Black, Bisexual, and Blessed: Navigating the World as a Queer Jew of Color
Judaism acknowledges and celebrates the complex nature of human beings, and thus, the concept of audacious hospitality both honors and embraces the idea that each person within our community is “wholly Jewish.” This means acknowledging all aspects of our identities and affirming each of them as being valid and interconnected.
Our individual identities contribute to our beliefs, our personalities, our lived experiences, and by extension, everything we do in the world around us. This is especially true of those of us who are Jewish, queer, and people of Color all at once.
In my experience, existing with all three of these identities is both beautiful and often challenging.
According to a Human Rights Campaign/University of Connecticut survey, more than three quarters of Black LGBTQ+ youth have heard family members say negative things about LGBTQ+ people, and nearly half feel self-critical and/or have been ridiculed by their family for being LGBTQ+. The same study found that 67 percent of respondents and 82 percent of trans/gender-expansive youth have been verbally insulted just because of who they are.
This is just one of many studies that identifies and reinforces the difficulties of navigating the world while existing as queer people of Color – and our Jewish identities may make this navigation even more difficult, given both the recent uptick in white nationalism and antisemitism and the racism that Jews of Color often experience in majority-white Jewish spaces.
I knew I was queer – specifically, bisexual – as early as elementary school, but I often hid this part of my identity and tried to change myself. I performed daily mental gymnastics trying to convince myself that I only liked girls, that my crushes on boys were “just a phase” I was going through. I also had nagging fears that I was simply gay and either confused or in denial, thanks to societal perpetuations that bisexuality isn’t real. Deep down, however, I knew I wasn’t confused; that this is who I was and who I always would be.
As if the struggle wasn’t real enough, I often found conflict between my bisexuality and my Blackness, a result of hearing homophobic and biphobic remarks from within the Black community by those who considered non-straight Black men as perverted, sinful, and not “real” men.
In the Black Youth Project article “How Biphobia Impacts Black Bisexual Men’s Health,” journalist Raymond Williams explains that this belief was “formed in part due to our history, the traumatic effects of slavery on our psyche, and the heavy influence of religion…this confusion continues to permeate because of stereotypes and myths about both bisexuality and Black masculinity.”
As someone who is Black, bisexual, and Jewish, religion is a heavy influence on my life – and it’s a positive one. While bigots use the Book of Leviticus to defend their hatred of people like me, Reform Judaism taught me that in every regard, context matters.
I learned that every letter of sacred text, while Divinely inspired, should be analyzed in regard to the period of time in which it was written, and we as Jews must determine how we apply sacred text in the present day. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis said:
"Morality comes from reading the tradition in its entirety – not singling our particular verses or particular laws. It comes from highlighting the ethical rationale behind the laws, including the many interpretations of law, and it comes from wisdom, Jewish experience and history."
I made the decision to come out as bisexual as an act of liberation for myself and for others, including other Black queer men. I want them to know that no matter what anyone else says, they can be authentically Black and masculine and queer, all at once.
I want them to know, too, that being religious or spiritual is not at odds with their queerness; that they are made in God’s (queer) image and that there are faith communities that can offer the support, care, and love that they need.
And I want them to know that they are enough – that their Blackness and queerness are both individually beautiful and that they perfectly complement one another.
More than anything, I want more for my Jewish communities to openly embrace and love all queer, trans, and nonbinary people of color who enter our spaces. I want our beautifully layered identities to be celebrated and treated as holy. I want our leaders to know that understanding and applying intersectionality in all of their practices is vital – not simply for our sakes, but for the Jewish people as a whole.
In treating us with respect – by recognizing our intersecting needs and taking them into consideration, using inclusive language, practices, and philosophies into every facet of Jewish and congregational life – our communities can truly fulfill the destiny of the Jewish people.
Chris Harrison is the writer and editor for audacious hospitality at the Union for Reform Judaism and a fellow in its 2018 JewV’Nation Fellowship’s Jews of Color Leadership Cohort. He earned his B.A. in English/creative writing and film studies at Miami University and his Certificate in Jewish Leadership through Spertus Institute and Northwestern University. Chris lives with his partner and four pets in metro Detroit, where he serves on Temple Beth El’s audacious hospitality group and the Jewish Federation’s NEXTGen LGBTQA pride committee.