Hate Speech, Identity & the Importance of Asking Questions — Part 2: The Jewish Push for LGBT Rights

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March 4, 2014

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a new Zeek series about the Jewish push for LGBT rights.

Jonathan Blum, "Tolerance," Woodcut

About the artist: Jonathan Blum is an artist living and working in Brooklyn. He can often be found at his storefront/studio/shop at 285 5th Ave in Park Slope.

I was the victim of hate speech. I will never forget the day. It was nothing if not shocking. I am openly gay, a Jewish man — a rabbi — who wears a yarmulke in public. Amidst a crowd of people, from all walks of life, I was told to leave.

A t this point I probably should say that the establishment where this hate speech took place was a gay bar. And the man who insisted I leave was gay. And also Jewish.

Standing alone, waiting to order my drink, a voice pierced the din of the weekday bar crowd. Clear and sharp, the Israeli accent was immediately recognizable.

“Why are you wearing that??” He pointed a condemnatory finger at my yarmulke.

“Because… I’m Jewish?”

“And you are gay?”

It seemed oddly accusatory, especially considering where we were. “Uh, yeah.”

“You shouldn’t wear that here! You shouldn’t be here!”

He was animated. He was drawing attention. Not the good kind. What was I missing?

“And why are you here? Are you gay?”

He responded, as only an Israeli can. “Of course!” And yet, he persisted. “But it is not allowed!”

Got it. His argument was not with me. It was with himself. I imagined this man, this gay Israeli Jew, integrating the homophobic messages of his youth. Escaping to another country, ducking into a bar, hoping to forget the irreconcilable parts of an identity at war with itself.

A gay Jew? In a gay bar? With a yarmulke? I must have looked like a man holding a toaster, dead set on jumping into a swimming pool. How could he integrate this contradictory and palpably dangerous vision?

He went on offense. If you can’t conceive of someone being fully Jewish and fully gay, it only makes sense to question either his gay identity or his Jewish identity. He chose the latter.

“Ah! You are Reform! You don’t even know Torah, do you?”

“I do work in a Reform synagogue…”

He was triumphant. “I knew it!”

“… but I don’t necessarily consider myself Reform. And you should know that Reform Jews do actually read the Torah.”

He waved me off, dismissively. “But why don’t you take it off? Why do you have to wear that here?”

Because I started wearing a yarmulke in Israel. Where it wasn’t weird. Where it felt good to be surrounded by people who didn’t find it weird. Because I loved being Jewish. Because I had learned to love being gay. Because I was tired of hiding. Because I had made peace with the internal struggle that this random stranger was playing out, with me, on a random night, in public.

“Because, “ I replied, looking into his eyes, “closets are bad for the soul.”

I thought of this exchange when I read the results of the Public Religion Research Institute’s recent survey, “A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues.” The results reflected good news for gay folks.

Majorities of Americans in almost all parts of the nation favor the legalization of same-sex marriage. And even in the historically conservative South, the polling is evenly split, 48% in favor and 48% opposed. Like other pollsters, PRRI found strong support among younger Americans, indicating that the emergence of a national consensus in favor of marriage equality is only a matter of time.

Truly Notable

To me, a few key results jump out as being truly notable. While conservative efforts like Arizona’s SB 1062 would seem to pit gay folks against religious folks, we are actually in the midst of a sea change among religious Americans. White mainline Protestants (62%), white Catholics (58%), and Hispanic Catholics (56%) all favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

For Jews, the results are even more striking. While 73% of religiously unaffiliated Americans favor legalized gay marriage, my vociferous Israeli friend might be surprised to discover that a full 83% of American Jews believe that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry. Put another way, Jews are more likely to support gay marriage than are professed atheists. Bill Maher likes to mock religious folks as believing in that “old book of Jewish fairy tales.” Is it possible that even atheists could learn something about justice, about overcoming the Pharaohs of any generation, by reading some of those old fairy tales?

But the statistics that strike me as most significant, that really took me back to that bar rail confrontation all those years ago, have to do with religious folks’ view of their own communities. “Regular churchgoers (those who attend at least once or twice a month),” reports PRRI, “are likely to over-estimate opposition for same-sex marriage in their churches by 20 percentage points or more.” While 57% of white mainline Protestants favor same-sex marriage, 59% of the same group believes their fellow congregants are opposed to the policy. Similarly, while Catholics who regular attend church favor gay marriage, 50 to 45%, a full 73% believe most of their fellow congregants oppose it. In other words, millions of Americans populate religious communities that are much less intolerant than they themselves realize.

Why do gay people, like the man who angrily pointed at my yarmulke, believe their religious and LGBT identities are incompatible? Well, the voices of hate are certainly loud ones, and journalists understandably love controversy. But maybe the failure to recognize the respect for diversity that courses through many of our religious communities, maybe it’s actually a failure of communication. If you assume that the woman in the next pew hates gay folks, you may never learn that she has a gay nephew. Maybe that clean-cut couple actually insist that their kids never use gay slurs or tell jokes at the expense of LGBT folks. Maybe that pastor has actually counseled gay teens to accept the Godliness inside them.

At least the guy in the bar had a conversation with me. He asked questions, and listened to the answers. And if we ask questions, what will we learn about the people in our own communities? In our own congregations? Isn’t it time we found out?

The answers, as it turns out, may be pleasantly surprising.

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum serves as rabbi/educator at Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, CA, and lives in Oakland with his partner, Yiddish singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell. Read more of his articles in Zeek: Women Have a Seat at the Table. But Wait. Who’s Clearing? Ahem, Men and Exult! Rejoice! Wait, Who’s Bedding Whom? Listening to Leviticus post-DOMA.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a new Zeek series about the Jewish push for LGBT rights. You can read the first here: Psst: New Study Shows American Jews Overwhelmingly Support LGBT Rights. Far Too Quietly by Rachel Laser of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

ABOUT THE ARTIST: Jonathan Blum is an artist living and working in Brooklyn. He can often be found at his storefront/studio/shop at 285 5th Ave in Park Slope.

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