How to Build a Movement: A Conversation with Shelly Weiss Part 2

Shelly Weiss, an iconic self-defined queer, Jewish, genderfluid lifelong political activist and founder of OUTmedia, is the subject of this three-part series on intergenerational advocacy. (Check out Part One here!)

As a global organization and social enterprise “deeply committed to the promotion of diversity within mainstream and LGBTQQIA culture,” OUTmedia elevates queer, genderqueer, and multicultural acts to center stage in the new age of activism. (I’m particularly excited about Keshet’s partnership with OUTmedia, Hillel, and a national campus comedy tour featuring riotous Julie Goldman). Here is more of Shelly’s story.

I’m really interested in the issue of language, and how it can be so unifying and yet also divisive, particularly between generations. How did you work around these differences?
I grew up as a ‘70s lesbian who strongly identified as a lesbian feminist. But I felt total dismay about the growth of lesbian separatism. While at times I sought to be only in the company of other women, I saw my life in a much broader and more inclusive way. For example, in terms of my political development within the lesbian community, I was never a single-issue activist. At the time, I had no awareness of the concept of the intersectionality of oppressions, but I struggled with how, racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, transphobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, sizeism, etc. don’t function independently. It was confusing; I didn’t buy into a one-size-fits-all feminism.

I longed to connect axes of identity within myself as a working-class lesbian, as a Jewish lesbian, as a Jewish progressive. I looked beyond myself, here in the U.S., and felt impelled to work as a Middle East peace activist starting in 1980, and while the language has changed amongst folks working for peace, the core principle of seeking justice remains paramount. So whether it was New Jewish Agenda in 1980, or Kolot Chayeinu with so many young activists now, I find my way to bridge the generational divide and embrace, rather than resist, new language. I’m incredibly honored that the “Youngishes” at Kolot have dubbed me an honorary member.

In 1981, when I went to the founding conference of New Jewish Agenda. I was really wanting to work on the Middle East platform committee. I was looking for straight folks to take on LGBT issues. Since many lesbians had been working on a diverse politic and supporting many causes, including reproductive rights, fighting racism, the environment, and so on, I wanted straight folks to pick up the burden.

In many ways, I still long for allies to take our struggle on. In the end I was one of the coordinators for NJA’s Lesbian and Gay Task Force. I wanted to lend my voice to creating a more inclusive Jewish community. Soon after, I worked as an editor of Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Essays on Racism and Anti-Semitism authored by Elly Bulkin, Barbara Smith, and Minnie Bruce Platt.

That experience is so fascinating, and must have been a huge learning curve. Where did you go from there?
In 1986, I worked with Rabbi Helene Ferris and Elly Bulkin to organize the historic “Lesbian and Gay Jews in the Jewish Community Conference” at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, which was the first national gathering of lesbian and gay Jews. I was really scared, but I was on the opening panel and it was just such an exquisite experience for me. That strengthened me to work with a group of a dozen people who looked at why the New York City Gay Rights Bill “Intro 486” had failed 19 successive times. We figured out that the reason it failed was because of the religious antagonism that was expressed by a collection of Pentecostal ministers, Roman Catholic priests, Orthodox and Hasidic rabbis and leaders. So the dozen of us intrepid activists (many of whom were Jewish) went on a search to round up progressive rabbis, liberation priests and nuns, and other progressive religious folks to provide testimony when the bill came forward.

Suddenly the organization of these progressive voices meant that City Council members who were Jewish and were so afraid that their constituencies would never tolerate their voting for gay rights, suddenly felt strengthened to do so — that there was not a monolithic anti-gay voice amongst Jews.

That speaks to me, with the work I do at Keshet and as a rising Jew with radical politics. I would love to hear about your experiences with parenthood and how that influenced your activism.
I was five months pregnant in May 1986, and I was feeling a lot of energy and excitement in the community for being this early member of the “gayby boom.” When I went to the funeral of a friend who died of HIV/AIDS I was greeted by many gay men at the funeral as kind of carrying the community’s baby. There was such importance that my son would bring a source of new life to the community.

Noah and Shelly visiting Grandpa Morris and Grandma Sylvia in FL
Shelly and her son.

One of the things that happened in 1990 was my son was part of the Park Slope Childcare Collective, and I took on a role as a parent working on multicultural outreach and curriculum development. It meant that my job was to work to bring kids of color — African-American, Latino, Asian, and Muslim kids; queer-spawned kids; kids from interfaith households; kids from interracial marriages, adoptive families — to create this very diverse community of two-, three-, and four-year-olds. And to also do this on the curriculum development level.

As we did Rosh Hashanah, Women’s History, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American History Months, we also did Gay Pride because here were kids who were classmates of my son. The message would be: Even if we’re not from a gay family ourself, we care about friends who are.

This lesson was very carefully worked out with the director and the teachers, but nonetheless, it led to this situation in a really progressive school where four of 54 parents freaked out. One literally instructed her four-year-old son to tell my four-year-old my son that he couldn’t “play with him, stand near him, talk to him, or do anything” because ostensibly my son’s family was gay. My son pleaded with me, “Mommy, tell her to take it back.” He was shattered.

I realized: “This is like gay bashing pre-K style.” He is being ostracized and faced with such loss because of who his family is.

In 1992, Chancellor Fernandez of the NYC Board of Education advanced a curriculum called the “Children of the Rainbow,” that taught acceptance of a broad expanse of families for students in grades 1-12. With that, NYC became ground zero for a battle with the leaders of the Religious Right including Phyllis Schlafly and Pat Buchanan.

READ: In Time for Mother’s Day, “Heather Has Two Mommies” Author Celebrates Book’s 25th Birthday 

I became a voice in the campaign fighting back against this incursion as one of the three spokespeople for the Coalition for Inclusive Multicultural Education and through some incredible direct actions with the Lesbian Avengers. I sure knew that with what my son had experienced at four, it was never too early to do prejudice prevention work.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Aubree’s interview with OUTmedia’s Shelly Weiss!

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