By Kevin D
I was about 11 or 12, it seems quite a long time ago now, but I remember the sense of relief when I at last could put a name to something that felt right.
You might think it’s the moment I realised I liked boys. But you’d be wrong. I’d already had that lightbulb moment a few years before at primary school.
His name was Simon. Closely followed by Daniel, Neil, Dale, Ben. You get the picture! Then came along another name I fell immediately and inexplicably attracted to… Judaism.
Rewind a bit, I grew up in South Lincolnshire – about the most rural location you could imagine, BEFORE the internet. Not only was as disconnected from gay culture as humanly possible, but I was also incredibly far away from any Jewish community.
I was generally a good boy, but not a good Jewish boy.
My family didn’t do religion but Sunday school was used as a threat of punishment if I misbehaved – which generally only happened if I was told I was being sent to Sunday school.
I must have been a good boy because in my last year at primary I was given the role of Joseph in the school play. It only ever went to one boy in year six and everyone wanted the role; but it wasn’t the fabulous technicolour dreamcoat Joseph – nope, this was instead the nativity.
Now as a good boy, no one would think anything was out of the ordinary if I spent my teenage years at the library on a Saturday afternoon instead of playing football. There was a very narrow selection of books on homosexuality and Judaism, but I had to be discrete and I certainly couldn’t check them out of the library to read at home.
If I got caught with them: two huge secrets would be out the bag… just one of them would have been devastating.
Faith vs. sexuality: The early days
Back in the early 90s when I was growing up there was a law that stopped homosexuality being promoted or even discussed in schools, among other places, the same sort of laws other countries still have. Add onto the fact that my family weren’t Jewish, and it was a bombshell in the making.
Of course, this all meant that I didn’t have anyone to turn to at the time. Hopefully that tells you a bit about my background. Yep, at age 10 I was Jesus’ dad.
All in all, my library time was about trying to understand the two things: my spirituality and my sexuality.
I didn’t really know much about myself at the time – well, not really. But I realise some keys things at the start of my journey. For one: I already knew that in the 99% white-British town I grew up in, if you were born a Christian you’d have a baptism.
So, here I was, this shy sounding kid who kept calling directory enquiries asking for a “mole”. I wonder if they kept count of weird things people asked for.
Of course I was actually saying was mohel [person who performs a circumcision] but they didn’t know what one of those was so naturally heard the closest word.
I thought: surely if I got circumcised then I’d be Jewish and that phoning yellow pages was the only way I could try to get any help.
I did used to get a gay lifestyle magazine, which I’d have to rush to the doormat each month around the time it was due to be delivered, because it came in grey heavy duty wrapping like something to be ashamed of. And yes, I did get the message I was meant to be ashamed…
During one particular month, I was kneeling down by my bed (because if my dad came in I could quickly shove it under the bed in a practiced, rapid reflex action) and there was a story about a guy. He was only about a year older than me. He lived in London and was Jewish.
Bam! That was a eureka moment, I realised that you could be both gay and Jewish.
But, he was having a terrible time and had been sent for conversion therapy. I knew exactly what that was – it was (and still is) my worst nightmare…
Now, what I didn’t know was that he was part of an Orthodox family. I am pretty sure I didn’t even know what Orthodox was or that there were even different denominations in Judaism.
Perhaps I’d read it but it had never really sunk in…
Would books written in the 1970s and 80s in a rural Lincolnshire library discuss homosexuality in a book about Judaism?
This all happened when I was 17. To this day, I remember my age at the time as clearly as I remember that article to this very day. I could pick the double page spread out of a police line-up now just by its layout.
I’m not sure if I read it 100s of times though or just once or twice, whatever it was though: it was enough.
I was going to have to choose between religion and sexuality.
I chose the latter and started to come out as gay. I was the first person in my school ever to come out. And certainly the first person to come out at school – which obviously caused a few fireworks in the white, straight, Christo-normative place it was.
All of a sudden, I wasn’t being a good boy after all…
Choosing conversion: Claiming my identity
Cut away twenty years and one foreskin later – a life of career, retail therapy, sister in therapy for years with a string of diagnosed mental illness conditions before her eventual suicide – and there two were my own buried emotions and refusal to deal with any of that – almost entirely down to two words.
Two single words.
The phrase “conversion therapy” still haunts me to this day.
Not only did it bring me out in a panic of anxiety merely at the thought of it – but it actually stopped me sorting out my own mental and physical well-being – because I didn’t realise that therapy could be lifesaving. And that conversion could be a positive thing.
Really I needed both. Just not in the way you’d think.
I still self-identified as Jewish, and that’s what I ticked on the 2011 census. Oops I probably mucked up those numbers rabbis go on about in sermons. I didn’t fully understand the difference between Jewish identity and status.
It was however on a much-put-off trip to Israel in 2017 that I decided that I wasn’t going to chose between my sexuality and religion anymore. And the bonus was the visit was part of a Mediterranean cruise, so if I didn’t like what I found out in Israel, there was always the sparklingly gay beaches and bars in Mykonos coming up next.
However, my moment of revelation wasn’t at a Tel Aviv beach (I didn’t even meet my Israeli ex-boyfriend on one – odd I know!) but on a tour to Masada.
I knew exactly what Shabbat was – I’m not giving up a Saturday I told myself. I’m not eating kosher – sausages, lobster and mussels bought me joy.
BUT, with personal experience of suicide, I can only imagine how committed those Jews were – and suddenly these sacrifices suddenly seemed so insignificantly small…
On the trip, our tour guide played the “good Jewish mother” and tried to play matchmaker between me and another solo traveller, a girl in the group. I just laughed it off, but that night I felt terrible.
I’d not lied. But nor had I put someone straight that I’d only liked guys for nearly two decades. Here I was lying. I told myself that night if I saw the tour guide again the next day I’d be honest and tell her the real reason why.
Ok, I didn’t just tell myself, I told God too and you know, I’d never done the praying thing before… But it was time to be true to myself one again, just like I’d done at school.
The next morning, I was allocated bus “1”, so I walked to the queue looking for the tour guide. My bus was of course, the one parked furthest along the quay in Haifa.
I didn’t see her though and we set off with me feeling thoroughly miserable. Then a voice I recognised chirped: “Hello Kevin”.
She was the first person I told, on the banks of the Jordan basin. At least it was at a kibbutz [collective community – usually agricultural].
And yes, it was like coming out all over again – except this time it wasn’t just about my sexuality but my religion too.
At that point I felt committed: I knew I now had to do this. Not that I had any idea if it was even possible. I’d never been to a synagogue service, I couldn’t read an aleph [first letter of the Hebrew alphabet] – how can I be honest with the gay thing?
Well, fast forward nine months, I was at my first Pride and in the Jewish LGBT section. It was the first time my sexuality and religion ever came together in a positive way. In a glorious way!
The evening before, Dalia took to the bimah [platform to read Torah from] in the Erev Pride Shabbat service [held on Friday evening] at West London Synagogue and spoke about the absolute reverse of my story.
She spoke of Jews for whom their Judaism came first because of their upbringing and where they grew up, and how they’d struggled in later years with their sexual identity.
Whilst it was the exact opposite in detail, the story was the same and that’s when I realised we were all on different journeys to the same destination…
Because no one should have to – and Barukh Hashem [thank God] I didn’t – choose between their religion and their sexuality.
If you identify as queer and Jewish, help and support can be found here:
About the author
Kevin is a member of two Reform synagogues in London and one non-denominational synagogue in Devon.
He has a particular interest in Jewish LGBT+ rights, mental health awareness and interfaith dialogue.
Outside of these areas, his full time work is in business.