There’s Room For All of Us

by Chrissy Etienne

LGBTQ Jews have long been on the front lines, fighting for social justice. We are found on every page of the LGBTQ movement, from Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to office in California, to Avram Finkelstein, who co-founded the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP. We are on every page of the progressive Jewish movement. From Adrienne Rich and Faygele Ben Miriam, leaders in the New Jewish Agenda social justice movement of the 1980s, and to Leslie Feinberg, an early leader of the Jewish resistance to the occupation of Palestine. Our commitment to social justice stems from our experiences living at the intersection of two marginalized, persecuted identities.

Yet queer Jewish tradition and expression extend beyond modern social justice movements. Queer Jewish stories stretch back to the Torah. We are found in the story of Joseph, a perpetual outsider, in the love stories of Ruth and Naomi and Jonathan and David, as well as in the Talmud’s recognition of six genders. In the present day, we innovate Jewish ritual to honor our lives in the form of name change ceremonies, blessings for chest binding, blessings for transitioning, and mikveh immersion. The entire Jewish community can learn from the lessons that queer Jewish tradition provides. In every Jewish holiday, there is an opportunity to honor queer and trans lives and our contributions to the community. Judaism honors queerness and has room for all of us.

Those who support bills to discriminate against LGBTQ people in the name of religion do not have a monopoly on faith.

Three years ago on Nov. 15, Leslie Feinberg passed away after a long battle with Lyme disease. Ze was an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, revolutionary communist. Five days later, on Nov. 20, the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR,) which also fell on Shabbat, I found myself thinking of Leslie’s legacy. TDOR memorializes those who’ve died at the hands of transphobia, and while holding a candle and reciting the names of transgender people killed this year, it occurred to me that this event is inherently Jewish. I thought about how difficult it is to be Jewish alone.

This year, during Yom Kippur, I sat in Kol Tzedek synagogue where most of the congregation, including the rabbi, identifies as queer or trans. It’s then that I remembered that the last day of Sukkot falls on National Coming Out Day and that Philadelphia’s OUTfest also takes place during Sukkot. The intersection of celebrations felt natural. Because, during Sukkot, we take leave of our homes and places of meeting to spend time in a sukkah, a temporary shelter. Similarly, queer and trans people often have to leave our homes, workplaces, schools, and places of worship to live as our authentic selves. The result of which means that 40% of all homeless and housing insecure youth are LGBTQ.

LGBTQ youth experience an exodus of their own and are wandering in the desert of temporary shelters.

During Sukkot, we pause to feel gratitude for what we have, for the harvest, and to remember that we did not always feel a sense of safety, or permanence. It reminds us that we’re interdependent and interconnected, and asks us to practice humility and radical empathy. For this reason, the roof of a sukkah is built of things found in nature to remind us that we are also part of the larger natural world. Relatedly, there is a limit on the height of the sukkah, but not the width. There is no limit on how many we may welcome in.

As I sat in Kol Tzedek, surrounded by chosen queer, trans, and Jewish family, I thought about the shelter Kol Tzedek provides us, and what draws so many queer and trans people together. I thought about how Kol Tzedek is itself a sukkah. It offers a place for queer and trans people to pause to celebrate and express gratitude for how far we have come in our liberation struggles, despite the tenuousness of our safety. In much the same way, during my coming out, the first Jewish spaces I found provided me shelter and mentors.

A bill truly meant to protect religious groups from discrimination wouldn’t force others into exile.

There is a commandment to shake the lulav and the etrog together. The lulav and the etrog symbolize the different types of Jews to remind us to welcome in those who are different from us. One night during Sukkot, the Kol Tzedek sukkah was vandalized, but the morning after, local community members helped to repair and restore it. It reminds us that walls do not a community make.

In a way, Sukkot is a week-long National Coming Out Day, and there are so many ways to celebrate them together. During Sukkot, we symbolically welcome one of our ancestors each night, the ushpizin, and we learn the lessons they bring. I can imagine no better way to honor both Sukkot and National Coming Out Day than by welcoming our queer, trans, and Jewish ancestors so that we might learn from their stories of liberation.

Jewish values compel us to practice audacious hospitality, to build spaces that welcome people in and serve the hungry. 

I was raised partially by a gay Jewish holocaust refugee who taught me that having multiple marginalized identities compounds their effects. She taught me they are inextricably intertwined like the lulav and the etrog. She queered her Judaism and created spaces that reflected and celebrated the fusion of multiple lived experiences. I strive to follow in her footsteps because Jewish values compel us to practice radical empathy for those who are marginalized and for those without homes. Jewish tradition compels us to argue, question, and speak truth to power.

Last summer, while in conversation with Rabbi Michael Lerner, he told me about how he continues to work for social justice because he knows that faith believes in miracles and that there is no better tool to radically transform the world than to believe in miracles. The more I learn, the more I know that my Judaism will always be rooted in praying with my feet. Social justice organizing is strengthened by Jewish values, and I practice Judaism through putting on my work gloves and going out into the world to address injustice.

Photo via Flickr user: tlg.hartman