In his first column, our new Lifestyles Editor, Joel Korn, reflects on his own journey towards self-acceptance and why it’s still important in a progressive society to support the Jewish LGBT youth.
Joel is a qualified counsellor and psycho-therapeutic supervisor working with both youth and adult clients. He has worked in the LGBT community for over 14 years working in the fields of health, social care and youth work. This has included working in HIV prevention and supporting adults and young people who are living with HIV.
HotSaltBeef&Mustard is delighted to have on board and warmly welcomes him as part of our Editorial Team.
Enjoy this insightful read,
Editor in Chief
Recently, I attended my school reunion and in the build-up to the event, all the painful memories and feelings I experienced as a schoolboy surfaced all over again.
I ‘officially’ came out 18 years ago, at the age of 18. However, through therapy and self-exploration, I identified that I came out to myself at the age of 6, when I first noticed I was more sensitive, more creative and had more feminine personality traits than my male peers.
My school years were by far the hardest and darkest years of my life. I feigned illness or made myself sick in the toilets just so I could be sent home. My mother did not understand why I often asked her to write notes for me because I couldn’t cope with attending sports. I did not tell her that no one wanted to pick me for team games.
I did not fit in. I was called: queer, batty boy, sissy. I would walk into the male changing room and it would be ‘backs against the wall’. At times the sport teacher told me it would be safer for me to get changed in the disabled toilet.
If that was not bad enough, outside of school some local ignorant non-Jewish kids called me “yid”. After suffering their Anti-Semitism, getting on the school bus my Jewish peers would laugh, scold and sneer at me. They called me queer and made me feel like I did not belong.
There was also the more painful bullying: four boys holding me upside down by my legs and putting my head down the toilet and flushing the chain.
Since our community was quite small, the homophobic bullying also often extended into the synagogue. This made me feel fearful about going to shul. It was yet another place where I did not belong.
I could not talk to my parents. I felt silenced, withdrawn and deeply depressed.
At the same time, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools across Britain. It was a confusing piece of legislation, because it was really meant for Local Education Authorities, but schools across England thought it affected them. I remember aged 12, how I tried to speak to a school counsellor. The counsellor told me it was dangerous to tell anyone about my feelings of being gay and that I should keep this a secret.
I never had an active plan of suicide, but during the five years I went to secondary school, 1989-1994, when the homophobic bullying was at its worst, I do recall going to bed at night, often feeling that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I didn’t wake up the next day.
In summary, the predominant message I took from those days is that I needed to keep my head down and keep out of trouble. I performed average in school and my teachers put this down to laziness, when the truth was that school simply was not a safe place for me to be. Neither did I feel safe to tell my family about the bullying because I was concerned about what they would do if they found out I was gay. Thank goodness, years later they proved my fears to be wrong.
The freedom I felt when I left school at the age of 16 gave me new confidence, which helped me grow into the strong man I am today. Once I came out to the world, my experience as an out and proud gay man has been much more positive. For the last fourteen years I have worked in the HIV sector, focussing my work across the LGBT community and in schools across London. I know my own story is not an isolated experience, which is why I’m sharing it today.
School is where most of us develop an understanding of our place in the world and how the world responds to who we are. It is where we develop a healthy self-esteem and learn resilience to deal with difficult feelings. Puberty can be a confusing time for any young person, especially when questions around sexuality arise. As I reflect on my own experience, I remember that all I wanted was for my teachers to at least try to do something about the homophobic bullying. Yet, they didn’t. It’s a feeling of helplessness I don’t wish for any young person.
Young LGBT people need to know that they are not alone. Fortunately we now live in a time where homophobic legislation like Section 28 no longer exists (it was repealed in 2003). Today, it is so much easier for a young LGBT person to find a supportive ear by contacting an LGBT friendly organisation or to speak to a trustworthy and empathetic adult.
Times have changed and attitudes continue to change in this wonderful country of ours.
However, as a member of the Jewish LGBT community, my feeling is that Jewish schools need to do more and be more diligent to integrate the fast changing rights and policies that are taking effect in our wider society. This will provide much needed support for Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and those questioning their sexuality.
Based on the youth and adults I have engaged with as a Counselling Therapist and Youth Worker, I have learned that if the school experience is negative and traumatic, it can result in low self-esteem and self-worth problems, which can lead to young people making unhealthy life choices in the future.
Even though the thought of facing my peers at our school reunion gave me shivers down my spine, meeting them 20 years later has been a rewarding (and even healing) experience… more than what I had anticipated… even if it was just for the mere fact that I had the opportunity to reflect on my own journey as Jewish gay man. Here is where I stand today:
I grew up in a traditional Jewish family home. My family provided me and my siblings with a safe and loving environment where we could all develop our own unique identities. In hindsight, despite the struggles I experienced, I know my parents did the best they could and even though it was sometimes a challenge, we are all still there for each other today. I’ve learned a lot from my own journey and from my work with the LGBT community.
I am also proud of being Jewish and much as I know we cannot change the most Orthodox texts in the Torah about homosexuality, I want to start a conversation about how we understand and interpret those texts and hopefully help create a safe place of continued discussion about the issues around our faith, culture and sexuality.