The End of the Zero-Sum Game

“Zero-sum game” – a game in which the sum of the winnings and losses of the various players is always zero, the losses being counted negatively. (

Lately I hear arguments about a zero-sum game:

IF we pay attention to institutional racism,

     we might miss an opportunity to deal with gun violence.

IF we focus on gun violence,

we might drop the ball on disability rights.

IF we focus on the rights of disabled people,

we might forget the violence against women and transwomen of color.

IF we focus on justice for transgender people

what about women’s rights?

IF we focus on women’s rights

what about economic justice for all?

And if we are so focused on economic justice for all

what about… surely by now you get my point:

Justice is not a zero-sum game in which I am the natural enemy of another.

Justice is when we notice that we are natural allies: the queers, the browns, the blacks, the ones on wheels, the blinds, the poors, the last in line, the fats, the funny-looking, the girls, the trans, the bis, the dispossessed of all nations, the Palestinians AND the Jews, all the people who usually get shown the back door…

Until we notice that we are all at the same door

Until we notice that we are all


And on that day, we will be One

And God’s Name will be One. – Jewish Prayer Book

I don’t know exactly  how we get there, but I am determined to work for it. I am determined to see the miraculous spark of the Holy One in every single face before my own. I won’t lie down in the road to be run over, but I will do my best to lift up every other person that I can. I will deal with my fears.

Because I am really, really tired of zero-sum games.

Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof.

Justice, Justice, you shall pursue.

Thou Shalt Not Embarrass

.תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק: כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים

One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood.

— Babylonian Talmud, Bava Mezia 58b

Imagine for a moment that you are in a synagogue, somewhere that every Jew should feel at home. The service is ending, and for the past several minutes your body has been sending increasingly urgent messages that you need to find a bathroom. You spot the restroom and as you place your hand on the door, three people behind you shriek “NO!!!” and everyone in earshot turns to look at you.

Just sit with that thought, with those feelings, for a moment.

A number of people I care about live with the possibility that this could happen to them at any moment, anywhere. Some are transgender, some are butch lesbians, some are straight but they don’t look stereotypically masculine or feminine.

Let me give you a clue: they are all human beings, made in the Divine Image.

A dear woman-friend of mine looks great in a suit. She dresses much better than do I. But there’s a look she gets on her face when someone has humiliated her at the door of the “ladies room” that I recognize in a heartbeat. I recognize it because I’ve seen it too many times.

I know a nice transman who dreads public bathrooms. He does everything in his power to avoid needing to use one, because no matter which one he goes to, someone may decide loudly that it’s the wrong one. He’s been lucky, no one has beaten him up. But the pain in his voice when he told me why he was visibly upset made me want to weep.

They aren’t the only ones, just two who are close enough to me that I am aware of their hurt. It doesn’t really matter what their gender is. Someone decides that they “don’t look right” and suddenly it’s open season. They look different, so it’s OK to humiliate them.

Jewish tradition tells us that we are forbidden to embarrass another person. It tells us that embarrassing another is the equivalent of shedding their blood. That commandment does not go away simply because the other person’s appearance makes us uncomfortable. I am not permitted to humiliate a human being because something about them is outside my experience.

“But what about danger?” some may ask, “What about men pretending to be trans so they can hang out in the ladies room and attack women?”

People who want to use the privacy of a bathroom to hurt other people go in there and lurk. They hide. They linger. They do not go in, pee, wash their hands, and leave. If you go into a restroom (either one) and see someone lurking, do the smart thing and LEAVE. Go tell someone with authority if you are worried. Don’t stand there and shriek. After all, if you are right and they are dangerous, they might hurt you!

Please, especially in places that should be safe for every Jew, don’t humiliate people in or out of the restroom. Embarrassing them does not make any of us safer.

If I were queen, I would put this sign up outside every restroom. Kudos to the University of Bristol’s (UB) LGBT + Society for this image:


Goodbye, Mr. Phelps.


Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church died today at age 84. Baruch Dayan emet.

“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.

Image: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by haldean

Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!

National Coming Out Day logo, designed by arti...
National Coming Out Day logo, designed by artist Keith Haring. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.” 

It’s June: Thank you, LGBTQ Pioneers!

King David Street, Jerusalem, June 2003

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.

When Queer Moms Come Out

A sense of humor is essential for good activists.


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?