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    Choosing Between a Connected Family and a Life Without Secrets

    By Emanuel “Manny” Yekutiel–

    I had a bag packed and ready in my closet, just in case.

    It wasn’t very large—just enough for a quick getaway in case I needed it. The essentials—my social security card, my passport, a change of clothes, a book, and what little cash I had. All just in case my family found out and I had to leave quickly.  

    At that point in my life, somewhere around 15, I knew two things: I was definitely gay and that wasn’t going to change, and my family was definitely orthodox Jewish, and that wasn’t going to change either. 

    My inclination that I was different than the other yeshiva boys started out as a scared little thought I could bat away in between Talmud and bible study. Then, as puberty really set in, a desire I’d have to focus on avoiding, and then, finally, an unavoidable truth: I liked boys, not girls like I was supposed to.

    In the community I grew up in, there was no place for a boy who liked boys, no path to walk down, no real role models to emulate, and no wiggle room to be understood. It was completely forbidden, an abomination, unutterable.

    I was lucky, though. 

    I was able to find a way out of the religious yeshiva and into a secular school where I encountered a more diverse crowd and I had a family that, while quite religious, was openminded. 

    I decided to go to a small liberal arts college so I could develop my mind and my heart in the safety of the Berkshire mountains. Over the four years there, I slowly came out to one member of my family after another. First my older sister, then my younger, then to my brilliant mother who asked me what took so long, knowing ever since I would wear her heels to take out the trash. They were great heels!

    But the tough one was always going to be my father. My abba is an incredible man. He came to this country with not much else besides a dream and a dedication to work. He fought, hard, for his place in this country. He is entrepreneurial and tough, and full of the kind of stories he’d only tell us once a year if we were lucky. He’s a quiet man and taught me the power of knowing when to hold my tongue. 

    I didn’t have to guess how the gay thing would play with him. 

    It was the end of my senior year in college. I’d left it until the very last moment I could. I was literally about to go intern for President Obama’s LGBT liaison in the White House. He was going to find out if I didn’t tell him. 

    So, on Passover, a month before graduation, I asked my father if he’d go on a walk with me. 

    We were in Vancouver, at my uncle’s place, both families together, and everyone knew what was about to happen. In many ways my life can be split into before this moment and after. 

    It was really beautiful earlier in the day, but in the 30 minutes before our walk the skies got dark and cloudy, as if God was setting the scene.

    We walked to Kitsilano Beach; we both sat on a log, and I read the following letter. I was too afraid to speak extemporaneously because I didn’t want to lose it in front of my father. I didn’t want him to think I was unhappy about my sexuality. By then I had found my pride. I had spent a summer raising money for same-sex marriage on the street corners of San Francisco. I wanted him to see his son proud because maybe, just maybe, if he saw me proud then he’d be proud as well. 

    This is what I said to him:


    I want to ask you to give me ten minutes of your time. Just ten minutes to let me speak to you about something important. After I am done talking, you can have as much time as you would like, but I would like these ten minutes. Is that ok?

    As you know, I am about to embark on a really big journey. I will be traveling the world and getting involved in politics. I have had a pretty successful life until now, thank god. I have done well in school, received one of the finest educations in the United States, I never did drugs or committed a crime, I was elected student body president and received a number of honors and awards. I will be speaking at Graduation in just a few weeks. 

    These are things that I am very proud of and that I could not have done without your love, help, hard work, and support. I love you so much for that. 

    I have also stayed religious in both my secular high school and college even as the only person to wear a kippah. I still keep kosher and have still not missed one day of tephillin. I don’t intend for these things to change as I value my Jewish identity greatly.

    I am really excited for what the next few years will bring for me in my life. I am excited by the future. But before I move on into that future, I wanted to let you know something that has been on my mind for a while.

    You see, Abba, I am not attracted to women. I am gay. 

    I have known this for a very long time, it is not a decision that I have made but it is who I am and I am proud of who I am. 

    I know that this might be difficult for you to hear but I wanted to tell you this because I respect and honor you and I needed to stop lying to you as your son. I have talked a lot to Hashem about the fact that I am gay and I know that Hashem loves me. 

    I want to be in your life and continue to develop our relationship as adults, but I cannot do this while lying to you. I have accepted my sexuality completely and I am happy. 

    I am gay and I am your son and I love you.

    Pesach is about freedom and redemption. It is about knowing who we are. 

    I also want you to know that mother knows and, though I haven’t told dod shlomo yet, he probably knows as well if you would like to talk to him about this. 

    This may not have been in your plan, but life doesn’t work that way. I didn’t know that I would be flying to the white house in a month to work, but that is the way it is. I am still your son and will always be your son. I will always be here for you.

    I love you.

    It’s been 9.5 years since I read that letter to my father and, I’m sad to say, that was also the last time we spoke to each other. I was disowned by him on the spot and, to this day, he won’t look at me. 

    It’s been a journey to process the loss of the relationship with my amazing father. Almost 10 years later I still feel a deep love for him, pride in being his son, an admiration for all that he has sacrificed for me, and deep respect for who he is as a person. My father is a pillar and I miss him.

    This paper asked me to tell my story and I believe it’s important for San Franciscans to hear and to know that it’s not always peachy for everyone these days. Being disowned has formed me. It’s made me strong, independent, loving, open hearted. And it’s been hard.

    I had to choose between a connected family and a life without secrets. I chose the latter and I don’t regret it for one moment, but my heart has been heavy ever since. 

    Since that fateful cloudy day on Kitsilano Beach I’ve had the most incredible journey. I’ve stood in the oval office and briefed the President of the United States Barack Obama, traveled the world studying LGBT rights movements in 6 countries, worked on two presidential campaigns (Obama & Clinton) and a mayoral campaign (Mark Leno), helped our country get close to passing comprehensive immigration reform, started my very own small business where I hosted 17 presidential candidates in our first year, represent San Francisco’s rich small business community in a time of need as a small business commissioner, and am working tirelessly to engage the community in the precious days before a national election so we can win.

    I wish my father could have been at my side through all of that. 

    I would have loved his advice as I tried to figure out how to start a small business, his encouraging words as I dealt with the ups and downs of my 20s, but my sacrifices pale in comparison to the ones who came before me, the ones who risked life and limb to live honestly and to find love. 

    Sadly, we still live in a world where choosing to live openly can be a death sentence. The work isn’t over and I’m lucky to be a part of it. 

    Ultimately, we are formed by our challenges. 

    The 15-year-old version of me with the bag packed in the closet could never have dreamed of the man I am now. That’s the strength of our community. We help each other grow. We hold each other through good times and bad. We are bonded by the paths we’ve taken to get here.

    Now let’s keep walking. 


    Manny Yekutiel is the owner of Manny’s, a civic gathering space, bookstore, and nonprofit restaurant in the Mission District. He is also a small business commissioner and member of the board of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. He previously worked on the Obama and Clinton presidential campaigns, was chief of staff of, and was a White House intern in the office of public engagement. 

    Published on September 24, 2020