In June of 2001, when I was 16 years old, I went to my very first New York City Pride Parade.
Having just come out less than year earlier, I was equal parts excited and anxious about the spectacle that I was about to be a part of. Excited because this would mark my first foray into one of the most seminal events on the gay calendar, but anxious because I had no idea what it meant to participate in it.
I was so new to the community, and so very, very young that I really did not have any concept of what it meant to be proud. I mean, I had slowly developed a community of friends through this incredible organization called Pride for Youth, which hosted a weekly coffeehouse for LGBT teens every Friday evening, and which I credit sincerely with helping me to develop and cultivate my own identity. Without Pride for Youth, I would not be anywhere near able to have any pride in who I am, let alone be able to write about it in a national blog. So I saw the Parade sort of as an opportunity to show off this new, still very fresh identity, and to share in a day of celebration with other people of that same—or similar—identity.
Truth be told, however, save for getting a bit…closer with a friend of a friend (sorry mom!) I don’t remember much about that parade, except feeling…overwhelmed.
So many scantily clad, unbelievably beautiful bodies gyrating to ever-pulsating music, balloons and rainbows as far as the eye could see, cheering, clapping, and dancing. I certainly felt swept up in the extreme joy that pervaded all of lower Manhattan, but I’m not sure if I felt pride. It all just seemed so…surface, as if the ecstasy of the moment betrayed a sense of apprehension underneath; dancing because as gay individuals, we didn’t have the rights to do much else.
And, in the summer of 2001, we very much did not. There was scant representation of LGBT characters in media, if at all, hate crimes legislation had just stalled in the US Congress, as the specter of Matthew Shepherd’s gruesome death still loomed large, and marriage equality was prohibitively, if not laughably, far into the future. We needed the exuberance of the Pride Parades to remind ourselves just how fabulous we were, since the rest of society didn’t quite get it yet.
13 years later, and our communal status has grown exponentially. Our rights as US citizens are at an all-time high, with 19 states—and the incredible District of Columbia—giving full equality in marriage to LGB citizens, states like Maryland signing unprecedented anti-discrimination legislation into law, and signs that gay is fast becoming “the new normal.” With every passing year, we have more to celebrate, as the rest of society catches up with our own community’s realization of how awesome we are.
Certainly this is reason enough to be proud. To that, I would respond with a very qualified yes. Just as many in society recently—and spectacularly—instructed a certain Princeton undergrad to check his privilege, I urge us all to check our pride. Not because it may lead to arrogance, or haughtiness—we’re not doing quite that well yet—but lest it lead to complacency. Our accomplishments are great, and ever-growing. Gay representatives, judges, senators, and football players are amazing, as are bearded Eurovision winners, and they will help round out models of all shapes, sizes, and genders for LGBT youth. But the recent Supreme Court rulings leave me hesitant at best for the Hobby Lobby case, and what will amount to legally sanctioned LGBT discrimination if the Court rules for Hobby Lobby. Do we run the risk of being too busy celebrating, and not fighting?
With each step forward we take as a community, society seems to mandate that we take about a half step back. This is of course a vast improvement from my first parade in 2001, when any small inch forward resulted in blocks of pushback, but we must forever pepper our pride with action. We need pride, it fuels us forward, ever closer to each other, and to the rest of the world. May our pride remind us that our work is never done.
This year will mark the 9th year that I have been marching in the Cadillac Barbie Indy Pride Parade in Indianapolis. My son had been out a few years and I took the plunge by joining other members of my PFLAG chapter to march in the parade. I have to say that I was not prepared for what I would witness that morning.
But as I marched in Pride that first year, I learned that not all LGBT people are as fortunate as Matthew. Before the parade started, people began lining the sidewalks along the parade route. At the appointed time, my group began marching. One of the women walking with me was another Jewish mom. She was an “old-timer” and I was a novice.
We walked very slowly down the street behind our PFLAG banner. I was smiling and waving, and then I heard a roaring sound. As the crowd noticed our banner, they began cheering and shouting—”We love you PFLAG—thank you—thank you!” I looked around and realized that it was LGBT adults who were doing the yelling and cheering. I looked at the woman I was marching with and even though she was smiling, she had tears streaming down her face.
I knew that too many LGBT young people faced scorn and isolation from their parents, and were bullied by their classmates. But until that moment, I hadn’t understood that the LGBT adults who lined the sidewalks were still suffering from the pain of rejection from their parents—many of whom were not alive anymore. That pain never went away.
And then I realized that we—the supportive parents of LGBT children—represented the parents that these people never had.
I kept waving and smiling, but now I, too, had tears running down my face.
Annette Gross has continued to support her son and her community by founding the Indianapolis chapter of Keshet Parent & Family Connection program. The Keshet Parent and Family Connection is a diverse network of parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews across the country who are available to offer support to other parents dealing with any stage of their child’s coming out process. Anyone can join or start their own chapter – visit our website to see more!
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Every June people across the world celebrate LGBTQ Pride. Take a look at some of our resources and prepare for a fantastic June!
Download your own Pride posters, stickers, and a graphic to help you celebrate and show your pride!
III. Sermons and D’vrei Torah
Looking for some words of inspiration? Check out these sermons and d’vrei Torah.
- Pride! by Kadin Henningsen
- Gay Pride, Red Cows, and the Cleansing Power of Ritual (Parashat Chukat and Parashat Balak) by Caryn Aviv
- It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Parashat Korach) by Rabbi Karen Perolman
- And a sweet article about a family outing to NYC Pride, Parade Queen: The Day My Niece Marched for Gay Pride by Marjorie Ingall
- This week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Be’Ha’alotecha, examines the Israelites’ struggles with their “coming out” experiences. Take a look at Rabbi Karen Perolman’s interpretation.
- What is Jewish About Gay Pride? by David Levy
IV. Stories from the Community
This month we will be sharing stories from our community of moments of Pride. Keep an eye out on our blog, as we’ll be updating and adding stories throughout the month. And, if you’re interested in sharing your own story, email Jordyn to set something up!
At the young age of 5, I started what would be a decade of denial. I should’ve known I was gay when I was in preschool, and I asked my mom if there was a country where I could marry my best friend, Rachel.
I should’ve known I was gay when I put it on my calendar every Monday for five years to “Pick A New Crush.” Every other girl in my class had a crush on a boy, so I would take a look around a classroom and pick the boy that wasn’t picking his nose. I didn’t have high standards.
I should’ve known I was gay when I watched the movie Stranger Than Fiction over and over again just for the one scene when Maggie Gyllenhaal danced in the bakery.
I should’ve known I was gay, and deep down I did know I was gay, but society told me I had to be something I’m not, and I obeyed.
I came out for the first time to one of my closest friends at a convention for my youth group, United Synagogue Youth (USY). She immediately accepted me but I was still slapping myself in the face when I saw a cute girl and constantly praying to G-d to please, Hashem, help me be “normal.”
I came out to a group of peers on April 4th, 2014 at the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton. I drove up from my New York suburb to Middle Of Nowhere, Connecticut (Falls Village) with my best friend from USY to the Isabella Freedman Center.
With shaking hands, I grabbed my suitcase and walked into a room with around 50 Jewish teens. Some draped rainbow flags over their shoulders and others chatted about the best challah recipe for Shabbat dinner. From learning about the hardships that other LGBT Jewish teens have endured to doing services on a mountain top, I felt the largest connection to Judaism I have ever experienced and my hatred for myself transformed into an overwhelming sense of pride. April 4th to 6th is the weekend that changed my life for the better.
Walking into my suburban public school the next day was a nightmare. I feared being taunted, judged, losing the friends I had just finally made.
But it was exactly the opposite.
My day started with a phone call from another Keshet Teen LGBTQ Shabbaton attendee, congratulating me and wishing me luck. I only met that teen a few months ago, but they are now not only a friend, but family. I got messages of support from people in school and people in my synagogue, people who live next door to me, and people who practice Judaism in Africa.
Especially this month, I’m so incredibly thankful for the Jewish community for teaching me that different is not just “ok,” but incredible.
We Jews are all over the place and the sense of family—whether the conversation is about coming out or what horseradish brand is on your seder plate—is so immense and welcoming. No matter what, I know that I am branded with the imprint of my grandmother’s matzo ball recipe and that my rainbow flag is proudly stained with grape juice from my Shabbat dinner.
It is September 5, 2010. I am in my dorm room at Tufts University, having just arrived to campus a couple weeks earlier for Pre-Orientation. My heart is racing. I am staring at my computer screen, full of white and blue pixels, as my hand hovers over my laptop’s touchpad. It feels like the last few weeks have all been leading up to this moment. Yet, I have no idea if people will even notice this moment, if they’ll even talk about it. I hesitate, yet I make my decision. I click the appropriate button to save the changes. My Facebook now lists me as interested in men.
What does it mean to have pride in one’s identities? Can we trace our pride? Figure out when we first acquired it? Measure it? Is our pride indicated by a facebook “interested in” section? A picture? A status?
As a queer person living in a heteronormative world, I was taught not to take pride in my identity before I even knew what that identity was. I still remember when I first began feeling attracted towards the same sex and was disgusted by myself. I still remember when I used to try my hardest to change my identity. I still remember when I vowed to myself that I would never reveal my same-sex attractions.
And yet, things change. I cannot pinpoint when exactly I began to be proud of my identity. It was definitely some time during freshman year, after I had already come out of the closet. But was it when I changed my Facebook “interested in” to men that I was truly prideful? I don’t think so.
For me, coming out of the closet was a necessary step before I could be proud to be queer. Being proud means not just accepting one’s identity but rejoicing in it. Embracing it. Loving it. Knowing that despite the pain and hardships it has caused you, you will not reject it. That you will own it. Taking pride in your identity is when you no longer only reveal that identity when it is unavoidable but freely offer up that information because you have nothing to be ashamed of. Because you don’t.
For me, having pride in my queer identity is also about having pride in my Jewish queer identity. For too long, I thought that my queer identity and Jewish identity were in conflict. For too long, I thought that I would have to choose one over the other.
Coming to Tufts Hillel changed that thought process. At Tufts Hillel, it became clear that not only were those two identities not in conflict but they could even complement each other.
Yet, during my first couple of years at Tufts, I could not get a worrisome thought out of my head. What if my Jewish community here does not reflect the real world? Will I be able to find communities outside of a liberal University’s college campus where both my queer and Jewish identities will be welcome?
Interning at Keshet my junior year taught me that I should not be worried. At Keshet, not only did I learn about some of the amazing Jewish communities and organizations across the country that are not only accepting but embracing queer Jews, I also saw firsthand the work that Keshet’s employees were doing nationally to make sure even more Jewish institutions were actively embracing queer Jews. I saw what it meant to work in an office full of many people who were proud to be both Jewish and queer. For me, having pride in my queer identity meant I also had to have pride in my Jewish queer identity.
Next week marks the holiday of Shavuot. This holiday, which is celebrated seven weeks after Passover, marks the giving of the Torah. For a wide variety of reasons, Shavuot is celebrated by eating dairy. One reason I’ve heard is because having the Torah is as sweet as milk and honey. I’ve also heard that upon receiving the Torah the dietary laws of kosher became immediately clear –and the only dishes around were dairy dishes.
Regardless of the rational behind it, eating a whole lot of dairy has become the common practice for celebrating Shavuot. To celebrate the occasion I gathered a group of friends to try baking a rainbow cheesecake. Too often the LGBT experience isn’t accounted for in the Jewish community so what better way to introduce the idea of inclusion than by bringing some literal rainbows to the table?
To start things off we found a recipe for tie-dye cheesecake from the Disney Chef. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:
- 1 package red velvet cake mix (plus ingredients to make it)
- 1 1/2 lb. cream cheese
- 1 1/3 cup sugar
- 5 large eggs
- 16 oz sour cream
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2 tsp vanilla
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- food coloring in primary colors to make red, orange, yellow, green, teal, and purple.
After it’s mixed, pour 1/3 of the red velvet cake batter into a 9 inch springform pan. Then, go ahead and bake it according to the directions on the box. You can also make cupcakes with the rest of the batter, so nothing goes to waste.
Next comes more mixing. Set your electronic mixer to low and beat the cream cheese until light and fluffy.
Add sugar, a little at a time, and beat until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well.
Add flour, vanilla, lemon juice, and sour cream and mix.
Next divide the batter evenly into 6 bowls. Use food coloring to create your colors of the rainbow.
Next, spoon the colored batter over the red velvet cake (which should still be in the springform.) You can either try to layer the colors, or create a mosaic of colors when you spoon the batter onto the cake. Leave 3/4 inch of space (at least) between the top of the batter and the top of the pan.
If you’ve gone with the mosaic pattern (like we did) and you want to create a tie-dye effect (like we wanted to), use a toothpick to slightly swirl the batter.
Place in the middle of the top rack of the oven and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
An important thing to know about the baking process — it will take a while. After the initial baking time of an hour and 15 minutes has passed, prop open the oven door and leave the cake in the warmed oven for an additional hour. After that hour has passed, remove from the oven and allow it to cool to room temperature. After that, you’re still not ready to eat it. Refrigerate the creation for at least 12, but ideally 24, hours. Then…. enjoy!
In October 2013, when I bought my tickets to see Cher’s Dressed to Kill tour, which would be playing down the street from my house in the then-distant future of May 2014, my mother asked with mock hurt in her voice why I hadn’t invited her to see the show with me.
At the time, I thought it was a bit of a ridiculous request. Although my mother had taken me to my earliest concerts in my pre-teen days, I couldn’t really envision her enjoying a stadium show at age 67. I imagined the show would be unbearably loud for her, and over the last couple of years, her health had slipped, and she just seemed too frail for that kind of environment. Plus, what interest did my mom have in the electronic dance diva that Cher has become in the most recent evolution of her career?
At the same time, I remembered a long-forgotten moment my mother and I had shared when I was in high school. My mother had been my synagogue’s youth director, and USY was my number one activity, so we spent a lot of time together. While most teenagers might have bristled at having their mothers present in these settings, I never let the presence of my mother get in the way of my teenage shenanigans, whether that meant sneaking out of my room at a convention to surreptitiously hook up, dressing in a costume that was little more than underwear for a trip to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or, as I just remembered—playing Cher to my mother’s Sonny Bono for a lip sync contest in the basement of my synagogue. (Our “I Got You Babe” brought the house down. Sadly, this predated the YouTube era, and I’m not even sure if photographs were taken.) This same comfort and closeness served us well in my adulthood, and many of my friends from Keshet remember my parents marching with us in the Pride Parade in matching Keshet t-shirts.
My mom passed away at the end of December, and although she had been in declining health, her death was a shock. Judaism’s mourning rituals provide a gradual plan for coping, setting out an eleven-month process for children who’ve lost a parent that balances the need for solitude and grief with the need to stay connected to community.
One profound way our tradition makes this period distinct is by removing the mourner from “public joy,” meaning someone who has suffered a loss typically avoids parties (including weddings and b’nai mitzvah), theaters and cinemas, and concerts. As with many Jewish customs, there are loopholes, particularly if your line of work requires you to participate in these kinds of events: a wedding photographer, for example, isn’t expected to stop working for the year. As someone who’s semi-professionally involved in the theater, I knew I’d need to figure out what felt right in that arena for me. I gave away some tickets, made an extra effort to ensure that shows I saw were directly related to projects I was working on, and so forth.
The Cher concert was months away. I had time to figure it out. But I knew that I couldn’t miss it—not because I cared so much about Cher, but because it was one of the few things coming up in my life that I had shared with my mom in the last months of hers.
Going to the concert wasn’t the easiest choice I’ve made. My section was filled with women who reminded me of my mother, and the number of times Cher herself mentioned her age—one year older than my mom—kept bringing my mom to the forefront of my mind. But at the same time, enjoying the songs that had been part of the bond between my mother and me reinforced in a visceral way how I remain connected to my mother even though she’s gone. And of course, Cher’s stock in trade is songs about surviving and moving forward despite loss. And even thought I know she meant it in a different way than I heard it that night, Cher helped me believe in life after love.
We’re incredibly grateful to Yiscah for sharing this excerpt from her forthcoming book, 40 Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living. She describes her book as her “memoir of the joys and struggles with my own spirituality, gender identity, and commitment to living true to myself.” You can learn more about Yishcah here and learn more about the book here.
On July 3, 1981, I wake up to my thirtieth birthday stressed, exhausted, deflated. I wake up to this nightmare of reality every day. I ask myself, “Why is this day different than any other day?” I answer, “It isn’t.” I ask myself, “Am I really in Patchogue? Why am I not waking up in Israel? Is this really my life?” I recall how ten years earlier I celebrated my twentieth birthday on my first visit to Israel. Why is this day different than any other day? Today, on my thirtieth birthday, I am more aware than ever before of my own suffering.
Each morning when I realize I am awake, as I observe the Jewish tradition, I utter a statement of thanksgiving to God for the blessing of waking up to another day of life. The very first words a Jew utters, while still in bed, are “modeh ahni”—I thank you. Each morning I somehow muster up the wherewithal to utter modeh ahni. The very first two-syllable word that my breath releases into the world each morning belies the truth. My life is a curse. Even grammar betrays me. The Hebrew language is gender defined. So, not only am I saying “modeh,” thank you, and not meaning it, I am using the masculine form of the verb, and not “modah,” in the feminine. Even my lie is lying. While my lack of thankfulness is the essence of the lie, even the way I express it is not in truth.
I imagine what my life would be like if I could say modah ahni and mean it. I imagine what miracle it would take for me to wake up feeling grateful for the blessing of life, rather than cursed. I imagine waking up so grateful that my very first words would be to simply say to my Creator, “thank You,” and to really mean it! Impossible!
And I know. I know exactly what my life would have to be like for that to happen, and I also know that I might as well dream to sprout wings and soar upward into the sky. In those years, the reality that my body could actually become that of a woman, literally, totally evaded me. I had no idea that as a caterpillar, entrapped in my own skin, I could indeed undergo a metamorphosis and emerge into a butterfly.
So, I wake up in hiding, I go through the motions of the day in hiding, and I go to sleep in hiding. I am petrified that someone will find out who I really am. After all, I myself am petrified of who I really am!
According to education theorist Rudine Simms Bishop, fiction should serve as both a mirror and a window. That is, books should both reflect the realities of their readers’ lived experiences and allow readers to see inside the thoughts and feelings of others. In this spirit, here are some of my favorite contemporary young adult (YA) books—that is, books for teen readers—that feature LGBTQ and Jewish themes.
In “Princes” in David Levithan’s short story collection How They Met, and Other Stories (Knopf, 2008), 17-year-old Jon’s parents are hesitant about letting him invite the super-hot Graham to his brother Jeremy’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah. But Jeremy insists that everyone should be able to bring the date of their choice. Like all of David Levithan’s writing, this story is sweet, romantic, and a lot of fun.
In Believe by Sarah Aronson (Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner, 2013), teenage Janine, an aspiring fashion designer, survived a Jerusalem suicide bombing that killed both her parents. When a preacher from her past appears in her small Pennsylvania town, Janine and her lesbian aunt, a former officer in the Israeli army, are forced to redefine who they are and who they want to be.
Don’t forget to check out small independent presses! Grunge Gods and Graveyards by Kimberly G. Giarratano, coming in June 2014 from Red Adept, is the story of a girl and a ghost set against the backdrop of the 1996 music scene. While Lainey’s helping her ghostly crush Danny discover the identity of his murderer, she’s also coming to terms with her Jewish roots and her best friend’s unexpected love interest.
Starglass by Phoebe North (Simon & Schuster, 2013) takes place in a secular Jewish dystopia in outer space. (Yes, really.) Growing up on the spacecraft Asherah, Terra has never known anything other than the rigid rules of her society . . . until she stumbles on something that changes everything. Characters juggle love (gay and straight), friendship, and emerging adult responsibilities in a futuristic world where well-known Hebrew words and expressions have subtly shifted meanings. A sequel, Starbreak, will be released in July.
Numerous other YA books feature Jewish themes and minor characters who identify as LGBTQ, including Forgive Me Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (Little, Brown, 2013), Intentions by Deborah Heiligman (Knopf, 2012), and the older If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson (Putnam, 1998).
If you’re a Jewish LGBTQ teenager, you can see your own priorities, challenges, and triumphs mirrored in these terrific YA books. If you’re not, they provide a window for learning about diverse identities and experiences.