I spend my workdays gathering and leveraging financial resources for grassroots community organizers and artists working at the intersection of sexual orientation, gender identity, and racial and economic justice. As a fundraiser at Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, I am a professional queer.
One of the biggest perks of my job is that I get to sit with people who have been supporting lesbian feminist organizing in the U.S. for twenty or thirty years and hear the stories they tell. The people I meet have often gone on incredible journeys of lost or compromised employment, complicated family relationships, losing and finding faith communities, geographic relocation, all while navigating feelings of being simultaneously privileged in some ways and oppressed in others.
Hearing stories from these community members has made me reflect a lot on mine. And, the donors often wrap up their tales with a request to know how I ended up sitting across from them. I don’t have just one story, or course, but every version I have ever found myself telling comes down to this: I am a queer activist because I am a Jew.
I was raised in an affluent community with a big Jewish population, high levels of education, and almost no Republicans. My synagogue prided itself–and still does–on providing shelter every night for eight homeless men, five nights a week, for most of the year. My Jewish community emphasized a set of social justice values: standing up for and standing with your neighbor who is oppressed, questioning authority, and supporting impoverished people in and around your community.
We were taught that we could not allow our current and unprecedented level of acceptance by wider American society to trump our understanding of what it means for a community to be powerless in the face of systemic oppression. We were taught that as Jews it was our job to fight for a more just and whole world.
That is the context into which I came out: not a community without homophobia, but one in which I knew that I would have access to a higher set of principles if and when incidents of homophobia happened.
A year after telling my family and friends that I “liked girls,” I went to a weekend advocacy training for teens in Washington, D.C., at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. The training included optional issue briefings on sexuality-based employment discrimination, hate crimes, and funding for AIDS research. That weekend, which ended with a trip to Capitol Hill to lobby for the issues we cared about at our legislators’ offices, was my first experience publicly arguing for LGBT rights. It happened not only in a Jewish context but because my Jewish community was committed to teaching its young people how to fight for the causes we cared about.
After I came out of the closet, I had gone looking for other LGBTQ people my age besides the ones at school, and when I found them, it turned my world upside-down.
The teens I met at the LGBT Community Center’s drop-in program had life experiences totally different from mine, and those differences broke over and over again along racial and economic lines. I met people who had been kicked out of their homes because they were gay, threatened with violence over their gender presentation, suspended from school when they defended themselves against homophobic violence, and harassed regularly by police. I became intensely aware of how my white privilege and wealthy background had not only shielded me from experiencing similar things, but from even knowing those things were possible.
Getting involved in a multiracial, cross-class, queer community had attuned me to types of injustice I had never before noticed, and growing up in a justice-minded Jewish community meant I could not just stand by and watch.
Six months after my trip to Washington D.C., I marched in the streets of Manhattan in memory of Matthew Shepard, Amadou Diallo, and Abner Louima, calling for an end to anti-gay hate crimes and to racist police violence–and the people I walked with were Jews I had met in D.C. and queer people I had met at the Center.
I was raised by a community less than two generations removed from violence at the hands of the state in the old country. My community still remembered facing discrimination at the hands of landlords, employers, and colleagues here in what was supposed to be the Goldene Medine (or golden county). Despite this history, my community remained committed to a notion that a more whole world was possible with enough human effort and determination.
My Jewish community taught me that we all have important work to do to bring justice, and that while the work might be difficult, it was neither impossible nor negotiable. I am deeply fortunate to have the cushions of economic security, a high-quality education, and an incredibly supportive family that are unavailable to many LGBTQ people. My Judaism teaches me that my access to those buffers is precisely what must compel me to fight for those who don’t have them.
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Rabbi (to be) Ari Naveh recently shared how he balances the line between being a gay rabbi—and a rabbi who is gay. Here he takes his learning, as well as his years of work with the RAC, and puts it in practice, examining why the LGBT and Jewish community should be paying attention to two Supreme Court cases.
An arts & crafts supply chain from Oklahoma is paving the way for legalized discrimination. Think I’m being dramatic? I assure you, I’m not.
A few months ago, the Supreme Court decided to hear two cases: Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wagon Specialties v. Sebelius. Both of these cases challenge the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that businesses must include contraception in their healthcare plans. In both cases, the owners of the two corporations claim that the contraception mandate violates their first amendment right of freedom to exercise their religion. These owners claim that the religious rights of their corporations are being infringed upon—in other words, since the owners of Hobby Lobby are Christian, Hobby Lobby itself is Christian as well. If the idea of a non-sentient corporation having its own religious beliefs sounds a bit strange to you, that’s because it is.
Four years ago, in an unfortunate landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that corporations should be granted full permission to exercise their first amendment right to free speech in the context of direct donations to all manner of political campaigns. Put simply, the Court stated that corporations are people. The repercussions of this case on the already fraught status of monetary influence on political campaigns were, in a word, ginormous. But we are not here to discuss the unnervingly complicated issues of campaign finance law; I’ll save that for another blog post that you can read when you’ve got hopeless insomnia and that Ambien just isn’t working for you.
No, this is about how a Supreme Court case about campaign financing, and another about birth control, will affect LGBTQ Americans in serious, and terrifying ways—and why the Jewish community needs to pay attention. This is about what keeps me up late at night, worrying about the safety of LGBTQ Americans, and what my Jewish community can do to support equality.
Now, you may be asking yourself: What does this mean for the LGBTQ community—and the Jewish community? Aside from the overwhelmingly negative effects this case could have millions of women in the United States and their access to contraception—access to which Jewish tradition pretty much categorically supports if the Court sides with Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wagon Specialties, discrimination against the LGBTQ community in all sorts of forms will now have the legal right to be couched in the extraordinarily misleading language of “freedom of religious expression.”
You may recall the case of the Oregon bakery whose owners refused to bake a cake for a gay couple about to get married in nearby Washington State. Their refusal was on religious grounds, as they claimed that gay marriage stomped all over their belief in “traditional” marriage. The case went to a state Labor Board, who ruled against the bakery, claiming that it was in blatant discrimination of the rights of the couple.
However, if the Supreme Court rules for Hobby Lobby, that bakery would be completely within its rights as a Christian—that’s the bakery, not the owners—to refuse service to all sorts of people with whom it may disagree on religious grounds: gay couples, non-married couples, whatever. So fine, you may say: if a business wants to actively refuse service to any number of prospective clients, thus, you know, hurting its own profits, then zey gezunt, that’s their own silly problem. However, It gets worse: a “religious” company/factory/school/business could claim that it is well within its freedom of religious expression to not hire, fire, refuse to promote, taunt openly, or refuse any benefits to any and all LGBT employees, prospective employees or their spouses. A “religious” apartment complex could handily refuse to rent to someone living with HIV/AIDS, a same-sex couple, or anyone within the LGBT community; “religious” pharmacies could refuse to stock and sell contraceptives, HIV medication, condoms, or any sort of item that may be “against their religious beliefs.”
Our community has been working too hard and long to ensure that such blatant discrimination is legislated into oblivion where it belongs. With one swift bang of the gavel, the Supreme Court could terminate any real prospect of that legislation ever seeing the light of day, thus almost guaranteeing discrimination in the workplace, in medical care, in housing, and virtually everywhere else in this great nation, all for the sake of “religious freedom.”
Maintaining the freedom to practice one’s religion is no doubt vital, and – it should go without saying– already guaranteed to us in the Constitution. As a burgeoning Jewish professional, I know full well the real dangers of denying somebody’s legitimate right to practice their faith, and the even worse dangers when someone else believes their right to ‘practice their religion’ trumps your right as a citizen. However, what Hobby Lobby and the Conestoga Wagon Specialties stores are attempting to portray is not religious discrimination, it is homophobia, misogyny and racism masked in religious doublespeak, and showing a real chance of being codified into law.