For me, coming out has never been as simple as you would think. I’ve done it a few times—I 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 time—ever 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 unfamiliar—it 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 tradition—between myself and God—to avoid the dreaded gender meltdown.
It was during this time that I began rabbinical school in the Conservative movement. I had watched my tradition struggle—and have some success, however imperfect—at 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 identity—and 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 school—I 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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“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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- 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!
The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, published 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.
Rabbi (to be) Ari Naveh recently shared how he balances the line between being a gay rabbi—and a rabbi who is gay. Here he takes his passion for policy and puts it in practice, examining why the LGBT and Jewish community should be celebrating the fourth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act.
Many of you have now most likely seen comedian and professional beard-sporter Zach Galifianakis grill President Barack Obama on his faux talk show “Between Two Ferns.” President Obama appeared on the show to discuss the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) to urge the younger generation who frequent Galifinakis’ show to check out the ACA website, and hopefully to sign up for Health Insurance through its Marketplace. If you haven’t seen the interview yet, you’ve probably been avoiding all social media outlets over the last week. Not only has the internet exploded over the interview, but there have been more than a few responses from pundits and members of Congress who feel that the interview besmirched the honor of the office of the President. (Believe me, I watched the interview, and the only thing I think it ‘besmirched’ was the good name of spider bites, something whose ‘good-name’ has already been called into question, if you ask me.)
President Obama, as well as a wide variety of spokespeople, celebrities, and representatives of the administration, have been making a concerted media blitz over the last few months to seriously encourage Americans – specifically young, healthy Americans such as this writer – to explore all that the Affordable Care Act has to offer in terms of the quality, variety, and innovations within health care. For all intents and purposes, this media blitz has been a success, as despite the extraordinarily well-covered website issues during its initial rollout, Obamacare has now enrolled 4.2 million new members into some form of private or state-run health insurance program since it was enacted about 2 months ago.
However, the long, winding road of providing more healthcare opportunities to millions of Americans stretches much longer than the 2 months since the ACA rollout, as this weekend we mark the four-year anniversary of President Obama’s signing the ACA into law.
While four years may not seem like a tremendously long time, a lot has shifted in the American culture since then (I didn’t even have a smart phone four years ago and I was barely a year into rabbinical school)!
For LGBT Americans, this is even truer, as in four seemingly short years, our rights and privileges in terms of marriage, protection from discrimination, and general presence in society have skyrocketed. They are by no means where they need to be, (take a look at my call to action for the Jewish community in regards to the Hobby Lobby court case), in some states they appear to be regressing, but we are definitely on our way.
In the context of healthcare, it is vital to look back at the cultural landscape for LGBT Americans four years ago. In December of 2009, the Center for American Progress published a memo called “How to Close the LGBT Health Disparities Gap.” The memo excoriated the healthcare system of the time, citing frightening statistics about the ever widening gap between LGBT – most especially transgender – Americans and heterosexuals in terms of access to healthcare, and the quality of care provided, in addition to highlighting rampant discrimination against LGBT Americans by healthcare providers. The memo asserted strongly that LGBT Americans were on the whole markedly less healthy than their heterosexual counterparts, due in no small part to societal discrimination; put simply, intolerance was making us sick emotionally, mentally, and physically, because providers did not know how best to serve us, and most importantly, we are often too scared to ask.
So what’s changed since 2009, as a result of the ACA? First and foremost, the basic fact that the 40+ million people uninsured in this country will now have better access to better care is a huge boon. Specifically for the LGBT community, the ACA mandates that any policy offered through the Marketplace cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity whatsoever. This is a huge step in erasing the stigma felt by so many LGBT Americans in regards to healthcare, and ensuring that they are suitably provided for. Additionally, the abolition of the pre-existing conditions condition in all health insurance policies also guarantees that LGBT Americans living with long-term diseases such as HIV/AIDS and many types of cancers are taken care of as well.
These are huge steps forward, representative of the general march towards real equality we’ve seen over the last four years. But there is so much more to be done.
While we are attaining unprecedented heights in terms of marriage equality nationwide, healthcare disparity, and the general societal discrimination that triggers it are still widespread. The CAP memo suggested that the US Department of Health and Human Services create an Office of LGBT Health in order to address this disparity; four years later, and no such office exists, and the education needed to help healthcare providers understand the specific needs of the LGBT community is still woefully absent.
Does the ACA help to negate the need for such an office? It certainly does, but it is by no means enough. Once more people realize that discrimination against LGBT people in all of its facets – school bullying, homophobic legislation, workplace bigotry – is making us sick, then we as a society can work towards putting a real stop to it.
Reading Ariel Naveh’s two-part story on the Keshet blog about being an openly gay rabbinical student, I remembered my own experience eight years ago as I prepared for ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. I wondered what my life would be like as a rabbi who was gay. I stayed up late at night and worried: Would I get a job? I wondered would I find a place that would accept my partner and offer her the same benefits of an opposite-sex spouse. I wondered if I could even make it safely through rabbinical school. There were so many things to ponder I barely had time to consider what it meant to actually be a gay rabbi.
When I applied for and accepted my first pulpit in the summer of 2006, I was closeted. The senior rabbi, the head of the search committee and the president of the synagogue all were in the dark about it, and I was scared: scared of getting found out, scared of losing the many opportunities which had been laid before me. Continue reading here>>
Part Two of a two-part story of a gay rabbinical student in the Reform Movement. Yesterday Ari shared his place in the history of openly gay rabbinical students. Today Ari delves deeper into navigating his identities. You can also hear from Rabbi Elianna Yolkut on her journey from the closet to the pulpit on Rabbis Without Borders.
In 2008, I made the decision to enter rabbinical school as an openly gay man. The decision was in some ways very easy and in some ways very difficult. My concerns centered on one main question: what would my gay and Jewish community be like? After my initial year at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Israel, I received some less than ideal news: my new home would be at the HUC campus in…Cincinnati.
This had not been my initial choice and I was none too pleased, having been born and raised in New York. But, I thought, “I am sure that I will not only be welcomed with open arms, but I will find a loving community who can help model for me being a gay rabbinical student, and subsequently a gay rabbi…right?”
I soon discovered, at least for my first year, I was the only openly gay student on campus; my therapist always tells me that it’s important to note openly gay, because you never know, and I do appreciate her optimism. Somehow by default, I became a halutz (a pioneer), the very identity I had hoped to avoid when I chose to be a gay rabbinical student in the Reform world, as opposed to the Conservative one.
In Cincinnati, I had to actively think about how to navigate all of my identities with a limited support network. In a conservative Midwestern city, I found myself working with even smaller–and sometimes even more conservative–congregations as their student rabbi. How would I come out to my student pulpits? Should I use them as bully pulpits to advocate for the causes that I find important and meaningful? How do I seek out a solid LGBT Jewish community outside of the school, when school takes up most of my life? And of course the biggest question: am I a gay rabbi, or am I a rabbi who is gay?
These two sentences may sound alike, but they could not be more different, as I discovered a few months ago in trying to craft a personal statement to send out to congregations to apply for possible rabbinic positions. In my personal statement, I told a story of building a relationship with a congregant in a community in Northwest Florida who was initially hesitant about having an openly gay rabbinical student; the fact that I had not yet mentioned my sexuality to that community, but rather had been outed by my predecessor is a whole other story. I wrote that over the two years I served there, we grew to form an incredible relationship, and that I hoped to have shifted his perspective if only a small amount.
The story I told for my personal statement was met with a resounding and near universal opposition. I was told that it foregrounded my sexuality too much: It showed me as “the gay rabbi” more than “Ari who is gay”…and also holds many other identities and traits, of equal value and import. While this is certainly true, it felt strange to hear from – mostly straight – friends, colleagues, and teachers that it would behoove me to “tamp down the gay.” In a recent article in Slate.com, gay writer J. Bryan Lowder lamented how some public figures have taken to coming out by stating that being gay is only but one small part of who they are, not their whole essence. Lowder believes, as do I, that this emphasis diminishes the value of coming out and acting as a role model to fellow LGBT people.
As I round the bases towards my eventual finishing of this program, I have no more answers to that quandary than I did when I started. I think sometimes you just have to be a halutz, taking the lonely road for the sake of those who will one day follow. It can be challenging, but at least it creates some pretty great stories.
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Deciding to become a rabbi is a momentous decision. For a gay man, the decision is even more fraught. In the first of this two part-series, Ari Naveh provides an intimate look at his decision-making process for picking a rabbinical school.
In 2006, after years of debate, arguments, and failed attempts, the Conservative Movement (finally) voted to allow the admission of openly gay students into their flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City.
Among the ‘liberal’ seminaries—including Hebrew Union College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Hebrew College—JTS was the last to make such a decision, and the vote was met in most circles with joy, celebration, and the feeling of great relief. Now openly gay prospective rabbinical students who were raised in the Conservative Movement, or who found meaning in its tenets, could learn to become its leaders in the hallowed halls of the world-renowned and historically impressive institution.
Having known that my life’s ambition was to attend rabbinical school in some capacity, the JTS decision was monumental for me. While I was raised in the Reform Movement, I felt drawn to many of the tenets of Conservative Judaism. It was incredibly heartening to know that I now had the full breadth of non-Orthodox options available to me.
But, when it came time to take that next step and apply to rabbinical school in 2008, I couldn’t shake that low-level feeling of unwelcomedness at JTS. With the decision only two years old, being an openly gay rabbinical student at JTS still seemed fraught with a sizeable number of complications.
Did I want to be a halutz (pioneer) for the Conservative Movement, gaining the notoriety and the fame—or perhaps infamy—as one of the first openly gay students in their seminary?
Was I comfortable with carrying that weight on my shoulders, along with all of the academic—and halakhic—requirements?
On the one hand, being a student at JTS was an opportunity to be a role model to many, showing bravery in the face of a slowly changing institution in specific, and a society in general. On the other hand, it seemed lonely.
What kind of community would I be able to foster if I was among the only gay students there? To whom could I turn for support? I weighed those options heavily and realized that loneliness could not beat out bravery. I chose to attend Hebrew Union College, which had a strong history of LGBT inclusion, having welcomed their first gay seminarians way back in 1990. I did not—and do not—regret my decision, as I felt it right to honor my Movement, and join what I thought could be a great and vibrant cohort of openly LGBT students.
Now, almost six years later, I reflect on my decision often. JTS’s momentous decision in 2006 opened the door for many, and demonstrated a change in the tide. While my path ultimately took me to Hebrew Union College and the Reform Movement, seeing the Jewish community opening and redefining the notion of inclusion made rabbinical school that much safer for me.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Welcome to our fifth installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers. Here, we interview Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first four posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Rabbi Denise Eger, and Rabbi Elliot Kukla.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell has worked as a rabbi for over three decades, serving congregations in California, New Jersey, and Virginia, and taught at a number of universities across the country. She was on the editorial board for The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and was one of the editors of Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation. She was the Director of the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center and has worked for the Union of Reform Judaism since 1996.
How has being LGBTQ informed your work as a rabbi?
I see my queer identity as a mirror and a reflection of my identity as an engaged, committed Jew and as a rabbi. For both LGBT folks and Jews are other, subversive, challenging, counter-cultural. This is a source of great strength and creativity. I hope that my work as a rabbi is a reflection of my continuing growth and learning to be present, compassionate and deliberate as I work for greater justice in each of the communities each of us inhabits. Continue reading
This spring, Rabbi Jason Klein was elected to lead the Reconstructionist movement’s rabbinic association, making him the first out gay man to hold such a national position in the U.S. Keshet caught up with Rabbi Klein to discuss his experiences in Jewish institutions, the next steps for inclusion at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA), and what it’s been like to be out.
You’re the first openly gay man to lead a national rabbinic association in the U.S. What has the response been like? Among Reconstructionist Jews, and also across the Jewish community?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive from Jews of all denominational identifications. I have been struck by some younger people’s feeling affirmed in their own identities as LGBTQ or allies and the responses of elders who have watched so much change happen around creating warm communities just within the span of their adult lives. Continue reading
Welcome to our fifth installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers. Here, we interview Rabbi Elliot Kukla.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first four posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, and Rabbi Denise Eger.
How has being LGBTQ informed your work as a rabbi?
I work in a team of four rabbis at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, providing spiritual care to those struggling with grieving, illness, or dying, and I also direct the Healing Center’s hospice spiritual care volunteer program. The experience of being a transgender and queer person with a body and life trajectory outside of mainstream expectations is what led me to this work. I don’t consider being queer or trans a form of illness, but for me, being transgender and building a queer family and community has theological implications that also impact the way I respond to illness and aging. If we really embrace the idea that all of our various genders and desires were created in the image of God, we must believe that God wants and needs difference. This means that all bodies as they stretch, sag, shrink, grow, age and heal are divine; and all phases in the life cycle are holy and deserve sacred attention and care. Continue reading
Creating inclusive Jewish spaces is a great goal — but how do you do it? While the answer is likely different for every synagogue, school, and youth group, it’s helpful and encouraging to hear about others’ successes, triumphs, and their lessons learned. So we’re running this regular column, called “The Tachlis of Inclusion,” to spotlight practices and policies that have worked for Jewish institutions all over the country. We hope they inspire you.
Rabbi Amy Morrison first caught our attention when we heard that when she was a rabbinical student, she refused to take on any internship where she could not address LGBT issues. When we learned that Morrison works at Temple Beth Sholom in Miami, a city famous for both LGBT and Jewish life in a state not known for inclusive laws, we were eager to catch up with her about how she, and Beth Sholom, create a welcoming environment.
To what extent has being openly out affected your rabbinate? Any memorable responses from congregants or colleagues?
For as long as I can remember I have been on a journey to be true to myself. As a nurturer, a listener, a healer, a connector, and a spiritual seeker, being a rabbi allows me a chance to do all the things I love to do and be the kind of person I want to be. And in order to that with integrity I needed to be clear about being gay. At Temple Beth Sholom I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people who support me; and I have found that being open and honest attract the same. Continue reading