Pride Shabbat 2013
Delivered June 21, 2013 by Rabbi Karen R. Perolman
As a 5th year rabbinic student, the ink on my contract at B’nai Jeshurun still drying, I met with the Rosh Yeshivah and President of Hebrew Union College, Rabbi David Ellenson for my exit interview. He asked me a few questions about my experience as a rabbinical student, about the classes and professors that were most influential, which professional opportunities guided me, and what I was most looking forward to as an ordained rabbi. Then, after a long pause he said, “I hope you don’t mind me asking you a personal question. What was it like being a gay student at my school?”
I cringed. I probably blushed. I had no idea what to say.
On one hand, HUC was a completely inclusive institution. We had openly gay faculty and partners of gay students were never treated differently than their straight colleagues. My sexual orientation was never questioned, nor was it something that was ever asked about explicitly. The woman I dated while in rabbinical school came to my sermons and was accepted as a significant person in my life. When she and I ultimately went our separate ways, my professors and administrators were supportive.
So I told Rabbi Ellenson that I’m not sure it was not all that different from being a straight student.
But it was.
It was different in ways that are hard to articulate. I had the same opportunities, the same challenges, and the same education. I never felt discriminated against or targeted. I was “out,” honest about my orientation and significant others in every one of my workplaces, including I should mention, from my first day here at TBJ, with no significant professional limitations. So it reasons to assume that I should have felt the same. My inability to answer his question with real clarity or with real specifics has pulled at me for many years. So when Rabbi Gewirtz asked me, your rabbi who happens to be gay, to preach on our third-annual Pride Shabbat, I thought I would use this opportunity to try and figure out an answer.
So, paraphrasing Rabbi Ellenson’s question: What is it like being a gay person in the world today?
The answer I’ve found is: Better than we think. And worse than we think.
Let’s start with the good news: lesbians, gay men and bisexual men and women in the United States enjoy unprecedented visibility and privilege. While TV shows and movies may introduce a gay character or a straight character’s sexual confusion as a ratings booster, you can find gay people on television every night of the week. Bob and Jillian, the trainers from the Biggest Loser both have same-sex partners and families, Cam and Mitch entertain us on Modern Family, Glee, Nashville, Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy all have mainstream gay characters imbedded into their juicy story lines, even Mad Men illustrates the challenges of 1960’s mostly closeted gay men. In the last year Jodi Foster, Anderson Cooper, Sally Ride, Jason Collins and musician Frank Ocean just to name a few have “come out” adding to the ever-expanding list of gay celebrities.
In the political realm, 12 states and the District of Columbia have marriage equality laws on the books, including Minnesota, Delaware and Rhode Island which passed laws in the last four months, with five more, including New Jersey allowing civil unions or domestic partnerships. In full disclosure, this paragraph was betting that the Supreme Court would rule on the highly anticipated Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 sometime this week. While we wait for a ruling, I will optimistically say that historic is not a strong enough word for their impending ruling and this decision will fundamentally change, hopefully for the better so many of the legal struggles that same-sex couples in our country face: including, but not limited to health care, taxes, wills, immigration, even divorce. This year we also saw Republican law-makers in the House and Senate announce their support for marriage equality as well as the election of the first openly-gay Senator Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin. Although New Jersey remains the only state in the north-east without marriage equality, I will be very interested to see how this issue evolves and changes as the political winds change course. We’ll have to stay tuned on that one.
And, as I’m sure you’d like to know, in the personal sphere, I remain ever blessed and lucky. I was born into a tremendously supportive family, I am surrounded by a loyal and caring network of friends, and I am grateful each and every day to have been called to be a rabbi in this community. I also acknowledge that as a white, well-educated and feminine-presenting lesbian who came out in the years after Ellen DeGeneres, my perspective is somewhat colored by my rose-even rainbow-colored glasses. I wasn’t a bullied or closeted teen; I didn’t have to petition my school board to start a Gay-Straight Alliance, or to bring my girlfriend to prom. I know I’ve had it easier than others.
That is one of the reasons that I strive to live as a fully out gay person and a fully out gay rabbi. I want my generation to pay our experiences forward in order to ensure that our children and our children’s children grow up in a world where being gay is not a radical or dangerous realization, rather one of many feasible conclusions that allows for the possibility and probability of happily ever after.
What is it like being a gay person in the world today? Better than we think. It’s great. In so many ways it’s not all that different from being straight.
But its not all rainbow flags and butterflies either.
Here are some of the realities:
31 states have constitutional bans against same-sex marriage. Many of these are states in the south, west, and mid-west, effectively ghettoizing gay and lesbian couples to the states where they can legally wed and more easily raise families. Gay couples no matter their location spend more of their income on lawyer’s fees than their Heterosexual friends and while reproductive assistance and surrogacy are not only utilized by same-sex couples, their desire to have biological children relies heavily on it.
If you’re a gay American and fall in love with a gay person born in another country, you are forbidden from sponsoring that person for a green card. No matter if you are married in a US state, or another country, same-sex partners are routinely separated and parents and children kept apart while visa applications are processed and denied While the current immigration bill being debated in Washington DC may do much to help fix our broken immigration system and provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, this bill expressly excludes gay and lesbian Americans who wish to have their foreign-born spouse live with them within our borders. My friends, one American woman and one French woman are currently living in Holland, waiting for the Supreme Court to decide if they will try and return to the States or begin making their life abroad. It’s a painful and unfathomable reality.
In New York City alone, there have been 29 gay-related hate crimes to date including the murder of Mark Carson, a gay man who was shot in Greenwich Village leaving a gay bar and died in the arms of his partner. This kind of violence makes headlines because the Village is supposed to be one of the safest and most gay-friendly neighborhoods in the world, but in truth, hate crimes are common in other parts of the country and for some in less-friendly places, merely walking into the gay bar is a statement of rebellion.
And all of this doesn’t seem so bad if your gender presentation matches the letter on your driver’s license. When it comes to the acronym of sexual orientation and gender identity L….G…..B….Q….we are quicker to gloss over the “T.” Being transgender in our world is much, much worse than we think. Trans people are more likely to be homeless, to receive sub-par medical services, to be rejected by their families, schools and churches and to undergo regular, humiliating public treatment.
It can feel worse than we knew. Being gay isn’t easy. It’s not flag-waving and it’s not dancing on floats down 5th avenue at the Pride parade. There is the daily reality of staying alive and safe, keeping food on the table and the ones we love close by.
This paradox of emotions is the exact reason why I love Pride. Pride allows us to look around and see all the good in the world, all of the blessings that make life so joyous. Pride, like holidays and birthdays gives us the scheiyanu moment, to thank God and each other for all that we have. When I am celebrating gay pride in New York, I am exuberant, the entire world is a rainbow of happiness and possibility, of people in love, of people being exactly who they are. It is also a place to somberly remember those lost and to think of how far we have to go.
It was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Each year when I celebrate Pride, I am amazed at how far the arc of our moral universe has bent. I may be the only person who watches the Pride parade with teams streaming down her face. The list of good goes on and on. And I cry tears of anger too, as I am am also painfully aware of the length of the arc and that complete justice and full equality will not be achieved in the coming year.
That is the double-edged sword called Pride. It is a liminal moment, where we look back and take stock on the year that has passed, and look into a year just beginning. It is December 31st, Erev Rosh HaShanah and midnight on your birthday, all at once. Or, as Pirkei Avot puts it, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We get to feel the pride of how far we’ve come, we are supported by pride when we realize how far there is to go.
This year we are here, where it’s better than we think…And sometimes worse than we think too.
But next year…Next year may we be in a more peaceful, a more just-full and a more pride-full world.
Ken Yihi Ratzon. May this be God’s Will.
(This speech is based on statistics and state laws in 2013. For updated statistics and information on marriage equality, visit http://www.freedomtomarry.org; for updated information on immigration rights and LGBT rights visit http://www.immigrationequality.org/ and for updated hate crime statistics visit http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/hate-crime)