"Am I a Bais Yaakov Lesbian?"
Chani was 20 years old when she presented for therapy. The official referral was “anxiety about dating,” but when she began to share, it was more complex and specific than that:
“I’ve never told anyone this before, but I have one friend who knows, because it involves her too. I am anxious about starting to date- that’s true. But it’s not just regular nervous. I know this might sound strange, but I think I might be gay.”
It doesn’t sound strange to me at all; I imagine most therapists hear this disclosure from time to time. The reason she believes it’s strange is probably because she’s a Bais Yaakov graduate and has likely been somewhat “sheltered” from information about sexuality and sexual orientation. She is part of a community where conversations about this subject are mostly taboo or hushed. So, like many of her peers, she has likely drawn her own conclusions, based on her limited exposure and experiences. She continues:
“I don’t know for sure. But I’ve never had anything to do with guys, other than my own brothers. I always just thought that was normal, and that once I got married, I would understand what intimacy was all about. I did sometimes think my brothers’ friends were cute and got a little nervous or shy when they came over. But I was a rule follower, so I tried not to look at them or talk to them. I was always more interested in my own friends, anyway.
“Then, when I was in seminary, I started to have feelings for one of my roommates. We became very close friends, but then slowly it got physical. First just regular stuff, like doing each other’s hair, or laying on each other laps. Then it became… more. A lot more. We knew it was inappropriate, but it felt good, and no one was getting hurt. It wasn’t just physical- it was an emotional connection too- that’s actually what came first.
“At a certain point, we both realized that the relationship was probably not so healthy- too intense. We were too ‘into’ each other, physically and psychologically, and it was taking away from our other friendships and schoolwork focus. Once I had this friendship and started analyzing it, it made me realize that I was always someone who got a little too obsessed with certain friends- usually one at a time, but sometimes more. Like I would overthink about them- overanalyze things we’d said to each other, or how I thought they felt about me. I always enjoyed hugging, cuddling with friends in a way that seemed normal, but maybe it was too much? I don’t know anymore. I think the reason this was the first time it got more physical to the point of inappropriate, was because we were actually living together in the dorm. But my high school friendships probably could have gone that way too, if we’d had the opportunity. My roommate and I had a long talk and decided to end our ‘thing.’ After Pesach, she switched rooms, and we were able to fade our friendship to a more casual one – just hanging out with other mutual friends- not as deep, intense, or physical as it had been. It was hard at first, but I’m glad we were able to make that change. But I still can’t deny that it happened, and what I feel like it says about me.
“So now that I realize I like girls, I don’t know what to do. My parents and friends expect me to start dating. And it’s not just them- I really do want to have a husband, a family, a traditional, religious lifestyle. And sometimes it feels like it’s possible for me; I do find men attractive sometimes too. But I feel like it’s dishonest to date guys, knowing what I know about myself and what I’ve done. I just don’t know what to do.”
There are many, many Chanis in our midst- of both sexes. Our communties’ cultural discomfort in addressing the topic of sexual development and feelings makes it difficult to know exactly how many, but therapists see them regularly. Some of these young women have started experimenting sexually in high school or even earlier. Some of them have never tried anything physical, but have thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and urges that confuse them. Some have searched online and found erotic material that affected them and shaped much of their sexual self-concept.
Some of these individuals suppress their feelings, others explore them. Of those who explore them, some discover that they can be attracted to both sexes, and some can’t. Of those, some leave Orthodoxy, some remain observant, often moving to more progressive communities, while some lead hidden, double lives with multiple partners.
The combination of politics, religious values, contemporary culture, sensitivity, and strong emotionality connected to this subject make it very, very difficult to address in a way that’s balanced, intellectually honest, respectful, and helpful. Extremist messaging on both sides of the issue create pain and trauma for those who suffer with sexual confusion. Yet due to the prevalent and vital nature of the subject, I believe it’s important to try and talk about it with nuance and empathy.
For young women like Chani, who feel attracted to women, but want to marry men for religious, emotional, and/or communal reasons, it can be complicated and difficult. And while each situation has its own variables, there are several general, legitimate possibilities to consider.
1. There is the possibility that Chani is only attracted to women, and not men at all.
2. There is the possibility that Chani is potentially attracted to both women and men equally, but has had more access to and familiarity with women, and so that is the only relationship that has developed spontaneously so far.
3. There’s the possibility that Chani might eventually feel even more attracted to men than to women, once she moves past her shyness around them, and begins looking at them and thinking about them as a possibility for sexual connection.
While heteronormative relationships and orientations have been the baseline assumption for both religious and sociological reasons, for most cultures, the reality is that same sex attraction and relationships have been around for a very, very long time; even referenced in Biblical sources.
Statistics vary (and are often biased) but it would seem that a significant percentage of the population, including many who identify as being attracted to the opposite sex, can and do experience feelings of attraction to and experimentation with the same sex as well.
If attraction exists along a continuum where the poles are same sex and opposite sex attraction, many, possibly even most, fall somewhere along the bell curve, and can be somewhat attracted to both, in varying degrees. Likewise, rather than viewing the distinction between friendships and emotional relationships as a binary between romantic and platonic, there do seem to be gradations and fluidity there too.
For example: think of someone who might say: “I find him attractive, but not passionately so.” Or: “I used to have feelings for her, but now I see her as just a friend.” This is not unusual at all. Attraction- sexual, romantic, and emotional, can fluctuate and shift, wax and wane; they’re not always fixed- between individual partners or types; and sometimes, including sexes.
Now: a woman who’s attracted to men isn’t likely to be attracted to all men, and a woman who’s attracted to women isn’t generally attracted to all women. Likewise, just because a given person is attracted to, or even had relationships with members of one sex, does not necessarily mean they can and will only be able to enjoy future ones with that sex.
Sometimes we know our “types”- personalities, traits, and features that we consistently find appealing. And sometimes, an attraction or relationship can defy what we had always assumed to be our “type.” What turns us on is sometimes traceable back to early life experiences in obvious ways, but often it isn’t. We’ll probably never be able to tease out the differences in nature vs nurture factors in most areas of personal development because they’re so complex and intertwined.
As one of the “Chanis” I’ve worked with commented, for example:
“I realize looking back that the girls I had feelings for were always a little masculine-feeling to me. The types of friendships we had were flirty and unbalanced, the way I now imagine it might feel to have a boyfriend. I had literally never exchanged more than a sentence or so with any males outside of my family growing up. It was considered foreign to even imagine doing so. But once I started opening my mind and body up to the idea of what it could feel like to form a deep connection to a guy, I realized that those feelings and desires I had could pretty easily transfer to guys who had the same kind of energy and personalities as the girls I liked. It was like learning a new language.”
Sexuality is actually kind of like learning a new language for many young people who grow up in communities where romantic or even coed socializing is delayed until adulthood. The problem is that for many in those communities, it’s not actually a new language- it’s one that developed organically but without education, safety, or guidance. This is why people like Chani feel confused and alone in their experiences.
There are certainly men and women who have always, only ever been attracted to members of the same sex, and have always been not only disinterested in, but repulsed by the opposite sex. Some of these individuals have been subjected to various forms of “reparative therapy”- family or communal attempts to “convert” them, which was sometimes practiced in ways that were subsequently deemed cruel, unethical, and in some cases, illegal.
As part of the backlash to these practices, many therapists and educators feel inclined to err on the side of pressuring anyone who expresses any non-hetero/cis- sounding feelings or experiences, to immediately and fully espouse and identify with LGBTQIA labels, even if they’re just questioning, and even if that’s not what they necessarily want to do.
We are also seeing more and more young people questioning their sexual orientation, often obsessionally, in ways that don’t even necessarily align with their actual experiences or feelings. For example, some women who, unlike Chani, acknowledge being in loving, romantically, and sexually satisfying relationships with men, and have never had significant feelings for or sexual relationships with women, nonetheless feel plagued by intrusive thoughts such as: “but what if deep down, I’m really gay and just never realized?” This phenomenon has earned its own title as a subcategoried anxiety disorder: sexual orientation OCD, and it’s on the rise. Those who have this will often then scan their environment and thoughts for evidence of this fear coming true, reinforcing the intrusive thoughts.
There is not one clear approach for women like Chani and the young men with similar stories. We begin in therapy with creating nonjudgmental, empathetic, confidential space and safety for them to talk about their experiences, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. We reflect, question, assess, educate, and ask them what their goals are. In Chani’s case, and in fact many young people like her, just learning that people can have bisexual feelings of attraction, that this is common, not deviant, and doesn’t necessarily have to prevent them from leading the kind of religious lifestyle they may want, is incredibly liberating.
When young men and women express ego dystonic feelings about same sex attraction or experimentation, the responses are often extreme. On one extreme is the resistance and shaming: “It’s an abomination! It’s deviant! Shut it down immediately and never tell anyone!” This is cruel and unhelpful to the person who is trying to figure out what’s happening and decide how to proceed.
On the other extreme is the pressure to come out and make if official, public, and permanent: “Wow- good for you! It takes so much courage to embrace and announce your identity as LGBTQIA- and now you can lead your truest life and pursue real love. You’ll also inspire others to do the same!” This is also unhelpful, in that the person is still trying to figure things out internally, and it disregards the deeply personal and individual factors. Both of these extremes impose the listener’s agenda onto the speaker and assume a concrete position on the individual’s sexual orientation and surrounding values.
A more supportive response if someone discloses questioning feelings about sexual identity or orientation is to offer safety and respond something like: “Thank you for trusting me enough to share that. Would you like to talk about it? Would you like help finding a professional to discuss it with you? Or did you just want to share it and leave it be for now?”
If you relate to Chani’s story or parts of it, (and the experience is equally applicable to men) please know that you’re not broken or tainted, and you’re very much not the only one. Thoughts, feelings, and concerns about one’s sexual orientation or identity can often fluctuate and evolve. People and relationships are complex, and rarely fit into one limited label or box. Having feelings for or sexual experience with the same sex, does not automatically mean a person is gay. However, if you do believe you might be LGBTQIA and would like information and support, or if you’re struggling or confused, you can start by calling an anonymous and/ or confidential resource for help. Seek out someone who will not shame, rebuke, or pressure you to do anything that violates any part of your personal integrity- including your medical and mental health or your personal beliefs and religious values. Organizations like amudim.org and reliefhelp.org can direct you to an appropriate professional to help you figure things out.
To learn how to better educate the next generation to understand their developing sexuality, take a look at this: elishevaliss.com/sacrednotsecret