The Sad State of LGBTQ Inclusion at YU Needs to Change

By: Masha Shollar  |  April 9, 2017

WBC counter protest

“Many students feel alone and scared.” “It’s really tiring to be repeatedly shut down and pushed onto the back burner.”

That’s what two student activists had to say about the state of LGBTQ inclusion at YU. This has never been an issue that the university has been keen to confront, but a recent visit from the Westboro Baptist Church pushed the neglect of this community into the limelight. The Church announced that they were protesting YU because Modern Orthodoxy invented the modern homosexual.

Never mind the distinct irony of protesting the pro-LGBTQ politics of a school that doesn’t even have a gay-straight alliance and often engages in intricate gymnastics to pretend that the LGBTQ community at YU is nonexistent. LGBTQ community members and allies seemed to agree that they’d set this aside and wait to see how the university responded to the targeting of their students by an actual hate group.

But instead of issuing a statement saying they supported and would defend their LGBTQ students against hateful speech and discrimination, instead of announcing a fundraiser for Keshet or Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), YU announced that it would raise funds for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. This is an organization that does great work, and donations to charity are always a good idea. But it so intentionally missed the mark of what the administration needed to do. If the KKK were coming to a college to protest students of color, would it make any sense for the school to donate to UNICEF instead of the ACLU or NAACP?

Our school seems determined to avoid having a discussion about the sad state of LGBTQ awareness and inclusion on both campuses, even when a hate group—whose website is called—brings it to everyone’s attention. Most telling perhaps, were the emails from administrators; the first, from Rabbi Kenneth Brander and Dr. Josh Josephs, said that the school rejected “the group’s vile message of intolerance and hatred” and that YU was committed to “the nobility of all people,” but conspicuously failed to mention the LGBTQ community at all. The second email, which Josephs sent several days later, announcing the fundraiser, mentioned that the school does not discriminate based on sexual orientation, but again failed to make a statement of solidarity with its LGBTQ student population.

I don’t know if YU could have been faced with an easier choice or a better opportunity; given the chance to stand with their own students, part of their community, against an actual hate group, they instead chose vague diplomacy couched in pat sentiments.

I do not wish to downplay the conflict with halakha some may be feeling in regards to this. Everyone worships differently and what we choose to practice is a private decision unless we choose to make it public.

That being said, acknowledging the existence of the LGBTQ students among us is not a violation of halakha. Defending them against hate speech, exclusion and discrimination is not a violation of halakha. In fact, if you wish to frame this in such terms, it would actually seem that we have a moral imperative to ally with these students—after all, the commandment of ahavat yisrael exists and many begin their day with a tefillah in which they accept upon themselves the commandment to love another as they love themselves.

We are all deserving of respect, despite the popular refrain that it has to be earned. In fact, respect and basic politeness should be afforded to all people, regardless of any outside factors or circumstances. Nobody should have to earn decent treatment: it should be given by virtue of the fact that we treat others with kindness. Disrespect, neglect and discrimination are not Torah values, and espousing them does not make one more holy.

Instead of representing the ideals our university espouses daily, namely the “Torah” half of “Torah uMadda,” administration leaves the activism up to their students. Don’t get me wrong; as people who know me will already be aware of, I am a fan of student activism, of using whatever outlets you can to advocate for the causes you care about. LGBTQ inclusion is no different, and students at this school have been pushing for this for many years.

Dasha Sominski founded Merchav Batuach, a club that educated dozens of students in LGBTQ sensitivity, while she was a Stern student. Sominski said that she “felt that a lot of my peers wanted to do better and be more sensitive toward LGBTQ issues but didn’t know how,” so she began the training sessions. She did it alone; Merchav Batuach was not recognized by YU and administration actively discriminated against Sominski, even temporarily rescinding her scholarship.

Sominski has since graduated, but activism for LGBTQ student continues. Rivkie Reiter, a current junior, has made LGBTQ inclusion part of her mission at YU and said that she is working on making the existence of “student run support groups” more known, since many students “had no idea that there was anything happening on campus” regarding this community and its allies.

These two student activists, and others, are doing exactly what college students have been doing for years—pushing and clamoring for what really matters.

But when it comes to making actual policy change, students need the administration to partner with us. We cannot continue to carry the burden of equality alone with no support. Students at this school are investing so much and seeing so little change in return. No matter how many editorials are written, how many counter-protests organized or how many students stand up for equality—there is little change to be seen in this school’s approach. We can raise our voices and point out inequality and unfairness, but if the policy never changes, what has been accomplished? At the end of the day, it is in the hands of the administration to do something practical, something real, instead of pointing to their student activists—who often have to deal with disapproval and needless bureaucracy from administration—as proof of the school’s accepting nature and continuing to do nothing. 

It is the job of this school’s administration to make YU a safe and welcoming place for their students—all of their students. This should never be contingent on adherence to what YU considers to be the norm or the ideal. Stop marginalizing people at worst or paying mindless lip service to equality without real change at best. The systematic exclusion of and discrimination against LGBTQ students at YU must end.