s critical to affirm this reality. As a gay man, I often explain to others how coming out never ends. You have to come out whenever you meet someone new. The same applies to Jews. We have to make the decision to come out or not depending on how we feel about ourselves and how we feel we may be received.
We can’t control how we are treated. This is the unfortunate reality of being a Jew. However, we can ensure that we understand that having to hide who we are is a form of oppression in and of itself, along with the fear of being ‘discovered’.
As Jews, we must always strive to understand our identity on a deeper level. Coming out as Jews in the Diaspora should be understood as just as important – and critical – as it is for those of us in the LGBTQ+ world.
The writer is the founder of the modern Jewish Pride movement, an educator, and the author of Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People. His new book, Reclaiming our Story: The Pursuit of Jewish Pride, is now available.