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.
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.
Two memoirs are out just recently from people I admire: Jeanne Córdova’s When We were Outlaws and Kate Bornstein’s A Queer and Pleasant Danger. I’ve had a chance to read Córdova’s book, but my e-copy of Bornstein’s book is still on its way through cyberspace to me. Both are stories about dangerous journeys, and it occurred to me that they are totally appropriate reading for Omer-time, since we are in that period of travel from Passover to Shavuot, from freedom to Torah. Just as Am Yisrael had to deal with Amalekites and their own demons, these two women have been through their own wildernesses, external and internal.
When We were Outlaws is about a short period in the 1970′s when lesbians began to see themselves as Lesbian Nation, but the Establishment, especially J.Edgar Hoover, saw them as another bunch of Commies, enemies of the state. (I say “them” because I didn’t come out until ’87.) Those were scary, heady times, when the radical Left in America was feeling its oats about the exit from Vietnam, but painfully aware of what had happened to the Black Panthers. Córdova was a leader in the lesbian community in Southern California during that time, and she talks about not only the external battles but the internal ones as well. She was (and is) both a lover and a fighter, and breathtakingly honest about it, to boot.
A Queer and Pleasant Danger is about another sort of journey. I met Kate Bornstein after she had stopped being Al and had become Kate, but before I became a Jew named Ruth. She was the first person to explain gender in a way that made sense to me. The binary division of the world into “us” and “them” had always seemed like a gross oversimplification of something much more interesting, but I never had words for it. Kate embodies it: she occupies her own township on the landscape of gender, and has spent much of the last twenty years as a kind and outrageous tour guide and den mother, writing and performing her art to communicate the truth of that landscape to the rest of us. I look forward to reading her memoir, as I have enjoyed her other books; I know I will learn something not only about her, but about myself, before I put it down.
I admire these two writers because they have followed the truth where it took them, and they have the guts to talk honestly about the sometimes messy adventures and mistakes along the way. It’s one of the qualities I love about Jewish holy books, that they include some of the unholiest episodes imaginable, letting us know that all of life can become holy. It’s only when we are willing to really tell the truth that we can learn something worthwhile. It’s only when we can embrace the mess of being human, that we can allow ourselves to be embraced by God.
- A Queer and Pleasant Danger: Kate Bornstein, Trans Scientology Survivor (motherjones.com)
- New Books, Book signings: Maddow, Cordova and Brown (thecottonceiling.wordpress.com)