Jewish Press Takes on Gay Suicides

The Jewish Press, a weekly publication focused on the Orthodox Jewish community, has a stinging editorial defending its decision to feature a story about suicide among “religious” Jewish gays. The original story, by Chaim Levin, touched off a great deal of criticism within the paper’s readership and advertisers.  Here’s a bit from the Press’ editorial:

We did not run this article to promote homosexuality. We did not run this article to condone anti-Halachic behavior. We did not run this article to intimate that homosexual behavior could be a Jewish life choice.

We ran this article because, whether one wants to admit it or not, there is a serious problem that some members of our religious community face – day in and day out. It could be your Chavrusah (study partner) in Yeshiva, the guy sitting next to you in shul, or your brother in your very own home. And this is true whether you wear a black hat, a streimel, or a knit yarmulka.

Pretending that there are no frum Jews with homosexual inclinations won’t make the truth go away. It won’t make the internal conflicts they fight with their Yetzer Harah (evil inclination) disappear.

and a bit more:

Following the publication of this op-ed, a number of Jewish Press advertisers were approached and threatened. They were told to stop advertising with the Jewish Press.

The Jewish Press won’t give in to threats and we won’t be silenced.

We thank our advertisers who have notified us they plan to continue with us despite the threatening letters and that they won’t give into threats either, particularly when an article like this one may have very well have saved a Jewish life.

People can do Tshuva (repent) for many acts against Halacha, but what forgiveness can there be after pushing someone so far they would commit suicide?

To understand the significance, it’s important to understand the religious context. The folks at the Religious Newswriters Association define Orthodox Judaism as “[t]he most conservative of the three major branches of Judaism, it strictly adheres to traditional teachings and acceptance of Jewish principles of faith and law.”

The Jewish Press describes itself as part of the Modern Orthodox movement, which is more moderate, which means it is often in conflict with more traditional movements within the Orthodox Judaism, including the Haredi and Hasidic.

Despite being “moderates” within a traditional movement, the decision to come out strongly against the treatment and attitudes towards gays inside Orthodox Jewish families–and call out for special shame the treatment in the most religious–or rabbinic–homes is a brave step.

The stuggles inside the Jewish press dealing with LGBT issues are not new.  In 2010, we wrote about the controversy at New Jersey Jewish Standard which was being criticized by readers for running a story on the marriage of two men.  At that time, NLGJA emphasized that the Jewish press was no different from any specialty media serving a “minority” or unique audience. It cannot pretend that LGBT people don’t exist inside the community and they–and their families–are part of the readership the media is trying to reach and serve.

NLGJA board member Matt Berger, who brought this to our attention, began his journalism career in the Jewish media.  Here’s his take on the controversy:

For me, the key takeaway here is that Judaism is often seen as one of the more liberal religions on social issues, and its community engagement is largely based on the concept of “tikkun olam” or repairing the world. Jewish groups have helped lead the civil rights movement and the fight against genocide in Darfur, but have done less to combat suffering and injustice in their own community.

There are openly LGBT rabbis in both the Reform and Conservative movement and both allow rabbis to perform same-sex weddings. But there is a real disconnect between these movements and the Orthodox, which often side more with Christian conservatives on social issues than with other tracts of Judaism.

There is a responsibility here for the broader Jewish community, including the Jewish media, to speak out on this issue and support organizations like the Jewish Press that are willing to speak about things that have previously been kept in silence.

Using intimidation and threats to pressure the media to hide issues of suffering within the community is the antithesis of “tikkun olam” and goes against everything the Jewish community stands for and has worked for.

So congratulations to the Jewish Press for taking a strong stand against suicide and the treatment of gay young people within the Orthodox Jewish community and allowing articles like the one by Levin to be a part of its editorial mix.

Define ‘The Closet’

I’ve re-read Ian Parker’s skeptical take on the death of Tyler Clementi in the New Yorker a number of times because, quite frankly, I couldn’t quite figure out how he reached the conclusions he did.  I think I get it, but it was hard to piece together.

The most interesting question I had was about Parker’s assertion that Clementi wasn’t in the closet, as suggested when Clementi killed himself.  His evidence appeared to be that Clementi’s roommate found evidence on a gay website (and then talked about it on Twitter) without confirming it with Clementi.  Parker then lays out this evidence for Clementi not being in the closet:

In high school, Clementi had not been widely regarded as gay. He had been posting messages at Justusboys since he was fourteen, but they were rarely sexual; rather, he exchanged views about television and compact cars with other affable contributors, some of whom used names like Bigpimpboy14. In one post, Clementi wrote, “Call me a prude but I honestly don’t think people are mature enough to be having sex prior to collegeish years in today’s world. . . . Sex isn’t something a 16 y/o should really need to spend much time debating. Then again, I’m practically asexual, and considered myself such until about 17 (when I started puberty), so I guess I have a lot of bias.” This post may well reflect the truth, but he wrote it when he was sixteen.

After Clementi’s death, his parents learned that he had come out to a friend in the spring of 2010, and that in the summer he had apparently met romantic or sexual partners online. Three days before starting at Rutgers, he came out to his family.

When he described that experience to Cruz, Clementi reported that his father was “very accepting” of his news, but added, “Its a good thing dad is ok w/it or I would be in serious trouble / mom has basically completely rejected me.” He later added that she had been “very dismissive.”

Jane Clementi told me recently that Tyler announced his sexuality to her in a private, late-night conversation, which “snowballed” to cover his perceived shortage of friends and the uncertainty he had about his faith. At the end of their talk, she recalled, “he cried, I cried, we hugged.” They said that they loved each other. But, Jane Clementi said, “I must admit, other than being surprised, I felt betrayed.” He had not confided in her, though he had known he was gay since middle school. She told me that she and her husband had long assumed that Tyler’s brother James was gay, and had even discussed the matter with Tyler, asking him, “Why won’t he just talk about it?” (James is now out.)

The day after Tyler’s disclosure, she said, “I guess part of me was grieving a little bit. I expected Tyler to be married one day, and be a father.” She said, “I was sad, I was quiet,” and she wonders if this is what he was reacting to when he wrote “rejected”; the word hurt her. She recalled that she spent the rest of the week with him, delivered him to college, and, throughout September, spoke to him on the phone. And she was expecting to visit Tyler for Parent and Family Weekend: “We had tickets to the football game. We had plans for the day.”

In September, Clementi attended at least one meeting of the Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Alliance, a Rutgers student organization. As he put it to Cruz, “I would consider myself out . . . if only there was someone for me to come out to.” Though he may have been slow to develop sexually, by the time he reached Rutgers he had found a streak of boldness. This perhaps left him exposed: once he overcame his shyness, he was not shy at all. His sexual self—born on the Internet, in the shadow of pornography—seems to have been largely divorced from his social self. After Clementi died, Gawker found what appeared to be an account that he had opened at Cam4, a site where women and men put on sexual displays, by webcam. Clementi also used a hookup Web site called Adam4adam. On September 2nd, Cruz told him, “U need to get away from the computer . . . specially adam.”

So, he has been on gay websites since he was 14. He told his parents he was gay a few weeks before his death. He was out to a friend and he’d been trying to find a boyfriend. He attended a meeting of the LGBT student group.

Does that make him closeted or out of the closet? Does it matter to the narrative of Parker’s story? To Clementi’s?

“Coming Out” for LGBT Youth at NYT

As I mentioned in a previous entry, The New York Times has published a special multimedia “Coming Out” section. Updates to the section are still pending, but it’s off to a good start.

Here’s the opening text of the section:

Bullying and suicides of gay and lesbian teenagers are in the headlines, the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has been repealed, and the debate over same-sex marriage continues to divide the country. Against this backdrop, many L.G.B.T. youth wonder how accepting society will be.

And here’s how the newspaper originally described the project:

The Times spoke with or e-mailed close to 100 gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender teenagers from all of parts of the country — from rural areas to urban centers, from supportive and hostile environments. The newspaper contacted them through various advocacy groups around the country, as well as through social media like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. The Trevor Project, which provides counseling to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths in crisis, among other services, posted a call for teenagers to tell their stories to The Times, resulting in nearly 250 responses. At times, young people led us to others.

The section has five multimedia presentations (photos with audio, two are still pending as of today) of LGBT youth telling their stories in their own words. Hearing the emotion and conviction in their voices is impressive.

The section also currently has 32 reader submitted stories (text only). There’s a link for readers to upload their own stories, which allows for people to also include a YouTube link, if applicable.

The stories are simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. The diversity of voices so far seems balanced, although the stories of LGBT youth from more stereotypically difficult circumstances seem to be more prominent.

This “Coming Out” section and the addition of Frank Bruni to the NYT op-ed pages seem to demonstrate an increasing commitment by the Gray Lady to fairly and accurately cover LGBT issues.

That said, even our allies need to be held accountable when appropriate, so we’ll keep monitoring NYT LGBT coverage.

UPDATE: All the multimedia presentations are now available. The NYT capped off reader submissions at 141 stories.

NYT “Coming Out” Project

Starting on May 23, The New York Times will begin publishing the results of its “Coming Out” project:

The Times spoke with or e-mailed close to 100 gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender teenagers from all of parts of the country — from rural areas to urban centers, from supportive and hostile environments. The newspaper contacted them through various advocacy groups around the country, as well as through social media like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. The Trevor Project, which provides counseling to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths in crisis, among other services, posted a call for teenagers to tell their stories to The Times, resulting in nearly 250 responses. At times, young people led us to others.

The youths who participated were in different phases of coming out: some had come out only to themselves, some to people in certain realms of their lives, some to only one trusted friend or family member; some came out to their family or community and then, realizing they lacked the support they needed, rescinded the declaration — and came out again a couple of years later. Others spoke of hating themselves in the process of accepting who they are.

This has the potential of being quite interesting and/or fraught with LGBT faux pas. We’ll be following up!

Bringing Down a Gay Czar: Part 2

A day after I raised concerns about the lack of attention the Kevin Jennings story was getting outside of the conservative press, a number of developments are changing the landscape although there is still a surprising lack of attention to this story by the mainstream media.

Progressive media watchdog Media Matters for America issued a press release attacking Fox News for launching another “smear campaign” against Jennings, the Obama’s administrations school safety czar.

The latest target in the Glenn Beck-driven conservative media witch hunt for Obama administration “czars” is Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools director Kevin Jennings. In their attacks on Jennings, numerous conservative media figures have resorted to thinly veiled homophobic appeals to paint Jennings, who is gay, as a “radical” “gay activist” with an “agenda” of “promoting homosexuality in schools,” and have misrepresented or distorted Jennings’ previous comments about religion and tolerance.

Media Matters is all over the issue.

At the Center for American Progress–and Huffington PostEric Alterman argued that the Jennings story represented an “effective demonstration of the right-wing strategy of ‘working the refs’” by forcing mainstream media to follow the scandal.

Yesterday, Jennings issued an explanation for his behavior and an apology.  That story was picked up by Jake Tapper at ABC, and the Los Angeles Times .  Kerry Eleveld of the Advocate also had a story yesterday, as did Andy Towle at Towleroad and EDGEBoston.  Today, WH Press Secretary was asked about the story and he called the attacks “a shame to watch what they do.”

The story appears to be hitting a high point and the questions being asked about Jennings are increasingly being seen as anti-gay.  The story needs attention by mainstream and LGBT media not in an attempt to “save” Jennings, but instead to guarantee that Jennings story is told in a fair and accurate way.

Right now, the story is largely being told by conservative media.  Whenever a story is only being shaped by one ideological perspective or another, it is bad for journalism and for the story. More voices asking more questions can prevent stories from steamrolling and, ultimately, guarantee that readers and viewers have the entire story and not just the story from one ideological perspective.  When the story is told by those committed to fair and accurate coverage, it is always better for the news consumer and the subjects of new stories.