Twice Blessed: Jewish and Gay in the 21st Century

An examination of contemporary gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jewish communities.

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In the past thirty years, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) Jews have transformed the face of Judaism and Jewish communities in America.  Following the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, GLBT Jews, sometimes referred to as queer Jews, have made significant changes in the way American Judaism and American Jewish communities address questions of family, identity, sexuality, and gender. 

These same queer Jews are also at the forefront of the GLBT political movement that has remade the face of American culture, politics, and society.  It is no accident that Jews are in the vanguard of such political activism, since queer Jews have a long history of working for queer rights. Magnus Hirschfeld, a German queer Jew, coined the term “transvestite” and inaugurated the first political movement for gay rights at the turn of the twentieth century.  Another queer Jew, Mark Leno, pushed the San Francisco city council to pass a law requiring city health insurers to cover medical procedures particular to transgender people.  Queer Jews are visible icons in American cinema, on the stage, and in literature; and a queer Jewish couple was the first same-sex pair to grace the pages of the New York Times’ Weddings/Celebrations page.

gay  pride flagQueer Jews are also leading Jewish communities toward change, rather than waiting for those communities to act.  Some communities are taking steps towards actively expanding their scope and programming to include this new constituency.  In the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, and other centers of progressive activism, queer Jewish issues are “hot” among mainstream Jewish organizations.  In other metropolitan areas, queer Jews use mainstream organizations as incubators to develop their own institutions.

One of the most visible changes in American Judaism in the past 15 years came when two of the country's largest rabbinic organizations, the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Reconstructionist Rabbinic Council, gave their rabbis permission to perform same-sex Jewish weddings. The rabbinical seminaries for both of these institutions ordain gay rabbis.  The Conservative movement still does not allow openly gay rabbinic students to be ordained, but seems to have adopted a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. From all edges of Jewish society, queer Jews are pushing mainstream Jewish institutions to accommodate and adapt to the presence of queer Jews, and to do so with dignity and respect. 

At the same time that queer Jews are demanding inclusion in the rituals and institutions of American Judaism and American culture, they are also forming their own institutions and cultures.  The number of groups that have the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered and “Jew” in the title is increasing exponentially. 

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Caryn Aviv

Caryn Aviv is co-editor of Queer Jews (Routledge, 2002). Caryn Aviv is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Francisco and Director of the Program for Collaborative Care at the UCSF Breast Care Center. She also teaches leadership development to teens at Congregation Shaar Zahav in San Francisco.