Interfaith Panel urges openness about LGBT substance abuse

Interfaith Panel urges openness about LGBT substance abuse

Kevin C. Madigan

Kevin Madigan is a senior reporter for the Atlanta Jewish Times.

Rabbi Judith Beiner, next to Phillip Washington, says people in the Jewish community tend to hide problems behind closed doors. (Photo by Kevin Madigan)

By Kevin Madigan |

Not only does religion fail to a guard against addiction, but it can add situations and pressures that encourage problems, especially for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

An interfaith discussion explored substance abuse and recovery among LGBT people Tuesday, June 16, at the Phillip Rush Center. Audrey Galex, a journalist and part-time professor at Georgia State University, moderated the discussion, convened by SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity.

“If you don’t think addiction issues happen in your family or have done in the past, you need to wake up,” Galex said. “No matter what your sexual orientation is, no matter your gender identification, it is part of family life in the 21st century. It’s of particular concern to our LGBT community because our faith perhaps plays a role or contributes to some of our mental and emotional issues.”

Panelist Phillip Washington, a recovering addict who calls himself an androgynous gay man, said both his parents were ordained ministers who hid behind Scripture and refused to face the reality of their son’s lifestyle. Homosexuality and addiction “were a double whammy of shame for the family,” he said. “When I spoke about me to them, it was always, ‘What will the people say? How will they look at us as parents?’ When I asked what the real issue was, I wouldn’t hear anything about their own personal feelings on why it was such a problem. It was always a ‘Jesus will fix it’ type of thing. When it came to sexual issues, what is there to fix? Because that means I’m broken. My addiction and my sexual orientation are not the same thing. With addiction, I had to look at the part that I played first before Jesus could fix anything. I had to get past that.”

Washington stressed he does not blame his religious upbringing for his addictions. “After first tasting alcohol, I remember feeling free and not self-conscious about who I was. It was a false sense of security that took away all those stigmas I carried with myself. So I used it to hide, not knowing there was another way.”

Rabbi Judith Beiner, the community chaplain at Jewish Family & Career Services, said that when it comes to addictive behavior, Jews are set up to fail because of the intransigence of traditions stretching back thousands of years in “an institution where everything looks right on the surface.”

“Every holiday comes with too much food. Lots of alcohol. Sometimes the command to drink,” Rabbi Beiner said. “Way too many synagogues have casino nights. Eating disorders are very common, particularly in ultra-Orthodox communities, because women are constantly cooking, feeding people, have many children and have to look perfect. That attitude of a perfect family extends to people with illnesses like cancer. If anyone has a problem, keep it behind closed doors.”

Galex, a member of Congregation Bet Haverim, responded to Rabbi Beiner: “Our community likes to say these are the exceptions, these are not the norms, instead of saying, ‘What’s wrong here? How was this hidden for so long? Was there some kind of cover-up?’ We should address these things in a healthy way so there’s some kind of healing. We just tend to push it under the rug.”
Rabbi Beiner added: “It’s important that we recognize that there are people with addictions and not hide away from it. From an institutional level, one of the best things we can do is recognize that all these things are part of our language, part of our culture. If you want to reveal something about yourself, it should be embraced without judgment. It’s a risk, of course. People are people. You can’t control how they’re going to judge. Ideally you give them information, awareness, experience, and be less judgmental. We have to talk the talk and create safe places so that people can reveal their issues and be supported.”

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