I started writing a version of this essay two years ago, during my final semester in Yeshiva College. My final semester, but I wasn’t graduating; I had spent the better half of the year filling out college transfer applications and now, as winter turned to spring, acceptance notices began appearing in my email inbox.
That I was leaving Yeshiva College was not a secret. From the first day of the academic year, I told everyone who would listen—friends, professors, my bedroom wall—that I was leaving. When asked, I said my departure was motivated by the College’s limited curriculum, which was true: For my senior thesis at Yale, I am writing about two black gay men—Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill—and their artistic responses to the AIDS epidemic, a research project which, despite the presence of brilliant faculty, I could never have pursued at Yeshiva University.
But the truth remains that I also used my academic reason as a cover for my more personal one: I am gay, and I left because I no longer felt safe at Yeshiva University. While at YU, I wasn’t out and was terrified of what such a public identity could mean.
Each morning, when I awoke, I forced myself to gather the strength required to learn, for yet another day, alongside rabbis that had publicly called gay people an abomination, blamed them for natural disasters, and advocated for conversion therapy—a pseudoscience so dangerous it has been outlawed in many states. I lived in constant fear of being discovered, and in my second semester, my mental health took a turn for the worse; I entered the darkest months of my life, and leaving YU literally became a life-and-death situation.
Driven by fear, I never publicly shared that hidden reason, but I always wanted to; it remained perched, but stuck firmly, on the tip of my tongue. I wanted people to know how alone I felt in my alienation and sadness. I wanted people to know that I wasn’t just leaving—I was fleeing. So when I received my first acceptance letter, I decided I would do just that: write one last piece for The Commentator—I was an opinions editor at the time—about the hidden motivations of my departure.
In my notes, I sketched out a manifesto denouncing the homophobia I saw on campus and in the Orthodox world. I wrote out of anger and rage—the word “polemic” actually appeared in the title of an early version—as well as immense emotional pain. I hoped that if I hurled my words with strength, if I condemned loudly enough, then change would come.
In a decision that I now regret, I informed my roommate, someone with whom I had shared a room for the year, about what I was writing, a decision that required me to come out to him. He was the first person outside of my immediate friend circle and family to know, and the first person, despite the months in which I thought we had grown close, whose response I couldn’t predict.
I knew, from years of hiding my sexuality, that in the minds of those who don’t know better, gayness spreads like a contagion, and I was worried that my roommate could face potential consequences as a result of my disclosure. At the same time, I thought that the two of us were good enough friends that, given the option, he would stand by me and wave away my option to let him leave as ludicrous.
I was wrong.
My roommate moved out on the second day back from Spring break, less than three weeks before the academic year’s end. I remember the day vividly: I woke up early, dressed in a suit and tie, and caught a downtown subway for a college admissions interview. As I arrived in Midtown, entered the Park Avenue office, and rode the elevator up to a corporate office with plush carpeting and dark wooden walls, images of my roommate packing his books and stuffing his suitcases swirled in my head.
I tried to restrain my emotions, but at some point during the interview, I lost composure: When asked what I wanted out of my transfer experience, I broke from the script I had prepared; I began crying, and, avoiding eye contact with my interviewer, attempted to calmly explain that my roommate, a person whom I had lived with for almost a year, a person whom I had helped pick out date locations to which he could bring his girlfriend, a person with whom I had gossiped and fought and teased—in short, a person I had come to trust—was, as we spoke, moving out of our shared room because I was gay.
In that Park Avenue office, crying to a stranger, the significance of the moment was not lost on me: here I was, trying to escape from one world, and begging, with tears, to gain entrance into one I prayed would be better.
Later that day, when I returned to campus, my roommate was gone. After he left, I lost all motivation to continue working; it was as if someone had knocked the wind out of me and I couldn’t catch my breath. I no longer cared about my schoolwork, least of all the piece I wanted to write for The Commentator. I made it through the end of the semester solely because I had a set of guardian angels—Dr. Jacobson, Dr. Mesch, Dr. Geyh, Dr. Newton, and Professor Lane, as well as my university-assigned therapist, Josh Altman—cheering me on.
In the year and a half since I have left, I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the effect my last few weeks at YU has had on my life. But mostly I have questions for the members of that community, questions which I know will never be answered, or at least not in a way that can bring me comfort. There are many, but they all boil down, at some point or another, to this: How could you treat me so horribly?
Last month, I, like many at Yeshiva University, was devastated to hear that an auditorium of students cheered as Ben Shapiro publicly humiliated transgender people and boasted about mis-gendering a trans journalist. The week after, I also saw what I expected, which was for the debate about Ben Shapiro and his attack on trans people to be manipulated into a debate about “ideology,” “political correctness,” and free speech.
What was missing, of course, from those discussions was the human element: the flesh and blood and souls of the human beings whose identities were being mercilessly attacked. Questions of trans identity suddenly seemed up for debate like a sugya in a Beit Midrash, a sanitized approach which stripped trans people of the respect and dignity they deserve.
As someone whose close friend group includes trans individuals, I was horrified at the way my friends’ lives became, for the Orthodox Jewish world, both a spectacle for mockery and prop for conservative pontification. Eliminated from most conversations—save for the important faculty letters, as well as some pieces in The Commentator and The Observer—was what I know to be true: that trans individuals are some of the smartest, most compassionate, and bravest people living on this earth.
Living. I say living because there is a 41 percent chance that a trans person will attempt suicide in their lifetime. I say living because since the presidential election, suicide attempts by trans youth have skyrocketed. I say living because trans people, especially transgender women of color, face extreme violence and marginalization in their everyday lives. And I say living because living—and living beautiful lives—is exactly what trans people do despite the transphobia—like a room full of Orthodox college students applauding Ben Shapiro—they must navigate daily.
Within several weeks of Ben Shapiro’s talk at YU, I decided to pay my own visit to the uptown campus to see several professors who had mentored me while I was in the College. It was my first time entering a YU building since I had left, and I must admit that part of my desire to return was to see what my emotional response to a place so full of dark memories would be.
I can report back that I left YU unscathed. That is, I left without any serious emotional response to the scenes of daily Yeshiva College life that used to give me nightmares at night. If this sounds like a happy proclamation, it isn’t. Rather, it’s a testament to just how much I’ve changed, to just how far I needed to run before I felt I could remain alive.
As I left campus—conversations about Ben Shapiro, as well as ambivalence about my lack of emotional response to my visit, colliding in my head—I knew that I needed to return to the essay I had begun two years prior. But this time, I wouldn’t write to flame the fires or to tackle the heady issues of Halacha because I now realized that neither of those are what this conversation is really about.
What this conversation is about is the real problem within Orthodox culture of intolerance, judgment, and disrespect for people that are different than the picturesque Orthodox Jew. What this conversation is about is the seeming inability for many within the Orthodox world to treat other human beings with the respect and dignity they deserve; one may even call it honoring the dictum that all human beings are made B’Tzelem Elokim.
I decided to return to this essay because as someone who once suffered at the hands of a homophobic culture—and had the privilege to leave—I can’t stand by and watch as the same culture turns its hateful eye towards trans folks. I decided to return to this essay because as a young boy in an Orthodox day school, I was taught that Orthodox Jews are supposed to be a moral light in the world, and I want to believe–despite so much evidence to the contrary–that sentiment can still be true.
But mostly, I’m writing because there are real lives at stake, lives which the average reader of The Commentator or The Observer may not know, but lives that matter and should be treated with the respect they deserve. Lives which are not full of mental illness—as pseudoscience propagator Ben Shapiro wants you to think—but lives full of vitality, tenacity, and beauty. Human lives. And lives which, statistically, will continue to suffer loss if our world does not learn to treat each other with the respect that human life demands.
I’m writing because there are real lives at stake. And that’s something I want every person who cheered on Ben Shapiro to know.
Joshua Tranen is an undergraduate at Yale University.