A Champion for Inclusion

After nearly ten years of doing LGBT inclusion work in the Jewish LGBT community, first as the founding director of Jewish Mosaic and now with Keshet, our colleague Gregg Drinkwater is leaving Keshet to pursue his Ph.D. He will be missed sorely by those who work with him, but his ground-breaking work will have a lasting impact. We caught up with Gregg to discuss what the changes he’s seen within the Jewish community and larger American community, what he’s most proud of, and what he’s most looking forward to.

Gregg in Paris
Gregg Drinkwater

As you look back over your time at Jewish Mosaic and Keshet, what are you most proud of? You played a role in galvanizing support in the Jewish community for civil unions in Colorado; you created the Queer Seder, the biggest queer Jewish event in Denver; and you created the idea for – and co-edited the book of – Torah Queeries. What strike you as your biggest successes?

I’m most proud of the way my Jewish community, not just here in Colorado, but across the country, has stepped up and become a champion for inclusion. We still have much work to do and some Jewish communities in the U.S. remain deeply unwelcoming for LGBT Jews. But with so many Jewish voices speaking out for respect and inclusion, I couldn’t be more proud today to be an American Jew.

And don’t forget that a more LGBT-inclusive Jewish community impacts not just American Jews, but our country’s larger social and political landscape. The Jewish community has the capacity to help challenge the assumption that people of faith are anti-LGBT.

As an example, in Colorado this June, in Denver’s annual PrideFest parade – one of the largest in the country – Keshet will be joined by representatives of a record 31 Jewish organizations marching together behind a banner proclaiming “Jewish Community Pride.” Such an unbelievable level of solidarity from Colorado’s Jewish community is a tribute to the hard work of so many people – the current and former staff and board members of Keshet and Jewish Mosaic, the hundreds of volunteers, funders, and supporters who have been such an integral part of our growth, the community leaders who proactively advocate for LGBT inclusion within their own organizations, the rabbis who insist on building welcoming congregations, the educators who challenge anti-LGBT bias, and the allies who change minds one person at a time by acting as role models among their friends and families.

That through my work with Jewish Mosaic, Keshet, and the Torah Queeries project I was given the honor to play a very small role in that change gives me great comfort.

Your decision to be an openly gay married man in the Denver Jewish community has elevated your visibility. What kind of an experience has that been like for you, and your family?

Gregg and David's Wedding
Gregg and David’s Wedding

We often think of a marriage ceremony as enacting a covenant between the two partners, and between the partners and God. But the Jewish wedding ritual is even more about a covenant between the couple and their community and between the couple and the Jewish people. The couple makes a public declaration of their love and fidelity, solemnizing that commitment in writing through the
(Jewish wedding contract) signed by two witnesses. But all present for the ceremony are an expanded community of witnesses – a role they continue to play throughout their lives. For my husband, CU Boulder’s Prof. David Shneer, and I, our ceremony was about embedding our lives and our family in community, which is a very public act.

David and I stood together under the
(Jewish wedding canopy) in Berkeley in June 1996. Surrounded by 130 family and friends, we committed to live a life of strength, fidelity, love, and respect; to build a Jewish home; and to pursue
tikkun olam
– the realization of a peaceful and just world. Ritual has a special power to foster accountability, which is why marriage equality is so important for our community. Through that ritual, as witnesses to that commitment, our family and friends became mutually accountable to us and us to them. Being married to David reminds me daily of my commitment not just to him, but of the commitment of care and mutual support I made to my family, my community, and the Jewish world. My marriage grounds my commitment to tikkun olam. Additionally, David and I both have jobs with public roles. For me, any visibility that comes from that simply reinforces this sense of community. And it goes both ways – my community has also pledged support and affirmation of David and I and our family, something I have been blessed to see in action countless times since that summer day nearly 17 years ago.

What’s been the most exciting thing you’ve learned, seen, heard, or done while doing this important work?

While working for Jewish Mosaic, and then Keshet, I have been blessed to meet, learn from, and work with so many inspiring people from throughout the U.S. and around the world. I’m thinking of the ultra-Orthodox therapist I met in Israel who, as an ally, counsels and supports LGBT and questioning members of her community, and of the amazingly energetic grassroots activists I met in Buenos Aires who are reshaping the communal assumptions of Argentinian Jewry. There are the brilliant rabbis, scholars, and activists who created TransTorah.org, a web site dedicated to helping people of all genders fully access and transform Jewish tradition, and the tireless volunteers who have dedicated year after year to build, sustain, and grow LGBT synagogues in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City and many other cities across the country.

What will you miss the most – and what are you most looking forward to in your new adventures in academia?

I’m so excited to be entering the Ph.D. program in U.S. history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, this fall. As I shift gears and refocus my energies on grad school, I hope to do dissertation research that sheds new light on the intersections between the history of religion and the history of sexuality in post-WWII America. Building on some of my professional work over the past nine years, I plan to study the role religion played in postwar-America’s wrestling with sexuality, particularly the negotiation over the place of LGBT people in American society and religious communities. I hope to reclaim a place for religion as a more frequently progressive, rather than conservative, force than is often recognized in conversations surrounding America’s 20th-century sexual revolutions.

To date, many scholars of queer history have largely focused on documenting the lives and activities of LGBT individuals, less frequently fully fleshing out the motivations and actions of the many non-LGBT allies who responded positively to calls for the affirmation of LGBT lives. In my dissertation research, I hope to shift this imbalance, adding to my investigations detailed attention to the trajectories of straight allies, particularly religious leaders, who were often instrumental in making space for lasting structural change in the landscape of American sexual politics. At its core, I hope to answer the question: In the early years of the LGBT rights movement, how did some American religious leaders get to the point of becoming openly supportive of those who, a few decades earlier, were deemed sexual and spiritual deviants by those same religious movements?

In the coming months, I will be reaching out to some of my mentors and colleagues for their perspectives on early Jewish organizing around LGBT inclusion. So stay tuned!

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