Tag Archives: queer community

What Matters is You (Not if the Dress is Black & Blue or White & Gold)

Last weekend a group of 60+ LGBTQ and ally teens joined together for the 4th annual Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton. These words of Torah were shared by one of the participants during Shabbat services.

the dressMy name is Rachel Barkowitz, I’m a second year CIT, a one-year-long, out (and proud) lesbian, and I see the dress and white and gold.

For those of you who are unaware of what I am talking about, or are so wrapped up in the amazingness of this glorious weekend that you have already forgotten the occurrences of Thursday, let me remind you:

After taking a picture of a dress at her friend’s wedding, twenty-one year old Caitlin McNeill turned to the internet with a cry for help. She urged her followers to lend a hand in attempting to make sense of the confusing shot she took.

For some, the dress in her picture appears to be white and gold, though other see the dress with the coloring in which it was made, blue and black.

This debate which swept the internet split the global population into two sides, and I had the opportunity of witnessing this first hand when my college roommate refused to believe that I was telling the truth that I saw the dress as white and gold (I almost ended up in tears, but that’s another story).

So why did this dress become so important to world?

I can tell you with absolutely confidence that I…have no idea.

I can say, however, that the garments discussed in Tetzaveh, the parashah of this weekend, are of a different kind of importance than the now infamous bluewhitegoldblack dress of the present.

In this portion, God details for Moses how to make extremely significant vestments for Aaron that he must wear when acting as High Priest. To say that the details relayed by God are extensive would be an understatement, but every instruction is necessary to ensure that Aaron is truly sanctified.

And for the record, these garments were commanded to be made of gold and blue.

Coincidence?

I think not.

The attire which is made for Aaron is created so that he may become closer to God, and transform into a more holy version of himself when adorning them. One might venture to say that these garments are Aaron’s way of becoming his purest self.

The way that I became the purest version of myself, however, was by admitting to the world that I liked girls, and ridding myself of the garments I adorned which hid who I truly was.

For a long time, I was scared that coming out would make me less important, less worthy, and pull me further away from God, but I was lying to the world, and, more importantly, lying to myself.

I have learned throughout my journey, though, that being your true self, your purest self, only makes your connection to the world stronger, because it means that you yourself have taken steps toward becoming stronger.

So whether you see the dress as blue and black, or, like I do, white and gold, I urge that when you find yourself fighting for your side, to forget the schisms for a moment, and remember instead what this debate, and this weekend, represent: there is no purer you than a you that is true.

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Posted on March 6, 2015

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Finding Strength in Community & The Story of Purim

The first time I really dug into the story of Purim was actually also the first time I thought I might be gay. It started like any other day. I went to school, play practice, and then my mom picked me up.

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Painting of Esther and Mordecai by Arent de Gelder.

Because it was Friday she brought me to shul. As we sat in the car waiting for the time to pass until services began, she asked me an interesting question: “do you like boys or girls?” And I guess I had never thought about it because I remember thinking “you know, that’s a good question. I should probably figure that out.” So when I went inside the shul and heard a d’var about Purim, I didn’t see it as an ancient story in a language I didn’t speak. Instead I saw it as an allegory for a coming out story.

Esther is the queen of Persia, married to Ahashverosh, and he has just decided with the help of Haman that he’s going to kill all the Jews. Problem is, Esther is Jewish. (Plot spoilers ahead, I apologize in advance.) So Esther decides that she has to tell him that she’s jewish, or all of her people are going to die. And so, she works up all of her nerve, and she tells him that she’s Jewish. She knows that it’s risky, but she does it anyway, because it’s what must be done to save her people. In the end, it works out great. The Jews are spared and Esther is no longer living in hiding. Call me crazy, but that’s a textbook coming out story, right?

Now I’m going to sub in some names to make this story more modern. Playing the part of Esther we have Will Portman, a Yale student. Instead of coming out as Jewish, he’s coming out as gay. Instead of the day when all the Jews are set to be murdered coming up, let’s put in the Supreme Court’s DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and Prop Eight decisions. And instead of the king, why don’t we have Will’s father, senator Rob Portman. Just like in the story of Esther, it all works out for Will.

His dad became the first Republican senator to publicly endorse marriage equality, and no one got disowned. Something even bigger that that happened, though. Suddenly the world got a whole lot better for LGBTQ+ kids everywhere. Because, just like Esther wasn’t the only one affected by her decision to come out, Will Portman wasn’t the only one affected when he came out. Suddenly, it became a lot easier for kids of republican parents to come out because they could point to the Portman family and say look, “they’re accepting, and you should be too.” And it became easier for Republican parents to accept they’re LGBTQ+ kids because that’s just what the senator had done. They had gained a role model.

Obviously, it isn’t national news every time someone comes out, though that would be pretty cool. But when it’s someone in power, in any sort of way, it helps. It helps LGBTQ+ people realize that they aren’t alone. When parents see other parents accepting their children no matter what, that helps them realize that they aren’t alone either. And when you come out in your family, your school, or your kehilla kidosha (holy community), you are helping everyone around feel a little less alone.

So back to a few years ago. After that conversation with my mom, all I could think about for what seemed like forever was the possibility that I could be gay. Apparently it wasn’t forever, and actually more like six weeks, because I remember having a realization on Passover. I was getting ready for the Seder when all of the sudden it hit me pretty out of the blue that, woah, I’m gay.

So I didn’t really know that to do with this information, because I didn’t know any openly LGBTQ+ teens and young adults. Mostly I just cried about it and envisioned people having bad reactions, not gonna lie. And then I made a plan. I was going to not tell anyone, not act on it, or do anything until high school. That didn’t last long. Literally days after the first of my friends came out at the beginning of eighth grade, I felt comfortable enough to come out too. After that, friend after friend started coming out. I swear, even in the closet we were attracting each other.

Since then, whenever anyone has asked me about my sexuality, I’ve told them the whole truth. I’ve answered their questions, except when they are too weird and personal, and I’ve tried to be the best role model that I could be. The truth is, I never would have had the courage to come out on my own. I needed a push. I needed my friends to be there by my side. I needed guidance. So I hope that whenever I tell my story, and whenever I answer people’s questions, I am helping them. Maybe I’m helping them come to terms with their sexuality or gender identity, or maybe I’m helping them to be a more accepting and considerate friend or family member. Even if you don’t realize it, telling your story or even just being out can be a limitless inspiration for those around you.

I’m sure Esther wondered why she, a Jew, was chosen to be queen. And I’m sure that Will Portman, the son of a prominent Republican wondered why he happened to be gay. And I’m sure that most of you here have, at least at some point, wondered why you are so lucky to be LGBTQ+ and Jewish. Looking back, we know that Esther was put in the position of power so that she could change the King’s mind. And maybe that’s the same reason why Will Portman is gay, so he could change his dad’s mind, and the mind of a lot of Republican parents out there. So if you find yourself asking why you’re LGBTQ+ and Jewish, I bet that the answer is essentially the same: so that you can change the minds of the hateful and bigoted people around you, or make it easier for other people in your kehilla kidosha to come out, and be accepted.

As Miep Gies once said, “even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager” (that’s you, readers!) “can, within their own small ways, turn on a light in a dark room.”

You don’t have to be royalty, or a political figure, or some big celebrity to make a splash or even make a difference. All you need to be is your wonderful and genuine self and I promise, you can change the world. Happy Purim!

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Posted on March 4, 2015

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We Are The Light: What Parshat Tetzavah Teaches Us About Coming Out

Last weekend a group of 60+ LGBTQ and ally teens joined together for the 4th annual Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton. These words of Torah were shared by one of the participants during Shabbat services.

In Parshat Tetzavah, God gives Moses his holy grocery list: oil lighting for the Menorah, some fancy spices for the oil, and some other spices to burn in the sanctuary. You know… the usual. God didn’t just send Moses on this shopping spree for fun. God knew that the Kohanim needed to see the oil before they began doing their job: guiding the Jewish nation. They needed to know there would be, literally, light at the end of the tunnel before they started going into it.

LGBTQ-Teen-Shabbaton-325x246At the Keshet/Hazon Shabbaton last year, I was openly out for the first time. The joke of the attendees was going up to me and asking, “Val, are you gay?” because I couldn’t stop saying it. But I figured out I was gay in 7th grade. So why did it take so long for me to be me?

Just like the Kohanim, I also had doubts about navigating through the tunnel, finding my light. I’m sure quite a few of you in this room know that tunnel, and it’s pretty damn dark.

I tried to make myself straight, which basically meant throwing in comments about whether I was team Jacob or team Edward every once in a while. Let’s be real, I’m team Kristen Stewart.

When I realized I couldn’t force myself to be straight, the denial and depression hit me like the tidal wave when Pharaoh tried to cross the Red Sea. I barely spoke to anyone, dropped all my activities, shut out my friends, and was this close to going into another type of tunnel, the one you don’t come back from.

Then I came out to my best friend, and I started my own Coming Out 101 to prepare for this process. This course will be coming to college campuses near you soon. (Juuust kidding.) Anyway, it was time to start shopping, time to pull out the gay grocery list. I stayed up every night watching every coming out video I could find. I studied each method, trying to figure out the perfect formula to come out, trying to find a solution that didn’t really exist.

God gave Moses a list of everything he needed to be a leader, but what really made Moses realize what he needed to do was getting thrown into the trenches when he least expected it. Because yes, the Kohanim needed oil and spices for the Menorah because that’s what makes a fire—that’s science. But would the fire burn if nobody lit the match?

I’m going to tell you something that took me way too long to figure out, something I realized right here in this room last year.

You can watch every coming out video on the internet. You can practice saying it every morning in your mirror. You can shop in every aisle, from realization to depression to denial, you can hate yourself and love yourself and try to find the RIGHT way to be, but the reality is that E may equal MC2, but your identity isn’t a math problem.

Your identity isn’t a problem at all.

And when you realize that, whether you already have or you do this weekend or you do in five years, you ignite a fire. You light your own menorah. And let me tell you, that’s just the beginning.

rainbow tallitYou may be used to getting butterflies because somebody sees your rainbow tallit and you think, oh no, what if they know, please don’t know, but soon you’re going to get butterflies because the person you love is holding your hand and everything’s finally in place. You may be used to walking alone in your school hallway, hiding yourself, but soon you’re going to walk alongside others of the same movement, waving a flag for your identity with hundreds of people, all creating a rhythm for justice. You may be used to praying to God in your synagogue to please help you, because you don’t know how much longer you can last, but soon, SO soon, you will be sitting proudly at your table for Shabbat dinner, because mazel tov, you made it.

But don’t stop there. Remember your roots. Send this message on and help somebody else light their menorah. Together, we can get out of this tunnel.

Because here’s the secret that shouldn’t be a secret: we are the light, Keshet. All you gotta do is strike the match.

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Posted on March 3, 2015

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Marriage: A Political Act, A Religious Endeavor, A Chance to Celebrate Love

AbiandMelissaTransplants to California from the Midwest and East Coast, we found each other in the Bay Area. Melissa, a minister in a Protestant Christian tradition, was in her first year as a PhD student in ethics and social theory and Abi, an active participant at her queer Jewish synagogue, was in her first year of her doctoral studies in clinical psychology. Ours has been a journey of learning about each other’s traditions and celebrating what it means to be a multi-faith couple.

Entering into marriage was for us a political act, a religious endeavor, and an opportunity to invite our family and friends into our world.

From the time we decided we would mark our commitment to one another with a wedding, we knew that the ceremony needed to be the focus of the day. We set out to find leaders who would be willing to co-create a multi-faith, feminist, and queer ceremony with us.

Melissa was fortunate enough to be able to turn to a colleague from her seminary days who she knew shared her theology and commitment to radically open language for the divine in ritual. We knew he was still bound by the policies of the church but should the institution not catch up to our love in time that he would be willing to act independently as a theologically trained friend.

Finding someone from Abi’s Jewish tradition turned out to be much more challenging. Trusted leaders, while willing to perform similar-gendered Jewish ceremonies, were unable, because of tradition and/or conscience, to participate in our fully multi-faith ceremony. As a family seeking to be a part of both Jewish and Christian communities, this felt like rejection and was excruciatingly painful.

We finally found a Jewish leader in Colorado who was willing to work with us to craft a ceremony that honored both traditions and truly reflected who we were as individuals and as a couple. The four of us, the two brides, a Pastor and an Emerging Rabbi took to creating. By examining all of the parts of the traditional wedding ceremony in both traditions we were able to identify elements both in common and unique to each tradition. Anything that reflected aspects of marriage that we reject—property exchange, paternalism, misogyny—was cut. Elements were re-imagined to be more egalitarian and / or queered. We wanted to create a ceremony that was true to who we are and meaningful for those celebrating with us.

The whole wedding weekend, including the reception, was a blast. We wanted our guests to know that each piece of our wedding was intentionally orchestrated so we had our leaders explain what the rituals meant during the ceremony and how we had altered them and even provided coloring books for the children to learn about the ceremony in an age-appropriate way.

Entering into the legal relationship of marriage, as imperfect as it is, was a way to claim our civil rights and the protections it bestows upon us and a way to honor the work of all those who work for equality. Our ceremony was our way of claiming our right as members of our religious traditions to enter into public covenant blessed by and accountable to community and proclaiming that being queer and being religious are not antithetical. It was our way of publicly proclaiming that we are committed to being together as two individuals with strong roots, Jewish and Lutheran, Abi and Melissa.

We are grateful for the support of our family and friends, including Reverend Dan Roschke and Emerging Rabbi Dr. Caryn Aviv.

Posted on February 27, 2015

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Will You Travel Through Space and Time with Me?: A Proposal at a Pride Parade

In honor of Valentine’s Day we are sharing love stories this month. We’re kicking things off with a two part series from Aden and his fiance, Josh. We’ve followed Josh’s story since he first came out, and it’s great to see him so in love. Tomorrow we’ll hear Josh’s side of this love story! If you have a love story for the Keshet blog, let us know!  Celebrate all kinds of love with our queer Jewish Valentines! 

I first met Josh when I was on a date with my previous partner.

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A friend of ours had asked if we had wanted to go to a Keshet Shabbat dinner and we obliged. After the service concluded we sat down with a couple of strangers and began talking. I remember telling Josh about my switch from going to school for Unitarian Universalist ministry, and then finding Judaism.

I told him that sometimes, there are things that are unexplainable, that cannot be reasoned, and that is where faith in God begins. As I was leaving the Shabbat dinner that evening, I remember thinking “wow, if I were not with my current partner, I would totally date this guy”.

In April, my relationship of over four years, began to unravel. For the next six months, my ex and I were on and off. During one of our breakups, I had begun online dating, not looking for anything too serious. In early October, we officially ended our four year relationship. I met Josh, again, just a few weeks after.

Our first date was amazing, we talked about the intersection of queer identities and religion. We were so engrossed we walked roughly 5 miles. At the end of our date we sat outside, and I gave him a little kiss on the cheek.

Prior to this I had been in only heteronormative relationships, and was terrified of being perceived as visibly queer. I was afraid to give up any of my privilege that came with being in what was perceived as a normative relationship. Our third date was my conversion ceremony; Rabbi Zecher of Temple Israel of Boston asked how Josh and I knew each other. I hesitantly explained “we’re dating.” I was reluctant to put a label on us that would make this a real relationship.

Despite my best efforts to run, I found myself falling in love with Josh. I loved going to shul with him on Friday nights, debating scripture, and spending holidays with our families.

After six months of dating, I began to look into rings. I tried desperately to talk myself out of this proposition. I had always viewed fast engagements as irresponsible. I could not reason this feeling away. I truly believe that our love is beyond time and beyond reason.

Pride season is Josh’s favorite time of the year. He talks about it in all seasons of the year and usually marches with Keshet. So, one night while out at a bar Josh and his family, listening to Josh’s uncles’ band, I found myself asking Josh’s cousin what she was doing the day of the Pride Parade. I had decided in that moment to go for it and make a proposal during Pride. I gave myself two weeks to buy a ring, plan the proposal, and to ask for his parents’ blessing.

On Saturday, June 14, 2014, Josh and I headed into Boston bright and early to help Keshet set up.  I got down on one knee holding a sign asking Josh to travel through space and time with me, a reference to our favorite show: Doctor Who. Nothing could have ever prepared me for the embrace of our community. The whole route, we were congratulated on our engagement, and I was truly beaming.

Before this moment Pride was simply the “Queer Fourth of July,” yet I now see it as time to make the invisible visible. I cannot be more proud of our relationship, our love, and our faith. I look forward to sharing our next part of our Jewish journey.

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Posted on February 2, 2015

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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.

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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

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Finding a Space to Feel Safe & Accepted: The Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton

One day at synagogue, my friend excitedly came up to me, and asked me to come to the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton with her. Now, I had no idea what she meant, but she went on to explain that is a weekend retreat for queer Jewish teens. It sounded cool, and she was really excited, so I said “sure, I’d go.”

Alex KohlI never expected what I’d find there. I identify as bisexual. I’ve never been particularly shy about anything, including my sexuality, but I never paraded it.

The phrase “I’m bisexual” always came out of my mouth as quietly as possible.

Most of my friends know, and the ones who don’t know because it just hasn’t come up. I’ve met a few people who have had issues with it—I’ve been told I’m “not natural” and that “being homophobic isn’t any worse than being homosexual”—but overall, most people I’ve met have been great about it.

However, at the Shabbaton, among a community of Jewish teens, people weren’t just accepting of my sexuality—they embraced it.

I was surrounded by people with every gender and sexuality under the sun, and I loved it. One of the aspects of being bisexual is that biphobia isn’t just a phenomenon among homophobic heterosexuals—I’ve experienced biphobia from members of the LGBTQ+ as well, including the statement “so you’re not really queer.”

At the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton, for the first time, I felt truly safe and completely accepted.

Safe is a word that gets tossed around a lot—a safe environment, a safe space, etc.—but that’s because having a space where you feel truly safe is a vital aspect to being human.

And regarding my sexuality, my safe space had been a few people here and there. But at the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton, I found a whole community who embraced me with arms wide open.

Giving Tuesday 2014That’s why I send rainbow-themed pictures to the friends I made on the Shabbaton. And why, when my female friend suggested wearing a tie and slacks to the next Shabbaton, I nodded enthusiastically.

And why, whenever I say the phrase “I’m bisexual,” I say it loudly.

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Posted on December 2, 2014

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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

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Why I’m Passionate about Transgender Justice

If you’re in Boston, please join us for Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 23rd at 2:30pm in John F Kennedy Park. After, we will join the wider Boston community in the 16th Annual Boston Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Kathryn-200x224

As the Boston Community Organizer at Keshet, I’ve been working with community members on a Jewish observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance. A few weeks ago I sat down for an early morning meeting with Simcha, the Community Organizer at Boston Workmen’s Circle who is also gender queer.

Over the steam of my small cup of coffee the question “why are you so passionate about transgender justice work?” floated in my direction. It was a question I had been mulling for quite some time, but I had never quite found the answer.

I began to offer up some semblance of an answer: “Well, it all started in college. I had a lot of transgender friends. I witnessed what they had to deal with, and it wasn’t fair.”

I knew that wasn’t quite the answer, after all those words were about my friends and not about my stake in this work.

I pushed myself to find the real answer. Why am I so passionate about transgender justice work?

Fighting for transgender rights is fighting for the right to move beyond the boxes of “man” and “woman.”

I fight for folks who do not fit in either box or want to be in a different box. And, in doing that work I had to think about my own gender and what box I fit into. Here are a few of my boxes:

  • I enjoy cooking.
  • I don’t walk home alone in the dark.
  • I bless Shabbat candles.
  • I speak up in board meetings.
  • I don’t pretend I never fart.
  • I’ve wrapped Tefillin.

I don’t fit squarely into the “woman” box, and yet, I feel every bit like a woman. My blessing of Shabbat candles, a mitzvah typically reserved for women, does not at all feel at odds with when I wrapped Tefillin, a mitzvah typically reserved for men.

And, that’s when it struck me.

Doing transgender justice work was for me. When I fight for those who very obviously transgress the lines of gender, I am also fight to expand the walls of my very box. Trans* work is gender work and gender work is for all of us.

This year we mark Transgender Day of Remembrance in Boston on Sunday, November 23. I invite you to come do gender work for the community, but just as importantly for yourself.

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Posted on November 21, 2014

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Transgender Day of Remembrance and the Life of Sarah

This d’var Torah was given by Rabbi Becky Silverstein at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center on Friday, November 14th. We are privileged to share these words of wisdom in honor of the annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance.

16 years ago, Rita Hester, a transwoman of color, was murdered in her Boston apartment. The first Transgender Day of Remembrance was organized to remember her and protest her death.

This year Michelle Sherman, Jennifer Laude, Alejandra Leos, Mia Henderson, Tiffany Edwards, and Kandy Hall were all killed for being transgender. As was Aniya Parker, who was murdered only two miles away from my apartment in Los Angeles.

TDOR_20132These are just some of the names of transgender people in whose memory I offer these words of Torah.

It is somewhat ironic that this week’s Torah portion is called Haye Sarah, the life or lifetimes of Sarah, as it mentions her only in death.

א וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִיםשְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.  ב וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹבְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ. Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty seven years. Sarah died in Kiryat Arbah—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and bewail her.

The last we hear about Sarah’s life is in last week’s Torah portion, giving birth to Isaac and sending Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness—a mixed legacy indeed. Throughout the earlier chapter of Genesis, Sarah is more often the subject of objectification than a person with her own voice. Twice Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister without her consent. Her voice is heard only when she expels Hagar and Ishmael in chapter 16 and in last week’s parashah, laughing at the somewhat strange way G-d has constructed her life.

Even these moments of voice only serve to narrow our picture of this matriarch, a woman tied to her ability to conceive. The text presents us with a caricature of a person, a part of a life, used as a literary tool.

Like Sarah, transgender people are often reduced to being only partially human, used as a canvas on which we displace our own fears about gender and society. Questions about our personal history, our medical transitions, our desire for equal rights; confrontations about our chosen pronouns, our chosen names, and chosen families: these all serve to dehumanize the transgender community. It is this dehumanization that allows for the separation and fear to grow in other human beings, and creates a scenario in which one human can possibly think it is okay to kill another because of their identity. Even in the time of Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Orange is the New Black, and Transparent, the transgender experience is presented in limited ways that often serve to exploit or dehumanize. That both Janet Mock and Laverne Cox have had to explain on public television why questions about their medical transition are simply inappropriate is evidence of this trend.

As little as we know about Sarah’s life, we know even less about her death.

ב וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן–בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ.  ג וַיָּקָם, אַבְרָהָם, מֵעַל, פְּנֵי מֵתוֹ; Sarah died in Kiryat Arbah—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and bewail her. Abraham rose from beside his dead…

Sarah’s death is told only through the lens of Abraham’s actions. Midrash Tanchuma helps a bit, typing Sarah’s death to the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. According to the midrash, upon hearing the news that Abraham had attempted to sacrifice Isaac, Sarah’s soul departs from her. The midrash teaches that in the moments before her death Sarah cried out with the broken cries of the shofar, those broken notes the only sounds her body could emit, the only sounds adequate for her anguish.

Though Sarah’s voice could not be heard, her cries continue to haunt us.

I wonder if this is how Sarah thought she would die. I wonder if being beaten and shot was how Michelle Sherman, Jennifer Laude, Alejandra Leos, Mia Henderson, Tiffany Edwards, Kandy Hall, and Aniya Parker thought they were going to die.

Let’s move from Sarah’s death to how she is treated in that death. The text does not tell us, but I imagine Abraham wanting to know why and how Sarah died, and that if Sarah died in the age of CSI that her death would be fully investigated. This is where Sarah’s story and death depart from that of those we remember today: transfolks, transwomen, transwomen of color, whose life experience is ignored even in deathwhose deaths are not investigated and whose burials are not noteworthy.

Our Torah portion continues by retelling Abraham’s purchase of Ma’a’rat Ha’Machpelah, the cave of Machpelah from the Hittites. Abraham seeks to, and succeeds in, securing a burial place for his family, a place that will keep Sarah’s memory alive, a touchstone for her in death and for her family in the future. Who creates these sacred places of memory and connection for those who are brutally murdered on our streets? For LGBTQ homeless people living in the shadows? Sarah has a family and a future, even in her death. Even today, people flock to Hebron to visit the burial place of our matriarchs and patriarchs, a trip that is its own sermon. In my first visit I marvelled at the ornate decoration and wondered what was actually in the coffins. Even I, a cyncial post-modern rabbinical student, was moved by the religious devotion. Visiting the grave of a loved one can be a powerful experiencethe grave itself making concrete the death the visitor remembers and helping them to make concrete the memories.

The knowledge that one will have a place to be buried and those to look after them is a privilege. Those who are killed on our streets or in their homes because they are transgender are often wandering, disconnected from their families of origin, and they continue to wander even in their deaths.

kaddish_hpThey float from protest to memory, to newspaper story to Transgender Day of Remembrance. Very few have someone whose responsibility it is to say Kaddish for them. The community is their connection. The transgender voices who live make real their lives and experiences and stories, we tell them to ourselves so that we never forget. I, and now all of you, are part of that connection.  So that we never forget that the world is stacked against those who dare to transgress what society expects of uswith respect to gender or other identities.

Why bring this Torah today? Because kavod hamet, respecting the dead, is one of the greatest mitzvot our tradition teaches. Because justice is a Jewish value and Transgender Day of Remembrance represents the intersection of gender, racial, and economic justice. Because the life and death of transgender folks is not outside of our community, and it is our obligation to stand with each other in times of joy and in times of sorrow.  

Doing the work of deconstructing and consciously choosing our gender identities is work that is important for all of us. Consciously choosing to wear a dress or a tie or a relatively androgynous cardigan is empowering, and once we feel empowered in our own choices, we can better understand how others make theirs. Begin by doing the internal work and standing up for your own right to express your gender, fight the misogyny and gender essentialism in your own lives and the lives of your families. This can be a painful and difficult process, and it is also unavoidable.

More externally focused, respect everyone’s right to choose their pronouns and names and decisions about their bodies, support them in those decisions in their company and when they are not around. One easy place to start is right here, reminding folks that I use he/him/his as pronouns. Try on correcting someone, see how it feels. And of course, there are plenty of opportunities for political action. In doing all of this, we will create a space for the memory of transgender folks, just as Abraham, by securing a burial spot, creates a space for Sarah’s memory.

I want to end on a more personal note. Transgender Day of Remembrance is both about who I am as a transperson and not about me. Most of the names I read earlier are those of  transwomen, and the majority of those transwomen of color. I do not have friends who have lost their lives because of their gender identity, and, thank G-d, do not feel that my life is at danger. And yet the night Aniya Parker was killed two miles from my apartment, I called my girlfriend crying, shaking, scared. That taste of fear is part of what places Aniya and I together in the same community. My identity as a white transman means that I privilege to use as an ally. And, I hope that my sharing words of Torah for you will elevate the stories of those who have died and continue to make their memories a blessing.

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

Posted on November 17, 2014

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