Tag Archives: Gay

Homophobia Is Not Kosher

By Steven Philp

On Thursday LGBT-interest blog Queerty posted an article outlining the newest addition to the Kosher.com affiliates program: the anti-gay group JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. Kosher.com advertises itself as the largest online kosher supermarket, offering door-to-door delivery of several thousand kosher products including meat, dairy, wine and frozen foods. The affiliates program allows customers to select a non-profit organization—including synagogues and schools—to receive 5% of their online purchase; in return, Kosher.com benefits from increased traffic from that organization’s constituent population. JONAH has come under fire for their prescription of “reparative” therapy for LGBT Jews, which has been shown by all major American health organizations—including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatry Association, and the American Psychology Association—to be ineffective; in fact, as outlined in a 2007 article by The New York Times, the majority of certified health professionals hold that “reparative” therapy can damage self-esteem, increase depression and promote suicidal behavior.

Queerty was alerted to the partnership between Kosher.com and JONAH by Jayson Littman, a survivor of “reparative” therapy. Littman had held membership in JONAH for five years, before coming out and starting a “gay Jewish events outfit” in New York. Littman expressed his misgivings in an e-mail to Kosher.com, explaining that their association with JONAH sends “a message to [LGBT Jews] of where you stand on this issue and what your beliefs are.” Kosher.com replied to Littman, outlining their acceptance of any and all organizations in to their affiliates program. Unsatisfied, Littman responded: “I am sure that non-profit organizations that spread hateful messages about Jewish people wouldn’t be considered for the Kosher.com affiliate program.” The following Friday, Truth Wins Out—a pro-LGBT organization that sheds light on the harmful effects of “reparative” therapy—started a petition on Change.org against the partnership of Kosher.com and JONAH. According to an article posted on their site, within 90 minutes they had gathered one thousand signatures. Shortly after, Kosher.com responded to the petition with the following:

Firstly we wish to apologize if any action taken by any member of our company offended anyone. Our affiliate program…was not something that we had monitored but considering the current reaction regarding jonahweb.org’s decision to send their members our affiliate offerings, we have decided to discontinue that affiliation and our management will review our affiliate programs guidelines going forward.

The swiftness with which online organizing produced results is heartening. The article on Queerty coupled with Truth Wins Out’s petition is an example of quick and effective online advocacy. Although we are called to respect—if not cultivate—a plurality of opinion within the Jewish community, supporting an organization that actively discriminates against other Jews is decidedly not kosher.

Is Gay the New Black?

By Steven Philp

Voicing an opinion that is shared among conservative leadership, Reverend Keith Ratliff, Sr.—president of the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the NAACP—complained that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights movement has “hijacked” the civil rights debate. According to the De Moines Register, Rev. Ratliff addressed an anti-marriage equality rally outside the Iowa state capitol on Tuesday, stating that “there is no parallel” between LGBT rights and the 1960’s movement led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He emphasized that Dr. King would not have supported same sex marriage, explaining that he was a “Bible-believing Baptist preacher.” To argue contrariwise is “an insult to the civil rights movement.”

But whose civil rights movement is it, anyways? This past January, in honor of the late Dr. King, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. delivered a rousing sermon at Conservative Chicago synagogue Anshe Emet. Despite moments of tension between our communities—several of which found their origin in his history of anti-Semitism—Rev. Jackson called upon Jewish and African American leaders to remember our common purpose: to secure civil rights, as traditionally oppressed minorities, for ourselves and for each other. He recalled the important role that Jews like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel played in the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, meeting with Black activists and marching with them in Salem and Birmingham. In fact, Jews were one of the most actively involved non-Black groups in securing equality for the African American community.

Yet the Civil Rights movement derived less strength from Jewish manpower—however important—than from the Jewish narrative; we are a people who have experienced oppression, fought against it, and achieved freedom.  The liberation theology that fueled the impassioned sermons of Dr. King and Rev. Jackson derived many of its images from Exodus. It is easy to see the parallels between the emancipation of African American slaves and our journey from bondage in Egypt, making the latter narrative a powerful proof text for the former: liberation is the historically attested will of G-d. Yet, this where Rev. Ratliff has it wrong: the fight for LGBT equality is an appropriate parallel to the Civil Rights movement, just as the Civil Rights movement followed our path to freedom. The story of liberation does not belong to anyone, because liberty—as enshrined in the Constitution—is universal. It is continually informed by each of our narratives, whether Jews, Blacks, the LGBT community or other minority groups. The experience of emancipation gives us the space to empathize with other oppressed communities, to add another stepping stone to the path toward equal opportunity. To be liberated makes it imperative that one fights for the liberation of others.

This past week, former New York City mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins lent their voices to the Human Rights Campaign’s video series for marriage equality. In his 30-second spot, Dinkins—the first and only African American elected to the office—says, “I know that we are a diverse people who believe in fairness and equality.” In response Koch—an outspoken and proud Jew—explains that “Right now, our state is not doing so well when is comes to fairness.” Yet the one-time Democratic rivals agree on one thing: They are compelled by the narrative of their respective communities to stand on the side of equality for LGBT Americans.

The Ah-Hah Moment

By Steven Philp

Matt Goldman was not like the other six-year-old boys in his Cub Scout Den. First, he was Jewish. Second, he was gay.  He recalls one Cub Scout meeting at the local Baptist church in his hometown of Virginia Beach. Sitting in a circle with fifteen or so boys, they shared what they wanted to be when they grew up. When it was his turn, Matt was honest: “My husband is going to be a policeman, and I’ll be living in a three-bedroom house, with flowers and a beagle – and I’ll make the best ice cream in the world.” This upset the other boys and resulted in his banishment to the front steps of the church for the duration of the meeting. When his mom found out what happened – like all good Jewish mothers – she spent several terse hours on the phone with the Scout Master and his superiors demanding to know why she found her son sitting alone in front of the church. After she hung up, Matt remembers her giving him a hug and telling him that “we didn’t need those people.”

Matt’s story is one of several hundred submitted to Born This Way!, a photo and essay project for members of the LGBT community to share snapshots from their childhood – focusing on those ah-hah moments when they discovered that they were a little different from their peers. The site was launched last year by Los Angeles-native Paul V. in response to the series of LGBT teen suicides that plagued our communities; it is his hope that the “struggling [gay] kids of today can see themselves in the faces and stories of the gay kids of yesterday, to live to create their own memories.” The response has been overwhelming; Paul has been forced to close submissions for periods of time so that he can sort through his inbox.

Many members of the Jewish community can empathize with the sense of otherness carried in the stories on Born This Way!. Like Matt, we have had our own ah-hah moments through which we realize that we are not like all of our peers, whether it’s Christmas tree envy or matzo sandwiches during Passover. As children we looked to adults in our schools and synagogues – our parents, rabbis, and teachers – for the reassurance that we weren’t alone. Unfortunately, many questioning youth lack positive LGBT role models in their communities. Although there is an increased visibility of LGBT characters in television programs and movies, they are inaccessible in their fiction; they are left wanting for someone in our own lives, someone tangible, who is also stands out from the pack.

Paul emphasizes that this project is not about stereotypes. He points out that “some of the [pictures] here feature gay boys with feminine traits, and some gay girls with masculine traits. And even more gay kids with none of those traits.” He continues, stating that within the LGBT community people express myriad combinations of masculine and feminine traits. What is important is that every story is unique, and as a result we can find pieces of ourselves in each of them. You may not be Matt Goldman, but perhaps you understand what it is like to be gay and Jewish. And maybe you too dream of a handsome husband in the civil service, a white picket fence, and petunias – and the best ice cream in the world.

Jewish Senators Oppose “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

By Steven Philp

Despite significant party shifts within the United States legislature, repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy may be addressed by the Senate as soon as mid-December. In a press conference held on Thursday, Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) explained that repeal of the policy – included in the National Defense Authorization Act – is no longer contingent on gathering enough votes, but in finding time for full and open debate. According to The Advocate, Sen. Lieberman told reporters, “I am confident that we have more than 60 votes prepared to take up the defense authorization with the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ if only there will be a guarantee of a fair and open amendment process, in other words, whether we’ll take enough time to do it.” He was joined by twelve other senators, including fellow Jewish politicians Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Al Franken (D-MN).

It is striking that half of the senators present at the press conference were Jewish.  Indeed, Jewish senators have been at the forefront of fighting DADT from early on.  Both Feinstein and Boxer were present in the Senate when “don’t ask, don’t tell” came to the floor in 1993, with the latter sponsoring the “Boxer amendment” to remove the policy from the parent Defense Authorization bill. Both voted against “don’t ask, don’t tell.” At the press conference, Boxer touched on her long-standing support for the LGBT community, saying that the vote for repeal is “a no-brainer.” Wyden has more recently added his voice to the debate. In a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he asked that the National Defense Authorization Act come to the floor with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” included. “This law has resulted in a waste of military talent and resources,” Wyden explained. “It is time for the Senate to repeal it.” Cardin expressed his support for repeal early in the year, releasing a statement on his Web site explaining that the policy “runs contrary to the core American belief of equality.” Franken has been a vocal opponent of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” famously coming close to tears on the Senate floor after Republicans filibustered an initial attempt at repeal of the policy in September.

But can the movement to repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” count on support from every Jew in the Senate?  Jewish senators absent from the press conference include Carl Levin (D-MI), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). Levin, who serves as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been an important ally in the fight to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In a opinion piece authored February, Levin criticized the policy stating, “I did not find the arguments used to justify ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ convincing when it took effect in 1993, and they are less so now.” Lautenberg has also come out against the policy, tweeting his support for repeal after being targeted by pop singer Lady Gaga in September. With Lautenberg, Kohl voted for the initial repeal that failed to pass that same month. Schumer was an early supporter for repeal; at the Empire State Pride Agenda in October 2009 he expressed his desire to be one of the first co-sponsors for an amendment overturning DADT. Like his colleagues from California, Sanders also voted against “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it was originally proposed in 1993. On his Web site he expresses his support for LGBT service people stating, “As a nation, we owe those who desire to dedicate their lives to service an equal chance to do so.” Bennet also went to the Internet to express his support for repeal, uploading a Youtube response to two students from the University of Colorado who had posted a video urging their senator to come out against “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Blumenthal has been less vocal about his opinion on the policy, prompting a student at George Washington University to solicit a position from the former Attorney General when he was running for Senate this past November. The student related his conversation with Blumenthal on his blog, conveying the senator’s opposition to “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Considering the divisiveness of issues concerning the LGBT community, it’s remarkable that the Jewish presence in the Senate is not only unanimously opposed to “don’t ask, don’t tell” but includes many of the most vocal advocates for repeal of the policy. Reading the arguments presented by each senator, there is a strong appeal to tzedek, or justice. Not only does “don’t ask, don’t tell” come with significant costs to the military budget and personnel, it prevents the realization of justice within the body that was designed to protect that very American – and Jewish – value (see Moment‘s column on Israel’s example on DADT). This support is not insignificant for their LGBT constituents; unlike the House, there has never been an openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender member of the Senate. Although “don’t ask, don’t tell’s” repeal remains uncertain for this congress, it is comforting to know that Jewish senators will continue to fight for what’s right.

It Gets Better for Jews, Too

By Steven Philp

It has been one month since the suicides of ten LGBT teens prompted a national debate on the adverse effects of homophobic bullying in our schools. One of the more positive results of this dialogue has been the It Gets Better Project. Started by advice columnist Dan Savage, this initiative has grown rapidly through videos submissions, lectures, and rallies. The message is that–although it may be difficult at the moment–life does get better for LGBT youth and it is worth sticking around to experience it. To hear this statement from prominent figures like President Obama or Ellen Degeneres is powerful; for LGBT teens to know that they have allies in our government and media can give hope in dark times.

Yet where do the Jewish voices emerge in this dialogue? Unfortunately the only leader in our community who has received national attention this past month regarding his stance on the LGBT community was Rabbi Yehuda Levin, who withdrew his support from New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino after the latter apologized for homophobic statements made during his campaign. Rabbi Levin was later featured on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, where he engaged in a debate with Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, NJ. The debate demonstrated the beauty of Judaism’s ability to accommodate a number of interpretive traditions. Unfortunately, it also painted a large portion of the Jewish community as anachronistically homophobic.

However there are strong voices of support emerging within the Jewish community. Keshet–a Boston-based advocacy organization for LGBT Jews–recently started Do Not Stand Idly By, an online pledge against homophobic bullying in our communities. As of November, more than 8,000 people have signed on to the campaign. On Youtube, a growing number of videos have been posted by rabbis and community leaders in support of LGBT teens. Rabbi David Bauer, a Reconstructionist rabbi based in San Francisco, submitted a video detailing his own experiences with homophobic bullying as child. This month, Rabbi Denise Eger–of the LGBT-friendly Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA–posted her contribution to the It Gets Better Project, offering a strong Torah-based argument for acceptance. And in a large show of support, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah of New York has started their own page of videos, with submissions from multiple leaders in their community.

These videos have been essential for showing LGBT Jews that they have a place within our homes and synagogues, a place that is being defended by a growing number of rabbis and community leaders. And wherever one falls on the spectrum of tolerance, we can agree that it is important to tell our youth that these avenues of support exist. As Jews our history reminds us that–even though we occasionally stand in the face of great adversity–it does get better.