Category Archives: Uncategorized

Anti-Gay Billboard is Wrong, Dangerous, and Against Biblical Faith

Photo by: GAYRVA.COM

Photo by: GAYRVA.COM

If it weren’t so dangerous, it would almost be laughable. A new billboard on Interstate 95 in downtown Richmond, VA sponsored by a group called PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays), argues that “nobody is born gay.” Their purported evidence for this claim is the fact that, sometimes, one twin sibling can grow up to be gay while the other ends up straight. The group uses this piece of information to form a belief (as the group admits on the ad) that sexuality is a choice. And if sexuality is a choice, then one can also choose to change their sexual orientation.

First, the facts: While it is true that identical twins share DNA, those genes are often expressed differently. For example, it is not uncommon for identical twins to have different personalities, different heights, and even different physical features. For twins to have different sexual orientations does not mean that one or the other chose to switch. It simply means that the same genes manifested in different ways. Those genetic manifestations are always still beyond the control—and therefore the choice—of the individual.

Moreover, we may not get our sexual orientations from our genes. There are other theories—psychological, biochemical, and sociobiological—that are also widely-accepted within the scientific community. Ultimately, all of the prevailing theories insist that sexual orientation is not a choice. And, more to the point, homosexuality is not an illness. It needs no therapy or cure.

All of this helps explain why so-called reparative therapy for LGBT individuals is widely reported to do far more harm than good. Not only is it ineffective in converting individuals to heterosexuality—because such a conversion is unnecessary and absurd on its face—it inflicts severe psychological harm. Too often, it can result in suicide, a reality that plagues the gay community. Advancing an argument urging LGBT individuals into so-called therapy, and encouraging their families to pressure them into so-called reparative treatments, is, in this sense, destructive and deadly. And reinforcing a wrongheaded perception that homosexuality is an abnormal and aberrant choice gives tacit consent to those who degrade, disparage, and discriminate against LGBT individuals.

As a religious leader, I feel especially compelled to respond to the odious claims of groups like PFOX, ridiculous as they may be, because they speak a distinctly ungodly and irreligious message in the name of God and religion. In other words, by advancing their agenda under the banner of biblical faith, they purport to speak in my name, too.

So allow me to be clear: PFOX does not speak for me, they do not speak for my religious community, and I do not believe they speak for God or the Bible, either.

Indeed, I believe that equality for LGBT individuals, in Richmond and around the world, is a biblical value. Scripture insists that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are created in the Divine image (Genesis 1:26). LGBT individuals are made in God’s image, just as straight individuals are. Furthermore, God loves all people (Psalm 145:17) and is pained when people suffer (Isaiah 63:9). Whether you are gay or straight, God loves you the way God has made you, and is diminished when you are hurt.

Stemming from these values is the obligation to afford every person the fullness of the honor due to them as reflections of God, as well as the responsibilities to love our fellow as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18) and to take action when our fellows’ lives are threatened (Leviticus 19:16). True, there may be one or two biblical passages that appear to forbid same-sex intimacy, but we believe that the more pervasive message of biblical faith affirms human dignity and human life, even if it means having to reinterpret or even strike traditional taboos.

Sentiments like those of PFOX may be in line with traditional understandings of one biblical passage, but they are based on a poor understanding of science and an even worse understanding of the major thrust of biblical faith. PFOX’s billboard, and others like it, diminish the image of God present in gay individuals, exhibit a profound dishonor to one’s fellow human beings, demonstrate a lack of love toward’s one’s fellow equal to the manner one loves oneself, and contributes to the shedding of blood.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. But dangerous it is. So rather than laugh, we must speak God’s truth and set the record straight.

Posted on December 18, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Chanukah Action: Standing for Equality

photo by Jordyn Rozensky

Photo by Jordyn Rozensky.

Last night thousands of Jews across the country marked the beginning of Chanukah with rallies and protests against racism and police brutality.

In Boston, nearly 300 Jews gathered in Brookline, a heavily Jewish community. Together the group lit menorahs as “a symbolic dedication to the fight to end systemic police violence and racial profiling, and to remember the lives of black people across the country who have been killed by police.”

As Idit Klein shared in a recent email to Keshet members, “during the eight days of Chanukah, we remember the fight of the Maccabees who stood up against their oppressors and said: ‘We won’t take it anymore!’ 

Black Lives Matter #ChanukahAction - Boston-1-9

Emilia Diamant and Emily Fishman leading the crowd. Photo by Jordyn Rozensky.

This cry of resistance is all too familiar. As LGBTQ individuals, advocates, and allies, we remember that Stonewall was a riot, and that where we are today was only made possible because people before us stood up and said: ‘We won’t take it anymore!’”

For those of you who could not attend a Chanukah Action, here is a look at what happened in Boston. Be sure to check out resources here:

Black Lives Matter #ChanukahAction - Boston-1-20

Participants carried signs stating: “Do not stand idly by your brother’s blood,” as well as 8 signs with the faces and names of 8 Black people recently killed by police. Photo by Jordyn Rozensky.

Black Lives Matter #ChanukahAction - Boston-1-8

Idit Klein, Keshet’s Executive Director. Photo by Jordyn Rozensky.

Yavilah McCoy, leading the group. Photo by Jordyn Rozensky.

Yavilah McCoy, a leader at the action.  Photo by Jordyn Rozensky.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein of Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue, a long time advocate for both LGBT rights and the rights of all who are oppressed, led the group in the Mourner’s Kaddish. Photo by Jordyn Rozensky.

Black Lives Matter #ChanukahAction - Boston-1

James Cohen marches with his son and other students from Boston’s Jewish Community Day School. Photo by Jordyn Rozensky.

Black Lives Matter #ChanukahAction - Boston-1-6

Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, helping to organize the action. Photo by Jordyn Rozensky.

Protests organized by Chaunukah Action happened across the country—in places like Detroit, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Seattle—to coincide with the first night of Chanukah. As many involved have noted, this is not the end of the conversation, but the start.

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Posted on December 17, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Hanukkah Blessing

In preparation for Hanukkah, a time in the year when we welcome in the light of hope and liberation, we asked Alex Weissman and his mom Cyd to write a blessing celebrating LGBTQ people and families.

Alex and Cyd Weissman

Alex and Cyd Weissman

Cyd and Alex are quite the mother/son Jewish duo. Alex is an out queer rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the former Social Justice Coordinator at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, and a leading LGBTQ Jewish voice for justice. A longtime leader in Jewish education and advocate for LGBTQ inclusion, Cyd infused her children’s life with Jewish content that reflected their family’s values, from modeling how to hold space as a ritual leader for her son—the future rabbi, to sending her children out into the world with her own take on the Priestly Blessing: “May God bless you and keep you safe and sound.”

When we asked Alex to tell us more about his Jewish experience growing up, he explained: “My mom used to teach my friends and me at religious school. She was always (and still is) intent on ‘whole person’ learning. It didn’t matter if we could just recite Ashrei—she wanted to make sure we could also articulate the joy of dwelling in the house of God and what that felt like.”

We share their blessing with you today in the same spirit of “whole person” Judaism that Cyd passed on to Alex. May it be that this year, as we gather our families to kindle the lights of Hanukkah, we do so in wholeness and holiness.

Here I am, ready and prepared to light the Hanukkah candles, as “our rabbis taught: The law of Hanukkah demands that everyone should light one lamp for themselves and for their household. Those who seek to fulfil the obligation well have a lamp lit for every member of the household (from Shabbat 21b).” We know we could be a household that celebrates the light of one. Instead, we remind ourselves that light increases with the opportunity for each of us to celebrate with our own Chanukiah. May we dedicate ourselves in all our days to honoring each other’s unique light, as it shines through the miracle of our gender and sexual differences. May our homes become homes of light for all people (adapted from Isaiah 56:7).

 Download a copy of the Hanukkah blessing here.

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Posted on December 16, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Welcoming LGBTQ Jews and Their Loved Ones into the Mishkan

Today we are sharing Joanna Ware’s Keynote speech from Kindness Counts: Welcoming LGBTQ Jews and Their Loved Ones into the Mishkan, a conference hosted by Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA.

This post is a little longer than our usual blog posts, but we think it is worth the read. 

Today, I’m going to be talking about family and kinship in Jewish history and within the LGBTQ community. Before I start though, I want to say something about language. I am going to be using the word “queer” today, and I want to acknowledge that it’s a word that may be uncomfortable for some. It is a word that has been filled with pain and violence, and also a word imbued with liberation.

“Queer” was reclaimed by ACT-UP activists who refused to concede that their lives were worthless because of their queerness. I hope that you will accept my invitation to lean into that discomfort if you feel it today, and stay with me. When I use queer, it is both as an umbrella term for LGBTQ community, as well as a loving celebration of outsiders, of difference and apartness as something to cherish, rather than something to erase.

If you’ve been attending shul recently, or if you’ve been following along at home, you know that at this point in our annual reading of the Torah we are deep in Joseph’s story.

Joseph is a ready touch-point for those of us who search our tradition’s texts for echoes of our vibrant, colorful, fabulous, often-outsider, queer lives. As my colleague Gregg Drinkwater has written, “The great rabbinic and medieval commentators make the modern task of ‘queering’ Joseph even easier, with all of them having noted that Joseph had a certain ‘sensibility.’”

Joseph is described as “behaving like a boy, penciling his eyes, curling his hair, and lifting his heel.” When Joseph is in Egypt, he rejects Potiphar wife’s advances, uninterested in sex with her. (This rejection of heterosexual desire and adultery is ultimately what lands him in jail.)

And, of course, there is the matter of his flamboyantly colorful coat; a symbol of his father’s love and preference, and the catalyst for his brothers’ betrayal. Throughout his life, Joseph is cast as the outsider. Ultimately, it is his apartness and difference that elevates him. His gift of insight, dream interpretation, and wisdom is what makes him valuable to the Egyptian Pharaoh, and are his (and his family’s) saving grace.

It is not so much Joseph’s potential queerness though, important as it is, that I am interested in talking about today. Rather, I am captured by the story of Joseph’s family.

Joseph is deeply, deeply betrayed by his family of origin. He is thrown into a pit and sold into slavery because of his difference. And yet, when Joseph’s family returns—unknowingly—to him, asking for help and compassion, he welcomes them. Precisely the qualities within him that they cast out—his unnerving seeing, his apartness, his queerness—are ultimately the reason they are drawn back to him.

JW_PJW_JJ_SF_London

Joanna and members of her chosen family.

When I think about family, I think both about a Jewish familial model—loving, central, complicated at times, and also largely a matter of birth—as well as my queer history of chosen family. Ask an LGBTQ person of a certain age (or us younger folks well-educated in queer history), and most of us will tell you that when we hear “oh yeah, they’re family” from another LGBTQ person, we know that they are not saying that this person is their blood relation, what they are saying is that they are one of us.

When it was unsafe to name aloud our markers of difference, we found other words: “Friend of Dorothy”: a reference to the gay subcultural icon Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz; “Friend of Mrs. King”; “confirmed bachelor”; “in the life”; and, “family”.

Family is, indeed, a way of saying “she’s our kind,” but it is about quite a bit more, as well.

Queer history is abounding in stories of rejection and exile. Young gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender people rejected by their families of origin, thrown out of their homes and told never to return unless they “weren’t that way” often found each other. They found each other on the streets and in bars, and—confronted with a world that was telling them from every direction that who we were was wrong, broken, diseased, unworthy, criminal, and a perversion—came together against it.

Family came to signify the kind of kinship and “us-ness” wrought by fighting oppression and recognizing that we were in it together. We bailed each other out of jail, nursed the physical and emotional wounds of violence, sexual assault, and humiliation at the hands of those in power, and grew resilient, beautiful, powerful families in the midst, in spite of, and in response to that brokenness.

Chosen families are built and created, and they come together for celebration and grieving, for healing and for play, and because when no one else will show up for us—we do.

Chosen family is about surviving in a world that wants to be rid of you.

Sylvia Rae Rivera

Sylvia Rae Rivera, one of the founders of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

In New York City, in the 1970s, Sylvia Rivera, Bubbles Rose Marie, and Marsha P. Johnson created STAR—Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. STAR was created for, in Sylvia’s words, “street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at the time.” Sylvia and Marsha took in young gay and gender variant homeless youth, they hustled in the streets so that their “kids” wouldn’t have to. They got a building and paid the rent and worked to put food on the table to protect their kids from violence and degradation. They were a family.

Through the late 80s and 90s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, it was chosen gay and queer family that served as nurses, care-takers, emotional support, and in-home hospice. Chosen family who escorted people to doctor’s appointments and support group meetings, who slipped crushed ice into the lips of the dying, who made funeral arrangements and sat shiva. They were family.

Chosen families are often understood in contrast to families of origin—a response to rejection by blood family when someone comes out. And, for many people this was true. We built chosen family because it was our only option. For others though, and for many LGBTQ people today, it is a less stark scenario. Many of us have families of origin with whom we are still in relationship—sometimes beautiful, loving, whole relationships, and sometimes relationships that are fractured and more complicated but nonetheless present and persistent.

Chosen family and family of origin are not in direct opposition to one another, and both have something to teach us about kinship, obligation, and us-ness.

For queer people, kinship is often the edge upon which we tread the line between coming out and remaining closeted.

Every, seemingly innocuous question can be a moment for a gut-check:

  • “What did you do for the holidays?”
  • “What did you do this weekend?”
  • “Is your wife here?”
  • “Do you have kids?”

Do I want to be out with these people? Is it worth the risk? What’s the benefit? How long have I known them? What is there to lose? Can I sidestep this conversation all together?

I am out in every aspect of my life. I came out seven years ago and haven’t looked back. I am a queer professional and I rarely encounter people who don’t know that I’m queer either before or immediately after I meet them. So, I rarely interface with this calculation, and yet I’m still not free from it.

A month ago, in Washington, D.C., in the course of making small talk with a cab driver, I outed myself. “No, I don’t have a husband or boyfriend, I have a girlfriend.” The next five minutes in that car were profoundly unpleasant and offensive; the cab driver’s response was ripe with misogyny, homophobia, and vulgarity. I had miscalculated.

I am incredibly insulated from this kind of risk most of the time. I live in one of the 22 states that prohibit employment discrimination on account of sexual orientation and gender identity, and I work for an LGBT organization. 52% of the LGBT population in the United States does not live where employment discrimination on account of sexual orientation and gender identity is legally prohibited. 52% of LGBT people live in a state without employment protections. 52% of LGBT people can be fired for that kind of miscalculation; for presuming goodwill and discovering animosity instead.

Joanna and her mom

Joanna and her mom.

I have had friends and partners whose families were similarly at risk by them being out.

Just as kinship ties can implicate and out as us queer people, our kinship ties with our families of origin can put them at risk. The Keshet Parent & Family Connection works with parents across the country, many of whom have struggled with precisely this. Their child’s coming out has implications in their own life, and they often feel adrift as they try to cope with this new challenge.

My mother has told me that she hesitates, sometimes, to come out as the parent of a queer daughter—afraid  for her colleague’s reactions, afraid that she will have to continue working with people who could profoundly disappoint her, afraid that she can’t insulate me from their bigotry. She isn’t afraid for her job, but I am well aware that other parents are afraid.

There are the teachers in under-funded schools across the country that could lose their job for having a gay child, and it could be justified as budget cuts. There are the Orthodox families who love their gay child fiercely, and are terrified for what it means for the rest of their children for their kid to be out: terrified that their family will be ostracized, that they will lose business, terrified of the real possibility that younger siblings will be bullied in school, will have trouble finding a shidduch, will resent their sibling for implicating them in their struggle as a queer person.

If kinship is about us-ness, then it is indeed about being implicated in both the celebrations and the struggles our loved ones face. It is about, as my girlfriend puts it, tying your boats together.

We know how to make sense of this when it comes to marriage and children, but we often struggle to name, categorize, and validate chosen families and kinship ties without the ready, heteronormative markers of traditional family structures.

I have nightmares sometimes about my queer chosen family being hospitalized, and being unable to reach them.

I’m racing through the halls of a hospital, and someone stops me:

“Are you family?”

“Who is this person to you?”

“Are you related?”

How can I answer?

Are you family? “Yes!” (But… maybe not like you mean it.)

Who is this person to you? “How could I possibly explain?” (They are my ex-partner’s best friend and my child’s quasi-parent and they co-signed on my car loan and we make soup for each other on a rotating weekly basis and they are the one person who knows exactly what I need when I’m sick or angry or heartbroken. There’s no word for that person, except family.)

Are you related? “Technically? No.”

Joanna and members of her chosen family

Joanna and members of her chosen family.

I’ve been thinking about this as I’m reading Joseph’s story, and about his family. Joseph responds to his brothers with compassion, but distance. He doesn’t trust them immediately, and he doesn’t reveal himself.

Nonetheless, he does not turn them away out of spite or anger. Which I think many of us could agree would be a very human impulse on his part to the people who threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery.

And what do his brothers think about all of this? As far as they know, Joseph is a stranger—a person of power in a foreign land who is meeting them with compassion in a time of need. They are starving, and he offers them food. Not, as far as they are concerned, out of an obvious sense of kinship or family ties, but because that is what is right, and just. Our sages warn us about the cost of ignoring the needs of the oppressed and suffering.

In the Babylonian Talmud we are offered a story about Rabbi Judah and Samuel:

Rabbi Judah is sitting with Samuel, when a woman comes before them and cries out about an injustice inflicted upon her. When Samuel ignores this woman’s cries, Rabbi Judah confronts him, asking “Don’t you agree with the proverb that teaches “one who refuses to hear the cry of the helpless will also cry and not be heard’?”

Samuel, realizing his error, responds “You’re right! Though I am your superior, I will have cold water poured on me as punishment for ignoring a cry of injustice!”

“But,” Samuel continues, “my superior, Mar Akba, who failed to judge rightly and wronged this woman, will have hot water poured on him as punshiment. For it is written:  Execute justice in the morning, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor, lest My fury go forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings’ ” (Jer. 21:12).” (B. Shab 55a)

“One who refuses to hear the cry of the helpless will also cry and not be heard.”

This call to act toward justice is, as I hear it, a call to act as pulled by bonds of mutuality, of relational obligation, of being in it together and bound up in the oppression and liberation of other people. It is, I think, the natural outcome of defining and seeing our bonds of kinship broadly.

If we internalize the lessons and possibilities of queer people’s chosen family, it pushes us to ask ourselves: to whom am I obligated?

With whose fortunes and futures are mine tied?

In what ways is my freedom bound up with yours?

When you are unsafe, how can I feel safety and stability?

These are, I think, deeply important questions for the work of creating Jewish communities that are celebrate and welcome LGBTQ people; for fostering wholeness and holiness.

When we expand our sense of the “we,” and look beyond the traditional answers of who constitutes the “us” and who is the “them,” when we redefine for ourselves the bounds of obligation and connection, we are doing the sacred work of transforming our communities for the better.

I’ve been thinking about these questions a great deal in the last two weeks. We are seeing a movement build across the country insisting that the lives of black people matter; that we are not done with the work of rectifying our country’s racist history and present; that thedisproportionately high rates of violence at the hands of police, arrests, and incarceration of black people is a stain on our national conscience.

Joanna and her cousins.

Joanna and her brothers and cousins.

Where is my place in it? What is my obligation? As a queer Jew whose chosen family and family of origin include people of color, I have a stake in this game.

As a queer Jew, I have communal histories that remind me to be on the look out for the big acts of violence—like what we’re seeing in Missouri, New York, Ohio, and elsewhere in our country. Like the heartbreaking news coming out of France, and the dramatically increased numbers of people leaving the country due to rising anti-Semitism. Like the news out of Kansas City, where two young Muslim boys were struck by a car—killing one of them—in an intentional act of Islamophobic violence. Like the 238 transgender people—most of them women of color—killed in 2013 for being transgender, and the countless other transgender people who died because of transphobia.

People like Leslie Feinberg, a secular Jew and transgender activist, whose death from Lyme-disease could have been prevent in a world where transgender people did not face enormous barriers to economic stability and rampant stigma in health care settings. These are the big, obvious, heartbreaking signs of brokenness. These are the proverbial women who, just like in the Talmud story I shared with you, cry out in front of our faces, to whom we are reminded not to close our ears.

But when I think about kinship, and our obligation to the other, I also think about the lessons I’ve learned about how damaging the subtle, insidious forms of normalized oppression can be. I think about what happens when we decide that some swath of people are “them” rather than “us.” I worry about the dehumanization that happens when we seek out excuses and explanations to justify racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia.

I worry about what happens when we say “well, she was just too much,” “he was too flamboyant,” “he looked so obviously Jewish,” “he was too big and too black.” I worry about what happens to our hearts and souls when we respond to injustice and oppression by asking “what did he do to deserve it?” rather than “what did I do to allow this to happen? How can I change it?”

Perhaps, a queer Jewish reading of this section of our Torah isn’t just about Joseph and his lifted heel, but is also about imagining ourselves as his brothers, being met with compassion and welcome in a strange and frightening place.

Perhaps, our lesson can be to tap into a deepening well of empathy, and hold on to the insights of queer people who have been building chosen family as we want to define it; who have been spreading the ties and obligations of kinship far and wide.

What might that mean for how Jewish communities welcome, celebrate, and show up for LGBTQ people? People of color? All of us on the margins?

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Posted on December 11, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Ask Asher: Home for the Holidays

Have a question about LGBTQ life? Jewish life? LGBTQ Jewish Life? Ask Asher! Send your questions to AskAsher@keshetonline.org and you might be featured in our next column.

asherAsher,
Like any college student, I’m both dreading and ready to come home to my family for holiday break.

I’ve been out to myself and my close friends for the past few years and I’m finally ready to take the step and come out to my family.

This year I’m bringing my boyfriend home with me, and I don’t want to introduce him as “my, um, friend.” I want to introduce him as “my boyfriend.” My parents are fairly liberal and accepting people, but I’m afraid it might be different when their own son comes out.

Do I warn them ahead of time? Drop the news at the start of a family dinner? Take them aside and tell them one at a time? I have no idea! I also need to know that it’s okay if I chicken out.

Signed,
Coming Home & Coming Out

Dear Coming Home & Coming Out,
My advice is to come out to your family before the holidays; give them time to adjust. If you can’t do it in person before the holiday, I would write them a letter. In the letter, I would ask that they wait to respond to you for at least a day; they are most likely going to have some really interesting reactions, and sometimes it’s best to process those feelings for a bit before giving voice to them. In short, some things cannot be unsaid, and it might be best for them to have some time to “not say” them to you.

Regarding your boyfriend, either you come out before the holidays and make it clear who he is, or you come home by yourself. Whatever you do, do not bring your boyfriend home to your family if they don’t already know who he really is to you. He is not a prop to be used, and treating him as the “tangible proof of your homosexuality” is not going to help your relationship—neither with him nor with your family.

The holidays are a time for family, and your coming out at the start of it makes the time all about you and your coming out, and that’s not fair to anyone—especially your poor, unsuspecting boyfriend, who will find himself in a rather uncomfortable situation. I know the impulse is to be as dramatic as possible (trust me, we’ve all been there), but you’re going to need to game this out a bit before you act; you are going to have to come out by yourself, on your own terms.

Happy Holidays!
Asher
[Editor's note: if your family needs support and resources, make sure they know about the Keshet Parent & Family Connection for parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews.]

Asher,
I was very moved by your answer to “My Brother’s Keeper.” My question comes from the other side of the situation—unlike “My Brother’s Keeper” who was mourning a loss when his sister transitioned and became his brother, I’m the one transitioning. I too have a protective family member, one who is so worried for my safety that they are standing in the way of my transitioning.

I’m constantly being told that expressing my gender isn’t something I should do—at least not outside of the house. How can I convince them that I will be okay?

Signed,
Not Afraid

Dear Not Afraid,
The question is whether or not you are listening to this advice. Assuming you are not, your family member will hopefully learn through experience that you are, in fact, safe. That said, be smart.

Trans people are more likely to become the victims of violence than their cisgendered counterparts, and you need to protect yourself and be safe. There is something to what your family member is saying; what you need to do is explain to him or her WHY there is no need to worry (you are going to safe spaces, you’re surrounded by friends, etc.).

Ultimately, the choice is yours, but rather than just telling this family member off, guide him or her through your choices so that fears can eventually be quelled.

Good luck!
Asher

Asher,
I am a Jewish (non-Orthodox) man, with two Jewish children and a Jewish partner. We are active in our Reform Temple, and our kids go to a Jewish day school. Our children’s birth family is Orthodox, and we are occasionally obligated to daven, or pray, in the birth grandmother’s Modern Orthodox Shul (where acceptance is limited, but they tolerate us).

My problem isn’t the cold shoulder from the members who have figured us out. My problem is trying to daven while surrounded by handsome young men.

"B'NaiJacobOttumwaMechitza" by Douglas W. Jones

“B’NaiJacobOttumwaMechitza” by Douglas W. Jones

I’m totally faithful to my husband, but the distraction is there. I almost never experience this in egalitarian settings, probably because the majority there is women and older couples.

The mechitza is having the opposite effect of its original intention on me! I feel too distracted to actually pray in this separated and segregated situation. Do you have any advice?

Signed,
A Distracted Eye

Dear Distracted Eye,
Prayer is a form of religious meditation; the repetition of the same lines and phrases with the goal of focusing your thoughts. One of the most important parts of meditation is allowing yourself to experience your thoughts, not repress them. Sex and sexual desire is part of what makes us tick. It is healthy and normal to be attracted to attractive people.

Instead of focusing on NOT noticing the cute guy standing next to you, take a moment to look at him (in a non-creepy way), appreciate his attractiveness, and then, when you’re ready, move on. I don’t know what your arrangement with your partner is, but you should be allowed to look at the menu, even if you can’t order anything.

You seem to be preoccupied with repressing your thoughts to make them go away, which, as we all know, never really works.

We are constantly surrounded by stimuli that distract us from the tasks we want to focus on. Sometimes the distraction is mild, sometimes it’s strong. You are the one who ultimately is in control of how susceptible you are to these distractions. So, try to work on how you react to these stimuli in a more positive way, and eventually, they won’t bother you so much.

If that doesn’t work, just follow this advice from “The Book of Mormon.”

Best of Luck!
Asher 

Posted on December 8, 2014

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Finding a Space to Feel Safe & Accepted: The Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton

One day at synagogue, my friend excitedly came up to me, and asked me to come to the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton with her. Now, I had no idea what she meant, but she went on to explain that is a weekend retreat for queer Jewish teens. It sounded cool, and she was really excited, so I said “sure, I’d go.”

Alex KohlI never expected what I’d find there. I identify as bisexual. I’ve never been particularly shy about anything, including my sexuality, but I never paraded it.

The phrase “I’m bisexual” always came out of my mouth as quietly as possible.

Most of my friends know, and the ones who don’t know because it just hasn’t come up. I’ve met a few people who have had issues with it—I’ve been told I’m “not natural” and that “being homophobic isn’t any worse than being homosexual”—but overall, most people I’ve met have been great about it.

However, at the Shabbaton, among a community of Jewish teens, people weren’t just accepting of my sexuality—they embraced it.

I was surrounded by people with every gender and sexuality under the sun, and I loved it. One of the aspects of being bisexual is that biphobia isn’t just a phenomenon among homophobic heterosexuals—I’ve experienced biphobia from members of the LGBTQ+ as well, including the statement “so you’re not really queer.”

At the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton, for the first time, I felt truly safe and completely accepted.

Safe is a word that gets tossed around a lot—a safe environment, a safe space, etc.—but that’s because having a space where you feel truly safe is a vital aspect to being human.

And regarding my sexuality, my safe space had been a few people here and there. But at the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton, I found a whole community who embraced me with arms wide open.

Giving Tuesday 2014That’s why I send rainbow-themed pictures to the friends I made on the Shabbaton. And why, when my female friend suggested wearing a tie and slacks to the next Shabbaton, I nodded enthusiastically.

And why, whenever I say the phrase “I’m bisexual,” I say it loudly.

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Posted on December 2, 2014

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Telling My Story for World AIDS Day

A large red ribbon hangs between columns in the north portico of the White House for World AIDS Day, 30 November 2007

A large red ribbon hangs between columns in the north portico of the White House for World AIDS Day, 30 November 2007

(Trigger warning: This post includes stories of suicide.)

I remember vividly the first time I heard the term “AIDS.” It was the Sally Jessy Raphael show right after I got home from school. I remember looking at the screen,  seeing people who were broken, who were abused, who, essentially were being put on a pedestal of shame for the world to see. My mother called out from the kitchen, “Turn that trash off. Those faggots are getting what they deserve.”

But I knew I was not unlike them.

AIDS and HIV related deaths have topped 39 million since the pandemic started. There are more than 35 million people currently living with the virus today, with a bit over one million of those individuals living in the United States. And while the virus does not discriminate, individuals in the LGBTQ community feel the impacts far differently. We tend to not have adequate access to health care, face inherent stress from the discrimination and harassment that is institutional in our country which is proven to impart lesser health outcomes. From my prospective, the most harmful is the stigma that continues to follow this disease for our community.

I realize I don’t tell my story often enough, and I find this to be a personal failure as a member of this community and as a human being. I will not use real names or places because the story is still very raw and honestly, I don’t think those wounds will ever heal.

When I was 19, I was newly liberated: reborn even. I had come out to my Mom and Dad, I was living on my own at University, and had a supportive group of friends around me.

Dustin and Mark were two of those friends.

They had been together for the better part of a decade and were the queer big brothers I never had. I navigated my first two relationships with their help; crying on their shoulders more than I’d like to admit. But, for the first time in my life, I had role models. I had people I looked up to. I had a future.

It was October and the weather had started turning. Mark was constantly getting sick, although no one really thought much of it. I knew the week before my birthday, Mark had a doctor’s appointment. On the night of my birthday, as I was busy prepping for the birthday shenanigans, I missed a call from Mark.

That night, I missed an opportunity to save a life.

Mark was calling because hours before, he had found out he had tested positive for HIV. This man that I knew, who was in a committed relationship, who had taught me how to be strong in the face of adversity, how to be proud about my differences, hung himself in his apartment.

The hours that passed were all a blur. I was in complete shock and all I wanted were answers. Unfortunately, my only access to those answers was Dustin.

And on November 2nd, just one day later, Dustin put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Later, we would find out that Dustin had been cheating and introduced the virus into their relationship.

I’m writing this story to tell you that ten years ago, I lost two of my best friends—my blood—to this virus known as HIV. But the story is unlike the stories of my elders; who watched their loved ones whither away in hospital beds in the 80s and 90s.

My friends did not die because of the virus. My friends died because they knew they would be treated differently. They died because of fear. They died because we as a community have not stepped up to educate.

My friends died because of STIGMA.

I’m not a great Jew. Some love to remind me the last time I stepped into Temple was for a friend’s Bat Mitzvah, and that was quite a few years ago. But I am educated enough to know that in synagogue, we speak all passages of the Torah. We don’t side step the ones we feel uncomfortable speaking, especially if we’re hanging out in Leviticus.

LGBTQ Jews are in a unique situation: we stand steadfast for social justice and humanity and we know we cannot be silent, even in the face of what we feel is uncomfortable.

The importance of kavod hamet, respecting the dead, is taught in our tradition. Remembering, and respecting, the dead is commemorated by reciting the mourner’s Kaddish during prayers.

Today, I ask you to begin your advocacy with our Jewish values. Take a moment to include in your thoughts those we have lost. Stand with your congregation, and recite Kaddish for those we have lost to the AIDS epidemic, those who have no one standing for them.

Hold in your prayers, and your memories, those who had no support, those who felt alone.

And, this World AIDS Day I challenge everyone reading this to call a friend, a neighbor, a coworker… anyone. Reach out to them and remind them that you’ll be there. If you’re feeling extra inspired, there are many different organizations that you can volunteer with—including your closest LGBTQ Community Center, as many of them work directly or indirectly with HIV/AIDS.

HIV/AIDS has taken so much from so many. Let us be kind. Let’s show the world that no one is alone in this fight.

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Posted on November 26, 2014

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This Thanksgiving I’m Thankful for…

unnamedWith Thanksgiving only a day away, I’m anticipating that moment during dinner—or perhaps during halftime—when we pause to share what we’re thankful for.

This year, while I celebrate all there is to be thankful for, I am still aware of the work that is left to be done. I am optimistic about the future, and ready to tackle the barriers to inclusion that still exist. I’m grateful, and ready to take on more.

So, here’s my “Things to be Thankful for” Thanksgiving list; what’s making yours?

1. This Thanksgiving I am thankful that over 64% of the U.S. population can marry the person they love. In 35 states—plus Washington, D.C.—same-sex couples have the freedom to marry.

2. This Thanksgiving, I will pause to reflect on the memory of the life of Leslie Feinberg, and be thankful for her writing and the work she accomplished. Feinberg, who identified as “an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist” was known for her transgender advocacy work, her writing, and her political organizing. She died on November 15th, leaving behind a legacy of fighting oppression.

3. This past year the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton brought together over 40 Jewish teenagers looking for a safe space. It was an honor to be a part of the weekend. I’m appreciative of the many conversations I had that opened my eyes to not just the challenges that today’s youth face, but also the amazing strength they possess. I’m thankful that so many young Jews found a place to feel safe, and thankful that registration is open for our next Shabbaton.

4. I’m thankful for the readers of the Keshet blog, and those who engage in meaningful conversation with us on our blog, through facebook, and on twitter. Having a safe space to share personal reflections, examinations of Judaism, and stories of inclusion is important to me—and I’m thankful that it is important to you as well.

5. And, of course, no Thanksgiving list would be complete without something lighthearted—like tiny hamsters enjoying a Thanksgiving meal.

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Posted on November 26, 2014

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Being Thankful: Communities & Identities

In my mind, Thanksgiving has a deeper connection with Judaism than with turkey or cranberry sauce.

kinnus 2013

Nearly 400 Jewish teenagers came together in Kansas City, MO, at Emtza Region USY’s 2013 Kinnus convention. Photograph by Zach Dalin.

Since eighth grade, I haven’t been home for a Thanksgiving dinner.

In the Emtza region of United Synagogue Youth (USY), which encompasses the chunk of the Midwest that’s west of Chicago, we hold our largest convention of the year over Thanksgiving weekend.

The most meaningful part of our Kinnus, “convention” in Hebrew, is the way that hotels in places like Minneapolis, St. Louis, Omaha, or Kansas City become oases of Jewish community for a weekend. Over the long weekend of Thanksgiving, a hotel ballroom became a makeshift synagogue, kosher food cafeteria, and center of Jewish life.

What made this experience so special, though, was the fact that it began with Thanksgiving dinner, during which we gathered around tables with friends old and new, and kindled a close community. During my last Kinnus, as we went around the table sharing what we were thankful for, I realized the important role that the Emtza region Jewish community played in my high school years.

This year, I’m thankful for the college I attend, Tufts University. I’m thankful for the opportunity to live in Boston, take classes that I enjoy, and make as many Belgian waffles as I want in the dining hall.

Beyond that, though, I’m thankful that I’ve found a new Jewish community and, more specifically, a Jewish community that celebrates queer identities.

This past weekend our Hillel held a Pride Shabbat, featuring two women who spoke about their experiences as queer individuals in their Jewish communities, services tailored to fit the pride theme with special readings from the Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, and a shabbat dinner featuring blurbs on the tables about queerness and Judaism and rainbow decorations on the walls. The shabbat made me appreciate the Jewish community at this school even more, because it truly welcomes and celebrates everyone in our Hillel community, and the student body of the school at large.

senior photoThis Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my new Jewish community of peers. Though I’ll miss the experience of forging a Jewish community with my friends, I am so grateful for the Jewish community fostered by the Hillel here at Tufts and the fact that it celebrates the intersection of Judaism and pride.

Ari also created community with over 40 of his LGBTQ & Ally Teen peers at the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton last year. This #GivingTuesday Keshet will be raising funds to support travel costs for one teen attendant at the Shabbaton. Learn more about the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton here.

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Posted on November 25, 2014

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Hints of “Queerness” from Our Ancestors, Our Sages, and Our God

lisa_1

Rabbi Lisa Edwards

Rabbi Lisa Edwards, of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), offered these words last week as leaders from day schools across Los Angeles came together to discuss concrete strategies and tools for creating more LGBTQ inclusive institutions at the Keshet Leadership summit in LA.

We come together in the midst of our annual study of the Book of Genesis, with its many examples of the presence of LGBTQ people—of alternative family structures and gender non-conformity. I thought to mention a few examples, in the hopes you’ll take opportunities to study these and others later on.

First, consider Sarai, matriarch of our people, who while unable to get pregnant, suggests that her husband Avram have a child with a surrogate (her handmaid Hagar). Our first alternative family structure—not only surrogacy, but one dad and two moms.

By the way, one of our Talmud sages, without a hint of irony or distress, amidst a discussion of the mitzvah of parenting, takes note of the long years of infertility of Sarah and Abraham, and suggests that our matriarch and patriarch appear to be tumtumim (people of indeterminate gender).

Rebecca and Eliezer by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Rebecca and Eliezer by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Later, and again without criticism, the Torah and our tradition show us there has always been gender non-conformity.  Consider Rebekah when first we meet her in Chayei Sarah—how “butch” is Rebekah!—strong enough to hoist bucketful after bucketful of water to water many camels.

And then Rebekah and Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, whom we meet in Toldot, remind us that there have always been boys who present more “macho” and boys who present more “sissy”—consider the rough and tumble hairy hunter Esau—“a man of the outdoors” (25:27)—twin but certainly not an identical one, to his smooth, mild brother Jacob, who prefers to stay at home and try vegetarian recipes (red lentil stew, for example, 25:29).

Or, in the Genesis stories still to come, consider the children of Jacob:

How Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, “went out to see the daughters of the land” [34:1].  Did she “go out” to see the “daughters” or did she “come out”? We know nothing of what Dinah thought or felt or intended or did on her visit. She never speaks a word in Torah, and we don’t know what eventually became of her.  We do know that when she ventured forth, away from home, to visit other women, Shechem, the Hittite prince, “saw her, took her, lay her down and raped her.” [34:2]

How many women and LGBTQ people today find themselves unsafe to venture forth alone anywhere in the world? And how many lesbians have been rudely told or violently “shown” that their attraction to women is only because they need a man to show them “how it’s done”?

Jacob blesses Joseph and gives him the coat.

Jacob blesses Joseph and gives him the coat.

Why does Joseph’s coat of many colors make his brothers so angry? Were they simply jealous that Jacob favored their little brother? What if something else was going on? What if Joseph himself favored the coat because he was drawn to different colors? Because he liked its length or it felt like a dress to him?

What if his brothers bullied him for being too feminine and his father’s favor of the coat was a way of telling Joseph that, whoever he chose to be, Jacob would love him always?

It shouldn’t be surprising that in our tradition we find hints and even discussion that “queerness” existed, as well as a certain comfort level with it on the part of our ancestors, of our sages and of God.

What should be surprising is that so many of us are still taken by surprise at these suggestions.

Recently, I sat around a table with seven other gay men and lesbians between the ages of 55 and 71, and told them about Keshet’s Leadership Project. They all join me in thanking you for doing the work, for already understanding, already knowing, that a leadership summit like this one is necessary. We speculated a bit on what our younger years might have been like—how much better those years might have been (and later ones as well)—had our teachers and schools—especially religious schools—set LGBTQ inclusion as a priority.

Do not oppress the stranger,” one of them said, we’re taught that over and over again but it doesn’t always register with people that a stranger could be your own child or your own parent or sibling.

“Do not hide yourself from your own kin,” we read in the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning, and when will everyone come to understand that hiding yourself isn’t only what a person who is “in the closet” does, it’s also what people do when they sense someone is in the closet but don’t open the door and invite that person to come out into open arms and open minds and open hearts.

field-corner_hpWe are told, said another of my friends, DO NOT harvest all the way to the corner of the fields, but leave some there so that the vulnerable ones among us might come and find sustenance, might share in the fields of plenty, might glean nourishment for themselves and not just “depend on the kindness of strangers.” This mitzvah is not only about physical sustenance, she said, though that’s vital; it’s also about spiritual sustenance—that’s why there are Jewish day schools; and it’s also about emotional sustenance—if you are asked (either subtly or outright) to deny or ignore a core part of yourself each time you enter your home or shul or school, how long before you’d stop trying to come in at all, much less stay in?

“Diversity is what we all have in common,” someone said last night. Diversity is what God created and delighted in from the first week of creation and ever since, saying gleefully over and over—ki tov—how good is this, and even tov ma’od —how very good indeed!  So shouldn’t we, created in God’s image, also embrace diversity and delight in it just like God does?

Indeed we should.

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Posted on November 24, 2014

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