Tag Archives: family

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

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

How My Jewish Grandma Came to Embrace My Gay Marriage

We’re excited to share this story of acceptance from Kveller! If you’re the parent  (or grandparent!) of an LGBT child and need support, check out the Keshet Parent & Family Connection!

Image by Flickr user Prachatai.

Image by Flickr user Prachatai.

My Jewish grandmother is stereotypical—and proud of it. She’s short, round, warm. She loves to bake (or, as she puts it, “to potchke in the kitchen”) and to play bridge and Mah-Jongg with her friends. She finds nachas in her family. Perhaps above all else, she’s desperate for great-grandchildren.

So when she found out that I was gay, her first response to me was a despondent, “You’re not one of those, are you?” Then she sobbed. And for a while, she would only say, “We’ll see,” when invited to meet my partner.

My partner, now wife, wasn’t upset by any of this; her parents had her quite late, so her mother is of the same generation as my grandmother, and thus Fi is experienced with the quirks and prejudices some elderly people can have. She kept me calm by reminding me that it would take a while for my grandmother to absorb this news, and that we had to understand that it’s painful for people to give up on the dreams and expectations they have for their relatives. And, if the worst happened and Grandma never came around, well, that would be dreadfully sad, but we reside in another country and could just go on with our lives as we liked. She felt sure we’d get through this together, as we had gotten through many other things.

Read the rest of B.J.’s post at Kveller!

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Posted on November 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

Today You Are a Man 

In honor of the annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance we are devoting space in our blog to posts about gender. Be sure to check out other stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” the personal reflections of two parents faced with the reality of gender roles at day care, a Tachlis of inclusion post entitled “How to Hire a Transgender Rabbi,” and transgender ally-ship wisdom from the Torah’s patriarchs and matriarchs 

When I arrived in Falls Village, Connecticut with my wife and our two daughters 3 1/2 years ago to become the Executive Director of the Isabella Freedman Center, I had a feeling it would be a transformative experience for us.

Micah

Micah

At the time, Mikayla was 13 and had just had her Bat Mitzvah months earlier, and Gracie had just turned nine. Our older two daughters, Hannah and Alison, were already out of the home and living in Philadelphia, but excited for future visits of the Berkshires.

I came to Isabella Freedman both committed to carrying on the history and ideals of the center’s wonderful programs…and wanting to bring some of my own ideas to the table. I felt that Isabella Freedman, among other things, should be filling gaps for under-served populations in the Jewish community.

And, I had a hunch that Jewish LGBTQ teens might be one of those communities.

While I had no personal experience with that community, I had certainly read about LGBTQ teens in general facing bullying, depression, and worse. I sensed this was an area where we could make a difference.

I was fortunate early in my tenure to meet Keshet’s founder and Executive Director Idit Klein at the Siach Conference, sponsored by Hazon, and held at Isabella Freedman. I floated the idea to Idit of partnering on Jewish LGBTQ Teen programming, and she was quick to jump on board. And from there, I brought the idea to the Caring Commission at UJA-Federation of New York, who, amazingly, agreed to fund our first Shabbaton in full.

Our first gathering, in the late summer of 2012, was much smaller than we hoped. We came close to cancelling it, but, even with just a dozen participants, it became clear almost immediately the impact of what we had started.

Having my own teen, I suggested to Mikayla that she might want to join in for the retreat. There were rarely other teens at Isabella Freedman, and this was a great chance to participate in something.  Mikayla did go. She had a good time; and at the end she commented how she had never met other teens in the LGBTQ community before, and how interesting that had been for her.

When we had our second such gathering, another small Shabbaton in early 2013, it didn’t take any pushing to get Mikayla to attend. Her friends were going to be there. She had a great time, and came out of her shell a bit more.

And a month later, Mikayla sent my wife Jamie and me a text from school. She had something important to talk to us about. And, through the important teen medium of a text message, the teen who had come out of her shell simply “came out.”

We couldn’t have been more proud.

And then came our third and largest Jewish LGBTQ Teen Shabbaton, in April 2014, with 50 teens from around the country, where Mikayla attended an important panel presentation by transgender teens; and afterwards decided to go from “she” to “he,” to transition from “Mikayla” to “Micah,” to go from our daughter to our son.

Micah has never been happier; and we’ve never been prouder.

Over the summer, while Micah was away visiting family, Jamie transformed a more stereotypical girl’s bedroom to suit Micah’s tastes. I’ve relished taking my son out shopping for men’s clothes. He’s even taken a girl to recent school dances, in a public school that’s been not only accepting but accommodating and supportive.

And Isabella Freedman–which is now part of Hazon through our recent merger–couldn’t be a more amazing environment for a transgender teen.

Four years after her Bat Mitzvah, Mikayla is now a proud Jewish male.

Micah, today you are a man.  And what a man you are.

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Posted on November 12, 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

One Family’s Wish for a World without Gender Roles

As we prepare for Transgender Day of Remembrance be sure to check out these stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” and our look at the importance of voting

Amanda, William, and Charles: photo credit: Beth Soref

Amanda and her family. Photo Credit: Beth Soref

On many Saturdays, we take our son to a minyan where men and women sit separately. I am not thrilled with the arrangement, but what I do like is the fact that the men are as likely as the women to have a baby strapped to their chest, to be chasing a child through the hallway, or to accompany their child to tot Shabbat.

If there’s going to be sex-segregated seating at our Synagogue, I am glad that at least my son will have no clue from looking around which sex traditionally did more of the child care. 

X: A Fabulous Child’s Story is a 1978 tale of an experiment—scientists select a family to raise a child without revealing its sex to anyone. The parents receive an extensive instruction manual to help them figure out how they need to deal with both their child and the outside world. One of the hardest hurdles the family faces is sending their child, X, to school, where there are proscribed behaviors for girls and boys. The story has many lessons about how people are constrained to tasks that are traditionally thought to be well suited for their gender and how gender roles are actively taught and enforced by relatives, teachers, and peers.

My husband and I have a son, and we are not trying to keep his sex a secret. Because he’s a boy, we dress him in clothing that people expect from his gender. (Pink makes me slightly insane, so should he develop a sister, expect her to also wear blue all the time). He attends a daycare that he loves, and we recently went to his two-year conference there to meet with his teachers and see how he was doing.

The daycare center uses a standardized assessment to monitor the development of the children, and one of the questions is whether the children can identify boys and girls. The daycare instructor said they teach the children what clothing girls wear, what clothing boys wear, and then have the children try and identify who is a boy and who is a girl. Perhaps because when our son is not at daycare, he’s hanging out with our friends, who are not really a gender role-conforming bunch, and perhaps because he just hasn’t gotten old enough yet, he could not do it. “That’s not something that’s really important to us,” my husband said to the teacher, clearly wishing we could opt out of that part of the curriculum.

Our son’s daycare, to our knowledge, doesn’t try and constrain the kinds of toys he can play with the way that some of our friends report that their children’s daycares do. When I picked him up the other day he was rocking a baby doll in a stroller with one hand and cooking with a toy kitchen with the other hand. He is, however, young enough that we don’t know a lot of what’s going on during the day.

While I pay people to watch my son so I can write this article, is he being told boys should do certain jobs and girls should do other ones, or that girls and boys should play with different kinds of toys? I sincerely doubt it, but it is theoretically possible and he wouldn’t be able to tell me if that was what was happening. He told me very seriously that he had a great day the other day because he sat on his friend’s big head, which I find entirely suspect—I may not know what his teachers say about gender, but I am pretty sure I know what they say about head-sitting.

We trust the teachers and we know that he loves them—he mutters their names sometimes in his sleep. The only way we could guarantee that he received only gender messages that we approved with is if my husband and I cared for him full-time at home, and if I was the one who did not pursue a career, that would also be teaching a message about gender. (Right now, I do stay home with him several weekdays per week, and it’s awesome. But I am teaching something by not working more, and I know it.)

At daycare, they also tell my son that he’s going to be “like Daddy” when he grows up, which I might object to more if I didn’t think the world would be a better place if everyone (of every gender) was like my husband when they grew up. For my son’s birthday we told him he could pick out something he wanted from the toystore, and he selected a new doll, to accompany his existing doll. On weekends, he likes to wear his baseball hat “like Daddy” and stroll his baby doll through the park across the street “like Daddy.” As I watch him push his stroller back and forth, I think that for now we might be OK with the gender roles we’ve modeled…but he’s going to be exposed to a lot more of the world soon, whether we’re ready or not, and we’ll have to see how he comes out of it.

Ray Marcum, backWhen it is time for our son’s three-year assessment, we will start encouraging him to wear a yarmulke full-time “like Daddy.” I wonder what will happen to any daughters we might have, these small imaginary children dressed in blue. Will we also get them to wear a yarmulke when they turn three? Will I then have to start wearing one too? And what will the daycare think of that?

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Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20th. How will your Jewish community observe the day?

Posted on November 5, 2014

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Coming Out & Staying With My Husband

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

October 11 was National Coming Out Day. Coincidentally, it is also my husband’s birthday.unnamed

I met him over 21 years ago; he was 19, I was 17. We had so much in common: both recent immigrants from the Soviet Union, both raised in traditional non-religious Jewish homes, both with strong family values and ethics.

I fell in love with my husband deeply. I wanted to marry him and have children with him. I watched him grow into the beautiful strong man that he is now, and he watched a little girl transform into a wife and a mother. We married 7 years after we met, and had 2 kids soon there after.

We were a perfect family… until 5 years ago, when I developed a crush on a girl.

The moment I saw her, I was smitten. She was occupying all of my thoughts. I could not sleep, I could not eat, I could not think about anything else. So, one morning when both my husband and I were still in bed, I stuffed my slightly-embarrassed face into a pillow and confessed my crush to him.

My husband is a very open-minded, confident man. He has always supported me in everything. When I expressed desire to become a rabbihe was the one researching rabbinical schools. When I wanted to take on photographyhe got me a camera and a book. And 5 years ago, he held my hand and pushed me to explore myself and my sexuality.

My crush turned out to be another straight Jewish girl, and with the permission of my husband, I joined an online support group for married women who have feelings for other women.

There I met my (now) ex-girlfriend. She was also married, had children, and lived locally. Unlike me, she has been struggling with her sexuality for over 10 years and, through therapy and together with her husband, decided to open up her marriage.

We got to know and grew to love each other deeply. We felt so natural with one another. The intimacy that we shared was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced; the glove finally fit! And within just a few months, it was clear to both of us that we were, indeed, gay.

And then the struggle began: do we continue living two lives? Or, do we separate from our husbands, break up our families, and live authentically as gay women? After two years of tears, confusion, and torment, we hesitantly chose to separate from our husbands.

That decision to separate was incredibly hard. I really loved my husband. I loved him deeply. I did not know myself outside of “Him and I.” We were ONE; he was my second half and I was his. The loss of my second half seemed so big that it was impossible to even think about it. My husband compared that sense of loss to a feeling of losing a parent. We both felt devastated, numb.

Coming out to our immigrant family was one of the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. My own mother called me names that a mother should never call her child. My mother-in-law fell to my feet and begged me “to not do this to the kids.” I’ve lost many friends because they agreed that I “cheated” on my husband and left him for HER.

My relationship with my girlfriend suffered as well. It became clear that developing a relationship with one person while disassembling a marriage to another was an impossible task. The days I spent with my girlfriend were filled with tears, depression, and anxiety attacks. Ultimately the pressure became unbearable and our relationship ended. I lost the woman I was planning to marry, while at the same time, helped my husband buy a separate home and write a JDate profile.

I dated heavily. I was single for the first time since 17, in a lesbian sea of opportunities. Face after face, restaurant after restaurant, I went out on many, many dates. A drummer, a nurse, a writer, a marketing director, an accountant, a psychologist, a stay-at-home mom…the list went on and on.

Dating started to feel like work… and each time I would look at a woman across the table, I’d feel nothing but guilt for not being home instead, with my husband and my children. It was finally my chance to explore my sexuality, yet all I wanted to do was to stay home with my family, cook, and do crafts. My sexuality started feeling “this” little, and I started questioning all the choices that I had made up to this point.

Surprisingly, the kids seemed more or less okay. They would run from dad’s house to the one they called “our home” with a new-found sense of excitement. I, on the other hand, could not pass my husband’s townhouse without feeling sick to my stomach. What had we done?

We had been the happiest couple on earth, never fought, never argued. He was my best friend, my partner in crime, my protector, the love of my life. He made me laugh silly and took care of me when I was sick. I knew by heart his every wrinkle, every gray hair, every sun spot. I had not witnessed a more perfect union. Our only struggle was in my sexuality. So, I started questioning whether one’s sexuality is really that much more important than all those other beautiful things that we shared. Many of our friends struggled in their marriages in all of the ways that we didn’t… And yet, there we were, leaving each other…

And that was when I realized that one’s sexuality does not define them! It is a part of one’s identitynot the whole identity. Yes, I am gay. Yes, I feel most natural with a woman. But I also love the man I met 21 years ago, and that person is my male soul mate. There is no one better suited for me than him, even if he is not a woman. And I also love my family; I want to raise our children together with him under one roof.

So, one day,  after a very short conversation and a needed exhale, we decided to get creative. We chose to move back together and try a life that would not be constrained by our Russian-Jewish suburbia. We decided to consider a version of an “open marriage” where I can be me and live out a part of my newfound identity. Our new relationship is one with rules, boundaries, and respect. A relationship where I can be out and proud, with no more boxes or closets.

That was about 8 months ago. Having learned a lot from the painful experience of the past 5 years, we have been rebuilding our “home” and healing the wounds. It has not been easy all the time. Our relationship is a new reality, one that comes with new challenges.

And the future? It remains to be written…

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Posted on October 28, 2014

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Coming Out for Two

IMG_4333In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

It was ingrained in me since birth by my Jewish mother that my purpose in life was to bear her grandchildren. I once read that 60% of gay siblings have similar DNA on chromosomes number 6, 7, and 8. These two were related issues for me.

When I was about to leave for college, my younger brother, Brett, told me he was gay. He did it via instant message from eleven feet away, in his bedroom, on the same floor, in the same house. He had asked me how I would feel if he told me he liked guys. I rolled my eyes because I thought he was just trying to get a rise out of me. Or maybe he had heard the rumors at our very small Christian high school about me having a girlfriend? I shut my computer and walked into his room. I looked at his trophy case, holding awards and medals from weightlifting state championships, baseball, football MVP plaques, confused. Then, I realized he wasn’t kidding.

“What is mom going to do when she finds out both of her kids are queer?” I asked with a twisted smile. He apparently hadn’t heard the rumors about me, after all, and he was just as floored.

I felt I should take this information with me to the grave. I already knew what my mother’s reaction would be, since I put the feelers out about the situation when I was Brett’s age. I had tried coming out, but returned to the closet and hid behind the winter coats because my mom practically guilted me back in with talk about how life would be terrible without grandchildren. 

When I went away to college, Brett visited me and began to date one of my best friends: his first gay relationship. He wanted to be “out,” he wanted to have a boyfriend, and he wanted my mother to knowin that order. Furthermore, he asked me break the news for him when I came home for winter break that December.

“No way, Brett.”

“I need to be honest!” he squeaked. He was wearing a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and basketball shorts with our high school’s mascot emblazoned on the lower left leg. “Just tell her when I leave for the gym.” I couldn’t believe this was happening.

“No, I can’t come out for you,” I finally said. “She’ll cry. She’ll scream at me about her lack of future grandchildren. I don’t want to deal with this. It’s not fair.”

“Sara, come on,” He just kept badgering. This went on for ten minutes. I had yearned for the days when we all argued about was who would get the front seat in the car or who got to be the Ninja Turtle with the bow-staff when we were playing. He didn’t get it. I finally agreed to spill the beans.

I bounded down the stairs and into our home gym, where my mom was on her steady 10 incline on the treadmill, whatever that meant, and watching “All My Children” or “The View” or maybe both, on different channels, and looked like she didn’t want to be bothered. She looked like she was busy trying to save the world, 500 calories at a time. I told her to come upstairs when she was finished because we needed to talk.

I walked up to my room, debating my delivery. She was upstairs within three minutes. I told her to sit down. She looked nervous and disheveled. Her straight blonde hair was pulled up out of her face in a high ponytail and she was still breathing hard from her work out. I wanted to tell her to not sit on my bed because she was going to sweat on it, but figured I’d let it slide.

“Mom,” I started. “I don’t know why I am telling you this. And I don’t know why he wanted me, of all people, to tell you, but…” I hesitated. The look on her face was killing me.

“But what?”

“Um. Brett’s gay?” It came out sounding more like a question than a statement.

“That’s funny, Sara. What did you really have to tell me?”

I blinked, unsure what to say. Why didn’t she believe me? Because he always had a girlfriend? Maybe it was because he was the captain of the football team and a wrestling and baseball star.

“No, Mom. That was it. Really.” As if on cue, it started to pour outside, the rain streaked down the glass like tears. Then she started to cry. She cried about him being on the football team, and his girlfriend Jessica, and how he had such big muscles, and how it couldn’t have been true, and then there it was: “And I’m never going to have grandchildren! Brett’s gay now and you’ll never have kids!”

I wanted to tell her then that my disinterest in children had more to do with the actual act of reproduction, but figured that would be a conversation saved for a better time. I also didn’t want to be too political by talking about how gay adoption was going to be up-and-comingit was 2003 after all. Besides, we were still teenagers, what did it matter? I brought up PFLAG, and statistics on homosexuality, not mentioning the bit about siblings because I was still not out to her.

At that point, wasn’t sure if I ever would be. She bombarded me with questions. Was this because she and my father got divorced a few years prior? Did I know if Brett was ever molested? How could this happen to her? I didn’t have any of the answers, but I was sure most of them were, “No.” I didn’t understand what she meant by “happening to her.”

After fifteen minutes of me trying to be the good daughter, comforting her, and sitting there awkwardly, as she cried, she got up. Walked to the door. Opened it to leave. Stood in the door frame for a moment. There was a loaded pause.

Then she turned around and said, “I always thought it was going to be you.”

After I came out for my brother, it took me two more years for me to tell her I was gay too. She caught me in the middle of a crisis break-up and I spilled everything, confessing the (not so) secret relationships I’d had.

She calmed me down and said, “I love you no matter who you’re with, it’s okay.”

I asked her why she had freaked out about Brett so badly, but not me.

“He was a surprise,” she said. “You, not so much.” There is still talk about grandchildren every now and then, but I think she’s starting to get it.

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Posted on October 14, 2014

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Everyday I Come Out for my Child

Rabbi Ari Moffic, the Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, is a member of the Chicago Chapter of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection program, a national leadership and mentorship network of parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews. Want to get involved? Know someone who could use another parent to talk to? Find a chapter, get support, take action. Ari and Tam

Before our child was two we realized that their inclinations, interests, and style for dress fit with the “opposite gender.” Everyone we know had a hypothesis about why this was so. We started down a journey, led by our child, of new language, new specialists, new research that was foreign to us.

As is often the case, our child’s interests lead us to learn about and experience new things. In our case, the very identity our child was affirming brought us into a new realm. I feel that I am coming out every day with this child.

Our children are separate entities from us but are a reflection of us in some ways. Every time we are in public and another mom makes a comment about my child’s dress, or assumes a gender, or looks confused because she thought our youngest was a different gender, I am coming out. That’s all about me and my insecurities and my fears and my still unease at times. Imagine how my five and a half year old must feel.

We have a confident, engaging, happy, wild, full of life, articulate, passionate child. I don’t want to project my stuff onto our child. But I do know, because we have talked about it, and because there have been tears and anger and hurt that my child has felt different, has felt vulnerable, has been embarrassed to be who our child is. Other kids make comments, sometimes daily, about how our child dresses, what our child likes, which pronouns my child asks to use and honor.

As a rabbi married to a rabbi I think we know about the offerings in our Jewish community. However, it was in meeting Joanna Ware at a Jewish conference, that I learned that our own Jewish Child and Family Services had a support group for parents of L,G,B,T,Q children. If I didn’t know this existed, I wonder how many other parents are clueless too.

If there was ever a time to be a gender variant child, now seems to be good. Sprouting up in major cities are gender programs at Children’s Hospitals. Facebook groups and in-person play groups exist. However, there is something different about getting support from our own Jewish community. For me it is comforting, specific, and familiar to be with other Jewish parents on this journey.

Our Response Center, an agency of JCFS, led by the approachable, warm, and knowledgeable Rachel Marro, offers a monthly Parent & Family Connections group in partnership with Keshet. In addition, she offers support as parents mobilize and take action as allies and advocates. Rachel also matches parents with mentors who can serve as one-on-one support through email or in-person to brainstorm everything from school issues to playdates to camp to daily angst and communicating with extended family. There is nothing like talking mom to mom.

Response offered a program lead by Biz Lindsey-Ryan this fall on gender fluidity among children. The program was well attended by both teachers and professionals who work with children as well as parents. Biz taught us about language and terms, she led us in interactive exercises helping us explore our concepts of our own gender and through videos and slides helped us understand how we can help ALL children move beyond binary and strict gender roles to be free to explore and lead however they can without the stigma of limiting and harmful labels.

It was just a thoughtful and helpful program and many in attendance will now look to Biz to come to their schools and synagogues for follow-up conversations. I am thankful that our Jewish community offers these opportunities for connection and learning. The more Jewish professionals know what is offered in their neck of the woods and the more we are willing to talk about the gender elephant in the room, the more we will feel less like hiding and will feel embraced and understood.

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know! Like this post? 

Posted on October 7, 2014

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Coming Out & Inviting In

Kathryn-200x224In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

When I entered the waters of the mikveh directly after my bet din for conversion to Judaism, my Jewish life began—but as Jew-by-choice, I felt like I was hiding a secret.

After my conversion folks treated me as an “average” part of the Jewish community, I was passing as a Jew-by-birth. This passing meant of a lot of different things. It allowed me to take leadership roles at my Hillel that I was previously barred from. It allowed me to function and be treated like everyone else within the Jewish community. To everyone else in my community, I was not any different. There were no invasive questions asked, just a slew of assumptions and a feeling that I was hiding.

As a Jew-by-choice I often feel forced into playing along as if I remember that time in my life where there was a bar or bat mitzvah every weekend, or that I know exactly what a stereotypical Jewish mother is like. I don’t have an answer when folks ask me what it was like to be in a Jewish military family because, while I came from a military family, I’m not from a Jewish military family. The assumption that my childhood looked like every other Jew’s silenced me and kept me from sharing stories of my non-Jewish past.

This feeling of keeping a secret was not a new one for me. By the time I came out as Jewish, I had already come out as queer. The feeling of “playing along” was, in many ways, akin to how I felt as a closeted youth. I feared that sharing parts of me would only mark me as different and knew that people don’t always take kindly to “others.”

So what do you do when you’re afraid of how people will react to your difference?

You pretend and make every attempt to pass.

In middle school I made up crushes and played along while the girls I sat with at lunch ogled over one celebrity or another. And, in college I would nod knowingly when someone talked about how Jewish mothers are or how their rabbi was terribly long winded.

I remember the first time that someone read my appearance as Jewish—I was ecstatic. I was passing with flying colors!  But it wasn’t long until passing felt like erasure.

Being seen as Jewish did not leave room for my family. I didn’t have space to acknowledge that my curly hair was Puerto Rican and Cuban—or that Hanukkah and Passover time at my house looked a whole lot like Christmas and Easter. The passing was suffocating and I longed to take a deep breath.

I knew that the only way to breathe was to do what I’d done before: come out.

But this time I saw things differently. I’d been in queer circles where I was introduced to the idea of “inviting in” rather than “coming out.” Sharing this piece of me was my choice and an invitation to come in and share this part of my life—rather than handing over information in a way that would leave me feeling exposed and vulnerable. This coming out as a Jew-by-choice would be framed by my agency in sharing.

Now, every aspect of my life is enmeshed with Judaism. I moved to Boston from Georgia and have found myself in a population where Jewish people are not an anomaly. I’m a JOIN fellow seeking to find Jewish framework for the organizing that I do. I work as the Boston Community Organizer for Keshet bringing queer Jews together and moving Jewish institutions towards inclusion.

I chose to wrap my life up with Judaism and I acknowledge how that choice, if I’m not careful, would allow others to paint over my Jewish story with assumptions and wash my identity away.

During my conversion process I searched every nook and cranny of the internet for stories to relate to and voices that could speak to my own experience as a queer Jew-by-choice. I came up short, and felt pretty alone. I know that had someone else come before me it would have been easier. It is my hope that being a visible queer Jew-by-choice makes other’s searches just a little more fruitful. And maybe, just maybe I can be the hope Harvey Milk talked so much about—a hope that being visible makes room from someone else to live their truth.

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Posted on October 6, 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