When we hear about LGBTQ+ teens committing suicide, we usually think of an isolated teenager in a small, conservative town, where no one understands them and the adults in their family and community are intolerant. We hear stories of how these teens fear for their lives and – after much harassment and misunderstanding – either leave home for places, such as Hollywood, hence the large runaway population in Hollywood, or give up and give in to a quick way out of the pain.
Listening to the beginning of the MASH movie recently, I was struck by the song playing during the opening credits. “Suicide is painless…” I suppose this fits because war, and other trials we endure in life, are more painful than suicide.
Suicide is hardest on the people left behind. My husband and I have a beautiful teenager, Esther Iris z”l, who now resides in heaven due to suicide. I want to write about the upheaval this has caused in our hearts and souls; I want to pour out my grief and frustration, and proclaim from the mountaintops how much we miss our Esther Iris.
But right now, I feel compelled to write about one aspect of Esther’s struggle. Mental health was a key component; COVID was another precipitating factor; and yet another issue for Esther was their gender identity and sexual expression.
For LGBTQ+ teens, or those trying to figure out where they fit on the gender continuum, there is so much left unsaid.
We don’t usually think of teens in our Jewish community as limited in any way. Many opportunities are open to them. Yet for LGBTQ+ teens, or those trying to figure out where they fit on the gender continuum, there is so much left unsaid. There are LGBTQ+ shuls primarily aimed at adults, who by and large have figured out their identity and simply want a place to pray and make friends. There is JQ International, Keshet and Rosh Chodesh groups for LGBTQ+ and nonbinary teens, but how do these groups interact with the Conservative Jewish world at large?
At a Bat Mitzvah, when a mother is praised for bringing her daughter to Torah, I’m happy. But when a girl is told how wonderful it will be when she has kids, I wonder. What if she doesn’t want to have kids? I recall feeling shoved into a box based on gender in my 20’s, as I struggled to find myself as an artist.
Teens today may be where I was in my early 20’s, in terms of emotional literacy; that’s how fast the world is changing. Puberty arrives years earlier, and so much information floods the internet that pre-teens are incredibly sophisticated. Some may feel they fit perfectly into the box they were placed in at birth, but some take time to find themselves.
The pressure on teens from peers, television, movies, social media, and hormones to explore the body, identity and sexuality is huge. “Parents are literally playing catch up,” Jordan Held, an adolescent therapist at Visions Treatment Center for Teens, said recently at a workshop on Gender, Sexuality, and Suicide organized by the LA Jewish Teen Initiative and sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Most adults in the Jewish community are not homophobic. We are LGBTQ+ or have LGBTQ+ friends and colleagues. But how does one approach the issue of gender and sexuality in the Jewish community? It isn’t only about helping children navigate life; we have a responsibility to be examples and guides to the teens in our community.
Can we exhibit love and fairness regardless of gender identity? It is one thing to say: “I have no problem with LGBTQ+ people.” It is another thing to embrace the Jewish values of tolerance, humility, compassion, and kindness and to be a shining light.
Teens go out in the world in ways we can’t imagine. We can’t prevent them from being who they want to be, or doing what they want. This is part of growing up. When our teenager, Esther Iris z”l, came to me and said they wanted to be addressed as they/them, I wasn’t sure what it meant. I was not prepared. If I had been, I wonder if I could have done more to help them feel comfortable. They borrowed their father’s shirts and used new pronouns, but we were both a bit mystified. Did this mean that Esther would soon want surgery and hormones for a new gender identity?
Esther ordered a binder on Amazon, wore it occasionally, and enjoyed wearing dresses, donning make-up and nail art, and making beaded earrings.
What does clothing and hairstyle matter anyway? As Jews, we believe one’s soul is what counts, right?
We cannot let biases stop our teens from living out their destinies and becoming their truest, highest selves. It is important that we be supportive.
Esther wrote a poem of two beings at war within themself. When I hear them sing “Lost Boys” on the piano, it makes me cry. Girls are allowed to roam free, but as teens, social restrictions are placed on females. I urged Esther to be adventurous; we hiked and biked together; they surfed … but I didn’t see clearly when Esther began to withdraw emotionally at age 12 what was happening.
I believe now that Esther may have been feeling things for girls, as well as boys. This was confusing, so they shoved those feelings down deep inside, where no one would see them. They wanted to stay part of the Jewish community they loved, which at the time was not as inclusive as it is now. They began dating boys and maintained close friendships with boys and girls.
Then COVID arrived and after a year of online school, due to isolation and stress, with no sibling at home, they broke down and began a descent into depression.
The school where Esther graduated from in 2019 has changed. Now, students use various pronouns and there is an all-gender bathroom. Jewish schools, camps and youth groups are changing with the times and embracing LGBTQ+ teens rather than keeping them on the sidelines. But It is sad to think there are still Jewish adults who do not understand the issue and are fearful.
Inclusion is a buzz word right now, so it’s easy to feel that by slapping a new label on a bathroom and pronouns on one’s Zoom window, that’s all it takes, but there is more we can do … more ways to love and be kind.
It starts with listening, seeing and reaching out. Imagine you are in line for food at shul and there is a teen with purple hair, a nose ring, and ambiguous gender, in front of you. You can be stern and unfriendly or you can say in a light tone, “Cool hair!” I guarantee, if you chose the latter, you will be surprised by their appreciation.
Teens trying to find themselves in this complicated world warm up when they feel included by adults; this helps them feel that they have a future in the Jewish community.
Teens trying to find themselves in this complicated world warm up when they feel included by adults; this helps them feel that they have a future in the Jewish community. What is the message we send when we reject young people on a journey full of tempestuous waters? Sharks lurk in the deep. Wouldn’t we rather be part of the solution than part of the problem?
When we reject someone this speaks to our inability to confront and deal with the complexity of the situation. Let’s be brave and learn. Just as we are made in God’s image, so are our youth. They need to feel this from each and every one of us. They need to feel they are not alone.
Deborah Fletcher Blum is an artist, writer, filmmaker and educator living in Los Angeles. She believes in fostering mindful conversations and can be reached at [email protected]