Orlando shooting brings U-Md. students out of the closet

Isabella Kalish from Facebook
Isabella Kalish
from Facebook

It was Shavuot when Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 patrons of the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando. It took Chaim Kalish, a 24-year-old University of Maryland student, 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 U-Md. 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 own 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.”

The three friends had been putting off coming out. And after the mass shooting in Orlando, they didn’t coordinate their announcements. But in a little more than an hour they had chosen the same way to show their solidarity and outrage, they explained in the days that followed.

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

“It should make me more scared,” Kalish said. “But if I stayed in the closet, the religious zealots or the terrorist wins. 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 their own reason.

Zev Shields From Facebook
Zev Shields
From Facebook

“I pushed 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 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 pony tail 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 he noted that “had changed a lot to be less tolerant of the middle ground.”

Josh Bloch from Facebook
Josh Bloch
from Facebook

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.

The junior aerospace engineering student thought he might be bisexual 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 24-year-old visual arts major said she hasn’t yet 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 from 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.

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  1. “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”

    Incredibly powerful quote.
    Wishing everyone quoted in this article the best of luck regarding earning the acceptance of their family and loved ones. And I applaud those who had the courage to stand up for their individuality. May we all learn from these strong individuals what it means to stand up and express yourself in the face of adversity and intolerance.

    Well written Eliana.


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