“Why are you doing this?”
I hear this question frequently when people learn that I write to help parents understand how LGBTQ issues affect their teens’ lives. I am not a professor of gender studies or a lesbian celebrity. I am a middle-aged happily married heterosexual mom, who fits stereotypes appallingly well. (Yes, even the 10 years in a minivan!) My previous careers weren’t even focused around writing.
Usually, I sense that the questioners expect drama close to home: which one of my children has just come out, or which friend of theirs has been bullied or thrown out of his/her home? I almost hate to disappoint them, but my motivation is boringly common. I just want to be a more effective parent. Ok, maybe, a more successfully nosy parent? Maybe it’s the same thing: I want to understand my kids’ world a little better.
I grew up in the 70′s in Baltimore: I joke that John Waters wasn’t even out then. (He did the puppet show at my third birthday party, and some of my friends would say that explains A LOT, but that’s another story.)
Of course, I had lesbian teachers and camp counselors, and surely some of those theater kids I hung out with were queer. Also of course, none was out and orientation was almost never discussed. When whispers came up, the default defense was a denial. Not until college did I know out gay and lesbian people, and experience an even somewhat inclusive setting.
Happily for the world, today’s teens and tweens generally have a different experience. Every day seems to bring us another step closer to equal rights and equal inclusion: same-sex marriage progress is all over the news, entertainment and sports stars come out with less and less fanfare, and queer relationships are beginning to be “normal” in television and movie plotlines. This makes it easier for teens to recognize and be authentic about their gender identities and attractions, but it adds an extra layer of social issues to carefully navigated by people with, let’s face it, imperfect judgment and undeveloped social maturity. And heightened sensitivity! Tween and teen years are minefields of awkwardness, embarrassment and hurt feelings, and it’s often hard for parents to help as it is.
I had promised myself I would be as frank and unflinching as possible in any kind of relationship and/or sex talk with my kids. I thought I was doing a pretty good job. But, a few years ago, despite being comfortable with queer friends and colleagues in my adult life, I found myself stumbling in conversations with kids about LGBT sex and relationships. Yikes! Bias I thought I had left behind? I looked hard at what was making me squirm: it was the newness to me of the idea of same-sex crushes and gender identity crisis at that age.
The idea of one or more of my kids and any of their friends not being heterosexual was fine in principle, but wait, did this mean I should rethink slumber parties? The values I wanted to communicate about intimacy shouldn’t depend on the gender of the partner… but how do you translate “virginity” if the situation isn’t heterosexual and cis-gendered?
When your kids ask you questions it’s a privilege (although I certainly didn’t see that in the moment on that bus). So, determined to have good, current-world answers I went looking for a book of advice. I looked in the Parenting section, but found that most anything related to these topics is shelved in LGBT Interest. But this is just the point, I thought, even straight people with straight kids could use a few more clues and cues. Maybe they’d need a cliché straight soccer mom to write such a book. Of course, I don’t write so much as collect and curate advice from current and former teens and parents, and review the science. After scores of interviews and hours in scientific journals, you can find my work in a blog (ummaboutthat.com) and a book (coming).
One big realization is that “perfect” parenting can happen even when conversations stumble. Saying, “gee, that’s so different from my sixth grade experience” is already the beginning of a great answer. Small things in our actions and reactions can make a huge difference in what we learn from our kids, in what they take away from us, and in how that feels – and that will be the topic of my next post.
One day each year, students across the country pledge to take some form of silence in order to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment.
Learn how your Jewish community can support Day of Silence.
Coming out is hard. Coming out to your family at Shabbat dinner is really hard. Take a look at how one family reacted to their son’s news, and help us work towards a truly inclusive Jewish community.
I am a Modern Orthodox Jew. As a Jewish educator, I have written, spoken and taught about homosexuality and our need as a community to address this issue within the framework of Halacha, or Jewish law, for many years. I had already been an advocate for the GLBTQ community for decades when one of our four children, our daughter Rachie, came out more than four years ago.
Why? Because I feel that as religious Jews, we have a moral imperative to insure that all members of our community are safe, valued and healthy. We are taught to use the midah of compassion, as we do for so many other issues.
Four years ago when Rachie was twenty two years old, she called me and my husband, and in the course of our conversation, basically said, “Mom, I am seeing someone I really care about and this person is a woman. I am gay.” Neither of us were surprised.
As an educated person, I am certain that biology and “how we are wired” is just the way G-d makes us. Further, I am aware that 10 to 15 percent of any community is on the gay spectrum, and there is no exemption from this reality in the religious Jewish community.
My husband and I firmly believe that as shomrei mitzvot, or Torah observant, Jews, we have an obligation to accept, protect and value all human beings who are created in the image of G-d, BeTzelem Elokim. Halacha teaches us this.
Of course, many in our Orthodox community and extended family do not see it this way. I am deeply saddened by any community that judges and pushes our daughter away. Any community that does not fully embrace and value Rachie is the one that loses, for she is a gifted young lady and an observant and knowledgeable Jew. I often lament how our observant communities are sending away some of our exceptional people who could contribute so much and would — if only they would embrace and value instead of judge and exclude.
Rachie has not been able to see herself associated with anything “Orthodox,” though she is observant and engaged Jewishly in profound and meaningful ways.
However, this has changed recently, due to her involvement in ESHEL, the Orthodox GLBTQ community, named for the tent into which Avraham and Sarah invited all who came by. Rachie (and the rest of us) now have a home for her religiously observant, gay self, being able to interface various aspects of Halacha with the reality of her life. It is so critically important for us to have ESHEL and KESHET as spaces for our GLBTQ Jews both as safe spaces and to hold the anchor while hopefully more of our community realizes that Jewish law can often be more kind and understanding than we are too often led to think. Our wish as a family is that more of our community would learn to see and accept and value each of our children for who they are and the sexuality they were born with.
Sunnie Epstein is a member of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, a community of parents and family members of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Jews who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community. You can find a chapter or start your own here.
Last week Josh Zakim, son of the famous Jewish-American religious and civil rights leader Lenny Zakim, did something pretty fantastic. He stood up for equality…and made a powerful statement about the need to speak out for communities that stretch beyond your own. How? Just by going about his (anything but ordinary) day-to-day business as a Boston City Councilor.
Councilor Zakim didn’t realize he was giving me, and every other informal Jewish educator, fodder for discussion when he spearheaded a Resolution in Boston, but he was. Josh Zakim took a stand in Boston about Arizona’s SB 1062. If you aren’t familiar with the legislation, this law would, to quote Zakim’s Resolution, “allow individuals and corporations in Arizona to freely discriminate against other Arizonans who do not share their religious beliefs and… directly targets the community of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Arizonans.” The Boston City Council unanimously adopted the Resolution to reject what Zakim called a “Jim Crow-like bill.”
I was lucky enough to catch up with Councilor Zakim, and I asked him what inspired him—as a Bostonian—to take action on legislation that was being enacted across the country. His answer was quick and clear, “this was something important that needed to be said,” he told me. “If Boston is going to be a leader in social justice and equality we needed to take a stand, and need to continue to do so even when it’s not directly under our control.”
As I spoke with the Councilor, it was hard to suppress my years of informal Jewish education training. Some tiny voice inside of me was shouting “it’s like those discussions about the needs of Jewish versus non-Jewish communities, and how we, as Jews, prioritize where and when we give back!”
My inner educator voice, which by all definitions of the word is extremely nerdy, wanted to ask Josh about the difference between our immediate and extended communities; does community start small and spiral out? After all, I’ve led countless discussions on a piece of Jewish text that instructs that one first supports themselves, and then “his parents if they are poor, next his grown children, next his siblings, and next his extended family, next his neighbors, next the people of his town, and next the people of other towns.” It’s easy to declare a desire to help everyone. It’s harder to know where to put your efforts.
So, why did the Councilor go out on a limb about Arizona when half a country and a time zone or two separated the two States? Really, who are we obligated to help?
Zakim reminded me that “even if these battles have been on the right track in Massachusetts, they are far from done here and elsewhere; sometimes it’s easy to forget that in other States (and other countries) things are far worse.” It’s true—these, and other, issues of equality and justice are being dealt with not only in Josh’s hometown of Boston and elsewhere in the United States, but across the globe in places like Ukraine and Uganda. Furthermore, he pointed out that not every community is as lucky as the Jewish community of Boston—where forward thinking leaders stand up for their constituents.
“You need to speak up for what you believe in. Everyone deserves to have equal rights,” the Councilor shared. He didn’t hesitate to compare his guiding philosophy to the spirit of Tikkun Olam, thanking his parents and his sisters for helping him to develop his sense of Justice.
Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim is only in his first term, but he’s living up to the family name and showing how important it is to stand up in the face of injustice—both near and far.
When you think “Salem, Massachusetts” understanding and equality probably aren’t the first things that come to mind. My guess is that mention of the town is more likely to conjure images of witches and hysteria. Yet, this small town outside of Boston is taking action to protect the values of diversity, equality, and respect- and they did so without you noticing.
Earlier this week, Salem’s Mayor Kim Driscoll signed an anti-discrimination ordinance specifically aimed at protecting the rights of trans* individuals. Over 40 organizations joined together to shepherd the ordinance, bringing together people of faith, local politicians, and advocates for social justice to take a small but significant step towards making the world a safer and stronger place.
Mayor Driscoll celebrated the news, sharing “There are no second class citizens in Salem and we proved that we believe that… with the signing of our Non-Discrimination Ordinance helping to extend protection against discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression in the matter of public accommodations… Over 40 local groups, organizations and individuals came together to help advocate for this ordinance which was unanimously adopted by the Salem City Council, once again demonstrating how much our community values diversity, equality and respect. Yep, we have come a long way since 1692!”
The ordinance was spearheaded by “No Place for Hate,” an Anti-Defamation League campaign. The ADL- which originated as a Jewish response to antisemitism- concentrates on anti-bullying initiatives through the No Place for Hate campaign.
Proving that home is where your values are, Salem follows Boston, Cambridge, Northampton, and Amherst to become the fifth community in Massachusetts to take an active stance on gender inclusion. My question? When will the rest of Massachusetts—and the country—take similar action. And, what can we do to galvanize action around this important issue of social justice?
As a resident of Salem, I often get questions about why I chose to live outside of the Boston city limits. While my answers usually boil down to issues of affordability, proximity to the ocean, and a love of the local arts scene, I’m proud to be able to point to this moment of inclusion. Our communities reflect who we are as people, and asking our elected officials to take a stand on inclusion is more than just an LGBTQ value, or even a Jewish value… it is the type of action that makes the place you live home.
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The Keshet Parent & Family Connection is a community of parents and family members of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Jews who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community. You can find a chapter or start your own here.
My loving, caring, and beautiful daughter Julie is gay. When Julie came out, my first reaction was tears; tears for not being aware of my daughter’s struggles before she came out to us. Life is a journey with many different roads to follow, and while I ride a road less traveled, I know that I am not alone. I am joined by the support of my loving family, friends, and the Keshet Parent and Family Connection.
There is so much to learn (Is the right word gay? or is it Lesbian? or Queer?), and I hope I get it right. I have learned that it takes time, years even. It takes time to permit myself to settle into a different way of living life. I still worry about her safety, her rights, and the many detours she will need to maneuver. I feel as a parent, I’m always coming out, always having to explain my family to people. When my daughter got married, I had to say to every venue “These are two women getting married in a Jewish ceremony, are you comfortable?” It surprised me that I had to do that still. Life is not fair and at times I am angry.
So now I am on a mission. I am equipped with my experience from the Keshet Leadership Project, a training program designed to build the capacity of individual leaders to affect institutional change in Jewish communities. I proudly serve on the Keshet board of directors with a team of exceptional individuals, and I helped to establish the Keshet Parent & Family Connection.
I learned that when a child comes out, their parent comes out too. The child is prepared to come out, but the parent isn’t, and when you have other parents to sit with you, to talk about the same thing, it’s very comforting. It is a reminder that you are not alone.
The Keshet Parent & Family Connection is composed of remarkable parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews across the country who come together to transform the Jewish community through peer support, public events, and advocating for change. We come from all streams of the Jewish world, have children of all genders and sexual orientations, and are driven by personal journeys of struggle and celebration.
I hope you’ll join us or share this on to parents in your community who could use a group like this.
Being an ally is important and hard work—it requires dedication, mindfulness, and courage. Allies are absolutely crucial to Keshet and our work would not be possible without them. But what does it truly mean to be an ally? Today’s piece asks: Is it as simple as checking the box that reads “ally”? With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day around the corner, we are pushing our allies to think about how one defines allyship—and how that definition translates to action. How does being an ally allow us to be better advocates? What do you think?
The term “ally” was a very important part of my politics for a long time. Then, last March, in an epically important tweet last March, @FeministGriote wrote, “Being an ally is a process not an identity.” Say what you will about Twitter, but the truth is that it has the potential to change who and what we see and hear. (If you’re on Twitter and only following white, straight folks, please amend this.)
The term “ally” acknowledges social power, or privilege. It implies that the person who is applying the term to themselves also acknowledges privilege and the knowledge that claiming the ally label doesn’t actually mean anything if there isn’t action behind it. Allyship means realizing not only that language is imperfect, but that intention is nothing if it isn’t actualized, and actualizing it is tricky. (Read this piece by Jessie-Lane Metz at The Toast about, among many things, allyship when it goes very wrong.)
I’m realizing lately, more and more, that allyship is a minefield. We will fail sometimes. It’s easy to fail, because calling yourself an ally in a situation where you don’t have to do any work is one thing, but knowing when to step up and when to step back are other things entirely. The way racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are structured is to ensure that we will fail sometimes. Allyship is one way that we can impact the status quo, but only if we accept that falling down is part of the process. And since failure is inevitable, because this is hard and imprecise work, we have to figure out to bounce back when we make a mistake. We live in this world where the dichotomy of perfection v. failure dominates. (Another reading assignment: The Queer Art of Failure by Judith Halberstam.) The truth, we know, is that there is a lot of room in between the two.
Here are some ways to ally like you mean it:
1. Repeat the following sentence to yourself over and over again: This is not about you. Calling yourself an ally is not a way, or should not be a way, to make yourself feel better. It’s not cute, it doesn’t (or rather, it shouldn’t) get you extra bonus points at life. It’s the way we should all be behaving. Do everything you have to do to remember that this is about people’s real lives.
2. Take up less space. A lot less.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about street harassment and racism, in which I talked about my own narrative of race, and the beliefs that I (and all white people) possess on some level about people of color. The thing is, that piece was like therapy for me, which is not the point. It’s not that processing my own racism isn’t important —it is —but allyship is the work of creating space, which means stepping aside to make room for other voices that are not yours. When someone with less privilege than you tells that you made a mistake, do your very best to listen and hear.
It should go without saying that all of these things apply to being an ally in Jewish spaces to queer folks, to Jews of color, to women, etc. This work is scary, especially when we do it in our own communities, which means it’s the place where it’s most needed. It’s political. Depending on how you see it, it’s religious. It’s very, very personal. And even though it’s hard, don’t stop. Please don’t stop.
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The other day I turned on the television so my son could watch an episode of his beloved Wild Kratts. But, since it takes our sort-of-old TV a few seconds to actually turn on once you press the button (and since I’m horribly impatient), I popped into the kitchen to grab a snack while my son waited eagerly on the couch.
When I came back into the living room I found my son engrossed in whatever he was playing. I crossed my fingers that it was mildly appropriate, but with two other adults living in the house (my husband and my brother) it’s always a crapshoot as to what channel was last viewed. Upon a first, quick glance, it didn’t seem to be anything too offensive. I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry is a comedy starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James. I haven’t watched the whole thing but the general plot is that these two firefighter buddies end up getting married for insurance benefits (OK, so actually kind of offensive).
However, without knowing the whole plot of the movie, the scene we were watching seemed innocuous enough and it definitely caught my son’s attention.
“Wait! Leave it Ima. It’s a wedding!” my son pleaded.
When teens transitions to a new gender, what happens to the rest of the family? In November, we shared a post from the perspective of a daughter whose father transitioned to being a woman; now, we’re bringing you the first of two essays written by a sibling. Sophie, a high schooler whose sister (now brother) transitioned within the last few years, writes here about what the beginning of those changes felt like for her as a sister. In her next essay, she’ll discuss her brother’s eventual surgery.
I would first like to start out by saying I love my brother.
There is nothing I wouldn’t do for him. In my life, he is the person I have spent the most time with. Unlike most siblings, we are best friends. I am proud to say that even with all that we are going through, it had made us even closer. Still at such a young age, he has gone through so much and I will always be there for him. The following group of memories show my struggles and my acceptance of who my brother is and part of why I love him. Continue reading