25 Years of Pride: My Journey as a Gay Reform Jew
As the site of this year’s 25th Annual Long Island Gay Pride Parade and Festival, Huntington, Long Island, was a bright, sunny, and joyful place on Saturday June 13th. My husband, Herb, and I led a 50-person Reform Jewish contingent in the parade, joined behind a Union for Reform Judaism banner by members of Temple Sinai in Roslyn, Temple Avodah in Oceanside, Temple Beth El in Huntington, and Temple Beth-El of Great Neck.
Complementing our presence in the parade was a beautiful, full-page color advertisement in The Pride Guide, whose signatories included 21 of Long Island’s 26 Reform congregations, as well as the National Association for Temple Administration, the North American Federation of Temple Youth, and the Women of Reform Judaism, all of whom unequivocally support the message that everyone can find a welcoming home in one of our synagogues. Indeed, Reform Judaism embraces all!
Herb and I have been participating in the Long Island Gay Pride Parade since 1990 (oy, that makes us sound so old!), and even as we have aged, the marches have aged, too. Their aging, though, has more to do with changing times and society’s response to gay rights than with participants’ aging or lack of health and strength.
The first time I marched in the street for gay rights was in 1971, when an impromptu protest developed not far from where I worked near Sheridan Square in New York City. The location was across from the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village where, not quite two years earlier, a series of riots marked a turning point in the fight for civil rights for those in the LGBT community.
As a lifelong Reform Jew, I had learned to be an activist through involvement in my temple’s youth group and regional youth events and activities. When Herb and I joined Temple Beth-El of Great Neck in 1978, I agitated for equality for gays and lesbians. When we attended our first URJ Biennial convention in 1987, I participated on a panel as a representative of gay Jews in mainstream congregations, helping to present a resolution that called for congregations to welcome and support lesbian and gay Jews in all aspects of Jewish life. The resolution was overwhelmingly adopted.
In 1990, I was appointed chair of the New York Federation of Reform Jews Gay and Lesbian Resource Committee, and that same year, we marched down the streets of Manhattan behind the Reform Movement’s banner, marking the first appearance of mainstream Jews as a group in New York City’s gay pride parade. At that time, there were no laws protecting us, there were no rights for us as citizens, and as a result, the attitude of the parade was “in your face” activism. Despite the parade’s colorful, outrageous costumes and loud music, we were more militant than today. Subsequently, when the Reform Movement organized its Gay and Lesbian Committee, I was honored to co-chair it with Rabbi Julie Spitzer, z”l.
The Long Island Gay Pride Parade reflects these changes, as well. In 2004, Herb and I were honored to be named grand marshals in recognition of both our work in the Jewish community and our Long Island activism. Although we may have been slowed down a bit by age, our devotion to LGBT issues and to the Reform Jewish Movement have not diminished at all. Last Saturday’s mood around the parade was heavy with anticipation, reflecting the ongoing wait for the Supreme Court decision about our constitutional right to marry. It certainly was different than other years, most notably 2013, when Edie Windsor (also Jewish!) served as grand marshal after her heroic and successful effort to gut the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.
Indeed, the world has changed in unimagined ways in the last 25 years. Herb and I have been a mainstream Reform Jewish family since the Union for Reform Judaism’s 1989 resolution recognizing us as such. We have been married four times (to each other), and our marriage is legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia, as well as in Ireland, Argentina, and Spain. Texas and a dozen other American states remain a challenge, but each of these annual marches has helped us and countless other LGBT people to be recognized both as full citizens within society and as observant Reform Jews. They have strengthened our humanity and our self-esteem immeasurably, and for that, we are grateful.
John E. Hirsch, Ph.D. has been a longtime, active member of Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, N.Y. He also served as a Union for Reform Judaism trustee, contributing to the work of numerous committees in an effort to push LGBT issues to the forefront of the Reform Movement.