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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