August 5, 2009
Gay, Straight Must Stand Together
First there was the good news. “Prayers for Bobby,” a film my partners Chris Taaffe, David Permut and I spent the last 12 years struggling to produce, received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Made for Television Movie. The film, starring Sigourney Weaver, is the true story of a devoutly religious mother who unintentionally drove her gay teenage son to suicide, ultimately celebrates Mary Griffith’s complete transformation into a nationally recognized gay-rights activist.
Then came Saturday, Aug. 1 — a gunman opened fire on a group of teenagers at the Tel Aviv Gay and Lesbian Association. Nir Katz, the 26-year-old group advisor, and Liz Trubeshi, a 16-year-old straight teenager and group supporter, were brutally killed. Israeli rescuers said six of the 11 wounded were badly hurt, and many were very young. “Without a doubt [this is] the biggest ever attack on the Israeli gay community,” openly gay Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz said. “We are all in shock.”
The murders did not occur at Evita, Tel Aviv’s biggest gay bar, or Beit Ha’Shoeva, a lesbian bar. The teenagers were meeting at the city-funded lesbian and gay community center.
In any other circumstance, centers like those are lifesavers. Data published Monday by Israel’s Ministry of Welfare and Social Services showed that one-third of suicides among teens were due to a sexual identity crisis, and that more than 80 percent of gay teens in Israel claim to be victims of verbal abuse. More than half say they have been victims of physical attacks.
Here in America, The Trevor Project, a nationwide nonprofit gay and lesbian teen helpline (1-866-488-7386) reports that suicide is one of the top three causes of death among 15- to 24-year-olds. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, and those who come from a rejecting family are up to nine times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Data show that most teens come to terms with their sexual identity by age 13, down in recent years from 16, and that youth groups are integral in providing emotional support to gay teens.
I know this from personal experience.
I grew up in Denver, the son of a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to Haifa. Both of my parents are Jewish community professionals. As a young boy, I loved walking to our synagogue on Shabbat, holding my father’s hand. Attending High Holy Days services at my grandparent’s Orthodox shul, it was an honor when a family member was called to the Torah. I was welcomed into our congregation by our kind and intelligent rabbi. At that time, I believed I was the only gay teenager in our community. There was no mention of gays and lesbians within my circle.
At 16, having been named a Man of Distinction by the Intermountain Jewish News, I read of a nonprofit organization called PFLAG — Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays. I found the local chapter. I quietly sat in the back of the room. This was my first contact with the “gay community.” There I was, a nice Jewish boy sitting in the basement of a Metropolitan Community Church, seeking answers to my many questions. Nobody noticed me. I left as fast as I arrived; however, I witnessed something unbelievable — parents talking openly and lovingly about their gay children.
I became president of my American Zionist Association chapter and a BBYO regional officer. I was a bona fide teen leader, and I worked hard to make friends. At age 16, I went to Israel with 30 other kids from Denver. At the University of Colorado, I was the co-president of American Students for Israel, a Hebrew schoolteacher and a Jewish youth group advisor. I was a camper and counselor at Camp Alonim. And I was in the closet. I came out at 21, recognizing that none of these Jewish community outlets offered open, supportive conversation about gays and lesbians. None of them offered hope, motivation or a sense of belonging.
To the Jewish gay and lesbian teens meeting last Saturday in Tel Aviv, I assure you that Nir Katz and Liz Trubeshi were their heroes. Today, there are more opportunities for teenagers to find support, but our community has an obligation to provide a safe haven. They are our children, our grandchildren, our nephews and nieces, our friends. They are members of our congregations. It is the Jewish way, and it is the American way.
Rabbi David Horowitz, PFLAG national vice president, said it best: “The tragedy in Tel Aviv reminds all of us that our LGBT young people must be protected. I am deeply troubled by the carnage in Israel, a state that tries to protect the rights of their LGBT community. It was not enough, and teaches us that we need to stand up, to speak out. We need to join in the fight for equality in Los Angeles, across California and the United States, and yes, across the globe. It’s time to end the hate and the discrimination — we’ll do so much more quickly if we stand together, straight and gay, in a common voice for equality.”
Daniel Sladek is the executive producer of Lifetime Network’s “Prayers for Bobby,” airing Aug. 6 and 7, and available on iTunes. Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays Los Angeles meets on the third Wednesday of every month at 7:30 p.m. at Westwood United Methodist Church.