Thursday, November 26, 2009
A SON'S SECRET. A FATHER'S LOVE.
Brian Burke loves telling stories about his kids, all six of them. Of his son Brendan, he in particular loves telling one from years ago when the boy was just 3 and the family went to Florida.
"So we're on the bus going to get our rental car and Brendan's going from family to family, introducing himself, saying we're from Vancouver and is this their first time in Florida?" Burke recalled Tuesday, laughing at the memory.
"It was like he was running for mayor. But that's him. He's special. People trust him immediately. He has a very sweet side that I envy because I don't have it.
"I just wish every parent could experience having a child like him."
Brendan's now 20, set to turn 21 next month, and the hockey world learned Tuesday that he's gay through a powerful and poignant story published online on ESPN.com, written by writer/broadcaster John Buccigross, a friend of the Burke family.
Burke, the president and general manager of the Maple Leafs and one of the best-known figures in all of hockey, learned of his son's sexual orientation at Christmas 2007. He knew ahead of time that his son, a student at the University of Miami (Ohio) and a student worker on the school's highly regarded hockey team, had spoken to Buccigross and that a story was to be released Tuesday afternoon.
"The feedback has been awesome," Burke said Tuesday, about three hours after the story was first posted. "My emails have been off the charts."
At the same time, however, Burke believes there will be those who won't embrace the family love inherent in his acceptance of his son's orientation or of Brendan's decision to go public with his sexuality. Burke remembered that when he was in California in November to vote in the U.S. presidential election – he voted for Barack Obama – he was aggressively confronted by anti-gay activists protesting a same-sex marriage proposition on the California ballot.
"I told them to (expletive) get lost," said Burke, who also voted for the proposition. "But over the next two weeks, yeah, I expect to get some hate mail over today's story. There is going to be a backlash. All I care about is if Brendan is prepared for it. It takes jam to do what he's done."
Brendan Burke, a former goalie, analyzes video and does stats for the Miami team, currently ranked No. 1 in the NCAA. The team's coach, Enrico Blasi, and the rest of the team first learned of Brendan's secret after the Frozen Four last spring.
"I think having Brendan as part of our program has been a blessing," Blasi told ESPN.com. "We are much more aware of what you say and how you say it."
Brendan isn't sure of his future plans, but seeing as how his older brother, Patrick, is a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, a career in hockey is certainly an option. That said, there are no openly gay individuals working in hockey operations in any of the major pro or amateur leagues.
"Honestly, as a father, I can say I would rather it was some other kid blazing this trail," said Brian Burke, himself one of 10 children. "But only because of the negativism that may come of it. I support Brendan completely.
"But I guess I wish maybe he was second."
In the ESPN.com piece, Brendan Burke indicated he quit high school hockey because of what he perceived to be overt homophobia in the dressing room. He said the support of not only his family but also of Miami's hockey organization made his decision to come out easier.
"Imagine if I was in the opposite situation, with a family that wouldn't accept me, working for a sports team where I knew I couldn't come out because I'd be fired or ostracized," Brendan Burke told ESPN.com.
"People in that situation deserve to know that they can feel safe, that sports isn't all homophobic and that there are plenty of people in sports who accept people for who they are."
His father understands that because of his reputation as a hard-nosed, black-and-blue executive who extols the virtues of fighting in hockey, this story will ring even more powerfully to many parents and families.
"I've got six kids, I drive a truck, I own a shotgun and I chew tobacco, so sure, this adds a different dimension," he said. "This isn't about me and it isn't about the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's about a young man who has done something that takes a lot of courage.
"But if my acceptance can turn into more acceptance on the part of other people, that's great."
Part of that acceptance was calling his son and inviting him to come to Toronto to experience this year's Gay Pride Parade.
"A few people recognized me and said hello," said Burke. "I would have marched in it if I'd known more about it. I'll march next year if I'm asked."
All to demonstrate a father's love of a son who no longer has to live a secret.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
The Gay Question:
Time for Modern Orthodoxy to Take Off the Blindfold
Published: Sunday, November 1, 2009
Updated: Sunday, November 8, 2009
The scientific mentality and socially liberal outlook of our times has tried the viability of many ancient religious doctrines. In our Modern Orthodox community, we proudly (and hopefully modestly) maintain that our religious beliefs don't run counter to our rational tendencies. Science enriches and adorns our religious lives. Our halachic worldview is imbued with true morality. Discrepancies between modern moral standards and the Torah's edicts are explainable, and don't truly oppose the moral backbone of contemporary society. However, one pressing issue facing the modern world, one which has applied uncomfortable pressure to the Orthodox world, has been shamefully swept under the rug. The moral and religious dilemma that this issue poses has not yet been dealt with in an adequate fashion. That issue is homosexuality.
The number of openly gay individuals in the secular community overwhelmingly outweighs the number of openly gay individuals in our Orthodox community. If we assume that sexuality is not a matter of choice (the most accepted approach today) then we are confronted with an unsettling question: Is it really possible that the Orthodox world breeds fewer people wrought with the inner conflict of sexual identity? Probably not. It seems, rather, that Orthodox individuals grappling to balance their sexual desires, religious values, and social pressures are either forced into hidden lives of suffering or are driven from the derech of Orthodox life altogether in search of happiness elsewhere. Of those who stay in the Orthodox fold, many fall into marriages racked with complications, while others remain single, living bitter lives of quiet desperation. Of those who fall away from Orthodoxy, many are estranged from their families and friends, harboring a deep resentment for the Orthodox community's failure to help them and their loved ones with a painful issue. Allowing such heartache to continue in our midst without open and honest discussion of this issue amongst rabbinical leaders and laymen is a failure to engage in the obligation of tikkun olam and a callous neglect of individual suffering.
I have firsthand experience with the tribulation and confusion that mark the life of an Orthodox, gay individual. I am a member of the Mazer Yeshiva Program in my first year in YU, and I am gay. At age eleven I knew I was gay; it was a realization marked by the same innocence of a fifth grader who has a crush on a pretty girl in class. Since the age of fourteen, I have known that I would eventually have to face unpleasant truths in dealing with my supposedly divergent identities. I am comfortable with myself, but uncertain of the best way to tackle the next few years of my life. I have no long-term plan.
It is a constant struggle to determine what the Creator wants from me. Do I remain in the closet and single for the rest of my life? That doesn't sit well with me. Should I come out and remain single? Should I look for a relationship with a guy with whom I will have no physical contact? Is that possible? Will I someday unceremoniously collapse from the pressure and end up not frum but in a fulfilling relationship? These questions race through my mind in a perpetual cycle every day of my life. The thought of telling my family that I am gay – and probably incapable of getting married and having children – is one that douses me with waves of paralyzing fear. How does anyone bring heartbreak to unsuspecting loved ones ill-equipped to cope with the issue at hand? How does a family cope with the homosexuality of a loved one in a community where the issue is stigmatized and worthy only of hushed, whispered discussions? My situation is not unique. The questions I confront and the distress my family would face if I let them in on my secret are only the beginning of the struggle for all Orthodox, gay individuals.
Ultimately, I am not just writing to raise awareness and lambaste our collective treatment of the issue. I am writing with a rough proposal. Last year, a heart-wrenching testimony was published anonymously in Kol Hamevaser (II:4) by another gay Yeshiva University student. The author highlighted both the existence of gays in the Orthodox world, and the inconspicuous nature of their presence amongst the most frum crowds. He thought that marriage was the most preferable, though seemingly evasive, solution to his problem. Although I salute his strength and conviction, and firmly align myself with his call to awaken others to our existence, I disagree with several facets of his approach. First, the option of marriage for a gay individual is one which demands wary and cautious endorsement. I am cynical about the possibility for success in a heterosexual marriage tainted by homosexual tendencies. The fact that the Orthodox community has historically adopted this approach is problematic. Do we really want to encourage people to enter sexually dysfunctional marriages? Second, I think that the author failed to pressure the Orthodox community to take concrete action in addressing the needs of all individuals faced with the challenge of being gay.
I want to suggest a few baby steps we can take towards helping people like me. The first step we must take towards helping gay men and women in our communities is waking up our leaders. The time has come for our rabbinic leadership to realize that gays are as common in the Jewish community as they are in the secular community. If the rabbinic leadership shuts their eyes and ears, they will not make gays disappear. They will not make me disappear. It is an immature and destructive way to deal with a real problem. I urge the rebbeim of Yeshiva University and other rabbinic leaders to recognize our existence, and to take a proactive role in organizing open discussion of the issue of homosexuality. The attitude of cavalier indifference must come to an end in our community.
This will pave the way for the second, and most important, step I am proposing. We need to eliminate the stigma. In the secular world, interacting with gays and discussing gay issues has become mainstream. I think we need to follow that example. That is not to suggest that we need to accept or embrace homosexual behavior. But we need to cultivate an atmosphere of acceptance and open discussion. If we sincerely work towards this objective, we will create an environment where those confronted with this issue will feel comfortable expressing themselves. Then, we can weave support networks focused on finding comfortable solutions for affected individuals and families. This would be following the model that we embrace for all other communal problems.
The last suggestion I want to make is the creation of a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) on campus. I am, admittedly, a bit skeptical about this last suggestion, but I am curious of the results. GSAs are prevalent on campuses across the country. They are not only found on college campuses, but in high schools and middle schools as well. They promote the comfort of gay members of the school and nurture a sensitive, accepting environment. GSAs also create a forum for discussion of gay issues and concerns. The beauty of a GSA is that it can be started by a straight activist. In fact, all the members can be straight. On our campus, in particular, if someone had the guts to start one, and many people joined it, gays would feel comfortable joining under the veil of being straight. A GSA could become the mainspring in provoking progress on our treatment of homosexuality.Hopefully, I have drawn some ears and prodded some hearts in Yeshiva University and the Modern Orthodox community at large. Properly dealing with homosexuality in our community will accomplish more than meets the eye. We would be performing a tremendous act of chessed for countless suffering individuals, both in the present and in the future. We would decrease the number of gay individuals that fall away from Orthodox life because they don't see futures for themselves in our communities. We will alleviate the pain of families who have nowhere to turn in dealing with homosexuality. And, finally, we would be true to our own Modern Orthodox values. By honestly approaching the realities we are confronted with and finding ways for our divinely dictated halachic system to solve the issues at hand, we defend the integrity of our religious beliefs. Through an honest and intensive search for the best solution to the gay question we can end a dishonorable period of apathy, and infuse Torah life with fresh credibility and esteem.