June is LGBTQ Pride Month, 2018

Image: “We are ALL made in God’s Image” in Hebrew and English, on a poster identifying the group from Temple Sinai, Oakland in the Oakland Pride Parade in 2016. For full picture, see the end of this article. All rights reserved, Linda Burnett.

When I think of “Pride Month” I think of stories:

I think of the queer folk at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, fighting back and starting what would come to be known as the Stonewall Riots. Click the link, or Google them, and learn your history, fellow LGBTQs. They weren’t respectable. They weren’t nice. But all the rest of us owe them for the progress we’ve made since. I was 14 and hadn’t heard the word “lesbian” yet, but my life had changed for the better, even though I didn’t know it yet.

I think of my first SF Gay Pride, in maybe 1987 . I was not yet “out,” and was terrified to come out, because as the mother of two small children I knew that there was a lot at stake. Women like me lost children to homophobic relatives all the time in those days. One court wasn’t deterred by the fact that dad was a convicted murderer: he was still seen as a better parent than the lesbian.

I think of the next Pride in SF, when I was out, and I took the kids. It was a defining moment for our family – we were not going back in any closets. Jim asked me why the guys on the Folsom Street float were dressed in leather. I told him, “They like to play dress up.” He nodded his five year old head and promptly lost interest in them, but the bear float guys throwing teddy bears into the crowd won his heart.

I think about the next few Pride marches in SF; the AIDS epidemic was raging. ACT-UP was re-teaching the lesson from Stonewall: fighting for our rights could not be “nice” because we were fighting for our very lives. I wasn’t at much risk for AIDS, but I saw what was happening to the guys, and I saw what the courts were doing to LGBTQ parents, and I knew that we were all fighting for our lives.

I think about how times have changed, and how people haven’t changed. We’re in the middle of backlash now: certain folks are trying to roll back the advances made by people of color, LGBTQ people, women, disabled people.

We must remember that we are all in this together. We must not let the  social conservatives roll back the calendar to the bad old days. “Social conservatives” sounds so nice, like sociable jam or something – but relative to us, they aren’t nice, not one bit. You may not have my rights, social conservatives. I will fight you every step of the way.

Celebrate! because they don’t want us to. Be proud! because if we aren’t, who will? And fight back, in the primaries, in the general election, whenever you have a shot at a voting booth, vote!

Judaism is unequivocal on the necessity of speaking up when something is wrong. Leviticus 19 commands that we not stand by while another human being bleeds. Hillel speaks of the necessity of speaking up for ourselves and for others:

If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? – Pirkei Avot 1:14

This Pride month, let us be for ourselves and for one another and against hatred in all its disguises.

Pride Parade Sinai Group
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin,far right, with 4 members of Temple Sinai of Oakland, including me. Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.

National Coming Out Day, 2017

It’s National Coming Out Day (NCOD), 2017.  Things have changed a lot since 1988, the first one. A few years ago, I wrote about my memories of that day:

I remember the first National Coming Out Day, in 1988.  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 that ride to the operating room ROCKED.
Back in the day, there were festivities for NCOD, because it was truly dangerous for many to come out. One way we fought the fear was to celebrate. That’s something that’s hard to communicate to the people who object to “Pride” in such movements: we were Proud because if we stopped to be anything else, we’d be terrified.
Today coming out is less terrifying for most white cisgender gay men and lesbians. Same sex couples can get married in any state in the US. Federally, we have a long way to go: in most states we can be fired for being queer, and we can lose our housing on account of it, too.
That’s not too bad, though, compared to what our transgender siblings are up against. Transgender people face pervasive discrimination and violence. They are targets for the kind of reflexive rage that all of us faced back in the 80’s and 90’s, the kind where eye contact can land you in the hospital or the morgue. Transwomen of color, particularly, face outright hatred.
We need not only to come out ourselves, those of us who are able, but we need to come out as supporters of transgender folks, because we are the best equipped to understand. Just as God told the Hebrews that they had to love the stranger because they had been strangers in the land of Egypt, we must stand up for LGBTQI folks of ALL stripes because we’ve lived in that particular Egypt.
We need to be sure that no one is left behind – and most importantly, that we are not trampling on the rights of others. When we make a catty comment about someone who comes out as bisexual, we have just made it harder for them to function in the world (lashon harah, anyone?) When we gloss over the concerns of LGBT people of color. when we tell our national organizations that we’re only worried (and will only fundraise) about issues that concern People Like Me, we are leaving folks behind. When we refuse to recognize someone’s gender, when we inform all our acquaintances that so-and-so isn’t a “real” man or woman we are just as bad as the folks throwing Leviticus in our teeth. When we somehow have another appointment when it’s time to stand up for a queer person of color, it’s a shameful thing.
Now, in the age of Trump, we all have to have one another’s backs. Truly living up to that is another kind of coming out, isn’t it?
What does National Coming Out Day mean to you?
A note to allies: You can “come out” too, when you speak up for us. When someone makes a joke that makes gay-hatred ok, just say, “Do you know you’re talking about my friend?” Or “Stop talking about my sister.” (I’ll be your sister, if you need one for the occasion.) Or just say, “That’s not cool” when someone says or does something mean to an LGBTQI person who needs a friend. Everyone is welcome at this coming out party.

LGBTQ Rights – If Not Now, When?

Image: Gay Pride March, with rainbow flags. Photo by naeimasgary/pixabay.

June has become known in the US as LGBTQ Pride Month. For the last eight years, the White House has acknowledged it as such, and made a greeting to LGBTQ Americans. This year there is silence.

Last year the most vulnerable among us had access to health care through the Affordable Care Act. This year, the ACA is under attack from both the legislative and executive branches of government.

Last year our government spoke up for LGBTQ rights – human rights – abroad. This year there is a gay genocide in Chechnya, and Washington is utterly silent.

The battles we were still fighting last year are still raging. Kris Hayashi of the the Transgender Law Center reported on May 10, 2017:

The news this weekend from New York that another transgender woman, Brenda Bostick, has died after being viciously assaulted is a bleak reminder of the crisis of violence against transgender people… That crisis, fueled by hateful rhetoric and public policy, has for too long gone unseen and unacknowledged.” Brenda Bostick was the 10th transgender woman of color – and 9th Black transgender woman – murdered in 2017 that we know of.

The Department of Education announced on Feb 27 that it would no longer enforce Title IX to protect transgender students equally in all school facilities, including restrooms, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

I could go on and on – if there’s a statistic or situation you think readers should know, I hope you’ll add it in the Comments.

But this is not a year to panic, or to hide our heads in the sand.

This is a year for LGBTQ people and straight allies to mobilize whatever privilege we have in defense of human rights and in resistance to the Trump Administration. Each of us have different degrees and kinds of privilege or talents, be it economic privilege, racial privilege, health privilege, gender privilege, ability privilege, a talent for written or other expression, or other things we can bring to the cause.

This year, celebrate Pride with ACTIONS:

  1. IDENTIFY YOUR GIFTS – Ask yourself, what talents or privilege do I have to offer? Do I have disposable income? Am I physically able to show up at rallies? Am I good at mobilizing people or at using social media? Does my race allow me to go or do or say things that would be much riskier for a person of color? How can I mobilize my privilege and talents in the service of others?
  2. DONATE – If you are able, support the organizations that defend us by sending a donation. Public interest law firms such as the Transgender Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Legal are on the front lines in the courts, currently our sole defense against a conservative Congress and a mean-spirited administration. Support organizations that serve vulnerable populations as well.
  3. PESTER ELECTED OFFICIALS – Email, tweet, write, and call your elected officials about LGBTQ issues, such as America’s refusal to issue US visas to Chechen men fleeing persecution. Keep an eye on state and local news for opportunities to speak out to the elected officials who work for you about local issues of discrimination.
  4. SHOW UP to marches and peaceful demonstrations if you are able.
  5. BOOST THE SIGNAL of LGBTQ voices and organizations in social media. Use your social media to spread legitimate information (consider your sources!) and to Share, Retweet, and otherwise add to the messages of LGBTQ organizations.
  6. REACH OUT to one another in kindness in these difficult times. The news is stressful, the unfriendly voices we hear in public spaces are painful, and all of it is downright scary. The world is mean enough right now – let’s practice the Jewish value of chesed, kindness in dealing with other LGBTQ folks.
  7. SHARE PRIVILEGE with others. Team up to make things happen. For instance, I’m disabled and marches, etc, are difficult for me on my scooter. I appreciate it when family and friends have stayed beside me, so that I feel less vulnerable. Do you know someone who could SHOW UP if only they had a little friendly support? Do you know an LGBTQ activist who could use a word of support, a meal, a RT?

Judaism is unequivocal on the necessity of speaking up when something is wrong. Leviticus 19 commands that we not stand by while another human being bleeds. Hillel speaks of the necessity of speaking up for ourselves and for others:

If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? – Pirkei Avot 1:14

This Pride month, let us be for ourselves and for one another. Now.

Respect Without Prejudice

Image:  On Friday, December 2, a fire engulfed a warehouse in Oakland, California leaving more than 30 people dead. Among the deceased were Cash Askew, 22, Em Bohlka, 33, and Feral Pines, 29 – all of whom were transgender.  Photo credit: NBC News, via GLAAD.

Imagine that someone you loved died in a terrible disaster. (If you really do this, it will hurt. but try.) Imagine then that the media accounts of that person’s death mangled their name and gave the wrong gender.

Just stay with that for a moment. Adds insult to injury, doesn’t it?


Yesterday, GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) issued a call to the media to get its act together and treat the dead with respect.  Every person has a right to their name. (Do we really have to debate that?) Every person has a right to have their gender reported accurately. (Again, imagine that a news story reported that you were a gender you are not.)

Transgender people are not that different than you and me. I had to get glasses before I could focus six inches beyond my nose. No one comes up to me and rips my glasses off my face shrieking, “Fake! You are really blind, you should act blind!” No, polite people let me wear my glasses, and they do not comment upon my glasses or act as if my glasses are some sort of freak show. My glasses are a minor part of my identity. But no, I was not born with glasses and I cannot “pass” as someone with 20/20 vision.

The GLAAD press release outlines some rules for the media which are also good general rules for talking to and about trans individuals:

  1. Follow the lead of the person (every person, trans or not) in using pronouns and gender identifiers. If you don’t know or are confused, ask, “What pronouns do you prefer?” No further investigations are necessary or appropriate.
  2. Call people by the name they prefer. President Jimmy Carter wanted to be called Jimmy, and way back in the seventies, we didn’t have trouble adjusting. I know people with horrible names their parents gave them, and they prefer to go by a different name. Some make a legal change, some don’t, but the custom is to call them what they want to be called. Trans folks deserve the same respect.
  3. When there is conflicting information, go with the individual’s wishes. I knew a woman who was divorced, and for her children, she chose to keep her married name. Her father didn’t like it; he kept calling her bank and other places and telling them she was using her maiden name again. When she went to the bank and said, no, THIS is my name, everyone agreed that her father was misbehaving and they used the name she preferred.
  4. Questions about “legal name” and anatomy are not appropriate unless there are actual legal reasons to ask them. (OK, this wasn’t in the GLAAD release, but I’m teaching about social behavior.) If a random person came up to you and asked you questions about your genitalia, you would likely be too shocked to speak. This happens to trans folks all the time, and they feel the same way any of us would. When someone comes up to me and introduces themselves as “Debbie” it would be rude for me to say, “But is that the name on your birth certificate?”  Add to this the sad fact that for some transgender individuals, they’d like to have a legal name change or some sort of medical intervention but they cannot afford it. Then those “curious” questions are really shaming questions about money as well as gender.

Jewish tradition is very firm on the idea of respect for persons and respect for the dead:

One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood. – Bava Metzia 58b

Respect for the dead informs every aspect of Jewish funeral arrangements. We guard the modesty of a dead body, not even looking on it unnecessarily. (That’s why you will never see an open casket at a Jewish funeral.) We don’t embalm the dead unless it is required by law, because it is disrespectful, and so on.

Respect the living and the dead. This is not complicated unless our prejudices make it so.

San Francisco Pride Memories

Image: LGBTQA Jews marching in the San Francisco Pride Parade, 2014. Note the Israeli flag under the arch in the background. Photo by Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0.)


The famous LGBTQA Pride March in San Francisco takes place the last weekend in June. It’s not the great-grandaddy of Pride parades (that’s New York) but it’s the one that usually makes it onto the news in the “red” states because it has the most colorful visuals. There are the Dykes on Bikes, of course, the Folsom Street Fair float, and the obligatory (almost) naked people marching down the street, along with some Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. All make it onto teaser film for the Ten O’Clock News because face it, that’s ratings gold, right down to the phone calls complaining that someone should Think Of The Children.

Around my house, we no longer attend Pride because I’ve grown uncomfortable with crowds and mobility is an issue. However, every June we reminisce about Pride past. There was a time when they were a very big deal for our family, because that’s when all the other people we referred to as “family” would come out and be counted.

I think our first Pride was in 1988 or 89. AIDS was still ravaging the community, mysteriously sickening and killing gay men. Lesbian organizations were crumbling all over the place because many women were putting our time into AIDS support or activism. Bisexual and transgender people and issues were still largely invisible; there was very little room for anything in the collective psyche but AIDS.

SF Pride was much smaller then, and much more subdued. There was a float for ACT-UP, and contingents from the various legal and political organizing groups, and a group of people carrying a huge section of the NAMES Memorial Quilt. We were angry, sad, and determined to survive. Even in those days, though, there was a celebratory aspect to Pride, because celebration has always been a form of defiance for us LGBTQ folk. The Dykes on Bikes led the parade, and there were two floats I’ll never forget.

The first was the Bears float. “Bears” are round, hairy gay men. They and the people who are attracted to them celebrate that roundness and hairiness. (I don’t get it, but face it, I’m a lesbian – I’m not wired to understand it.) I will always be grateful to that float of Bears, because they were throwing little teddy bears into the crowd and my young son caught one. He was thrilled; he was still little enough that a new toy was a very big deal. We didn’t realize then that he was going to grow up to be a big round hairy guy himself, albeit a heterosexual one. However, along with the teddy bear he caught the message that it was cool to be a big round hairy guy. I will always be grateful to those men for the happy body image they bequeathed to my little one.

Immediately after it, there was another float, this one the Folsom Street Fair float. The Folsom Street Fair bills itself as “the world’s biggest leather event.” (That’s “leather” as in “leather fetish.”) That float was covered with scantily dressed people wearing a lot of leather straps and chains. Before I could cover his eyes with his new teddy bear, my son piped up, “Why are those men dressed up, Mama?” I answered with the first thing that came into my head: “Because they like to play dress up, sweetie.” Satisfied, he said, “I need to think of a really good name for my bear.” And that was all.

I think my last Pride was in about 2000 when the GLSen group (Gay/Lesbian/Straight Alliance) at my son’s high school wanted to march. I marched with three kids and the faculty advisor. As the only “out” queer parent at the school, I felt I really had to support them. The little boy who caught the bear had grown; he was the straight member of our contingent.

The change over the years in between those two parades was dramatic. By 2000 AIDS was no longer “the gay disease” although it was still a problem. By 2000 our congregation was marching in the Parade, too. I remember explaining to my rabbi that I needed to be with the high school group because it was so much smaller. By 2000 I was thinking about rabbinical school and I knew a lesbian who’d been accepted to the program at Hebrew Union College. 

Now I’m a rabbi. Now there are many LGBTQ Jewish clergy in all movements, so many that I don’t know them all. Linda and I are married, something we could never have imagined in 1988. The kids I marched with in 2000 came back to the Bay Area to attend my son’s wedding in 2016.

Much has changed, but much still needs to change. Transwomen of color live in dreadful danger, and transmen have it very rough, too. Gender fluid folk, and others under the “trans” umbrella, still have to explain too much and too often.  LGBTQ Americans may be able to get married, but our jobs and homes are still at risk in many states. AIDS is more manageable, but it’s still with us. Too many people still want to kill us.

Want to help? Support an organization like the Transgender Law Center, or the National Center for Lesbian Rights.  When you meet an LGBTQ person, don’t tell them what or whom you know, just be present to them as a person. If you meet a young person who identifies as LGBT or Q, don’t argue with them about it being too soon for labels. Just accept them for whom they are. Remember:

God saw everything that God had made, and indeed it was very good. So there was evening, and there was morning, a sixth day. – Genesis 1:31

After Orlando: 10 Options for Action

Image: Graffiti on a brick wall: “Seek Justice.”

Here are ten ways we can take action, if we choose:

  1. We can mourn the dead and comfort the mourners.
  2. If there is a memorial or demonstration in our area, we can attend.
  3. We’ve already begun to see places to donate to assist the victims and their families. Pulse Victims Fund by Equality Florida is a GoFundMe site with responsible connections.
  4. We can contact our elected officials about the loopholes and gaps in gun safety legislation. The murderer has already been described as a mentally unstable domestic abuser who had already been investigated twice by the FBI for terrorist connections, but he was able to purchase a military-style assault weapon with a high capacity magazine. What’s wrong with that picture?
  5. Register and VOTE. Before you vote, do your homework and vote accordingly: which candidates have voting records that match with your values? Which indulge in hate speech when they are campaigning? Which elected officials are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association? Which elected officials have sponsored or supported the over 100 anti-LGBTQ bills pending in the states? (Thanks to my colleague, Rabbi David Novak, for reminding me of this one!)
  6. We can speak up whenever we hear hateful speech from anyone about any group of people. Every time we say, “Not cool” to someone spouting it we remind them that it is wrong. Every time we fail to say something, we suggest by our silence that those words and attitudes are acceptable to us.
  7. We can donate to institutions that track hate crimes, like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti Defamation League.
  8. We can educate ourselves about anti-LGBTQ violence. Did you know that 20% of the hate crimes in the U.S. are directed against this small minority? Or that 70% of ant-LGBTQ murder victims are people of color?
  9. We can donate to local organizations that provide mental health support to LGBTQ clients. Here in my local area one choice is JFCS-East Bay but it should be easy to find organizations in your own area. Many of us are freaked out pretty badly after a day when on one coast, 50 LGBTQ people were murdered in cold blood and on the other coast, a man was arrested on his way to the Pride parade with a car full of weapons and ammunition.
  10. Donate blood, if you are able. Even if you live thousands of miles from Orlando, this and other gun violence puts pressure on the supply of blood. According to the American Red Cross, every pint donated may save up to three lives.

Notice what isn’t on this list: “thoughts and prayers.” Author John Scalzi wrote an eloquent post yesterday about “thoughts and prayers” and the emptiness of those words. I am reminded of the prophet Isaiah, who spent most of Chapter 1 of the book carrying his name decrying the futility of ritual when real live people are suffering.

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? says the Holy One.

I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts;
and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.

Why are all those sacrifices offered to me? asks the Holy One.
I am fed up with burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals!
I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats!

Yes, you come to appear in my presence; 
but who asked you to do this, to trample through my courtyards?

Stop bringing worthless grain offerings.
They are offerings of abomination to me!
Rosh-Hodesh, Shabbat, calling convocations —
I cannot stomach the sin within your assemblies!

My soul hates your Rosh-Hodesh and your festivals.
They are a burden to me; I am tired of putting up with them!

When you spread out your hands I will hide my eyes from you;
no matter how much you pray I won’t be listening,
because your hands are covered with blood.

Wash yourselves clean. Get your evil deeds out of my sight.

Stop doing evil! Learn to do good!

Seek justice, relieve the oppressed,
defend orphans, advocate for the bereaved! – Isaiah 1:11-17

If you have other ideas of action to take in the face of this terrible event, I welcome your suggestions in the comments.

Some Queer Thoughts after Orlando

Image: Rainbow flag, tattered, from Pixabay.com.

I wrote a post about the Orlando massacre (Stop the Hateful Cycle.)But I have to say that when I first heard the news about the shooting I wasn’t thinking about Torah. I heard the news as a person who’s been out as a lesbian since 1987, and it kicked me in my LBGTQ kishkes [Yiddish for “gut.”]

I heard the the news just as I went to bed. I deliberately switched off the radio and went to bed because I could not bear to hear about another shooting in a gay club. I knew that if I listened for even one moment I’d be up all night at the television, identifying with the people in the club and the people who love them. It was Shavuot; I had no business at the TV. It was Shavuot, and anyway I could not bear it.

I came out as a lesbian after I had children, so I was never much of a partier at clubs. But I knew the power of those places in the gay rights movement, how none of us were taken seriously until a riot at the Stonewall club in NYC, how many of the lesbian leaders in San Francisco met at Maud’s back in the day. I knew that the clubs had bulletin boards long before the Internet. They had a long history as places where lesbians, gay men, and everyone under the umbrella of “queer” could come to organize or just try to figure things out.

Bars and clubs have always been a hunting ground for the people who hate us. Watch the film Before Stonewall for more about that, or read Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire by Johnny Townsend. My reaction last night came from a sick feeling that I’d seen this movie so many times, so many times that it would break my heart to hear it again. Usually the victims were “just” one or two individuals leaving a club, murdered by some coward in the bushes who’d decided he go get some of us because he thought the Bible said we deserved to die. Usually those murders didn’t make the broadcast news, and I heard about them much later from the LGBTQ press.

I could not bear to hear about one once again, and I couldn’t do anything about it anyway, so I went to bed.

The first good thing I heard the next day was in President Obama’s speech from the White House:

“This is an especially heartbreaking day for all our friends — our fellow Americans — who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub — it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.” – From President Obama’s speech, 6/12/16

I love that the President gets it that a “gay nightclub” is not just a place to drink and dance. I love that he or someone in his Administration knows our community and its history that well, and that he’s willing to talk about it on a day when the news media seems obsessed with ISIS.

Most of all, I love that with his speech the President reminded me that this is not the same old horrible movie once again. The FBI is investigating. The news organizations are reporting. No one is publicly crowing that the victims deserved it. (Well, nobody except Daesh/ISIS, who are busy trying to take credit, they who are in the business of hate.)

My rabbi and mentor once told me that the real test of whether to worry about local acts of antisemitism was to watch for the response from local law enforcement: did they show up? Did they take it seriously? Did any local politicians dogwhistle about the Jews bringing it on themselves? He said that if the cops responded, if they took it seriously, if the politicians talked solidarity and walked their talk, then it was upsetting but not to panic.

Now there has been an awful event – a mass murder at a gay nightclub – and I see the responders. CNN and all the news services are covering it. I see local law enforcement showing up promptly and taking risks to save gay lives. The FBI is on it. Political leaders (yes, even Senator Ted Cruz!) are taking it seriously. The President gives a speech in which he clearly cares, clearly understands the context that makes this especially horrifying and triggering to the victims’ community.

We have come a long way. We have a long road ahead.

This week, we mourn our dead.