He stopped the music.
He stood up on the fireplace of the room in which nearly every member of the school was occupying. He began to speak. He thanked all of us for welcoming him into our community, for making him feel like he had been here his entire life. What he had to say was very sweet, but that's not what he came to tell us. That's not why he paused the end of the year festivities.
He and I hadn't been close until this year. For whatever reason, I never made an effort to connect with him. I figured he was just another typical out-of-towner. But when I began to write for him, when I began to give him a look inside of my head, into my beliefs, that's when it all changed.
In the middle of the year, I wrote an article calling for the discontinued usage of gay slurs. In my article, I proposed a hypothetical situation in which a Jewish, homosexual student was forced to hide who he was for the sake of avoiding chastisement. I concluded the article by proclaiming my hope that one day, just maybe, a student at my school would have the courage to challenge the Orthodox day school status quo by coming out to the student body. At the time, this was merely a hope of mine. To be honest, I never saw it happening. Though it's entirely realistic, and even factual, that Orthodox day schools across the country include a large number of closeted homosexuals, I never imagined somebody I knew would have the courage to actually come out. After all, they would be jeopardizing their reputation and opening themselves up to the possibility of seclusion and rejection.
I'll always remember the night he came out to me. I was giving him a ride home when he stopped our conversation to have one of far greater importance. He beat around the bush for a few moments, but eventually cut to the chase. When he finally squeezed the two most revealing words out, I wasn't sure how to react. I could have delved into a deep, philosophical conversation about the causes of homosexuality. I could have done the typical song and dance, congratulating him and telling him how courageous he is. Or I could have rejected who he truly was.
But I didn't do any of these things.
Instead, I drove around the city for two hours, asking silly question after silly question. I felt like a teenage girl. But he fielded them all. He showed me what it truly means to be comfortable with who you are. Not once did he blink, not once did he swallow his words, not once did he feel uncomfortable. He was ready to be himself around me, and that's something I will never forget.
Our friendship went from one of exchanging the occasional pleasantries, to one of immense depth and closeness. He has become someone I regard as a best friend. He has become my backbone in many instances, offering emotional support whenever I need it. He has become an inspiration.
It was nice of him to thank us for welcoming him into the community, but that's not what he came to tell us. He paused for a moment, all eyes on him, and somehow mustered up the courage to become who he is:
"One more thing, and I really am feeling quite happy tonight so this is why I'm telling you. I am gay. I am coming out tonight. Thank you so much."
Being that this sort of public coming out is unprecedented in our community, I didn't really expect the reaction that his coming out brought.
It seemed like time suspended for a moment, like everything was hanging in the balance as I awaited the reaction of the many who had not yet known his sexual orientation. I knew some would be taken aback by it, because, after all, homosexuality is still somewhat of an uncomfortable topic for many people. I even expected some to cause an uproar, to publicly rebuke his coming out as a sign of disgust.
But I didn't expect what actually happened.
Almost everybody in the room went ballistic. We yelled, clapped, and celebrated this momentous announcement. The room went from one of scattered occupation to one of a line. Students young and old lined up to hug him, to tell him congratulations, to accept him. The moment was so overwhelming that it moved me, along with many others, to tears.
I've always been a confident person, but I wouldn't necessarily say that I've always been courageous. Even now, my courage is a topic for debate, at least within my own head. But when I met him, when he came out to me, when he imparted on me that it's okay to be yourself, suddenly I felt like I could do anything. I began to write about the things many people didn't want to discuss. I began to let my passion drive controversial conversations within my sometimes rigid community. I began to accept myself for who I am, and do my best to correct my flaws.
His coming out was something he and I have discussed for quite some time now. He was apprehensive about it at first, but after countless conversations in which we discussed the importance of being who you are, he was ready to do it. His coming out in such a public form was one gigantic step toward the rest of his life. He no longer had to hide. He no longer had to keep up a facade. He no longer had to try to stay content being someone he is inherently not.
He could finally be free.
The thing is, though, his coming out stretches far beyond just him. His coming out is going to impact this community, this school, so much. His coming out has pushed many to recognize the reality that is homosexuality within Judaism.
In a Jewish community that is so stagnant, this sort of monumental occurrence is going to have a vast impact on the ideological scheme of things. The topic of homosexual acceptance has always been discussed solely in hypotheticals. We've all had our own opinions on how to resolve religion with sexual orientation, but we've never actually had to translate those opinions into practice. Now that our hypothetical world has become reality, we must take a definitive stance on what is so sadly deemed an "issue." This coming out was the first of its kind, and I hope it won't be the last. Many community members may be up in arms, but many more will not be. And those who aren't will be supportive, they will be accepting, and they will do their best to spread their attitude of tolerance to the other, more close minded members of the community.
This is a progressive world, folks.
He did something so notable by getting the literal ball rolling on this issue of homosexual acceptance within the Memphis Orthodox community. The hypothetical ball is no more.
When I entered high school, it was the norm to call someone a faggot or a queer. It was okay to throw around gay slurs, despite the fact that those few words could tear someone apart inside. As my years have flown by and the school's attitude toward homosexuals has drastically shifted, the norm has become acceptance. By the start of this year, many had cut down on their gay slur usage and enhanced their tolerance, especially in a public sphere, paving a pearly path out of the closet for him. With the already growing acceptance within our school, it's inevitable that more is to come. His announcement slapped many of my schoolmates in the face with reality. They now know someone who is homosexual. They now have a friend who is out. They now recognize that your sexual orientation doesn't define who you are as a person.
I'm not entirely sure how his announcement will impact his relationship with various students at the school, but I genuinely hope that those students don't change their behavior as a result of discomfort. His announcement has given us, the student body, a chance to create an atmosphere in which everyone feels safe being who they are. The overwhelming support he met after his announcement only reaffirmed my belief that this school, and perhaps this community, is headed in a new direction than in years past. To see all of my fellow classmates hug him, congratulate him, and even praise him was something I will never forget.
When it was finally my turn to congratulate him, I held him tight and told him that he was my inspiration. I told him that he was my hero. And he is. He's taught me that, despite all of the struggles that it may bring, being yourself is the only way to live. He's taught me how to love myself for who I am. He's taught me that I have a voice. He's given me a reason to become an even stronger proponent of gay rights in particular, and civil rights as a whole.
When I say that he has changed my life, I'm not simply throwing around cliche phrases that sound nice. I mean it. This year has been one of immense personal growth. I truly believe that how far I've come would not have been possible without his help.
An eighteen year old did something no one has ever done in this community. An eighteen year old exemplified courage to the fullest extent. He is so young, yet he's wise enough to know that he is capable of impacting those around him for the better. I never thought I would be writing a post like this. I never thought I would see someone come out in front of my classmates. But I couldn't be happier that this is all happening. I couldn't be more inspired, more moved by the courage he has shown.
When I look back at the beginning of Summer 2013, I'm going to remember the graduation. I'm going to remember the overwhelming sadness that rushed over me as I listened to my best friends utter their parting words. But, above all, I'll remember when one person changed an entire city.
There's nothing more to say to him than thank you. We all have a reason to appreciate the person he is and the courage he possesses. We all must note that what he has done is just that - notable.
He's set me on a path to find myself, and, with his inspiration, I feel as if I have the courage to become who I've always wanted to be.
"No freedom until we're equal. Damn right I support it."