Orlando Shooting Brings UMD Students Out of the Closet 

Date: June 24, 2016

Source: Baltimore Jewish Times

URL: https://www.jewishtimes.com/orlando-shooting-brings-umd-students-out-of-the-closet/

Chaim Kalish was celebrating the Shavuot holiday when Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 patrons at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. It took the 24-year-old student at the University of Maryland at College Park only 15 minutes after the holiday ended to post a defiant response on Facebook:

“I have a very BIG announcement to make. It is not an easy one. … I am transgender. I go by the name Isabella Maxine with She/Her pronouns.”

About an hour later, it was Zev Shields’ turn:

“After the tragedy of this past week in Florida, I’ve decided to officially, publicly come out,” wrote the 20-year-old Maryland student and a friend of Kalish. “I am a proud, stalwart, openly bisexual person. In an ideal world, none of this should be a secret, a source of fear or shame. However, due to the hatred of some, it isn’t this way.”

After contacting his friend Shields for a final boost of courage, 19-year old Josh Bloch posted his announcement moments later:

“In light of the events in Orlando on Saturday night, I’ve decided that it’s time for me to publicly come out of the closet. … I’m bisexual.”

They think it’s peer pressure, that it’s a phase. But being a man was a phase. Being a man was peer pressure to me.” — Isabella Kalish

The three friends had been putting off coming out. But in a little more than an hour, they had chosen the same way to show their solidarity and outrage after the mass shooting in Orlando.

Josh Bloch

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“The goal of the shooting was to make us afraid, and we’re showing it didn’t work,” Bloch said in an interview later in the week.

“It should make me more scared,” Kalish said. “But if I stayed in the closet, the religious zealots or the terrorists win. But I’ve been walking around like this,” she said, pointing to her multicolored necklace, Billabong purse and deep V-neck top, “and I still have to be careful.”

“Once [Kalish] came out, it was a lot easier to come out,” Shields said. “It felt more like standing in arms [everyone coming out at once] than a trend.”

Why had they waited until then to come out? Each had a reason.

“I pushed it off at the request of my parents,” Shields said, “because there is the side of my family that is a whole lot less supportive.”

Shields, a 20-year-old Silver Spring, Md., resident, realized he was bisexual when he was 15. He waited until the fall of 2014, just before he started the Israel Experience at Bar-Ilan University, to tell his parents in what he described as a “lengthy” email.

“My stomach was trying to escape my body because I didn’t know how they would respond,” he recalled, repositioning his ponytail and sipping from a cup of cold-brewed coffee. “I got incredibly lucky to have the family that I have.”

Shields said his parents were nervous about his grandparents finding out and about people from his hometown of Baltimore, a community that he noted “had changed a lot to be less tolerant of the middle ground.”

Bloch, who grew up in the heavily Orthodox Kemp Mill neighborhood in Silver Spring, was nervous about being socially ostracized after coming out.

“My biggest fear was that I would lose a lot of my friends. I didn’t see that happen — not at all,” he said.

Isabella Kalish

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The junior aerospace engineering student thought he might be bisexual when he was in 12th grade after private discussions with friends.

“I’ve always felt the attraction [to guys and girls], but I thought it was a normal feeling for straight people to have,” Bloch said, his voice unable to hide the thrill of going public.

Kalish said she still has work to do with her family.

“My family is really not happy about things. They’ve always seen me as an impulsive person,” she said, eyeing her bright blue nail polish. “They think it’s peer pressure, that it’s a phase. But being a man was a phase. Being a man was peer pressure to me.”

Part of the “180,” Kalish said, is that until November 2015 she was “very Orthodox and a [politically] staunch conservative.” The turning point came after a heated argument with a friend in which Kalish criticized the idea of a person’s preferred pronouns. Her hurt friend approached her afterward.

“I think it was just the way he approached me and I started to think, ‘Why am I so opposed to this? Why am I so closed to this?’” Kalish said. “I was stuck in a religious structure I didn’t really like.”

The visual arts major said she hasn’t found a way to merge her Jewish and trans identities. She gave up celebrating Shabbat and keeping kosher within two months of starting hormone therapy. Bloch identifies as modern Orthodox, Shields as a “lazy modern Orthodox.”

They said they’ve been overwhelmed by the support they’ve received since coming out and joining Hamsa, Maryland Hillel’s LGBTQ and Allies student group.

“We are all about student Jewish journeys, and we’re 100 percent supportive for students to come together and have an outlet to meet other students who are LGBT and allies,” said Maiya Chard-Yaron, Maryland Hillel assistant director.

Kalish still worries about the first time she walks into Hillel wearing a skirt but knows that eventually she’ll stop caring.

Eliana Block is an area freelance writer.

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