Here’s what we’ve learned about gay teen suicides: it takes a village to make them happen, and also to make them stop. Yes, those kids who recently took their lives, in cities across the country, were particularly targeted by particular bullies. But both the bullies and their victims were caught up in systemic webs of hatred, ideology, and culture. Our rabbis, politicians, and community leaders are all responsible, as are all of us, for spreading the fundamental message that gay is not okay — a message that is lethal, and insidious.
The good news is that, since we’re all responsible, if you’re outraged and want to do something, there are a lot of things you can do.
First and most importantly is to “come out,” whether you’re gay, straight, bisexual, questioning, transgender, lesbian, queer, or Whatever, as a supporter of equality. Every study that has been done on homophobia and public opinion of gays has shown the same thing: the most important factor is knowing gay people, or at least knowing visible allies. It’s not geography or ideology — it’s personal contact. If you’re LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender), just being yourself is a form of activism. Obviously, you have to decide when it’s safe to be flamboyant and when it’s wise to be discreet. But know that simply by showing up, you are opening people’s minds.
This is true for allies as well. It can be as simple as wearing rainbow pins, or “Gay? Fine By Me” t-shirts, or other ways to show your solidarity. But that’s just the beginning. When someone in school says “that’s so gay!” let them know that “gay” is not a synonym for “stupid.” If you’re in an all-straight crowd and someone makes a homophobic remark, don’t let it slide – call them on it, just like you (hopefully) would if they said something anti-Semitic or racist.
In terms of formal volunteering, one way students can get involved is by starting gay-straight alliances (GSA’s) at schools, camps, yeshivas, youth groups, and just about anywhere else. Of course, it’s kind of weird to have a GSA with no (out) gay people in it. But think about it — if you were gay, and not so sure it was safe to come out, imagine how important it is simply that the GSA exists. Even if no gay kid ever joins your GSA, its mere existence has a huge impact on closeted kids, and on would-be homophobes and bullies. There are resources for how to do this online.
You can also take action in your Jewish communities. Here’s the thing: GLBT people have been actively excluded from Jewish life for 2,000 years. So, if synagogues really want to be welcoming, they have to be pro-active. There should be a “GLBT” tab on their websites. Rabbis should periodically talk about GLBT issues. And you, as a gay person or an ally, can help make that happen.
Chances are, your rabbi or community leader will say “But we are welcoming! We just don’t have any gay people!” Ask them how they know that. Ask them what they’ve done to balance out those 2,000 years of oppression with pro-active statements and deeds. Once again, even if no gay people actually come out of the woodwork, just taking these public statements can have a massive impact. They send a clear message: that sexual diversity is natural and healthy, and that all people are truly welcome – even, if you like, made in God’s image.
There are a lot of problems in the world today. Millions of people die every year from preventable disease, our economic system is in disarray, and the world is getting hotter every day. Equality for GLBT people is only one of many important issues — but it is one about which we can act effectively in our home communities. Unlike some of those other macro-problems, equality for GLBT people is ultimately local. We’re not going to change hearts from the top down; we’re going to do it person to person, neighbor to neighbor. You can make a difference, because as the saying says, kol yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh — all of us are responsible for one another.
Sign the Jewish community pledge against homophobic bullying
See also: “Paladino’s Bias And The Charedim: Time To Speak Out” by Jeremy Burton and “The Cost Of Standing Idly By” by Rabbi Steven Greenberg.