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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

Telling My Story for World AIDS Day

A large red ribbon hangs between columns in the north portico of the White House for World AIDS Day, 30 November 2007

A large red ribbon hangs between columns in the north portico of the White House for World AIDS Day, 30 November 2007

(Trigger warning: This post includes stories of suicide.)

I remember vividly the first time I heard the term “AIDS.” It was the Sally Jessy Raphael show right after I got home from school. I remember looking at the screen,  seeing people who were broken, who were abused, who, essentially were being put on a pedestal of shame for the world to see. My mother called out from the kitchen, “Turn that trash off. Those faggots are getting what they deserve.”

But I knew I was not unlike them.

AIDS and HIV related deaths have topped 39 million since the pandemic started. There are more than 35 million people currently living with the virus today, with a bit over one million of those individuals living in the United States. And while the virus does not discriminate, individuals in the LGBTQ community feel the impacts far differently. We tend to not have adequate access to health care, face inherent stress from the discrimination and harassment that is institutional in our country which is proven to impart lesser health outcomes. From my prospective, the most harmful is the stigma that continues to follow this disease for our community.

I realize I don’t tell my story often enough, and I find this to be a personal failure as a member of this community and as a human being. I will not use real names or places because the story is still very raw and honestly, I don’t think those wounds will ever heal.

When I was 19, I was newly liberated: reborn even. I had come out to my Mom and Dad, I was living on my own at University, and had a supportive group of friends around me.

Dustin and Mark were two of those friends.

They had been together for the better part of a decade and were the queer big brothers I never had. I navigated my first two relationships with their help; crying on their shoulders more than I’d like to admit. But, for the first time in my life, I had role models. I had people I looked up to. I had a future.

It was October and the weather had started turning. Mark was constantly getting sick, although no one really thought much of it. I knew the week before my birthday, Mark had a doctor’s appointment. On the night of my birthday, as I was busy prepping for the birthday shenanigans, I missed a call from Mark.

That night, I missed an opportunity to save a life.

Mark was calling because hours before, he had found out he had tested positive for HIV. This man that I knew, who was in a committed relationship, who had taught me how to be strong in the face of adversity, how to be proud about my differences, hung himself in his apartment.

The hours that passed were all a blur. I was in complete shock and all I wanted were answers. Unfortunately, my only access to those answers was Dustin.

And on November 2nd, just one day later, Dustin put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Later, we would find out that Dustin had been cheating and introduced the virus into their relationship.

I’m writing this story to tell you that ten years ago, I lost two of my best friends—my blood—to this virus known as HIV. But the story is unlike the stories of my elders; who watched their loved ones whither away in hospital beds in the 80s and 90s.

My friends did not die because of the virus. My friends died because they knew they would be treated differently. They died because of fear. They died because we as a community have not stepped up to educate.

My friends died because of STIGMA.

I’m not a great Jew. Some love to remind me the last time I stepped into Temple was for a friend’s Bat Mitzvah, and that was quite a few years ago. But I am educated enough to know that in synagogue, we speak all passages of the Torah. We don’t side step the ones we feel uncomfortable speaking, especially if we’re hanging out in Leviticus.

LGBTQ Jews are in a unique situation: we stand steadfast for social justice and humanity and we know we cannot be silent, even in the face of what we feel is uncomfortable.

The importance of kavod hamet, respecting the dead, is taught in our tradition. Remembering, and respecting, the dead is commemorated by reciting the mourner’s Kaddish during prayers.

Today, I ask you to begin your advocacy with our Jewish values. Take a moment to include in your thoughts those we have lost. Stand with your congregation, and recite Kaddish for those we have lost to the AIDS epidemic, those who have no one standing for them.

Hold in your prayers, and your memories, those who had no support, those who felt alone.

And, this World AIDS Day I challenge everyone reading this to call a friend, a neighbor, a coworker… anyone. Reach out to them and remind them that you’ll be there. If you’re feeling extra inspired, there are many different organizations that you can volunteer with—including your closest LGBTQ Community Center, as many of them work directly or indirectly with HIV/AIDS.

HIV/AIDS has taken so much from so many. Let us be kind. Let’s show the world that no one is alone in this fight.

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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

Being Thankful: Communities & Identities

In my mind, Thanksgiving has a deeper connection with Judaism than with turkey or cranberry sauce.

kinnus 2013

Nearly 400 Jewish teenagers came together in Kansas City, MO, at Emtza Region USY’s 2013 Kinnus convention. Photograph by Zach Dalin.

Since eighth grade, I haven’t been home for a Thanksgiving dinner.

In the Emtza region of United Synagogue Youth (USY), which encompasses the chunk of the Midwest that’s west of Chicago, we hold our largest convention of the year over Thanksgiving weekend.

The most meaningful part of our Kinnus, “convention” in Hebrew, is the way that hotels in places like Minneapolis, St. Louis, Omaha, or Kansas City become oases of Jewish community for a weekend. Over the long weekend of Thanksgiving, a hotel ballroom became a makeshift synagogue, kosher food cafeteria, and center of Jewish life.

What made this experience so special, though, was the fact that it began with Thanksgiving dinner, during which we gathered around tables with friends old and new, and kindled a close community. During my last Kinnus, as we went around the table sharing what we were thankful for, I realized the important role that the Emtza region Jewish community played in my high school years.

This year, I’m thankful for the college I attend, Tufts University. I’m thankful for the opportunity to live in Boston, take classes that I enjoy, and make as many Belgian waffles as I want in the dining hall.

Beyond that, though, I’m thankful that I’ve found a new Jewish community and, more specifically, a Jewish community that celebrates queer identities.

This past weekend our Hillel held a Pride Shabbat, featuring two women who spoke about their experiences as queer individuals in their Jewish communities, services tailored to fit the pride theme with special readings from the Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, and a shabbat dinner featuring blurbs on the tables about queerness and Judaism and rainbow decorations on the walls. The shabbat made me appreciate the Jewish community at this school even more, because it truly welcomes and celebrates everyone in our Hillel community, and the student body of the school at large.

senior photoThis Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my new Jewish community of peers. Though I’ll miss the experience of forging a Jewish community with my friends, I am so grateful for the Jewish community fostered by the Hillel here at Tufts and the fact that it celebrates the intersection of Judaism and pride.

Ari also created community with over 40 of his LGBTQ & Ally Teen peers at the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton last year. This #GivingTuesday Keshet will be raising funds to support travel costs for one teen attendant at the Shabbaton. Learn more about the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton here.

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Posted on November 25, 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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The Coming Out Process

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!

MBYHeadshot1For me, coming out has never been as simple as you would think. I’ve done it a few timesI first came out as queer as a teenager, and now as an adult I have come out all over again as transgender. This latest coming-out process has taken me the better part of two years, countless half-steps in the direction of being out, and finally the decision to just trust that it would work out.

The first step, and the hardest, was coming out to myself.

On some level, I had known that I was trans for a very long timeever since I first heard the term transgender. I read everything about gender and transition that I could get my hands on. Something about these stories grabbed my attention in a way that nothing else had. I never could understand why anyone thought it was difficult to understand or unfamiliarit made perfect sense to me. That probably should have been my first clue.

Then I found gender theory. Oddly, the distant academic language about gender as cultural performance became one of my best tools for convincing myself that I was not transgender: If gender is not real, if it is culturally arbitrary, then it does not matter what gender I am. If it does not matter what gender I am, then I can’t be trans, right? Or how about another one: If culture defines what genders are acceptable and legible, and our culture has a gender category for a person with my genetics and body to look the way I do, then I can “get by” as a butch. That means I’m not transgender, right? I can “slide by” in public as a just-barely-almost-not-quite-kinda-sorta woman, so I don’t need to think of myself as transgender, right?

There was one major area of my life where these justifications and excuses did not work.

In my relationship with Jewish ritual, which was becoming more and more important in my life, there never seemed to be room for these excuses. In fact, there never seemed to be room for my sense of ambiguity around gender at all: so much of our ritual, language, and practice is strictly gendered, even in our progressive and egalitarian movements. It seemed impossible to approach a Hebrew text, be called to the Torah, or pray in Hebrew without thinking about gender. I always had to insert some distance between myself and our traditionbetween myself and Godto avoid the dreaded gender meltdown.

It was during this time that I began rabbinical school in the Conservative movement. I had watched my tradition struggleand have some success, however imperfectat becoming a tradition that welcomed and treated with dignity all people. I wasn’t always happy with the way these conversations were going, and I came to the rabbinate in order to add my voice. I came out of a sense of obligation to Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) and a desire to build moral and welcoming communities.

Over time, it got harder and harder to do the work of becoming a rabbi without engaging my own “gender stuff.”

Finally, one Friday night at Kabbalat Shabbat, it just clicked: I didn’t have to think so hard about gender all the time. I didn’t need a mental list of justifications for my gender identityand I was exhausting myself by constantly maintaining that list. The truth was much simpler than that: I was just transgender. It was a scary feeling, because seeing myself as transgender was something I had worked very hard not to do for so long, but it was also a tremendous relief. Over the course of the coming weeks, I felt myself letting go of the emotional distance I had kept between myself and my life.  I was not sure what my next steps were, what kind of new gender identity I would build for myself, what coming out would be like, whether I would transition—there were plenty of reasons to be anxious. But I began to notice that even with all of the anxiety, I was present in a way that I had not been before.

From that Shabbat, it took more than two years to come out more or less completely, to figure out how and whether to transition, and to begin negotiating the complex legal, medical, and bureaucratic mess that those of us who transition have to deal with.

A few close friends and family members knew right away, and were there with me as I thought about when and whether to come out, what transition would mean, and all of the other questions I had. Sometimes I wish I had come out sooner. I especially wish that I had been more completely out during my time in rabbinical schoolI wish that I had been able to add my voice specifically as a trans person to our conversations, and that I had been more present to my classmates, colleagues, and teachers. Most importantly, I wish I had been in a position to show them at the time the trust that I know they deserved. But there were too many other factors in life, and my time line did not allow that. In the end, it was reaching the end of my studies and preparing to work as a rabbi that gave me the final push to put the last pieces in place to be able to transition. It was in thinking about the ordination ceremony that I knew for certain that if I could not stand in front of my teachers and mentors in my full self, and have them call me by a name that fit me, the ceremony would feel empty and fake. And, shortly afterwards, I decided that if I continued to put off transition for “someday” in the future, I would continue to not be present to the work I was doing right now in my community.

How could I possibly be a rabbi building Jewish community if I was hiding from the community I wanted to serve?

So I jumped in to the coming out process—talking with close and extended family, friends, coworkers, and others. It was both more frightening and easier than I expected. So far, in sharing the news of my transition with my colleagues and my communities, I have received nothing but support and shared excitement. Not a single one of the worst-case scenarios or explosions that I feared has happened. Instead, people have surprised me with their generosity of spirit. Being out has given me the ability to raise my voice, to educate and advocate in my community. More than that, it has given me the ability to experience again what a beautiful community it is.

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Posted on October 30, 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 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.

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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

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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.

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Posted on October 23, 2014

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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.

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Posted on October 21, 2014

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