“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.
When Jordyn & Becky first met, they were just starting college. Jordyn had dredlocks. Becky’s time was split between the Engineering Department and the Crew Team. Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were still dating. And, Becky’s preferred pronouns were “she” and “her.” Now, 13 years later, all of those things have changed. But their friendship hasn’t. They sat down to talk about their friendship, life, and gender.
Jordyn: I think an important qualifier about our friendship is that it’s one of those fantastic ones where we can (and have) gone months without talking—but we can always pick it back up pretty seamlessly. And, while that’s great for the sake of knowing we’re always out there for each other, it does mean that we’ve missed big moments in each other’s lives. Like, for instance, when you started identifying as gender queer and trans.
Becky: That is an important thing about our relationship. And that’s true. When we first met I identified as a lesbian. It wasn’t really until I started Rabbinical School six years ago that I started to really explore ideas of gender. It was a gradual transition, starting with the way I had my haircut and what clothes I wore, eventually getting to the way I played around with and used pronouns.
Jordyn: I remember a few years ago being part of an email thread where someone said something—in reference to you—along the lines of “and he is going to…” I had to stop and check in. I wanted to be on the right page. Wondering whether or not I was going to support you, or accept you, or be there for you wasn’t the question, it was more making sure I wasn’t messing up with my language.
Becky: And language is really hard. We aren’t socialized to have control over our pronouns; having a conversation about language is a two-step process—first, discussing how we teach language and how we can chose the language we use, and second, taking that step to choose an appropriate pronoun.
Jordyn: And, I’ve messed it up—far more than once…which is really hard for me. It’s hard as an ally, it’s hard as your friend, and it’s hard because I know using the wrong pronoun is being disrespectful and unsupportive. But sometimes it’s that force of habit that makes things challenging.
Becky: We’ve definitely had conversations where you’ve started by saying “I don’t want to mess this up, but….” And, look, as long as you (or anyone) are learning and trying, that’s what I ask for. I don’t necessarily want to have a 15 minute conversation with someone about how they feel guilty each time they mess up my pronoun. Most importantly, we have to trust each other, and trust that our friendship is strong enough that one misused pronoun isn’t going to destroy it.
Jordyn: Still, I don’t want to put you in a position where you’re forced to constantly be a teacher.
Becky: But, I’m going to be a rabbi—being out there as a teacher is a role I’ve stepped into for myself. I don’t ever want to close the conversation about pronouns, or being queer. That being said, it can be exhausting.
Jordyn: Do you have advice, maybe with your rabbi hat on?
Becky: In thinking about being compassionate with someone about getting my pronouns correct, the biblical concept of “lifnei iver” comes to mind.
Becky: Leviticus 19:14 says: “You shall not curse a deaf person. You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person, and you shall fear your God. I am the Lord.” As a person who identifies as trans and genderqueer and whose pronoun (intentionally) creates dissonance with my name, I try and remember that those whom I am encountering may be going through their own two-step process. First, they may be deaf towards the issues of gender and gender identity. I might be the first trans* person they meet. Rashi teaches that though the deaf person is specifically named, we can extend this verse to all those who are alive. I cannot curse someone because of their lack of knowledge. Similarly, withholding my pronoun or not correcting someone is putting a stumbling block in front of them. In the other direction, the person learning about gender or my preferred pronoun needs to acknowledge the stumbling blocks that exist in front of them. They need to know that they will stumble, and that unlike the blind person the Torah refers to, they need not be willfully blind.
Interested in learning more? Check out Becky’s interview with Jennie Roffman, a board member at Congregation Kehillath Israel, reflecting on Joy Ladin’s Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, or some of Keshet’s Trans* resources.
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.
We are a group of observant, Orthodox families from across the United States, including Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. On March 7, we will be meeting face-to-face–many for the first time–for the 2nd annual Parents’ Retreat, sponsored by Eshel, an organization committed to creating a safe space in Orthodox communities for its LGBT members.
We are just like most of you, with one exception: Our children are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender). Each of our children told us on a fateful day some months or years ago that they are not heterosexual. It is who they are and who they will always be.
It is with this thought in mind that we would like to have a virtual conversation with you. Let’s assume for the moment that some weeks or months ago a member of your immediate family approached you, telling you that he or she is LGBT. You love them and begin to think beyond yourself and your family and begin to consider your precious Jewish community. Here is where the conversation begins.
We start by asking for your understanding, respect, and perhaps even acceptance of our children as members of the Orthodox community. While the medical and psychiatric community affirms that being homosexual is no longer considered an aberration or an illness, most Orthodox communities have not expressed the same acknowledgement and acceptance. Lack of acceptance, or failure to acknowledge and address the fact that LGBT Jews are–and always have been a part of the Orthodox world–is not a solution. Failure to acknowledge does not make the issue disappear. In fact, closing one eye on this matter leads to fractured communities, family alienation, and documented suicides. No one wants this for their family, their friends or their community.
We are not going to tell you it was easy absorbing this news from our children. We had the same hopes for our children that you have for yours. But as hard as it has been for us, it has been a much more difficult journey for our children. We now see our children as very brave for having told us, their friends and extended family, about who they are. As most have described it to us, it was a frightening and lonely experience to hold on to this secret, and most have held on to it from a very young age. We have come to respect how difficult it was for our children to find the strength to come out of the closet in a seemingly unbending Orthodox world.
We are not asking you to do the impossible and place yourselves exactly in our shoes. Rather we simply ask you to consider having this conversation in the spirit of Klal Yisrael, a community conversation. All of us are in this together. If nothing else this is an issue of bein adam l’chavero, “between man and his fellow man.” All conversations need a setting. Imagine yourselves sitting around the Shabbat table. You have just finished Kiddush and are about to eat with family and a few friends. Think about the statements below and how you would respond. These are in no particular order and we are sure some are more sensitive than others. So, just pick a few, and begin…that’s how most of us did it with our families, slowly, carefully, needing time to absorb and appreciate the circumstances and the people around us.
As Orthodox Jews we believe that all human beings are created in the image of G-d. Have you considered how this core Jewish principle of human dignity might shape your view of LGBT people?
- We believe that being LGBT is not a matter of choice. Do you feel that most people discover rather than choose their sexual orientation?
- If our children could choose, they would likely have chosen to be straight. Whether or not you believe that homosexuality is a matter of choice, how might this consideration that it is not a choice affect your community’s policy of welcoming people who identify themselves as homosexual?
- With regard to respecting privacy, do you or your rabbi ask congregants how they behave in the bedroom? Do you or your rabbi ask people in your congregation if they obey all mitzvot involving family purity laws? Are singles asked about their pre-marital sexual practice? What would you do if you knew that such laws were not observed in private by others? Would you think such people should be excluded from participation in shul?
- Have you asked yourself what would happen if everyone who attends your minyan had to submit to an “Aveyrah (transgression) Test,” that would include Lashone Harah (bad mouthing), Genayvah (stealing), Genayvat Da’at (lying), tax cheating, spousal abuse, and so on, and that flunking such a test would disqualify them from receiving any honors at the synagogue whatsoever? And have you considered that all of these (other) aveyrot are committed by choice? Are you aware that the phrase Toevah (translated by some sources as abomination and by others as forbidden or taboo) is applied to cheating in weights and measures just as it is applied in Leviticus to homosexuality? In our experience the “Gay Test” is one of the few that an Orthodox minyan seems to apply far more often than the “Aveyrah Test”.
- Do you hear homophobic jokes in your community? What do you do when you hear them? Do you perform the commandment of Hocheach Tocheachet Amitecha (rebuke your fellow Jew) and stand up for our children, relatives or friends who are the object of these so-called jokes?
- Have you asked yourself and your congregation if it is just the appearance of openly accepting LGBT individuals or couples into your shul and not any aspect of halakha (Jewish law) as applied to gay people, that bothers you?
- Do you know that anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of the general population are and have always been LGBT and that the Jewish population is no different? (With a congregation of 300 this means 15-30 individuals are LGBT). This percentage does not change based on any dress code. Cloth, knitted, or leather kippot (skull caps) do not change this percentage and neither does the color or brim size of your hat, or the length of your skirt or sleeve or whether or not you cover your hair.
- Do you realize that with these significant percentages someone in your extended family or social circles – child, brother, sister, grandchild, aunt or uncle, niece, nephew or friend – is, or will likely be, discovering that he or she is LGBT and may not have yet shared this knowledge with other people?
- Do you know that when you chase an LGBT person from your congregation – either overtly or via social pressure – you might be encouraging that person to leave Orthodoxy and perhaps even Judaism altogether?
- Do you know that by shunning an LGBT congregant, you are also shunning that individual’s family? Do you realize that very often it is not just the LGBT person who leaves the Jewish community or Orthodoxy but his or her entire family?
- Did you know that twenty- to forty-percent of homeless youth are LGBT, most likely because their families have rejected them and they feel they have nowhere to go? Did you know that suicide rates among LGBT youth are significantly higher than in the general youth population
- How well versed are your rabbis and lay leaders about LGBT issues or about the issues specific to counseling LGBT congregants or their family members? For example, do your rabbis or leaders know which institutions or organizations (Jewish or secular) might help him better help and advise these congregants?
We are hopeful that in a few years all Orthodox communities will be able to have this conversation in an open forum that include all its members. Today that is not the case.
We are asking you to encourage your rabbi to respectfully consider these questions and to learn about the issues specific to counseling LGBT congregants and their family members.
We hope that all synagogues, shuls, shtiebels, and their Rabbis think about the above issues and the serious implications they have for the health of their communities. By avoiding these issues or simply denying they exist, we are ignoring, rejecting, and losing LGBT Jews and their families.
Addressing these issues will not change Jewish law but it will encourage dialogue and begin to lessen needless pain and fear, debilitating isolation, dangerous depression, as well as hatred and discrimination of LGBT youth in the Orthodox world. After all is said and done, these Jewish souls are our sons, daughters, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, parents, neighbors, or friends.
Eshel is a non-profit organization whose mission is to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities. The Eshel Orthodox Parents Retreat is planned for March 7, 2014: to register for the Parents’ Retreat or to learn more visit http://www.eshelonline.org.
There is no doubt that love is in the air—as a hopeless romantic, Valentine’s Day is a holiday I always want to celebrate. Sure, it’s hard to make an argument for Valentine’s Day as a Jewish holiday, but every holiday can’t be perfect. And the argument that the day has become all about commercialism isn’t lost on me—although I’m willing to forgive any holiday that is accompanied by such fantastic discounts on chocolate. The day isn’t perfect, but it gives us an opportunity to think about love—and think about how to celebrate love.
As a wedding photographer, I’m part of many couples’ celebrations of love. If you think navigating the ins and outs of Valentine’s Day shopping is complicated, you should try planning a wedding. To say a lot goes into it is an understatement—and as the photographer, I need to know it all. Where—and when—will you be singing the ketubah? What is the story behind your chuppah? Will there be a tish or a bedekn? Will you both be stepping on the wine glass? The questions go on and on.
Last week, perhaps inspired by pervasive and inescapable Valentine’s Day decorations, I sat down with a few of my wedding planning forms. The forms ask all of the questions—the whens, the wheres, the whos, the hows, and the whats. My forms, which were passed on to me by others in the business, ask some pretty basic questions, like “What will the bride be wearing?,” or, “When will the groom head to the ceremony site?” Over the course of the past few years, I’ve updated forms to meet the needs of my couples. Now, I no longer have a “one size fits all” form, but instead one for a bride and groom, a groom and groom, and a bride and bride.
As the number of states legalizing gay marriage continues to rise, I’ve seen more and more wedding photographers figuring out how to update their contracts and forms. Even though it seems like a small detail, the forms that wedding professionals use help to set the tone. When I sat down with my forms last week, I made the decision to update to one single gender neutral form—one that refers to the couple simply as “the couple,” and asks for details regarding “partner one” and “partner two.” While I want my wedding couples to feel as if every detail of their process is customized to their specific needs, I also want to set a tone of inclusion—making it clear that I welcome couples that fall into any and all gender categories.
When we celebrate love, we should be celebrating inclusion. So, should your Valentine’s Day plans tomorrow night lead you to the chuppah, here’s to a celebration that welcomes everyone.
If you’re looking for more information on Jewish clergy and institutions dedicated to inclusion, check out Keshet’s Equality Guide.
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.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
A girl, her two moms, and the woman who created this now famous book
When Heather Has Two Mommies, a children’s book whose title character has lesbian parents, hit the bookshelves in 1989, its author, Lesléa Newman, did not expect too much. She had trouble getting a publisher and never imagined the book would ever see the light of day.
The book itself is a sweet story about a little girl named Heather. One of her moms is a doctor, the other, a carpenter, and together, they do the kinds of things all kids love to do with their families: hang out at the park on nice days, bake cookies on rainy days. Heather learns in school that families come in all shapes and sizes: some of her friends have step-parents, some have only one parent, and some have brothers and sisters. To those of us (like this blogger) who grew up in a post-Heather world, it can feel a little strange that this charming child caused such an uproar.
This groundbreaking book just celebrated its 23rd birthday!
LGBT-inclusive children’s books published since Heather’s debut owe a debt of gratitude to Lesléa Newman for paving the way. (See our earlier post about the first Jewish children’s book with gay characters, The Purim Superhero, that was just published this month.) Indeed, Heather Has Two Mommies has had a permanent effect on children’s literature, for all its ongoing controversy – and that controversy has had an effect on its author: “All the protest against Heather Has Two Mommies inspired me to become an activist…. My work in the world is to do tikkun olam, to repair the world, make the world a safer place for others, and I take that very seriously.”
Listen to Lesléa Newman share how Heather Has Two Mommies came to be.
Lesléa is the author of more than sixty books for readers of all ages including picture books, middle-grade and young adult novels, poetry collections, and short story collections. Her latest book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepherd, came out this past September. You can see a video preview here, and read more about the book here. For her work, Lesléa was honored by Keshet as an LGBT Jewish Hero.
“I have friends I can be Jewish with, and friends I can be queer with, but I’ve never had a space to be both Jewish and queer.”
– Shelby, 16
“I feel really isolated at my high school… it’s good to come to a place like this and finally feel like I’m part of a community.”
– Frankie, 18
“Being in a place where so many of us share the same labels means we can shed them at the door – Here, I don’t have to be the Jewish kid, or the gay kid; I can just be myself.”
– Sky, 18
Sentiments such as these were common at the Jewish LGBTQ and Ally Teen Leadership Retreat in early January, a joint project of Keshet and the Isabella Freedman Center, with support from the UJA Federation – and the second ever event of its kind. The weekend was a follow-up to the first LGBTQ Teen and Ally Shabbaton in August, when about a dozen LGBTQ Jewish teens and allies met for the first time to share their stories and make new friends. This winter, those teens, along with some new additions to the group, came together not only to create new memories as a now inseparable group of friends, but also to develop their leadership skills. They also came together to begin to plan and design a future event that will attract close to 100 Jewish LGBTQ teens and allies, to create and connect a critical mass of change makers for the queer Jewish teen community.