The first time it dawned on Micah that he was attracted to boys, he was in the 5th grade. Twenty years later, he still recalls the feeling vividly. The boy in question was a classmate, and they were friends.
“I remember thinking ‘Oh, I really, really like this boy. And I think he really, really likes me,’ Micah told me over the phone one afternoon last fall. He was hiding out in his car outside the university where he’s in grad school—the only place he felt he could speak frankly about his situation. He certainly couldn’t have at his New Jersey home, where he lives with his wife and two kids. Nor, as a strictly Orthodox Jewish man, could he talk about it in the vicinity of anyone he knows at all.
Micah—who asked that I change his name to protect his identity—didn’t fully realize it at the time, but it’s clear to him now that he had a crush on his classmate. “I used to wake up early in the morning and shower, and I used a specific shampoo that smelled really good,” he said. “And I was thinking, like, ‘Oh, maybe he’ll like this smell.’”
Now in his late 20s, Micah is at a crossroads. His wife is eager for more children. Birth control is allowed, at least nominally, but large families are common in ultra-Orthodox culture, and Micah sees himself on the path to having at least six kids. “I really, really don’t want that to happen,” he said. “I can’t bring more kids into this situation.”
The situation, of course, is that Micah is gay—or at least he suspects he might be. Like nearly everyone else in his community, Micah was married young. His only sexual experience prior to his wife was an encounter with a boy—the same boy he had a crush on—at camp, when they were both very young. But age has done nothing to dampen his feelings toward men, and Micah is now faced with a decision: Have more kids, remain with his wife and stay the course, or upend everything he knows in pursuit of a life totally alien to him.
In secular society, coming out as gay or trans can be painful, but it can also be seamless, increasingly accepted as it is in American culture. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, instating a basic framework of protection across the states. All of this could, of course, be reversed in a Trump administration, but by and large, America is shuffling toward a future ever more hospitable of its LGBTQ citizens.
But in the deeply insular world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, few such advances are being made. Chani Getter, a program coordinator at Footsteps, a nonprofit that helps people transition away from the ultra-Orthodox community, said that “coming out” has a twinned meaning for the people she works with. Because of its strictly implemented gender roles, there is no room in the ultra-Orthodox world to be queer or trans. This means that coming out marks a person’s departure from the religion altogether, usually at the expense of family, friends, and one’s entire life as they previously knew it. “Coming out” as being non-religious is every bit as significant to a person’s life as coming out as gay or trans.
“Coming out as not religious is an excruciating journey,” Getter said. Coming out as queer in the secular world is complicated, but for someone leaving Orthodoxy, some people find that “once they’ve broken that boundary—as coming out as not religious—that boundary isn’t as complicated.”
Getter says the majority of people she works with can be broken into three groups, with most people falling into the first two: People who leave Orthodoxy and then come out as gay, and those who leave Orthodoxy while coming out simultaneously. The third group is people who come out and attempt to remain in the community, but are essentially forced out.
“Inevitably they find themselves without a community, or ostracized in one way or another,” she said, adding that in most cases, people tended to swap their Orthodox communities for more modern ones. I asked if it was impossible to be both gay and a thriving member of the strictly Orthodox world.
“Nothing is impossible,” she said. “It’s highly improbable.”
In 2015, the profound difficulties faced by many who leave the ultra-Orthodox world received increased media attention with the suicide of Faigy Mayer, a 29-year-old tech entrepreneur who left the Belz Hasidic community only to jump to her death off the 20th floor of a flatiron building five years later.
Author Shulem Deen, who published a memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, about leaving the ultra-Orthodox community, wrote in Haaretz, "There can no longer be any doubt: Members of our ex-Haredi community are at an elevated risk for suicide." Deen’s five children no longer speak to him.
Abby Stein (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
No one’s more aware of the difficulties that come with leaving the community than Abby Stein. At 25, Stein is now living a life virtually unrecognizable from the one she led just a few years ago.
Stein, who was born male, was raised in one of Williamsburg’s most prominent Hasidic families. She said she never experienced any sort of identity epiphany—no precise moment where she suddenly understood she was a girl trapped in a boy’s body. She remembers a lingering feeling of bewilderment as a child. "Why does everyone think I’m a boy?” she recalls wondering. But growing up in her extremely insular society, she had no idea there existed a concept like “trans.” She eventually concluded that her identity struggles must simply have been borne from something else.
“I thought that it can’t be gender, because I’d have to be stupid or crazy,” she said she reasoned at the time. She thought about leaving religion. But through an Israeli rabbi, she began studying Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, where she learned about the idea of gender flexibility.
Stein continued to explore the idea of gender dysphoria through a religious lens, though she was forced to suspend her research when her then-wife became pregnant. The question of the child’s sex inevitably came up, which Stein knew would dictate everything in his life from the day he was born, from clothes to room decorations. Stein had never mentioned her struggles with gender to anyone, and worried for her future son: “What if it’s genetic?” she wondered. “What if he feels the same way that I feel? I didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Despite the urging of her rabbis to stay away from the Internet, Stein eventually found her way there anyway. “The first thing that I ever googled was about being transgender,” she said. It was from her forays online that she learned about Footsteps, and from there, she said, she began the process of leaving.
Always an excellent student, Stein got her high school diploma and in 2014, enrolled in her dream school, Columbia University. She assumed that leaving the community would solve her problems, but the process was grueling. “Even while I was doing it, I was still hoping that everything was just going to go away,” she said.
In November of 2015, she came out to her father, who told her on the spot that he would never speak to her again. “I haven’t spoken to my parents since,” she said. Stein is still in contact with some of her siblings, and has found a new community through school and organizations like Footsteps. She is in touch with her ex-wife and son, but declined to go into detail on the extent of their relationship. When asked about the emotional difficulty of the situation, she was steadfast. “I don’t regret literally anything,” she said.
Leaving is anything but simple or straightforward, but through the work and advocacy of people like Stein, it has become more commonplace in recent years. When she left almost five years ago, Stein said most people in her position were shunned by their families. While leaving still causes a rift, it less frequently results in total ostracism.
“I think it’s because there’s so many of us,” Stein said. “It got to the point where every extended family has a few people. A big part of why I agreed to be so public when I left was because I wanted people to talk about it, so hopefully the next person who goes out, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.”
Mordechai Levovitz, the executive director of JQY, an organization that helps at-risk LGBTQ Jewish youth in New York, has observed this critical mass.
“So many people are coming out, it’s undeniable,” he said. In the past, “there was a certain luxury of plausible deniability.” Now, as gay and trans people are increasingly included in the Jewish experience, and as more people are coming out, they’re becoming harder to ignore.
“Like anything else, power is never given, it’s taken,” he said. “I don’t think there was any great enlightenment. I think they could not keep this power anymore, so they had to change.”
Micah, for his part, remains in the throes of indecision. Endowed with a mathematical mind, he’s long since stopped believing in religion, a fact which he has only recently told his wife.
“I’m not that type of person. I’m a rationalist. I don’t believe in all that junk,” he said. “It’s not for me.”
Micah counts himself as extremely lucky. His wife, who is very much invested in the ultra-Orthodox community, was understanding of his decision to leave religion, and is aware that he’s questioning his sexuality.
“There was very little anger, but a lot of pain,” he said. Now, they must both face a litany of unpleasant questions, like whether their marriage will last, and whether either of them even want it to. And their children—what’s best for them? These are the huge, unwieldy quandaries with which Micah is wrestling as we speak, sitting in his car as though he’s in hiding.
“Everything I know—everyone I love and everyone who loves me—is gonna get thrown in the garbage,” he said. “It’s a major life choice. Everything you know is turned upside down.”
As Chani Getter, the program coordinator at Footsteps, put it: “You not only ‘might’ lose your family, or your community. You will lose your entire family and community.”
I asked Micah where he sees himself in five years and his answers were so expansive it seemed he hadn’t given the question much thought. Maybe they could move somewhere closer to his wife’s family, where he could get a little more space. Maybe they could reach a compromise on his involvement with religion. But that wouldn’t account for the issue of his attraction to men. Maybe they’ll get divorced and he can share custody over his children? Maybe he’ll move to New York City, living fully out? “It’s scary,” he said finally. “But maybe it’s what I want.”
For Micah, and many others, the loss of community yields an opportunity for a new life, one that will presumably fit better than the original. Micah heard of Footsteps through an article he found online, and met with a staff member around a month before we spoke.
Walking in to meet with a counsellor there for the first time was a revelation. Until that moment, Micah says, he’d never felt like he truly belonged anywhere. His friends and family loved him, of course, but he never felt they really knew him—the real him. Walking into Footsteps, everything changed.
“I immediately burst out crying, and I just sat in her office, sobbing,” he said. “It was just so overwhelming. It was like, I made it. I’m safe. It was just the strangest feeling.”
Micah had experienced this sensation—the awareness that his people were out there—just once before. He’d been flipping through the radio, and stopped on a program, he’s not sure which one, that gripped him completely. He learned later it was on NPR. He remembers at the time thinking how much he wanted to find these people, but was hit simultaneously by the realization that he never would. Now, Micah realizes they—his people—are within reach.
“I knew that gay people exist, I was aware of the world, but people who are literally like me? Who grew up ultra-Orthodox, they’re in exactly the same situation?,” he said. “And they’re happy. It was amazing to feel welcomed for who I am.”