Old Column, Same Message

This is what happens when talk in the office turns to the nuts-and-bolts of synagogue bulletins: pulling up some examples of formats from my tenure in El Paso, I came across an old Rabbi’s Column (October 2010) that remains all too relevant, six years later. In it, I cite statistics about suicide rates among gay teens; for transgender teens, the suicide attempt rate is even more tragic. Much of the research reports that transgender youth are ten times more likely than their cisgender peers to attempt suicide. Like gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth, trans kids who have been bombarded with messages of exclusion and worthlessness are most at risk. I’m reposting this in memory of North Carolina teens Ash Haffner and Blake Brockington, and with the fervent prayer that one particularly odious message of exclusion — H.B. 2 — will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history.

I am writing this column in the last days of the fall festival season. The prescribed emotion is joy. Vesamachta bechagecha, vehayita ach sameach, “You shall rejoice in your festival; be entirely joyful!” I’m doing my best, but it’s hard when the picture that stares at me from every screen is that of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, zichrono livracha

Clementi, of course, is the young man who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate surreptitiously recorded him kissing another man and posted the recordings to his Twitter feed. This story makes me sad, outraged, and ashamed.

I’m sad for a life cut short, and for all the other people whose lives will be affected by what happened. I’m outraged at the criminal act of Clementi’s roommate and his friend, who seem to have at a minimum invaded his privacy,and at worst, committed a hate crime. And I’m ashamed for the responsibility I bear for Tyler’s death. “In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.”

Gay teens are four times more likely than their straight peers to commit suicide. Adolescence, tough enough to navigate under any circumstances, is particularly brutal for young men and women coming to terms with their sexuality in a society that bombards them with messages proclaiming that they don’t belong. The United States Senate’s failure to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the kids in the lunchroom telling hurtful jokes seem to be different enough, but to a gay kid, both phenomena share one message: “You are worthless.”

I want our Temple to be a safe place for everyone. I want it to be a place where all people, and certainly all children, know that they possess infinite worth. That is, after all, what it means to be created b’tzelem elohim, in the Image of God.

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