Tag Archives: LGBT rights

Anti-Gay Billboard is Wrong, Dangerous, and Against Biblical Faith

billboardIf it weren’t so dangerous, it would almost be laughable. A new billboard on Interstate 95 in downtown Richmond, VA sponsored by a group called PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays), argues that “nobody is born gay.” Their purported evidence for this claim is the fact that, sometimes, one twin sibling can grow up to be gay while the other ends up straight. The group uses this piece of information to form a belief (as the group admits on the ad) that sexuality is a choice. And if sexuality is a choice, then one can also choose to change their sexual orientation.

First, the facts: While it is true that identical twins share DNA, those genes are often expressed differently. For example, it is not uncommon for identical twins to have different personalities, different heights, and even different physical features. For twins to have different sexual orientations does not mean that one or the other chose to switch. It simply means that the same genes manifested in different ways. Those genetic manifestations are always still beyond the control—and therefore the choice—of the individual.

Moreover, we may not get our sexual orientations from our genes. There are other theories—psychological, biochemical, and sociobiological—that are also widely-accepted within the scientific community. Ultimately, all of the prevailing theories insist that sexual orientation is not a choice. And, more to the point, homosexuality is not an illness. It needs no therapy or cure.

All of this helps explain why so-called reparative therapy for LGBT individuals is widely reported to do far more harm than good. Not only is it ineffective in converting individuals to heterosexuality—because such a conversion is unnecessary and absurd on its face—it inflicts severe psychological harm. Too often, it can result in suicide, a reality that plagues the gay community. Advancing an argument urging LGBT individuals into so-called therapy, and encouraging their families to pressure them into so-called reparative treatments, is, in this sense, destructive and deadly. And reinforcing a wrongheaded perception that homosexuality is an abnormal and aberrant choice gives tacit consent to those who degrade, disparage, and discriminate against LGBT individuals.

As a religious leader, I feel especially compelled to respond to the odious claims of groups like PFOX, ridiculous as they may be, because they speak a distinctly ungodly and irreligious message in the name of God and religion. In other words, by advancing their agenda under the banner of biblical faith, they purport to speak in my name, too.

So allow me to be clear: PFOX does not speak for me, they do not speak for my religious community, and I do not believe they speak for God or the Bible, either.

Indeed, I believe that equality for LGBT individuals, in Richmond and around the world, is a biblical value. Scripture insists that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are created in the Divine image (Genesis 1:26). LGBT individuals are made in God’s image, just as straight individuals are. Furthermore, God loves all people (Psalm 145:17) and is pained when people suffer (Isaiah 63:9). Whether you are gay or straight, God loves you the way God has made you, and is diminished when you are hurt.

Stemming from these values is the obligation to afford every person the fullness of the honor due to them as reflections of God, as well as the responsibilities to love our fellow as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18) and to take action when our fellows’ lives are threatened (Leviticus 19:16). True, there may be one or two biblical passages that appear to forbid same-sex intimacy, but we believe that the more pervasive message of biblical faith affirms human dignity and human life, even if it means having to reinterpret or even strike traditional taboos.

Sentiments like those of PFOX may be in line with traditional understandings of one biblical passage, but they are based on a poor understanding of science and an even worse understanding of the major thrust of biblical faith. PFOX’s billboard, and others like it, diminish the image of God present in gay individuals, exhibit a profound dishonor to one’s fellow human beings, demonstrate a lack of love toward’s one’s fellow equal to the manner one loves oneself, and contributes to the shedding of blood.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. But dangerous it is. So rather than laugh, we must speak God’s truth and set the record straight.

Posted on December 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

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?

Like this post? 

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

This Thanksgiving I’m Thankful for…

unnamedWith Thanksgiving only a day away, I’m anticipating that moment during dinner—or perhaps during halftime—when we pause to share what we’re thankful for.

This year, while I celebrate all there is to be thankful for, I am still aware of the work that is left to be done. I am optimistic about the future, and ready to tackle the barriers to inclusion that still exist. I’m grateful, and ready to take on more.

So, here’s my “Things to be Thankful for” Thanksgiving list; what’s making yours?

1. This Thanksgiving I am thankful that over 64% of the U.S. population can marry the person they love. In 35 states—plus Washington, D.C.—same-sex couples have the freedom to marry.

2. This Thanksgiving, I will pause to reflect on the memory of the life of Leslie Feinberg, and be thankful for her writing and the work she accomplished. Feinberg, who identified as “an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist” was known for her transgender advocacy work, her writing, and her political organizing. She died on November 15th, leaving behind a legacy of fighting oppression.

3. This past year the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton brought together over 40 Jewish teenagers looking for a safe space. It was an honor to be a part of the weekend. I’m appreciative of the many conversations I had that opened my eyes to not just the challenges that today’s youth face, but also the amazing strength they possess. I’m thankful that so many young Jews found a place to feel safe, and thankful that registration is open for our next Shabbaton.

4. I’m thankful for the readers of the Keshet blog, and those who engage in meaningful conversation with us on our blog, through facebook, and on twitter. Having a safe space to share personal reflections, examinations of Judaism, and stories of inclusion is important to me—and I’m thankful that it is important to you as well.

5. And, of course, no Thanksgiving list would be complete without something lighthearted—like tiny hamsters enjoying a Thanksgiving meal.

Like this post? 

Posted on November 26, 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

The Jewish Themes Behind the TV Show “Transparent”

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,” transgender ally-ship wisdom from the Torah’s patriarchs and matriarchs, and a father’s pride at being a dad to his transgender son 

Binging

In this image released by Amazon Digital, Amy Landecker, left, and Jeffrey Tambor appear in a scene from "Transparent," a new series on Amazon Digital.

In this image released by Amazon Digital, Amy Landecker, left, and Jeffrey Tambor appear in a scene from “Transparent,” a new series on Amazon Digital.

In the days following Yom Kippur, I found myself wondering why we cannot just space out the holidays a little. Why does Sukkot follow so immediately after the consuming intensity of the High Holidays? While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer ample opportunities to transform oneself and modify one’s less healthy behaviors from the past year, this year I returned immediately to my bad habit of binge TV watching, thanks to the arrival of Transparent.

I had been eagerly awaiting this TV series ever since Jill Soloway, the uber-Hipster Jew and screenwriter, released the pilot of this story of a Jewish family. The show’s witty banter, carefully developed characterizations, and clever plotting of familial drama drew me in. Finally, both the Jews I know fully realized for television, and an honest portrayal of transformation and its affect on one’s family and community.

What distinguished this show as uniquely captivating were the very present Jewish elements and themes. As I binged my way through episodes two and five between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then in an even more accelerated pace after Yom Kippur, I finished season one just in time for Sukkot, starved for more.

Each of Transparent’s Pferffermans, a wholeheartedly Jewish family, strive to transform their lives, their relationships, and their selves through an exploration, re-creation and reformation of their personal histories. Their individual paths may diverge from my own, yet their hunger for connection, meaning, and teshuva feel very close to home.

 Transparency

Transparent provides ample relational drama and sexcapades in the vein of the millennially inspired Girls, but for an audience born before 1980. Beyond its often outlandish hipster quirkiness, Transparent’s greatest treasure is its title’s namesake, Maura Pfefferman, whose process of transition and revelation to her family, and herself, drives the narrative from the first episode.

Not merely a plot device, Maura’s revelation that the Mort—the man that her family, and the world, have always known—is and always has been a woman, provides the soulful impetus for the entire show’s transition from a quirky family comedy, to a deeply meaningful and enrichinTransparent-300x206g journey. With each episode, Maura becomes more fully visible to us. She transforms in her family’s eyes, and even our own eyes, from their beloved father Mort to the woman that she has always been.

The story of Maura’s gender identity begins long before we first meet the Pfeffermans, illustrated by carefully woven flashbacks and revelations. Very quickly and clearly, the show becomes transparent that Maura’s gender identity has long been transient, and nowhere near as permanent as it appeared to those even most close to her, who only knew her as the man, Mort. Maura’s joy and pain, discovered in bringing greater permanence to her more transient external self, delivers the show’s driving soul and spirit.

It is through Maura that we truly appreciate that healthy return to one’s primary state of being, in the true sense of teshuva, ferments out of the recognition and acceptance that one’s seemingly permanent structure are truly merely temporary structures, which are much more adaptable and flexible than we often perceive.

Fostering Trans Inclusion

For more than a decade I have been striving as an activist, educator, and rabbi to foster greater inclusion for those in our community whose journeys towards healthy transformation has been blocked because they are LGBT.

In Transparent and its Maura, I have found a worthy hero who calls out for us to care for her, understand her, and include all those who live within our lives and communities as transgender people.

Available research tells us that approximately 0.25%-2% of our population experiences some degree if gender dysphoria. Transgender people encounter a great deal of pain: to their psyche, to their relationships, and their lives.

Joy Ladin, a professor at Yeshiva University, elevated the conversation of the Jewish community when she came out as transgender. Her brilliant, poetic, and often painful book, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, paints a vivid picture of Joy’s journey of transformation, and the deeply Jewish path this journey became. Her announcement opened many doors for conversations about gender identity, and she has even served as consultant for LGBT inclusion and the creative team behind Transparent. (Editor’s note: If you haven’t read this book, carve out time to do so. It is one of the most honest and beautiful books you will ever read.)

Taking Action

For years I have worked with Keshet, and I hope to continue to change and grow with my community. We need to take every opportunity to align our religious and spiritual language. We need to support those who come out and provide them with the transformational power of Judaism to support their personal journeys. With Transgender Day of Remembrance only a few days away, we need to support a Jewish community that embraces people of all gender identities.

Like this post?

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

Posted on November 13, 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.

Like this post?

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

Vote: You Owe It to Your Jewish & LGBT Communities

imagesThere’s a good chance that you’re reading this while waiting in line at your local polling place. Or, perhaps you’ve already voted—or are planning on voting this evening.

Just in case you have no voting plans, we’d like to offer three reasons why you owe it to your Jewish and LGBT community to vote.

  1. Across the country there are issues of marriage, family, adoption, gender discrimination, and equality on the ballot. This is your chance to have your voice heard.
  2. For many transgender individuals, voting isn’t simple. According to a recent blog post by the RAC, “Transgender voter disenfranchisement highlights one of the many examples of transgender discrimination and the long road ahead for transgender equality… Voter ID laws, which have been passed in thirty-four US states, pose a unique threat to transgender individuals. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, only one fifth of people who had already transitioned from male to female or female to male had been able to update all their IDs and records with their appropriate gender and one-third had not updated any of their IDs or records. Without an ID that matches their gender presentation, an estimated 24,000 of voting-eligible transgender Americans could be disenfranchised or face substantial barriers to voting in ten states with strict photo ID laws.”
  3. Our Jewish tradition tells us to vote. Rabbi Yitzchak taught that “a ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 55a). Elsewhere in our tradition we are taught “a man should not on his own place a crown upon his head. But others may do so.” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan). Who are we to argue with tradition?

With so many issues on the table that impact our Jewish community, why wouldn’t you vote?

Like this post?

Posted on November 4, 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

Coming Out All Over Again: An Excerpt from The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality

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!

rachel“I want to tell you about my son,” the father said as he stopped by my office one Sunday morning. “He was just walking down the corridor at school the other day and he saw a girl that he knows from the temple. She had cut off her long hair and had a new, short look. She looked really different, and he noticed that she seemed anxious. So he stopped and said, ‘Kim—you look great! Love the new look!’ She gave him such a big smile. She told him that it was a big day for her. Today she was coming out at school. She held her breath. My son gave her a big hug and said, ‘That’s great. It’s just going to get better from here.’ Rabbi, I’m telling you this because he shared it with me when I was driving him the other day. And when he’d finished telling me about this exchange at school, he said, ‘Dad, I learned that from Rabbi Gurevitz. She helped me see what a difference a friend can make at a time like that.’”


She came up to me in the middle of break one evening at our Hebrew high school. “Rabbi, can I make a time to come and talk to you?” We got together the following week and as she sat down, Jennifer said to me, “So, I’m gay and I have a girlfriend. And that’s all fine. But … why do I feel like God hates me?”

Two moments from my past few years of congregational life as a rabbi. I’ll return to the second moment shortly. But, as I reflect on these experiences, and several others like them, I realize how easily I could have missed them all. And, in doing so, I would have robbed the youth in my community of the pastoral and spiritual support they needed at a crucial turning point in their lives.

I was always “out” in my congregation. I had felt confident enough, during student placement at the end of rabbinical school, that times had changed enough for me to be upfront about that without it impacting my employment prospects. But I wasn’t a spokesperson for gay rights. I would gently drop in a reference to my partner during interviews to make it clear that it was just a natural part of the fabric of my life—it wasn’t an “issue.”

In the first few years of my congregational work, I would choose very carefully when to comment on GLBT-related issues in the context of a sermon or teaching. Often I would let it come from someone else so it didn’t appear to be “my issue.” But then Tyler Clementi committed suicide at Rutgers University. And the media began to pay more attention to the high proportion of teen suicides who were GLBT youth. And Dan Savage launched the YouTube-based “It Gets Better” campaign to provide opportunities for GLBT adults and their allies to record messages for struggling GLBT youth to show them that there were truly good, wonderful things in life beyond the fears and anxieties they may have been struggling with at any given moment in time.

I realized that I had been doing my community, and especially my teenagers, a disservice. I realized that I had been going out of my way not to bring my sexuality to the attention of my students. So anxious was I not to be regarded by anyone as “promoting homosexuality,” I was self-censoring; whereas most heterosexuals wouldn’t pause for a moment before saying, “My husband and I just came back from vacation,” or “I went to the movies last night with my wife and some friends,” I would leave my partner out of my informal conversations.

And the result was that while I was technically “out,” most of the youth in my congregation had no idea. And that meant that none of them knew—really knew—that they had an ally and someone who might understand what they were going through. And I needed to change that.

The week after Clementi’s death I gave a sermon. I wrote a bulletin article. I wrote a blog piece. And I published an op-ed in the local newspapers. The latter, in particular, was picked up by many of our families and shared with their teenagers. I started to do sessions with our high school students and youth group, speaking about my own journey of coming out, and introducing them to other GLBT members of our congregation. I had students catching me in the corridors, thanking me for the piece that I had written in the papers. And, before long, I had students seeking me out for support or simply to share their story, or a brother or sister’s story, with me.

I’ve stayed connected with many of these young people. Jennifer is now at college, and she is thriving. A year ago she walked into my office wanting to know why it felt like God hated her. We met monthly, and we explored where in society and the media we receive the kinds of messages that make us feel this way. We went on a journey together so that Jennifer could find a personal theology that could enable her to celebrate her uniqueness and truly own her image made b’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God—an image that must embrace and include our sexuality too. And how could God hate something that was so essential to our being? Something that, when fully expressed, makes us feel more spiritually whole?

Ten years after I first came out, I found myself coming out all over again. This time around it felt even more profound, even more powerful. This time around it was a tikkun—a fixing, a healing, of spirit and of community.

Excerpt from The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, edited by Rabbi Lisa Grushcow © 2014 by Central Conference of American Rabbis. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Like this post? 

unnamed-1The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexualitypublished by CCAR Press, takes a close look at the breadth of human sexuality from a Jewish perspective. For more information and to order copies, visit, ccarpress.org or call 212-972-3636 x243. For those of you in the New York City area, Editor Rabbi Lisa Grushcow will be speaking at Congregation Rodeph Sholom on December 9, 2014 at 7:00 pm. In a discussion entitled, “Let’s Talk About Sex… (in a Liberal Jewish Way),” she along with three contributors to The Sacred Encounter will be discussing borders, boundaries, and what happens in the bedroom.

 

Posted on October 27, 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

Coming Out and Being Proud

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!

rp_10172680_10152410248549809_7254544815864323903_n-300x300.jpgIt is hard to imagine that this year marks only the fifth year in which I’ll be out of the closet for National Coming Out Day. My queer identity is such a strong part of my identity that it is hard to remember that for the majority of my life it was one of my deepest secrets.

This past year, I also publicly come out as a survivor of sexual violence. My identity as a survivor strongly informs my identity as a queer Jew, and this upcoming National Coming Out Day will mark my first Coming Out Day as a Jewish queer survivor.  

This past June, I wrote about taking pride in my identities as a Jewish Queer Survivor. Now, almost half a year since I wrote those posts, as I reflect on being out, I realize one thing: I am lucky.

I am lucky for the Jewish communities I have been a part of.

Since I came out as queer, I found a Jewish community that embraced my identities, including my queer identity at Tufts Hillel. When I was going through the sexual misconduct adjudication process at Tufts, a Hillel staff member was one of several people who provided me with the support I needed during a difficult time. Now that I am in DC, I am in the process of exploring new Jewish communities and realize how lucky I am that I can truly be myself in each community I explore.

I am lucky to be accepted.

As support and acceptance of LGBTQ individuals continues to grow, especially among my generation, it is easy to forget how much homophobia still exists, both in the Jewish and non-Jewish world. When I read the comments and tweets in response to my piece in June about taking pride in my Jewish queer identity, I was reminded that not everyone is as lucky as me to have found such great support among family and friends. I was even more shocked when the Advocate picked up my blog post, especially because my story did not seem newsworthy to me; it just seemed like the norm for so many people I know.

And lastly, I am lucky for the support I have received.

As a survivor, I have seen how rape culture re-victimizes survivors through a culture of victim-blaming, institutions which offer more opportunities to succeed for rapists than survivors, and a legal system which leaves little hope for justice. Yet, I was fortunate to receive the support of family, friends, and even teachers. Perhaps one of the most touching responses I received were from two former teachers—one a teacher from elementary and middle school who saw my article on Keshet and one from a former professor who reached out to me after reading a piece I wrote for the Tufts Daily about Tufts’ history of letting rapists remain on campus.

I had been publicly out as queer and as a survivor before I wrote my blog posts for Keshet. However, writing during pride month gave me the opportunity to not only come out in a more public space online but to also reflect on having pride in my identities—a feeling that doesn’t necessarily come with coming out. And I couldn’t be any prouder to be out for the month of National Coming Out Day.

Like this post? 

Posted on October 23, 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

Getting Comfortable Coming Out

Ailsa & Kate

Ailsa & Kate (R to L)

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!

In the spirit of Yom Kippur and the holiday season, I have a confession to make. It’s taken me a while to get comfortable with coming out.

That’s partially because I’ve been shy as long as I can remember. (My high school yearbook picture has the caption “Quietest Girl.”) And it’s partially because, given my ethnicity, it’s already hard to blend in. Nor do I want people to see me only as Chinese-American, gay, and Jewish, especially since I still occasionally feel insecure about my level of Shabbat observance, Mandarin fluency, or GLBT activism.

So most of my initial coming-out experiences happened with close friends (99% of whom already knew!) or in GLBT-friendly environments. Once I started dating Kate (now my wife), my sexual orientation became more obvious. But despite living in a state where we had marriage equality and other rights, I still was tentative sometimes.

All this helps explain why I find one specific coming-out experience so memorable.

It happened in November 2008, when our synagogue, Temple Emunah, hosted a panel titled “Marriage, Intermarriage, Same-Sex Marriage.” The room was packed with people wanting to hear how the local Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative rabbis engaged with these issues. We were particularly interested in how Rabbi Bukiet of Chabad and Rabbi Jaffe of Temple Isaiah approached the question of same-sex marriage. (Our spiritual leader, Rabbi Lerner, had already offered to marry us once I’d converted, so we already knew where he stood.)

The rabbis spoke thoughtfully, impressing us with their honesty and willingness to grapple with some thorny topics. Then during the Q&A session, an audience member we didn’t know said they weren’t aware of any gays or lesbians at Emunah. In hindsight, I understand their point of view. We ourselves weren’t familiar with many other GLBT members. At the time, though, I was only aware of feeling invisible, and hating it.

My hand shot up of its own accord as I blurted out, “Um, right here!” “Yes, over here!” my wife chimed in. The questioner seemed taken aback but not angry; I don’t even remember their reply. I was too busy thinking, “I just outed us to this entire room …”

My usual coming-out anxiety was this time mixed: half-amused, half-horrified chagrin. Then I felt relief, as nobody batted an eye at what we’d said (a testimony to how just inclusive Emunah is.) Later, I realized I’d come out to a bunch of people I didn’t know that well … and I was actually happy with having done it.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of this moment. I doubt anyone else even remembers the exchange. And I didn’t suddenly start divulging my deepest secrets to random strangers. (There is way too much ingrained modesty for that to happen.) But I do feel like it helped me be more comfortable with coming out in more public ways, like our aufruf in front of the congregation on Shabbat.

In honor of this month’s National Coming Out Day, I’m taking my cue from this memory. Even when I could passwhen I could get away with not talking about being Jewish or gay or anything else not immediately obviousI’ll choose to be true to myself and to encourage other people to do the same. Despite all the amazing progress made recently in marriage equality and other areas, we don’t yet live in a world where everyone is fully accepted in all our complexity and humanity. Coming out is one way to help make that world a reality.

Like this post? 

Posted on October 21, 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

The Burden of Coming Out

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!

“For National Coming Out Day I’m coming out … as a Keshet blogger!”Profile-Bowtie

*crickets*

Okay, okay, maybe that wasn’t a strong opening line. A little too flippant and cute, especially for my first time on here. Alright, let’s start again.

“Hi. I’m coming out. I’m a queer, Jewish, non-binary trans man living in the deep deep south who converted through Reform Judaism, though my personal practice leans more Reformodox / Anarcho-Talmudist.”

*crickets*

Okay, that didn’t go so well either.

So, as you might have been able to tell, this is supposed to be an entry about Coming Out. And I’m going to be perfectly blunt. Yes, I was making light earlier, but coming out is huge. It’s massive and scary and integral. It fills you with terror and hope. It briefly throws your whole world off kilter. It is wonderful.

Until it isn’t. Until it happens every day because it has too. Until for the 20,000th time someone refuses to believe your gender. It’s beautiful until the millionth time someone starts making assumptions about you because you revealed you’re a convert. Or the billionth time you come out as queer in straight spaces and gay spaces and everyone—gay and straight—has problems with it. It’s magical until no one believes you’re disabled because they can’t see it. Until you are constantly coming out over and over and over again because the world won’t stop making generalizations on who you are based on the minimal information our retinas can absorb.

Coming out is freeing.

And it is a burden.

It is a burden to live under the an identity that isn’t yours, to hide yourself for protection and safety. And I think more and more of the world is thankfully beginning to realize that. But its also a burden to have to come out in the first place.

So I issue a challenge. On this National Coming Out Day, support anyone you hear coming out. Support them fully by listening and recognizing the power of that experience, realize how scary it can be to say those words.  Wear purple on Spirit Day (October 16th, which is also Oscar Wilde’s birthday). Celebrate LGBT History month this October and learn more about the glorious multi-hued beauty that is our community.

But the bigger challenge is this. The rest of the year we need to support people’s discovery of themselves and support our continually growing identities beyond that one Coming Out moment, beyond the comfort of the known narratives. We need to stop making assumptions about people’s genders and sexual orientations and religions and everything else. We need to let people tell their own stories and not create it for them simply by looking at them. We need to stop over simplifying just how amazing we are, just how complex and complicated humans can be. And one day, maybe there won’t have to be a National Coming Out Day. Maybe we can all just be.

Like this post? 

Posted on October 1, 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