“Baruch Dayan emet” is what Jews say when anyone dies. It means, “Blessed is the True Judge.” It’s appropriate for anyone, saint or sinner or mystery.
Watching twitter today, I saw many responses to Mr. Phelps’ death. Some were thoughtful, some were angry, some were clever, but this was one of those times when I’m glad to be an observant Jew. “Baruch Dayan emet,” I said, grateful for the tradition.
I have no idea what drove Mr. Phelps and his followers to picket funerals and spew hate. He hated a lot of people, including LGBT people, Jews, and a long list of others.
Death is often called “the great equalizer.” Rich or poor, famous or obscure, we all die, and our bodies turn to dust. Fred Phelps is no different in that respect: his body will turn to dust.
But what is not equal after death is the memory we leave behind us. Jews are apt to say in comforting a mourner: “May the departed’s memory be for a blessing.” That one won’t be used much for Mr. Phelps, if it is used at all. I don’t know what he was to his family, but he made his life into a curse for many LGBT Americans, and for the people mourning at funerals his church picketed. He has left behind an entire generation of people to whom the name “Fred Phelps” will mean cruelty, hurt and disrespect for the dead.
Each of us has some choice over the memories we leave behind us. Choose wisely.
Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when? – Pirkei Avot, 1:14
I’ve read some powerful writing about privilege this year: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege, and so on. The most recent was When Life Hacking is Really White Privilege, which does a great job of explaining the gulf between those who have privilege and those who don’t. Another great article, a little older, is Straight White Male, the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Isby John Scalzi. However, one thing has bugged me about a lot of these great articles: so…. what? What is the person with privilege supposed to do, besides feel badly? Is anyone listening to this preaching other than the choir?
I’d like to reframe the discussion slightly: What privilege do I have, and how do I use it?
Take an inventory: what advantages and disadvantages do you have in your life? No fudging: almost everyone has something in each column. Here is my account:
Advantages (Stuff that comes with privilege): Financially secure upbringing, financially secure present, white, healthy, Jewish, cisgender.
Disadvantages (Stuff that increases the difficulty of the “game,” to use Scalzi’s analogy): Multiple disabilities, lesbian, fat, female, Jewish.
It’s good to acknowledge both. I’ve written before about my difficulty with accepting some of my disadvantages. Sometimes it can be awkward to accept one’s advantages in a world where privilege sometimes gets equated with villainy. Let’s assume for the moment that the fact of being male or female, white or not, etc is morally neutral. Most of these things are the luck of the draw, in terms of who gets what and how society values it. (If you disagree regarding wealth, ask yourself, have you through your own labor risen in socioeconomic status in your lifetime? If so, ok. But most of us who are financially secure were born to financially secure parents, and we got a leg up.)
Depending on the how this all settles out, we may have some very legitimate gripes about what our disadvantages have brought us. The fact that I am disabled is morally neutral, but it feels unfair when the only way into a building is up a flight of stairs, and I hate it when people just walk away from me when we’re walking in a group. But for now, let’s concentrate on the advantages we have.
If you don’t have any advantages, then this article isn’t for you. If you are poor, sick, disabled, transgender, perceived to be female, and a racial minority, then you have enough problems without me picking on you. Move along, nothing for you to read here.
However, if you don’t qualify on ALL those fronts, you’ve got something going for you. It may not be much, and depending on the subtleties of how these things interact in your culture, the advantages may add up to a disadvantage (being black, male, and able brings its own difficulties in U.S. mainstream culture, aka all the people who are scared of black men). Some things, like “Jewish” may carry both privilege and problems depending on context. But in general, advantages work in your favor, and my question to myself and to my reader is, What are we doing with our privilege?
In my case:
What am I doing with the power that my relative wealth gives me?
What am I doing with the power that my white skin color gives me?
What am I doing with the power that my health gives me?
What am I doing with the power that comes from being Jewish? (No, not an “in” with international conspiracies, but a grounding in Torah, and a perception by a lot of people that I’m smart and well-connected, whether I am or not.)
What am I doing with the power that comes from being cisgender?
If you are reading this and thinking “What power is this crazy rabbi talking about?” then here’s what I mean:
I have free time that I would not have, if I were working 2 or 3 jobs.
I have disposable income, that is, I have choices that I would not have if I were constantly worried about making the rent, or worse, where I would sleep or how I would eat.
I am accepted without question in a lot of places that I would not be otherwise, because I’m white. I am assumed innocent, because I am white.
I am not sick, so I have have energy and attention I wouldn’t have if I were sick. Also, I do not have big medical bills to pay.
I feel grounded in Torah, and confidence comes with that.
I am perceived by some people as smart and well-connected, a perception which can be useful even when it isn’t true.
I am cisgender, so I don’t have to worry about being beaten up or otherwise messed over because they “can’t figure out if I’m a she or a he.”
So now: what am I doing with my time, my choices, my acceptance, my health, my confidence, and others’ favorable perceptions of me? What am I doing with these privileges I have?
As Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot, 1:14) It is fine to be “for myself,” to enjoy the good fortune in my life. It’s OK to enjoy being who I am. But I must also look to see who is not benefitting – are my goodies coming at someone else’s expense? And if it isn’t fair, I need to say so and I need to take action.
If I have free time, am I using some of it to benefit others?
If I have disposable income, am I contributing enough of it to tzedakah?
If I am healthy, do I make use of my health to benefit others?
If my gender or my sexual orientation or my race give me advantages, can I use those advantages to work for a fairer world? For whom shall I speak up? How loudly? Can I share my advantages? Am I willing to let go of some advantage in the interest of fairness?
If I have abilities, do I notice who is disabled in the ways I am abled, and do something about lack of access for others?
If we all played to our strengths, if we all used our positions of relative privilege to make this world better, it would be a revolution… a revelation… a miracle. But making that leap requires that we all take an honest look at who we are and what we have.
Today the US Supreme Court declared parts of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and allowed a lower court ruling to stand striking down California’s Proposition 8, which had attempted to redefine marriage in such a way that same-gender couples were excluded. There are still legal and practical matters to be worked out about both, but two great obstacles to human rights have been much reduced.
I am not objective about these matters. I am a citizen of the State of California, and the combination of Prop 8 and DOMA affected my family in tangible ways. Discrimination has shaped our choices over and over again: choices about matters as trivial as vacation and as serious as end-of-life. I still don’t know exactly how today’s legal decisions will play out in my life, but I know that their effect will be far-ranging and profound.
Our children are, if anything, more excited than Linda and myself. The official illegitimacy of our relationship disturbed them deeply.
All that said and done, there is so much left to do! Getting married will help a lot of LGBT folks with nice things like estate planning and dignity, but it will mostly make a difference for those who are middle-class or wealthy. We still face workplace discrimination and immigration discrimination, and for transgender Americans, the battles are still over rights as basic as the right to use an appropriate public restroom. Some of us still face the threat of violence when we drive through the “wrong” county, or walk on the “wrong” street.
Today’s progress, wonderful as it is, is not enough. We can’t declare the work done yet.
We can’t declare the work done until every U.S. citizen’s vote is counted, and every U.S. citizen can get to the polls.
We can’t declare the work done until no one, anywhere, is deported to a strange country where they don’t know the language because of cruel immigration law and decisions made by others before they were born.
We can’t declare the work done until rape culture is only an historical footnote.
We can’t declare the work done until everyone, everywhere, has the chance to make of themselves what they can: until everyone has a fair shot at education and a job.
We can’t declare the work done until the very young and the very old can feel safe and secure, without fear for shelter or their next meal.
I am sure that you can think of something that needs to be done before we declare the work done, and I tell you, go work for that change!
There are those who look to a mythical past for the “good old days.” I am here to tell you, those good old days never existed. Those good old days are ahead. May they come speedily and in our lives!
Yesterday was National Coming Out Day. There are still many places where coming out as L or G or B or T or Q is a very scary proposition. Being gay in Uganda can get you killed. Being any kind of queer in the wrong small town in the U.S. can still be extremely scary and unpleasant. And far too many young people are rejected by parents and other relatives for being gay or lesbian: I still can’t wrap my mind around the idea that some people throw away their children, but it definitely happens.
I remember my first National Coming Out Day, in 1988 (?). It may have been the actual first one, for all I know. I had my last foot surgery that day, to repair the damages from a series of bungled surgeries. It was at the old Foot Hospital in San Francisco (where the Jewish High School is today). I have a vivid memory of taking two Valium tablets I was offered, and as they were wheeling me off to the operating room, full to the gills of Valium, I delightedly came out to everyone I passed. “Hi! I’m a lesbian! Happy coming out day!” …
The surgery was a salvage job on a poor little foot that was never going to work right or quit hurting, but the ride to the operating room ROCKED.
Today, it’s usually not a life-or-death decision for an adult American to come out as LGBTQ. We can see lots of people like us on TV, even if the range of color and the stereotyping leaves much to be desired. There are “out” gay folk in the military and in the government.
But that does not mean that the work is done. As long as there are young people, anywhere in this country, who are born into places where they have to feel afraid because of their orientation (or because someone else thinks they look “gay”) we haven’t finished. As long as there are people being persecuted elsewhere simply for their orientation, we haven’t finished. Until all human beings feel free to simply be who they are, we aren’t done.
If you are out, great. Now look in your checkbook to see when you last supported an organization that works to make the world safe for us. If you haven’t done something in the last year, I urge you to “come out” as a philanthropist, even if your philanthropy consists of $5.
May the day come with there is nothing more to do. Until then, as the rabbis say in Pirkei Avot 2:21: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
This blog post originally appeared on Tzeh U’Limad, the Blog of Continuing Jewish Learning published by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion as part of its Continuing Alumni Education program. I follow that blog, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in “continuing Jewish learning!”
It’s June. I’m feeling the gratitude again.
Flash back to my first Gay Pride Month, in 1988: I had recently come out in a cloud of cluelessness, a single mom. There was a parade over the bay in San Francisco, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
1988 was a different world: AIDS was a mystery disease chewing through the gay male population, rumored in some quarters to be a Punishment from God. Same-sex intimacy was a felony in Georgia, with the blessing of the Supreme Court (Bowers v Hardwicke, 1986). After I came out to the principal at my kids’ Montessori School, I was told our family was unwelcome. An attorney told me it was a good thing my divorce had become final in California, because in my home state the courts would regard me ipso facto an unfit mother.
1988 galvanized me, and by the time the following June rolled around, I was volunteering for the National Center for Lesbian Rights where I had the privilege of meeting some of the people who’d been fighting on my behalf: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, activists since 1955, and Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg, who founded NCLR in 1977. I met many other good people with names you won’t find in Wikipedia who had worked hard for many years. I learned what a deep debt I owed to those who had cut the rocky little path I was walking.
Flash forward to another June, in 2002: I emerged from the cheroot [shuttle] from Ben Gurion Airport and walked into the Jerusalem campus of HUC for the first time. One of the questions in my mind was, how was this going to go, really? How much of a problem was it going to be, well, me? Because that’s the thing: being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is about identity. My orientation is an essential part of who I am that cannot be hidden or closeted or apologized for without twisting the truth.
I am happy to say that while I was at HUC-JIR (2002-08) I never felt that anyone on faculty or in the student body ever consciously slighted me on account of my orientation. I was proud to attend classes in the building that houses the Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation, & Gender Identity, first of its kind in the Jewish world. There is still plenty of work to do in the Reform Jewish world, but at least at school I felt welcome.
I owe my good experience to the pioneers who went before me: men and women who did the heavy lifting, who out of love for Torah and a sense of destiny persisted in pursuing this sacred work during the years when the Movement was not yet ready for us. Some of them suffered the pain of the closet. All persisted in the face of a particular interpretation of passages in Leviticus 18 and the slipperier “ick factor” that makes LGBTQ freedom work so challenging.
To those people, this June, I say todah rabbah, thank you very much. You are a blessing to us all. I know some of you, but by no means all of you. I hope that someday I’ll hear your stories. And just as this year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination, I hope in some future year, we’ll be celebrating yours: you are my heroes.
This is an updated version of a post I originally published on Open Salon in September of 2010. In thinking about the things I’m grateful for this LGBTQ Pride Month, it occurred to me it was still very timely.
I came out in 1988, just after a rancorous divorce became final. A very nice woman asked if I’d ever tried kissing another woman, and a few minutes later it was clear to me that I’d been barking up the wrong tree all my life. It was a moment of great joy, followed by sheer panic.
I had two little boys, ages 4 and 6, and nothing, absolutely nothing, was more important to me than the two of them.
Was I going to mess them up for life? Was I going to lose them? Should I just declare celibacy and give it up? I wrote to an acquaintence who had been “out” many years, with two daughters from a previous marriage, and poured out my fears. She wrote me back with the phone number for the National Center for Lesbian Rights saying, “Call them. Do whatever they tell you.” Then she said my kids were going to be fine.
I did, and they are. But there’s much, much more to it than that.
The attorney to whom NCLR referred me informed me that for the umpteenth time in my life, I was the Queen of Dumb Luck. My divorce had become final in one of the very few counties in the United States where my orientation alone was not grounds for taking my kids from me in 1988. My best bet was to come out of the closet completely, so I did. On March 17, 1988, I phoned my ex and told him. To his credit, it has never been an issue.
I told the boys that I had fallen in love with a girl. They liked her. Unlike their boring mom, she was good at catch and knew everything about baseball. Sure, fine, and what’s for dinner?
The kids were in kindergarten and first grade, and there I wavered. Surely this was my private business. Surely it wasn’t appropriate to phone up the principal and say, “Hi, I’m a lesbian.” So I waffled along for a while, hoping for the best. And that’s where I went wrong.
Aaron began getting into fights at school. The teacher called. I went in to chat, and it turned out that he was out there defending my honor. The words “gay” and “fag” were favorite schoolyard epithets (in first grade!) and whenever someone used them, he took it personally on my behalf. He told them to take it back, and then two little boys would roll on the ground, fighting.
I outed myself immediately to the teacher, explained that this was a young man defending his mother — and please, could we just ban those words on the playground?
“You are what?” she gasped, and when I repeated it, she said she’d have to take it up with the principal. Over the next few weeks it became clear that the words “fag” and “gay” were a lot more acceptable than a lesbian mom and her spawn, and we needed to find a new school if my kids were going to feel remotely safe in class.
Finding a new school where we could be out as a queer family turned out to be quite the project in 1988, even in the liberal East Bay of the liberal San Francisco Bay Area. I went from school to school, asking directly if “diversity” included “lesbian parented children.” I was privileged to have the means to check out every private school in town, and I was hustled out of most of their admissions offices like an unwanted peddler. [All those places now trumpet the fact that they love queer families, and all I can say is, hallelujah. I am not naming names, because the guilty parties have mended their ways.]
God bless St. Paul’s Episcopal School. When I asked the admissions director, Laroilyn Davis, if a lesbian family would be welcome at St. Paul’s, she said, “It’s time we included a family like yours.” In the years to come, the administration there always had our backs: individuals might find our presence distasteful, but there was never any question that we belonged.
But the damage was done. My children spent far too long in a situation where they knew we were a second-class family, where we were the objects of open disgust. I am well aware that my younger son is a social worker partly because he has a special affinity for children who don’t feel safe. His big brother will still offer to punch you out if you use the word “fag.”
And as for me, I am torn between gratitude for being the Queen of Dumb Luck, who came out in the most liberal area in the country, who had the means to seek out a safe place for her children, who had legal support and moral support and two courageous sons — and fury that any of that was necessary.
Yes, things are better now than they were in 1988. They need to be better still. Our opponents don’t seem to understand that anti-gay policies hurt the whole society: the collateral damage is horrendous. The lack of same sex marriage rights means that the children of queer families grow up knowing that they, the children, are less in the eyes of the law. The courts are just now figuring out that the federal Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA] means that lesbian and gay couples can lose their home to the IRS when one of them dies, unlike straight couples, who are defended against death taxes.
When we discriminate against any group of people, we are all the less for it. When are we going to figure that simple fact out?
It’s Lag B’Omer, a brief moment of lightness during the intense count of the Omer from Passover to Shavuot. Tonight there are bonfires, tomorrow tykes will get their first haircuts.
After the vote for the hideous Amendment One in North Carolina this week, I was braced for a glum Lag B’Omer. I hate feeling like a second-class citizen, and it’s pretty clear that’s exactly what I and other LGBTQ folk are in the Tar Heel State.
Then the news came over the car radio that President Obama had finally spoken in favor of marriage equality. I honestly never thought I’d see the day when a sitting American President would speak up for us, much less one in the midst of a campaign. The news made me feel light-headed: I actually pulled off the road and sat for a bit, until I settled down a bit. I’m happy, and surprised, and grateful.
As for the folks in NC: I wish I could talk to them. I wish I could say to the Christians of North Carolina who fought so hard to pass Amendment One, do you remember your forebears? Many of your spiritual ancestors fled Europe because the lived in places where Baptists, or Methodists, or Catholics were not free to worship as they wished. They came to this country, and eventually set up a government where they carefully separated religion and state. They understood that that meant that this country would never enshrine their religious beliefs in law, and they wanted it that way. They did not want to risk ever again being a persecuted minority, nor did they want anyone else in that position for their religious beliefs.
I am a Reform Jew. Reform Judaism affirms the sacredness of marriage between two individuals regardless of gender. My sweetheart and I have a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) on our wall. We are married in the eyes of God and our congregation and the Reform Movement. Unfortunately our state and our federal government has chosen not to honor our marriage, because the religious majority in our country holds that homosexuality is a sin. Reform Judaism is not the only religion that recognizes as sacred the union between two men or two women who vow to be responsible for one another for life: the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalists, and the Alliance of Baptists also recognize same-sex marriage.
I am beginning to hope that I may see the day when this unfairness is no longer with us, when the intention of the founders of our government is honored. I hope I will see the day when religion and state are truly separate. In the meantime, I am glad that President Obama spoke up.
In the meantime, I will celebrate this moment of lightness in a long journey, this Lag B’Omer.