By Ariella Assouline
Esther: beautiful, brave and wise. That’s what we learned about her in Hebrew school during readings of the Megillah during Purim. Her story resonated with me across my life. Her very name, one shared by the force that was my grandmother, evoked respect, wisdom and a deep power. I dressed every Purim in a white and gold kaftan as my grandmother penciled in a beauty mark on my cheek. She was everything, the role model from Judaism I couldn’t wait to celebrate every year.
Esther was also a liar. Objectively. She hid her identity as a Jewish woman from her husband, King Ahasuerus of Persia. Purposefully. Yet, every Purim, we all gather to celebrate her and her uncle Mordechai and loudly boo Haman, the man who would have all the Jewish people in Persia killed over an insult to his ego. After King Ahasuerus’ previous wife, Vashti, was killed for “disobeying” her husband (a feminist reading of the text reveals Vashti was killed for refusing a humiliating display of her femininity to a group of men in her husband’s court), the king searched the land for a new queen. Esther was chosen for her beauty, and slowly had to prove herself as a person to be trusted with the nation’s wellbeing.
She agonized over her secret of being Jewish, living in fear that she would be found out and killed for lying to the King. When Haman proposed his plan to Ahasuerus to kill all the Jewish people in Persia, Queen Esther was the only person positioned to prevent it. It was her destiny, her duty, to save her people, even though it meant revealing her secret.
My fear around coming out stemmed from a life-long training that being queer was wrong, point blank. Abominations. Not in our family, not in our religion, not in our tradition. I thought I could trick myself, convince myself my feelings weren’t real, not necessary to act on or explore. When I met my current partner, I realized I couldn’t ignore it anymore, couldn’t pretend that being bi meant that I could make everyone happy by marrying a man.
I first came out to my parents, separately. I think as queer people, we are told the outcome of our coming out will be one of two options: pride-worthy acceptance, or rejection to the deepest degree. No one prepares you for the other option: apathy. My dad was on his tablet and asked if that meant I was still interested in boys. I said yes, but reminded him that it also meant I might end up with someone who wasn’t a man. My heart was pounding, begging my tongue not to betray me and confess something I wasn’t ready to yet. Weeks later, when I told him I was dating someone who wasn’t a man, all he asked was, “Is she bigger than you?”
My mom, on the other hand, was more incendiary. The reversal of roles between them had my head spinning. She demanded to know why I lied to her. How she never expected me to be a coward. That she saw me as deceitful, hiding things in order to get what I want. Selfish things. I didn’t have the words to explain to her then that 22 years of information told me, shouted at me, that I better hide. The disgust when gay marriage was discussed, the definitiveness of sin in Sodom and Gomorrah, the casual statements thrown out at the Shabbat table. “If she comes back from Brandeis gay, I’m pulling her out.” Nothing I could say then proved the severity of my scars. How do you communicate a lifetime’s worth of conditioning in one conversation?
I realize that my mom’s questions were probably more about her than me. She was probably hurt that I didn’t confide in her sooner, questioning what she could have done to lead to me not trusting her. I wanted to delay this moment for as long as possible, delay her looking at me the way she did. I wanted to be their perfect daughter a little while longer, before the reality of myself shattered it all.
For years, I held her ideas close. I saw myself as a fraud, as the liar she said I was. Each Pride, I shunned away, thinking I had no right to be there. The shame carried with me until I reread the Megillah and realized that Esther’s story rang true in a new way: Hiding a secret isn’t evil or a lie if it is necessary.
Esther needed to hide her identity as a Jewish woman for the greater good of her people. To reduce her story to the headline, the objective fact that she was lying is incomplete, unfair and strips her of her wisdom. We can learn from Esther that there is a “right” time to come out; any point other than when she did would have resulted in her death and the damnation of the Jewish people by Haman’s hand.
Her confession is brilliant and powerful. She asks King Ahasuerus for her life and the life of her people. Esther states that if lives weren’t hanging in the balance, she wouldn’t risk becoming an enemy of the king. She knew that he might entertain the concept of sparing the Jewish people, but it became personal when his wife was one of those condemned. King Ahasuerus never questioned her. He turned his fury towards Haman, instantly. Within the story, he is only ever supportive of her, and protects the Jewish people in Persia through decrees.
Esther’s burden was heavier than mine; the fate of the entire Jewish people versus my own well-being. I was petrified, and I’m sure Esther was, too. But my soul, my connection to my religion and my ability to be truly me was hanging in the balance between telling my truth and living a lie. I have quieted the shame that bubbles up inside by turning to Esther. We both knew what we needed to do in order to gain power and peace in our lives and within ourselves.
In the years since coming out, my parents and I have repaired our relationship. My partner and I have become fully embraced. The story of Purim teaches us so much about the power in knowing when to come out, in how to be supportive to those sharing these intimate secrets. That there are high stakes in coming out, that the person sharing this truth is telling you from a place of need. I needed to be seen as my full self. I couldn’t hold it in any longer.
Neither could Esther.