I am queer — and my decision to be queer is a conscious decision.
There were times in my life when I wasn’t queer, but it’s been a process through which I have grown into my identity as someone who identifies not as gay, but primarily as queer. And, as I’ve grown into it, that distinction has become all the more important to me.
When I first wrote a blog post in 2013 talking very explicitly about some of my experiences being gay in a Modern Orthodox high school, I wanted to minimize my sexuality. I was still the same person I was before. When I wanted acceptance, I wanted acceptance interpersonally, not from the (Modern) Orthodox movement as whole.
I’ve evolved quite a bit since my senior year of high school. While interpersonal acceptance is still important to me, I’ve entered a time in my life when I’ve begun to realize that the needs I have go beyond just one person respecting my humanity, but instead to a community understanding where I come from.
And I come from my queerness. My being queer goes far beyond just my sexuality, and just being attracted to men — to an entirely different way of seeing and functioning in the world, and of seeing and functioning within Judaism as a religious, cultural, and communal system. It is a way of understanding the ways in which I, as a non-heterosexual person, do not fit into the boundaries and categories that have been created for me in a world wherein heterosexuality is assumed as the norm. It identifies the problems, but it also identifies the solution: If the problem is the structure created by the assumption of heterosexuality, than the solution is ultimately to change the structure.
One of the biggest criticisms levied against some of my writings on the intersections of my being queer and Jewish is my insistence on the former as an identity in the first place. I’ve been told (in person and in Internet comments) that my insistence on identifying as queer makes me unpalatable to the Jewish communities of which I want to be a part or have been a part in the past. The acceptance — the incorporation — that I need is something that I could compromise on, if only I was a little bit quieter about being queer.
But incorporation isn’t something that just involves me — it involves the queer perspective that I, and other non-heterosexual and -cisgender people bring to the communal conversation on what it means to be Jewish. I can’t separate that which my queerness offers me and the way it places me in the world from the perspectives my Jewishness offers me.
My sexuality doesn’t just limit me to my romantic partners — it defines, in a much broader way, the way I see and experience the world, and the way I see and experience Judaism as well. And in the very same way, my Judaism informs the way I see the world and the way I see my queerness. My need to remain involved in Jewish life, and not compromise on the way my sexuality influences and is influenced by it, brought me to identifying as queer in the first place, and drove me away from identifying simply as gay.
Queerness and a queer lens on the world around us goes far beyond much of gay male culture today. Being queer is a way of seeing and understanding the world around me in a way in which, for me, being gay is not. Although queerness is a way of seeing how I don’t fit into the world around me, and the Jewish world and tradition of which I am a part, being queer also provides me with the solution to the problem. Jewishness — community, ritual, culture — gives me the tools to make those changes that queerness requires to be possible.
And that means that I don’t just expect — and need — the Jewish community to change to fit with the way that I experience the world as a queer person. I also have changed and modeled myself and the way that I conduct my relationships according to what I think is expected of me from those who create my Jewish community. But if I’m going to do that, then I need my Jewish community to find ways to fully incorporate me into the community — not just to the fullest extent possible, but to the fullest extent. Full stop.
I might have chosen to identify as queer, but that doesn’t mean I can stop identifying as queer and lose the way it helps me make sense of the world around me. When I call for a queer revolution within the Jewish tradition, it’s not because I want to break down the ways in which Judaism has been traditionally practiced. It’s the opposite: I can’t leave that tradition. But in order for me to stay, I need a frame for the ways not only in which Judaism dictates the ways in which my queerness is enacted in my day-to-day life, but also for the ways in which I can create a Judaism, based on the traditions around which I’ve grown up, in which I and other queer people are an integral part.
Preserving this tradition and making sure that all have equal access to it in ways that are meaningful and integral to their lives isn’t easy, and it requires a much more extensive re-envisioning of the ways in which we understand and practice Jewish ritual. It goes far beyond just a seat in the synagogue, and beyond even officiating religious marriages for queer couples — it involves a much more careful examination of the ways in which queer youth, adults, and elderly people need to be included, and the systemic changes that need to happen.
For me, queerness isn’t the problem keeping me away: It provides both the critique and the possibility for a solution which keeps drawing me back to Judaism.
Amram Altzman is a student at List College.