Posted on May 24, 2021 by Cantor Risa Wallach
I’m standing in a mixed and colorful crowd, electric with excitement in the Castro District of San Francisco. The street is filled with people as far as the eye can see heading eastward. There is a chill in the air from a fog just rolling in, with heat still coming up from the pavement. We march for miles down Market Street, all the way to the Ferry Building on the waters of the bay. We hang out on the grass or dance to the music with a driving beat, gathered together in the sunshine of that joyful day.
June has become the month in which Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people celebrate their community and their freedom, loosely based on the date of the Stonewall Riots in 1970 in Greenwhich Village, New York. Before the Stonewall Riots, transgender and drag queen activists rioted at the Compton Cafeteria in San Francisco. The Stonewall Riot began in response to a police raid of a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, after years of habitual police raids and harassment of LGBT people in bars, one of the only spaces where they could safely congregate and meet others like them.
Pride parades have become fun celebrations around the world, but their origins are found in times of protest, of pushing back against oppression.
Supreme Court rulings that advance LGBT rights have been passed during the month of June, including the Obergefell decision which legalized marriage equality. The casual ease with which Rhette and I walked into City Hall in Oakland, CA in 2016 to pick up a marriage license is a feeling I won’t soon forget. We stand on the shoulders of so many who suffered with the secrets of the closet in fearful silence, of those who were fired from jobs, disowned by families, lost custody of children, who stood bravely for their rights, and who even today continue to fight against oppressive laws targeting transgender youth across the US. Suicide rates among LGBT youth remain high, and murder rates of transgender women of color maddeningly continue, unabated.
The first gay rabbi to be ordained in the Reform Movement in 1978 was Allan Bennett, serving at Congregation Sha’arZahav in San Francisco. In 2011, the Conservative movement ordained its first lesbian rabbi, Rachel Isaacs. Rabbi Steve Greenberg is an Orthodox rabbi who came out as a gay man, though the Orthodox Movement in general does not accept LGBT identity or lifestyle. Rabbi Elliot Kukla was the first transgender rabbi to be ordained in 2006, and several trans rabbis have been ordained since then. Ordination of cantors followed suit. We know of the many celebrities who have come out, making it easier for the rest of us to do so, like Ellen Degeneres.
Today we have Keshet (Rainbow, in Hebrew), a Jewish LGBT organization that provides support, advocacy and resources to Jewish LGBT teens and adults. They provide a directory for LGBT couples seeking clergy to officiate a wedding, a list of welcoming congregations, as well as inclusive liturgical and ritual resources. They host teen Shabbatons for young people to bond with others like themselves.
Today, gender identity is seen as more fluid than it might have been in the past. Many have chosen to use non-gendered pronouns such as ‘they/them’ or the more encompassing label of ‘Queer’. Trans rabbis have done scholarly work to show that there are seven genders in the Talmud.
Each of us can find ways to become more educated about LGBT history in the Jewish community and beyond. We can develop skills and best practices for supporting our friends and loved ones who identify as LGBT or gender non-conforming, or find support and mutual connection for ourselves. We will become more enriched and tied to others in the process.
We might learn something about ourselves, about what it means to be courageous about our authentic experiences. Coming out, as it turns out, can happen to anyone. For any of us, showing vulnerability about who we really are, on any level, takes courage. Merely showing the world that we take our Jewish life seriously can be a kind of coming out. Telling the truth about our lives, as it turns out, is a very Jewish thing to do.
I hope you will join me in celebrating the freedoms that have been won during this month of June, and recommit to the work of making the world a more safe and affirming place for every person, made in the image of God.
Cantor Risa Wallach
Originally published in the May-June 2021 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.