Even among educated Jews, gay-bashing still continues

It's been a year since I resigned in protest from a Jewish graduate degree program due to a homophobic professor. I was a natural sort to want to enroll in Jewish studies at middle age, and an equally natural sort to be irreparably offended by a single malicious comment about gay men.

My professor, a brilliant lecturer who held the class spellbound, was in the midst of a discussion on Jewish medieval philosophers when he indicated that one should investigate a philosopher's life background as part of evaluating his philosophical text.

He illustrated this theory with a story about a German non-Jewish philosopher who had never married but had lived with a man. And the professor rhetorically asked, grinning widely, whether it was possible to believe the thinking of a man who had never been intimate with a woman. Male members of the class laughed in response.

I sought this professor's apology, and then the president of the school's apology. Neither was forthcoming. Because I could no longer bear to be in the professor's presence and because he was a dominant force in the program, I withdrew. Since then, I have found other classes in other programs and am continuing Jewish study cautiously, but from the sidelines.

The nonsectarian school in question had a non-discrimination policy in effect that included sexual orientation in its language, but the ethos of the 1950s and 1960s clearly still prevailed among its older males.

That generation was raised in an environment that comfortably mocked gay men, and today its leanings still dictate the atmosphere of many Jewish institutions. When gays are presumed not to be in the room, fag-bashing is tolerated; moreover, it remains a mechanism for heterosexual male bonding. The inertia of childhood habits is not restrained by a non-discrimination policy.

The letter I received from the president of the institution, in response to my concerns, indicated that the program was on record against discrimination and that gay persons were, in fact, employees of the institution. I was urged to return.

There was no admission of wrongdoing, no rectification of the verbal abuse and no discussion of how the professor would weigh my own intellectual thoughts on the basis of my "lack of intimacy with women." My adviser said I had read the homophobia into the professor's remarks, which in his opinion, had not been homophobic but rather an "academic illustration."

Many Jewish institutions now strive to be more accepting of lesbians and gay men, and sometimes wonder in what way they have not been. I suggest they look no further than the unapologetic snide remark.

Once I attended a Shabbat morning aufruf at an Orthodox service, and the groom-to-be danced around the Torah with several other men for what seemed like several minutes. Nervous, the man sitting next to me, not suspecting a gay man was in his presence, turned to a friend and said, "It's starting to look like the Castro."

Gay men have had the fortune/misfortune of being everywhere our verbal victimizers are — from the locker-room bench to the aisle seat at shul. I was surprised, but shouldn't have been, when the groom laughed at my telling of the tale.

Jewish humor and the Jewish put-down are a part of Jewish life. No matter how far we have strayed from the shtetl, it has held tenaciously close to us, the last vestige of a dangerous history. But it has its harmful side. Women have experienced the harm, and still do. Gays have. And shlemiels have.

Our most famous comedians have made millions putting down a nation. But our humor is dark and hurtful as well, and at least some of the time it coats ignorance, fear and contempt.

I don't believe that the free speech of Jewish professors should be curtailed or that a P.C. manual of what you can and can't say should be appended to the Ten Commandments.

I am the first to admit that there are many who are thicker-skinned than I when it comes to crude comments. Many of my gay friends, in fact, urged me to stay in the program, alleging that the vulgarity of professors — in its many forms — was just part and parcel of the territory. But that was not my natural "orientation."

The community says it needs us. Yet I wonder how many others who were chased away to begin with, will be chased away yet again when they return? Does the older generation really want to teach those whom they once spurned?

Education is not merely texts and learning; it is people getting along and learning to get along. In the end, I decided that the institution in question was not a place I wanted to learn to be a part of. Its educational philosophy was not one I wanted to acquire; its version of the Jewish mainstream was cruel and undesirable.

The solution for me has been to learn to be selective about not only what I choose to learn, but who I choose to teach me. There are and hopefully there will always be other Jewish teachers who are more tolerant and giving, and I consider myself fortunate to have found some of them.