You’ll love this mother-daughter team who have joined the inclusion efforts at Sha’aray Shalom! Jodi Tolman and her daughter Chloe participated in Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit, putting their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion work within the Jewish community into action. See what happens when Jodi (known as “mom”) and Chloe sat down to interview each other about the importance of LGBTQ equality. Read part 1 of their interview here!
Mom: Do you think it’s important for cisgender and straight people to get involved in LGBTQ justice work?
Chloe: It’s critically important. In order for there to be real change, we need everyone’s involvement, in some way or other. If it’s simply talking with family, friends, colleges, etc, about the issue – lasting, cultural change will require the vast majority of folks in our society to be part of the solution. Not everyone has to be warriors on the front lines. People can just be having conversations with their neighbors over their back fence.
Chloe: Do you think the work we’re doing, in our small and limited way, will have an impact?
Mom: I’m sure you’ve heard the Margaret Mead quote, but it’s the best way to answer your question. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Mom: Why did you want to get involved in LGBTQ inclusion work at Sha’aray Shalom?
Chloe: As VP of our GSA at school, I realized that the best way to foster social change is to penetrate every aspect of culture and society and work to bring bout enlightenment and awareness. Religion is a popular place for people to hide behind conservative ideology, but they shouldn’t. Most especially in the religious realm. I believe that mercy, justice, kindness, and freedom and dignity for all people are among the basic tenets, or should be, of a religious life.
Our shul can be much more demonstrably open and inclusive and I want it to be a place where everyone, including LGBTQIA+ people and their families can feel welcome and, most importantly, a sense of belonging. I would be proud to have helped that come about.
Chloe: What got you interested in working at the temple as a front for change?
Mom: For the reasons you just stated, but also because, as the center of our family’s spiritual life, it’s a logical place for me to want to focus my efforts in this cause. Also, I’m so excited about the work we’re doing with Keshet, and that at the end of the coming year, we will have implemented the Action Plan that we formulated at the Keshet Leadership Summit. At that time, CSS will have a place in Keshet’s fabulous Equality Guide which will enable LGBTQ folks on the South Shore who are searching for an open and inclusive shul to find us.
I’m also extremely excited about helping other religious institutions in the area who might want to open their organizations and create warm, welcoming and inclusive cultures, to follow our lead. Our work with Keshet will empower us to serve as a mentor congregation to others in our community, and it would be an enormous honor to support other groups and help them to do what we will have done.
Mom: Do you plan to carry on with the work you’ve been doing with the GSA at school and the task force at CSS when you get to college? What are your goals for your efforts at Sarah Lawrence?
Chloe: One of the reasons that Sarah Lawrence was my top choice of colleges, and that I am so thrilled to be going, is because they are ranked amongst the most LGBTQ-friendly campuses in the country. I think that much social change and progress is made on college campuses and that progress can be a springboard for change in society-at-large.
I will work with existing groups on campus and perhaps, if I see a need, form a new one. And just as importantly, I will lead by example by making certain, as I do now, that my actions, speech, opinions, deeds, etc, all demonstrate my belief that an equal and fair society for all people is the best kind to live in. It’s my way of working toward tikkun olam.
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This week our friends at Kveller shared this painful story of a woman losing the support of her father after coming out as a lesbian. If you or a parent you know is struggling with a child coming out, we can help. Check out Keshet’s Parent & Family Connection here. We can match you up with a mentor, another parent who has been through the same situation, and can offer support and resources.
I got married earlier this year and my father was not at my wedding. Five years ago, when I came out to him as a lesbian, he told me that he still loved me but that he thought my relationship was wrong.
He said he would love for me to visit and stay at his house, but that my fiancé was not welcome, because he found it to be “too much” for him. When our daughter was born he didn’t acknowledge her. My brother reports that my father doesn’t think of her as his granddaughter, and believes that she isn’t really my daughter, anyway, because my wife was the one who carried her. He only acknowledges my older daughter from my previous (heterosexual) marriage.
A couple of years ago, around the holidays, my father left me a message asking what my older daughter would like as a present. I emailed him back, telling him what both of my daughters would like, and that I wasn’t going to send a message to my children that either of them were more or less my own. If he couldn’t send something for both of them, I wrote, don’t send anything for either of them. He never responded, but a present arrived in the mail for my older daughter only.
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At Keshet we know how important it is to provide diverse resources for families. Last year we worked with author Elisabeth Kushner to create the first Jewish themed picture book featuring an LGBT family, The Purim Superhero. When we heard that S. Bear Bergman, Jewish educator, author, and storyteller, was creating an LGBTQ2S-themed book club, we knew we needed to learn more. Read on to get the scoop on the Flamingo Rampant Book Club, which features picture books for 4-8 year olds. Joining the book club means you’ll receive six books throughout the year. Bear is currently raising funding to support the project.
What was your inspiration for the Flamingo Rampant Book Club?
The truth is I was reading to Stanley, my four-year-old one night before bed. We had some new LGBTQ2S themed picture books, which my husband, who’s an expert on the topic, had ordered. These were out of print or from small publishers. Stanley asked if we could read the new books, and I said “sure, why not?” But every single one of them contained really difficult, extended descriptions of bullying. We read a couple, but eventually he looked at me and said, “I don’t want this anymore. I don’t like these bully stories.”
And all of a sudden I started thinking: “What are we sending our kids to bed with? What are the last images and stories that we’re offering them to carry into their dreams?”
The books we’d just read were fairly horrible–I mean, everything turned out all right in the end. But the descriptions of bullying we’re so substantial, they almost seemed like manuals for taunting, ostracization, and harassment. I’m a writer, and a lecturer; I do a lot of work around questions of gender and sexual orientation and I have for more than two decades. I am fortunate to be married to a guy who, among his many sterling personal qualities, is an expert on creating celebratory and inclusive classrooms for people of all genders and sexual orientations.
The books in the Flamingo Rampant Book Club include full stories of people of color written by people of color. Why was this important for you?
My family, which includes my chosen family, is fairly racially diverse and certainly diverse in terms of genders and sexual orientations. And my artistic community, ditto. We really wanted books that represented the world in which we actually live, and we also wanted to contribute positively to the experiences of families of color–especially LGBTQ2S families of color. At the moment, there are–as far as we know–only three or four books anywhere at all that feature lesbian or gay or bi or trans families that are anything other than white.
The industry average for representations of people of color in children’s books in 7%. To me, that’s a really shameful number. The prevailing wisdom within publishing directly mirrors the inequalities that already exist in our society–girls will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. Parents will buy books featuring white children or families for their Black, Indigenous, or Of-Color children, but white parents won’t buy books featuring Black, Indigenous, or Of-Color children or families for their white children. The result of all this is that the overwhelmingly majority of picture books center on white children; mostly boys.
So much of LGBTQ literature for kids focuses on stories of overcoming bullies and challenges centering on their (or their families) LGBTQ identity. The books in the Flamingo Rampant Book Club take a different approach–how has this shifted the narrative of the book club?
There are so many other things to talk about! That’s the thing that I find so bewildering. Let these people take trips! Let them have adventures, let them solve mysteries, let them celebrate things, let them worry about other things besides their identity–moving, new school, going to the dentist, any number of interesting childhood challenges that can be overcome. Flamingo Rampant Book Club’s mandate is positive representations. If people really feel that they urgently require a book that is about bullying in order to bring some realism, there are plenty of books for them already.
If a family isn’t LGBTQ, is this the right book club for them?
Absolutely. This book club is a good fit for any family regardless of sexual orientation, gender, family size or style, race, ethnicity that wants their children to grow up with positive messages about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, queerer, or gender-independent people. That’s all that’s required. Whether your family knows LGBTQ2S people or not, these books all center around a story. So there’s plenty to hold the attention of a young person, and plenty of opportunity to open up conversations about issues of gender or sexual orientation without it seeming abstract, or like it’s coming out of nowhere. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who does a lot of work and writing around parenting and spirituality and was an early supporter of Flamingo Rampant’s first project, told us that her favorite thing about those books was that they gave her a way to talk to her children about gender roles that was based on something they had just positively experienced together.
I also got the following email recently from a friend, who had just received it from their friend:
Do you remember the book you gave [our daughter]–The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy about Transgender children? We had a friend visit who is trans and we read the book to [our daughter] so she could better understand who [our friend] is. [Our daughter] got very excited after I read the book to her, saying ” so [our friend] used to be a girl and now he is a boy” I said yes and then she said very happily: “so that means Fairies are real” That’s life with a four-year-old.
What has surprised you during this process?
Honestly, I have been surprised at how many people have marginalized this series as something that would only be of interest to LGBTQ2S parents and families. Of course, it’s lovely to have affirming books to show our children that represent our family and family like ours. But my kid sees positive images of families like ours every day-he lives in one! Think about the child who doesn’t get any specifically positive images of LGBTQ2S families. That kid is left with whatever filters through from media, and whatever kids say on the playground. I hope progressive, feminist parents will also recognize this book series a powerful tool for positive change in their families, schools, libraries and so on.
What’s next for you and for the Flamingo Rampant Book Club?
Well, the next 20 days will be devoted to getting enough people to sign-up that we can make this project happen. If 450 families don’t sign up for subscriptions, or if we don’t get the equivalent in funding, then there will be no books for anyone. So right now, I’m hustling to make sure we get the most media exposure that we can manage to make sure that the message reaches as far as I can get it to reach. After that, a nice nap. And after that, I’ll be doing some dates with the Jewish Book Council this year to various Jewish Book Festivals across the United States, continuing to perform and lecture at universities and festivals, trying to figure out the kindergarten drop off and pick up schedule, and trying to make some progress on my novel.
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I can’t help but think about the words maternal and motherhood; and their ‘opposites,’ paternal and fatherhood. As a new parent of a beautiful baby, I’ve been thinking about these words a lot, especially as other people try to make sense of the connection between my child and me.
In my case, as a female born transgender person who lives in a middle space defined merely as Taan, I find the word maternal describes me. It’s odd to think that a word representing mother and mommy or mom is how I am aligning. Because, those titles of mother, mommy and mom are not ways I feel comfortable being called. Goodness, words sure do get confusing.
Looking closer at the word maternal, unpacking it so to say, brings a new understanding. When I think of the word maternal, nurturing, loving, kind, present, caring, gentle, sensitive, giving, generous, warm-hearted and tender all come to mind. All these adjectives of softness, we are told represent what is means to be a mom, mother or mommy. In fact, I feel all these adjectives for my baby without being a mommy.
Thus lies the assumption that softness can only be given from a woman. I associate with these adjectives and thus being maternal. And yet, I am not a woman; I am Taan.
My love and care for my baby reaches beyond English. It reaches far beyond gender.
Maternal I am, parent of my baby, I love you with all my heart. No words will get in the way of this truth.
My brother is gay and his amazing boyfriend, Risto, is the newest member of our family. I never presented Risto as anything other than Rob’s boyfriend to my daughter and she has never mentioned anything about two men loving each other and sharing the same bed when they visit.
My daughter is lucky to have amazing aunts and uncles who love her and spoil her constantly. There is no difference in her mind between having an aunt and uncle who are married and uncles who are in a relationship together.
Me: Remember, some kids don’t have a mommy and a daddy. Some have two mommies, two daddies ,or only one. Families are all different.
Daughter: Yeah mommy. That’s right.
Me: Even though Uncle Robbie Dobbie (to most people, that would be just Uncle Rob, but not in our family) and Risto don’t have kids, they love each other.
Daughter:Yeah. They do.
At my daughter’s birthday party, which was a family-only event, she was truly the center of attention. After the party, my brother and his boyfriend stayed with us overnight for a longer visit.
My daughter’s love for them is amazing. It is almost as if she knows their relationship is special and she wants to be a part of it. One minute she was hanging on Risto playing with him and his iPad and giggling with Uncle Robbie Dobbie the next minute.
She really understands that Uncle Robbie Dobbie and Risto “go together.” There is no difference in her eyes between them and her other aunts and uncles. That is a gift and I am grateful to be living in a time when relationships are simply relationships and love is simply love.
While we are Jewish and Risto is not, he attends family holidays with us and has enjoyed learning more about Judaism. I believe our family has welcomed even more by his inclusion in our holiday events. Who doesn’t like having 4 glasses of wine at Pesach (Passover) anyway?
What my daughter does not yet realize are the perks of having gay uncles (not being stereotypical here; they actually agree with these): they spoil her with princess supplies like no one else, my brother made her a mermaid birthday cake with a doll (Risto did the doll’s hair) and when she is a little older, Uncle Robbie Dobbie will be more than happy to play “Wonder Woman” with her, just as we did as children (unfortunately, I was “Wonder Girl” as my brother got to be “Wonder Woman”). My daughter is one lucky girl!
My daughter is growing up in such a different world than I grew up in. And while the world is much scarier now, it is also filled with such hope. People who are gay and lesbian can get married in many states and they are able to receive benefits. This is monumental and my daughter gets to be a part of it and witness it. I hope she will be witness to more barriers being broken down as she grows up.
Do you have an LGBTQ family member? Click here to learn more about the Keshet Family & Parent Connection! Join a community of parents across the country who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community.
This past month, we shared stories of LGBT and Jewish Pride.
We heard from Jordan, who reflected on how his LGBT identity influences his Jewish identity.
We heard from Val and Alexandra, two students who are proud of being exactly who they are.
We heard from Ailsa, who showed how finding a community gave her the strength to find herself.
We heard from parents who support their children and raise them with Jewish values.
We heard how as we celebrate, we must also keep fighting.
And as we heard these stories—and many more—we saw the community watching, listening, and learning. What happens when Pride ends? How can we keep the idea of full LGBT inclusion on the mind and in the hearts of the Jewish community now that June is over?
What will you do to keep Pride alive for 11 more months?
Growing up Colin Weil never doubted that he’d have the family he wanted—a husband and kids.
When I called Colin last week, I explained to him that Keshet was looking to celebrate gay, Jewish dads for Father’s Day. “Great!” was his animated response. “I love celebrating, and I love being celebrated!” His enthusiasm didn’t dwindle as we chatted away about how he became a father, his co-parenting story, and how he has begun showing Jewish values and LGBT pride to his young daughter.
Colin’s story of fatherhood is rooted in a pride of his own LGBT identity—and he appreciates how lucky he is. Coming out to his family in the late 1980’s could have gone poorly, but his family and friends have always accepted him. Colin joked that his mom, Sonya Michel, a women and gender historian who co-wrote The Jewish Woman in America alongside Paula Hyman and Charlotte Baum, would have been disappointed if she didn’t have a gay son.
When Colin hit 40, he was single and ready to seriously think about kids. Over the next few years he considered surrogacy, but found it wouldn’t be the right fit for him. Three years later a mutual family friend introduced Colin to a single, straight woman who was also contemplating having children. They were set up on, what Colin called, a “blind co-parenting date.” Over the next few months they emailed, called, met, and even went to couples counseling as they thought about becoming co-parents. Their daughter Stella was born in February of 2011.
Colin shares custody of his daughter. He lives in New York City’s West Village, which he calls “pretty much a Nirvana” for being a gay, Jewish parent. He’s spent the past few years exposing his daughter to aspects of LGBT culture, while also immersing her in Jewish traditions. His lullabies for Stella have ranged from rock n’ roll, to children’s songs, to traditional Jewish melodies. Every Shabbat they light the candles together. Stella’s mom comes from an interfaith background herself—so Stella is immersed in aspects of Jewish traditions, celebrates Easter and Christmas, and benefits from having a mother who identifies as a bit of a Jew-bu.
Colin’s co-parenting situation might seem unique—it did to me. Well, until he put it in terms that are really quite easy to understand, “it’s as if we got divorced before ever getting married.” When I asked Colin if his family had been accepting of his parenting choices he told me that they very quickly accepted his decision. After all, parenting was always part of his plan. “I never stopped assuming that just because I was gay that I wouldn’t have what the rest of my family has—kids.”
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This year will mark the 9th year that I have been marching in the Cadillac Barbie Indy Pride Parade in Indianapolis. My son had been out a few years and I took the plunge by joining other members of my PFLAG chapter to march in the parade. I have to say that I was not prepared for what I would witness that morning.
But as I marched in Pride that first year, I learned that not all LGBT people are as fortunate as Matthew. Before the parade started, people began lining the sidewalks along the parade route. At the appointed time, my group began marching. One of the women walking with me was another Jewish mom. She was an “old-timer” and I was a novice.
We walked very slowly down the street behind our PFLAG banner. I was smiling and waving, and then I heard a roaring sound. As the crowd noticed our banner, they began cheering and shouting—”We love you PFLAG—thank you—thank you!” I looked around and realized that it was LGBT adults who were doing the yelling and cheering. I looked at the woman I was marching with and even though she was smiling, she had tears streaming down her face.
I knew that too many LGBT young people faced scorn and isolation from their parents, and were bullied by their classmates. But until that moment, I hadn’t understood that the LGBT adults who lined the sidewalks were still suffering from the pain of rejection from their parents—many of whom were not alive anymore. That pain never went away.
And then I realized that we—the supportive parents of LGBT children—represented the parents that these people never had.
I kept waving and smiling, but now I, too, had tears running down my face.
Annette Gross has continued to support her son and her community by founding the Indianapolis chapter of Keshet Parent & Family Connection program. The Keshet Parent and Family Connection is a diverse network of parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews across the country who are available to offer support to other parents dealing with any stage of their child’s coming out process. Anyone can join or start their own chapter – visit our website to see more!
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“Why are you doing this?”
I hear this question frequently when people learn that I write to help parents understand how LGBTQ issues affect their teens’ lives. I am not a professor of gender studies or a lesbian celebrity. I am a middle-aged happily married heterosexual mom, who fits stereotypes appallingly well. (Yes, even the 10 years in a minivan!) My previous careers weren’t even focused around writing.
Usually, I sense that the questioners expect drama close to home: which one of my children has just come out, or which friend of theirs has been bullied or thrown out of his/her home? I almost hate to disappoint them, but my motivation is boringly common. I just want to be a more effective parent. Ok, maybe, a more successfully nosy parent? Maybe it’s the same thing: I want to understand my kids’ world a little better.
I grew up in the 70′s in Baltimore: I joke that John Waters wasn’t even out then. (He did the puppet show at my third birthday party, and some of my friends would say that explains A LOT, but that’s another story.)
Of course, I had lesbian teachers and camp counselors, and surely some of those theater kids I hung out with were queer. Also of course, none was out and orientation was almost never discussed. When whispers came up, the default defense was a denial. Not until college did I know out gay and lesbian people, and experience an even somewhat inclusive setting.
Happily for the world, today’s teens and tweens generally have a different experience. Every day seems to bring us another step closer to equal rights and equal inclusion: same-sex marriage progress is all over the news, entertainment and sports stars come out with less and less fanfare, and queer relationships are beginning to be “normal” in television and movie plotlines. This makes it easier for teens to recognize and be authentic about their gender identities and attractions, but it adds an extra layer of social issues to carefully navigated by people with, let’s face it, imperfect judgment and undeveloped social maturity. And heightened sensitivity! Tween and teen years are minefields of awkwardness, embarrassment and hurt feelings, and it’s often hard for parents to help as it is.
I had promised myself I would be as frank and unflinching as possible in any kind of relationship and/or sex talk with my kids. I thought I was doing a pretty good job. But, a few years ago, despite being comfortable with queer friends and colleagues in my adult life, I found myself stumbling in conversations with kids about LGBT sex and relationships. Yikes! Bias I thought I had left behind? I looked hard at what was making me squirm: it was the newness to me of the idea of same-sex crushes and gender identity crisis at that age.
The idea of one or more of my kids and any of their friends not being heterosexual was fine in principle, but wait, did this mean I should rethink slumber parties? The values I wanted to communicate about intimacy shouldn’t depend on the gender of the partner… but how do you translate “virginity” if the situation isn’t heterosexual and cis-gendered?
When your kids ask you questions it’s a privilege (although I certainly didn’t see that in the moment on that bus). So, determined to have good, current-world answers I went looking for a book of advice. I looked in the Parenting section, but found that most anything related to these topics is shelved in LGBT Interest. But this is just the point, I thought, even straight people with straight kids could use a few more clues and cues. Maybe they’d need a cliché straight soccer mom to write such a book. Of course, I don’t write so much as collect and curate advice from current and former teens and parents, and review the science. After scores of interviews and hours in scientific journals, you can find my work in a blog (ummaboutthat.com) and a book (coming).
One big realization is that “perfect” parenting can happen even when conversations stumble. Saying, “gee, that’s so different from my sixth grade experience” is already the beginning of a great answer. Small things in our actions and reactions can make a huge difference in what we learn from our kids, in what they take away from us, and in how that feels – and that will be the topic of my next post.
Coming out is hard. Coming out to your family at Shabbat dinner is really hard. Take a look at how one family reacted to their son’s news, and help us work towards a truly inclusive Jewish community.