LGBTQ Acceptance in the Jewish Community: How Far We've Come and What's Next
This Pride Month, I’m settling into my new job as a member of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Audacious Hospitality team, and one of the elements of this work that most inspires me is the effort the Reform Jewish community is making with its Jewish summer camps – taking concrete steps toward being fully inclusive of LGBTQ youth. This is a powerful way in which the Reform Jewish community is actualizing its values and profoundly impacting the lives of Jewish youth who may not always have access to environments that are inclusive and welcoming.
I met my own wife at summer camp; the first time she flirted with me, she was in the sixth grade! She played guitar and soccer, taught herself how to sing French pop songs, and fearlessly climbed trees. We were friends for years until high school, and then, one day, all of our friends ditched us on a group trip to the movies. Suddenly, it felt like a date. She taught me how to drink orange soda through a Twizzler, I grabbed her hand during the scary part of the movie, and we kissed.
She was my first girlfriend and my first love. It was magical.
We dated all of my senior year, though hardly any of my friends knew. We grew up in a mid-sized southern town, where youth were intensely harassed or beaten up if they were brave enough to come out. We remained closeted about our relationship to our families and at school, and I skipped prom because it wasn’t safe for her to go with me. It was 1994.
At the beginning of that summer, my girlfriend’s family figured out why we were spending so much time together, and they forbade her from seeing me. They ensured our separation by sending her away to stay with family overseas for the summer. I was devastated, especially when we lost contact for the next 15 years.
In 2010, we found each other and reconnected – and despite the years apart, we immediately felt deeply connected. One of the pivotal conversations we had while rebuilding a friendship was right after Prop 8 was overturned in California.
I’d been in the Bay Area for almost a year, and it was my first time living in a state where LGBTQ marriage was legal, which had a greater impact on me than I’d expected. I felt like more of a citizen than I had before. We talked about what it might have been like if, in 1994, things in North Carolina had been as accepting as they are now. I’d known LGBTQ adults, but nearly all of them were in the closet, especially at their jobs. Ellen DeGeneres didn’t even come out till 1997!
What would it have been like if, instead of forcing us apart, our families thought our relationship was cute, saw us simply as high school sweethearts, and teased us about getting married or starting a family one day – as parents so often did for our straight peers? Would my girlfriend and I have stayed together? Would we have felt more like whole human beings, less afraid, without the constant distraction and fear of being found out and pulled apart?
Being closeted pushed us away from family and friends and, ultimately, each other. Our relationship was both one of the most incredible and the most painful parts of high school for both of us.
Sometimes, I still can’t believe that my first love is now my wife of almost two years – and I am so grateful that today’s LGBTQ youth are growing up in a world where there are many out role models, more resources, and widespread acceptance. Many of these youth know who they are at a young age, and having a safe place to express that can be life-changing.
But we’re still far from living in a world that is fully safe and welcoming to LGBTQ kids, and the resources that exist are painfully unevenly distributed.
That’s why I’m so excited that the Union for Reform Judaism is making it possible for leaders and staff of Reform organizations – including its summer camps and other youth programs – to participate in the Keshet Leadership Project. This year-long program supports organizations in creating sustainable changes that will ultimately lead to greater LGBTQ inclusion in their programs and institutions.
This is one way the Union for Reform Judaism is taking action to enact its visionary resolution on the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people. It’s important that this commitment to inclusivity is supported by training, coaching, and resources that help Reform Jewish communities to navigate the creation of inclusive spaces. Earlier this year, the URJ also hosted an Active Learning Network focused on trans-inclusion, designed to further support communities with resources to support real change.
It is this organizational support and the hard work of so many people who work in our Jewish youth programs that will create transformational changes that allow LGBTQ youth to access Jewish community as their full selves. Helping a young person know that they belong can save their life and help them flourish and thrive. This Pride Month, I’m grateful for how far we’ve come, and I’m hopeful about the commitments we’ve made to create a more accepting, inclusive future.