By Dov Pfeiffer, Staff Writer
During my time at MTA, I prayed at the Klein @9 Minyan. I heard about Rav Shulman’s comments against the uptown Shabbaton. I consumed the YU Commentator and Observer religiously through my years in Israel, and read many articles relating to the fight for greater LGBTQ representation on campus.
Since the legal battle related to a student-run LGBTQ club on campus – the YU Pride Alliance (YUPA) – has burst into the public consciousness with the recent Supreme Court appearance, many writers from our community have seen fit to address the philosophical side of the issue – the potential place a club such as this could have at YU. In the responses arguing against any place for YUPA, as well as in many conversations I have had with students in YU, I felt that the critiques and commentary were constructing an image based solely on the words “Pride Alliance”, constructions that were completely different from the goals expressed by past YUPA organizers. Similarly, I have encountered many assumptions, both explicit and implicit, about the LGBTQ community in YU and the circumstances leading to YUPA’s filing a lawsuit, assumptions that I felt presented an inaccurately simplistic picture. I hope that by constructing a narrative based on the expressions of YUPA and its organizers on several issues, those opposed will reevaluate how much their views actually reflect the reality of what YUPA is, has done, and stands for.
The YU Pride Alliance describes its mission as “a group of undergraduate YU students hoping to provide a supportive space on campus for all students, of all sexual orientations and gender identities, to feel respected, visible, and represented.” There is no judgment about Halakhah expressed in this statement. This separation between YUPA’s goal (to have a space for LGBTQ students at YU) and expressing any opinion about the Torah’s commandments is stressed by many past YU Pride Alliance organizers. Former YUPA co-president Bina Davidson explained, “[T]he LGBTQ+ community is not asking for halakhic approval… They simply want a club, a safe space, where they can express themselves and have a support system.” Former YUPA board member Fruma Landa described that “A club is necessary to foster a community, offer support and resources to marginalized individuals and help reduce harmful shame around an identity… The claim that a club goes against Torah nuances is offensive to the many Queer students on campus who are committed to a Torah lifestyle.” Current YUPA co-president Avery Allen told the New York Times, “Our goals are not in any sort of misalignment with Torah values… We want a safe space for our students, and I don’t think any part of that is in conflict with Torah or with Halacha, Jewish law.”
As such, I was surprised by Rabbi Rodney Weiss’s article where he writes “Why demand that we violate our precious Torah and validate this group’s agenda in our community? If someone wants to go to YU, they should be welcomed, but the Ribbono Shel Olam has already spoken about the acceptance of this lifestyle in the Torah, and we cannot change what has already been divinely mandated.” Ignoring the insulting language about “lifestyle,” I found myself wondering, “what violation; what change”? When I was reading Rabbi Efrem Goldberg’s article, in which he claims that the YU Pride Alliance “…at its core enables the celebration or pride in an activity and a recognition of relationships that the Torah unequivocally prohibits,” I found myself wondering how recognizing and supporting LGBTQ students’ identities “celebrates activities” or “recognizes relationships” the Torah forbids. Similarly, on what basis is the club’s core identified as such, defined in opposition to the stated intent of many past organizers? As expressed in a past YU Commentator letter to the editor, “LGBTQ activism is about acceptance and equality of a persecuted individual so that they don’t have to live thinking that they are alone, secretly in suffering. But it seems to those critical of the YU Pride Alliance that LGBTQ identity is just about a single action.”
Another common aspect of these responses is to implicitly reduce being LGBTQ from a formative aspect of one’s identity to a mere desire, a view criticized in Doniel Weinreichs’s “Walking the Walk of Empathy.” Weinreich writes, “[A]s Justin Spiro put it on Sunday [at the “We, Too, Are YU” protest], that ‘Being LGBTQ is not primarily about a taivah — it’s not about wanting sex. It’s an experiential process of growing up feeling different, other than, less than, questioning everything about yourself’… as gay people struggle to explain the torturous process of coming to terms with who they are, they almost always point to the same dominant issues. The silence. The loneliness. The shame. The fear. The feeling of being fundamentally broken and having nowhere to turn. All reinforced by the passive marginalization, as their existence and presence as part of the community goes unacknowledged. This is why they need a space. This is why they need a forum.”
Often, I get the sense that there is an assumption that the students who support the Pride Alliance, as well as LGBTQ students in YU in general, are some sort of foreign element, othered from the ‘normal’ students who actually ‘belong’ in YU’s sphere. Instead of these suppositions, shouldn’t the effort be put in to understand who they are and their experiences? In Bina Davidson’s 2020 profile of YUPA, she writes, “The Pride Alliance board members and those who attend their events come from all different backgrounds. They represent the entire religious spectrum and levels of frumkeit, are in-towners and out-of-towners, are freshmen all the way up to seniors. There are people who are out to everyone about their identity, and people who are closeted to almost everyone.” Far from the simplistic tale often spun to present YU’s LGBTQ students as a single entity, a sense of the diversity, complexity, and normality of YU’s LGBTQ student’s can be seen in the profiles of their religious lives written by Sruli Fruchter and Hadassah Penn.
Other articles, as well as several students I’ve spoken to about the case, have, explicitly or implicitly, treated YUPA’s decision to take YU to court as a sign of some sort of extremism. Generally, there is an assumption that in the meetings leading up to the original court filing YU was engaging in genuine dialogue, negotiating in hopes of finding a workable compromise. I feel the publicly available descriptions and reports of those meetings question that. In an article about student LBGTQ advocacy efforts, past student leaders describe feeling stonewalled by the administration. In the affidavits for the case, the plaintiffs describe missed emails, unprecedented interference, and general administrative misdirection. To give one specific example, former Yeshiva College Student Association president and current plaintiff Amitai Miller describes being led on what was essentially a scavenger hunt to create “student dialogue”, only to be told that his arrangement was unsatisfactory. He says, “I was repeatedly told by YU administrators that there needed to be student ‘dialogue’ about the request… We successfully recruited 14 students of diverse backgrounds… However, President Berman informed us that our plan failed to meet his vision for a dialogue event, and declined to agree to send a representative from his office to the event.”
In a video (on YUPA’s Facebook page) relaying the background of the Sept. 2019 “We, Too, Are YU” march, YUPA founder and current plaintiff Molly Meisels describes the administration as preferring to deal with LGBTQ advocates by simply stalling until they graduate. Doniel Weinreich in his “The Sixth Option” sums it up simply “Eventually, dejected students have been forced to conclude that the administration is not acting in good faith, and that the only way change will come about is through compulsion. The advocates have always been amenable to p’shara [compromise]; it is the administration who has forced us to turn to din [justice].” I can’t say whether or not the Pride Alliance made the “right” decision – I avoid judging decisions of such magnitude and complexity – but I do feel that before weighing in to judge YUPA’s “escalation,” one should make a genuine attempt to understand what motivated them to take YU to court.
To summarize, the approach of opposition to the club likes to offer a strange new “love”. Unlike typical love, which we would imagine motivates one to understand their beloved and find a way to address their concerns, the love and empathy often expressed toward LGBTQ students in YU, and those involved with YUPA in particular, seem to exhibit none of these traits. It is generally expressed toward a conception of what YU’s LGBTQ community wants that feels entirely invented, is seemingly invoked only to set up some sort of denial, and appears unable or unwilling to look into the background that could lead to understanding YUPA’s statements and actions. While I stop just short of demanding support for a student-led club, I strongly feel that when discussing this issue, those who claim to love LGBTQ students in YU while opposing a student-led club could express the emotion, the pain that should result from such conflict, and could show an attempt to truly understand YUPA’s position. Without that, I can only interpret these expressions of love as products of cold and shallow hearts.
(Help for this article was provided by a member of the YU Pride Alliance.)