Almost a dozen years ago, I moved to Baltimore from Durham, N.C., with my husband and our three young children. We wanted to live in a larger Jewish community, and I liked Baltimore right away.
But underneath my happiness, something occasionally made me feel unsettled. I knew everyone assumed I was straight, and I’m not. I came out as bisexual in college. At that time, I was basically out to everyone I knew. When I married my husband, I still kept in contact with many of my college friends. The shul we attended had a small Orthodox minyan, but the larger shul was very accepting of LGBT members. So I never questioned if I would be accepted for who I was.
When we moved to Baltimore, it was our first experience in a large Jewish community. Although I felt immediately welcomed, I wondered how open I could be about myself. I heard women discuss past dating experiences. If I mentioned that I had dated a woman, would I make myself an outcast? If I was outspoken about my beliefs and LGBT rights, would I be a lone voice in the Orthodox community?
As time went by, I was happy to see some positive comments about the LGBT community. I began considering the idea of being more out. I was comfortable in the community, but I was unsure. I felt that even if the people around me didn’t understand all of my identity, my husband did. I had always been out to him, and I knew he understood who I was as a person.
The past year was a difficult one. My husband and I separated. Along with many other things going on, I realized I no longer had the person who understood me. I started seeing a therapist at Jewish Community Services, and even though we often discussed relationships and personal interactions, I told myself that my identity as bi wasn’t relevant.
My decision came when I almost made an offhand comment about previously dating a woman, realized I hadn’t come out to my therapist and changed what I was going to say. Well, I did not want to consciously withhold things from him. I knew it was time to come out to him. It had been a while since I had come out to anyone, and it made me remember what a nerve-wracking experience it could be. I was originally going to come out at the beginning of our next session, but I got too nervous. I did manage to bring it up during the session, and he was very supportive and understanding, especially of why it was an important part of who I was. It made me remember what it felt like to be out and accepted. And I wanted that again.
Shortly after, I heard about Eshel, the support group for Orthodox LGBT Jews and their families. I began going to meetings. I enjoyed connecting with Eshel members, and I knew I had support within the Orthodox community. I decided I would come out on Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day.
When I was in college, I wore a rainbow ring necklace. I ordered a new one. On National Coming Out Day, I made a Facebook post with a picture of the rainbow flag with a Jewish star on it, and the following post:
“I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, and I decided that since today is National Coming Out Day, it’s the right day to do it. Even though we’re not always visible, there are LGBT members of the Orthodox community. And many of us very much want to be and remain an active part of the Orthodox community without worrying about being judged if we are more open about who we are. Lately, I’ve been so pleased to see positive responses to members and family of the LGBT community, and to learn about and connect with Eshel, that I feel comfortable making this post. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, please always remember to love and accept your fellow Jews, and include us without judgment. We definitely are a part of this community.”
I got over 120 “likes” and more than 30 positive comments. I started wearing my rainbow necklace all the time. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been a little out of the box that I tend to surround myself with non-judgmental friends. I have felt so loved and accepted by all of my friends.
It can feel very daunting to come out in the Orthodox world, and each person’s support makes a positive impact. I’m so glad that I decided to come out, and thankful to have Eshel. If you would like to connect to Eshel, you can contact the organization via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maia Bar-Am is a Baltimore-based day care worker, blogger and mother of six.