At the Intersection of Queer and Jewish: A Reflection
I first knew I was queer around the age of 12 and came out sometime between the ages of 13 and 14; that was almost 20 years ago. For as long as I can remember, Pride has always sparked conflicting feelings inside me. On one hand, yes, the notion of Pride is a revelation and we should continue to celebrate the hard-won battles we’ve fought in our quest for equality.
On the other hand, I feel that what we’ve come to know as “Pride,” with its rainbow capitalism – corporations incorporating and deliberately including the LGBT+ movement for commercial gain, for example Burger King’s Pride Whopper and Target’s #takepride campaign – and sometimes dubious politics, either romanticizes or hides what truly was required for the queer community to reach this point in history.
Inspired by a conversation with a dear friend, I find myself thinking a lot about ancestry this Pride – particularly the intersections of queer and Jewish ancestral connection.
Every week, during Shabbat services, we recite the Amidah (“The Standing Prayer”). The first section of the Amidah, Avot v’Imahot (“Fathers and Mothers”), connects us to the divine by reminding us that all Jews are the progeny of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Every week we reaffirm this divine lineage. But what if we, as queer Jews, expanded on this idea of sacred lineage?
I am a visible, married, queer Jew of color. These various identities have been repeatedly validated in Jewish and non-Jewish spaces. As such, I can’t help but recognize that the life I am able to live today would not have been possible without our queer forebears and the work they did leading up to, during, and after the Stonewall rebellion of 1969. At the time, being publicly queer was a criminal act, and even serving alcohol to someone who “appeared” queer was enough to get a restaurant or bar shut down, so any establishment known to serve queer patrons was subject to police raids.
The Stonewall Inn, owned and operated by the mafia at the time, successfully avoided police raids resulting in a shutdown until the wee hours of June 28, 1969. When the police arrived, patrons of the bar chose not to comply with the orders of the police and instead fought back. The resistance of the bar patrons and passersby triggered four days of demonstrations against police harassment of the queer community. The Stonewall rebellion birthed the queer liberation movement and with it, such prominent activists as Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Stormé DeLarverie, and paved the way for our earliest activist organizations, including the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance.
The Stonewall rebellion was the beginning of an exodus from another Mitzrayim, another Egypt or narrow place, and we’ve been commemorating it annually since June 28, 1970. In the concluding verses of Parashat R’eih, we are commanded to remember our exodus from Egypt for the rest of our lives. Mishkan T’filah (the newest Reform Jewish prayer book) offers a beautiful reflection on this sacred obligation from Michael Walzer which feels especially relevant here:
Standing on the parted shores of history we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.
The same feet we used to cross the Red Sea and out of Egypt are the same feet that pounded the pavement at Stonewall to lead us into equality; this is sacred queer lineage.
I firmly believe that the times we are living in now are beyond the wildest dreams of our queer ancestors. We have queer clergy and queer elected officials, generally positive media representation, freedom to congregate in our own spaces without fear of arrest, and marriage equality, which is the law of the land.
Nonetheless, we cannot become complacent. In more than 25 states, queer people can lose their jobs because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. Further, the trans community, especially trans women of color, continues to be disproportionately affected by violent crime.
We absolutely deserve to celebrate our victories, and it is good and right to do so, but it is also imperative that we continue to fight. As Rabbi Tarfon taught us in Pirkei Avot, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Indeed, the work is far from finished.