Coming Home, Coming Out

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During his freshman year at Harvard, Sandi Simcha Dubowski '92 lived a double life.

In Cambridge, he was a highly public gay activist. In Brooklyn, New York, where he was the only child in a Conservative Jewish household, he kept that identity tightly concealed during school and summer breaks.

Just before returning to Harvard for his sophomore year, Dubowski invited his mother into his bedroom. "I sat her down on my bed. I said, 'Mom, there's something I have to tell you... Mom, if I tell you, will you love me no matter what?'" Then, he says, he wept for 45 minutes before sharing his secret. His mother, too, began to cry; she'd always hoped he'd bring a daughter-in-law into their family. Only after Dubowski had left for Cambridge did she break the news to his father, who was equally dismayed.

Sandi Dubowski '92
Courtesy of Sandi Dubowski

Dubowski says his parents never rejected him outright. But as is often the case when gays and lesbians "come out" to their parents, his revelation created a chilly gap in their relationship. The gap widened when Dubowski told his parents he intended to become a filmmaker. In a business-oriented family — his parents ran a chocolate-syrup company — such defection was, he says, "a double whammy." But despite that distance, Dubowski moved back in with his parents for two-and-a-half years after graduation, until moving into his own apartment.

During that time, he began filming Trembling Before G-d, a documentary about gay and lesbian Hasidic and Orthodox Jews. (The title reflects the religious convention of not fully spelling the deity's name.) In the next six years, Dubowski found many people with stories far more painful than his own. "A lot of them are kicked out on the street or disowned," Dubowski says of his subjects and others like them. "I realized how much I respected my own parents for honoring their child."

A scene from Trembling Before G-d
Courtesy of Sandi Dubowski

He also came to respect their struggle to understand and accept his lifestyle. "We forget that when we tell our parents, they have to come out as the parents of a gay child," he says. "Parents want their children to be a reflection of themselves, and it's hard when the mirror cracks. They have to let go of the child they haven't got."

Unexpectedly, Dubowski says, making the movie reunited his family. His parents were in the audience when Trembling Before G-d premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001, and they've seen the critically acclaimed documentary several times since it opened in theaters in 2002.

"They've cried every time," Dubowski says, but he acknowledges that his parents' reaction isn't due solely to the film's emotional content. "They've had all these people who come up to them and say, 'I want to thank you; your son's doing such amazing work.' Their worst fears weren't realized. They saw that being gay didn't lead to discrimination or social rejection. Instead, it's leading to all these opportunities, all this support."

     

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