LGBT Pride Shabbat Sermon
A version of this sermon was delivered by Matthew Gewirtz in 2011
I remember it like it was yesterday. I walked into the preschool classroom, mid-conversation. The teacher explained, “People come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. Some are long, some are round, some are light, and some are dark.” One child did not seem to agree. He gently raised his hand, “Excuse me, I don’t agree that people come in all different shapes and sizes. I’ve never seen anyone shaped like a triangle.” All of us in the room had a good laugh. However, one child raised his hand immediately and reported enthusiastically, “My mommy told me that people don’t actually look like triangles, but my aunt always wears one on her shirt because her triangle represents her different shape in our world. My mommy tells me that my aunt wears that triangle to represent that she loves her friend who lives with her just like my mommy loves my daddy.” The room of children and few adults fell quite for a moment. Before any of us had a chance to offer a word, the same child said, “My mommy says that we should be really proud of my aunt because she loves her friend so much. She said that one day I should grow up and love someone as much in my own life.”
Tonight, for the first time in our history, we, as a congregational community, celebrate with this wonderful student. We celebrate with all the mommies who love mommies, all the daddies who love daddies, all of our gay and lesbian siblings who yearn so much to be seen and heard…who deserve like anyone else in this world that chance to sustain a healthy and loving relationship which is accepted by the community with pride.
Pride does not have a history that goes back longer than four decades. It was first celebrated in 1970 as Christopher Street Liberation Day. It marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The riots began on June 27, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street and arrested the owner, employees and many of its LGBT customers.
Of course that was not the first police raid of a gay bar in the City or Country. There had been many times that LGBT individuals were harassed by police. Until Stonewall LGBT individuals had never fought back in any kind of consistent manner. In the 60’s, many people were so afraid of the repercussions of coming out, so many of them were fearful of the effect their coming out would have on family members and their own employment, that many would not participate in political activity to promote their own rights. Generally, the LGBT community didn’t march, didn’t demonstrate, almost never filed employment discrimination charges and many used alias names in the different worlds in which they felt they needed to operate.
With Stonewall, all that began to change. The people who were arrested at the Stonewall Inn that day did indeed fight back. These people simply refused to go quietly into the paddy wagon to be abused and hauled off to jail once again. After that day, for many successive nights, people joined together on Christopher Street to protest the police raid. These seemingly small, yet raucous demonstrations came to be known as The Stonewall Riots. The Stonewall Riots rallied the gay community not only into political action, but also, to a new level of respect for themselves.
From that day in 1969, this moment has only evolved. In June of 1970, on the first anniversary of Stonewall, a few hundred people gathered in Sheridan Square to march to Central Park. When the initial marchers arrived at the center of the park, they saw that their numbers had increased greatly to 3,000 and everyone there stopped, cheered, and cried.
Since 1970, the battle has been complicated and difficult. It actually took 15 years to persuade the New York City Council to pass the Lesbian and Gay Rights Bill. And of course, the annual Pride Parade, which takes place a week from this Sunday, is a significant and vital ritual. It is important that the LGBT community gets to celebrate their community and LGBT rights. It also enables the community to lend each other the courage that is so needed to continue to press for the rights that all human beings deserve in this world.
With all this history, the question of course stands: Why is it important for all of us, as a Jewish community, to celebrate Pride Day?
Our Tradition is, in fact, replete with the reasons for us to do so. Justice, mercy, and compassion call out from our thousands of years of history to take action. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, we have been strangers, in fact, in many parts of the world. Indeed, we Jews understand and know the heart of the stranger. We who were victimized by discrimination and violence, are commanded by this experience to understand, empathize and feel the pain of others who are oppressed. Our history calls upon us as one congregation to fight for basic rights and dignity of all people.
All of this is important to take in and understand, yet, somehow, speaking to you as a straight person/Rabbi about the importance of Pride, I come dangerously close to objectifying a group as other, while standing up here attempting to do the opposite. Many of us here are not LGBT. So tonight, I am not just here to talk about the need and the right for LGBT people to speak out and celebrate their pride, but I am here, as well, to encourage all of us who are not LGBT, to stand up with pride and to celebrate the lives of those of our friends and neighbors who are. Many of us have LGBT members in our families and social circles, and yet, so many of us, for various reasons, are fearful of speaking out on their behalf. We are fearful of informing people that we attend same-sex weddings, adoption ceremonies and baby namings. We are fearful about making ourselves heard, speaking openly about our family dinners with LGBT siblings, condolence calls we make to those who have lost their life-partner, and evenings out to dinner with LGBT couples.
Pride calls upon us who are not LGBT to come out as well. There are numerous amounts of LGBT people who are themselves absolutely fine about being LGBT. But often times, it is their parents, their siblings, their neighbors, who suffer enormous anxiety about their association with LGBT people and thus are silent about them to their friends and co-workers. We must make our friendships and love for LGBT individuals known.
So many who wear the triangle I spoke of earlier, have imprinted on that triangle “Silence Equals Death.” When we don’t speak with pride about those whom we love, we puncture small holes into our own souls which can slowly deflate to its spiritual death. Identity cannot be affirmed or injustice challenged by an invisible person. Self-expression and self-determination are indispensible. Without the ability for people to rightly claim their identity, we witness the increase of bully, ostracizing of others; pushing some into such shameful isolation that they choose to end their lives. As Jews, we have learned the necessity of being visible in order to affirm ourselves, to stare down bigotry, and to break through the tales… the lies… that even we ourselves sometimes come to believe..
Yes, my friends, all of us here, are called to come out as well.
Many of you know this is a subject that has directly affected me in my own life. Shortly after my parents divorced, in the mid 70’s, a woman and her child moved into our home and lived with us for the next decade. As a child, I didn’t understand the nature of their relationship and it was never defined for me. I grew up defending Gay and Lesbian rights with emotional vim and vigor, but intellectually I never understood why. On one hand, I would come close to physically assaulting someone if they ever slighted the rights of Gays and Lesbians, but on the other hand, I was fairly homophobic within the confines of my inner circles. I finally confronted my mother as an adult… why it is that she never just sat down and explained the situation. I was a sensitive and understanding child… it was the divorce I couldn’t take… not the fact that my mother was a Lesbian. She simply responded “In those days, if the authorities ever really knew, the four of you would have been taken away from me.” Frankly, I was angry at her for not telling me and simultaneously, furious at the world for not accepting the different shape and model of my family unit.
Even here, in possibly the most important sermon I have given in my entire rabbinate, about interfaith marriage, I was less anxious about your thoughts on my stance about Officiation at interfaith weddings than I was about letting you know that I had a gay sister. And more, and maybe even more embarrassing to admit, almost none of you knew that my mother was gay until she died. We all think we have travelled so far… and somehow, it wasn’t just that I didn’t want to share my mother’s business, but somehow inside I thought I might be judged unfairly…
It was only in her death, that the truth came out, not just to her world… but to all the worlds connected to her children. Ironically, in the same neighborhood where she was fearful of sharing her sexual identity in the 1970’s, she was eulogized in a main stream Temple with the pride and connection, not just to her four adoring children, but to her loving partner as well.
So, my dear friends, we begin a new tradition here at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun… B’nai Jeshurun means Children of the Upright. We will stand upright about this issue. We are here as LGBT people to celebrate in great pride and joy who we are and just as importantly, we here as straight members of this congregation knowing the moral imperative to come out in support of our LGBT family members, neighbors, and friends.
Rabbi Alexander Schindler once said, “As individuals, we still have much to fear, much to reckon with, but let us not add to our loneliness and our suffering by believing that God does not recognize us in our relationships. Let us rather exalt our relationships so they may be worthy of God’s Gays. Let us learn that God’s image is reflected in each and every face. Let us not add to our heartaches by letting ourselves be separated from the Jewish people. As Jews, together, let us search through the Torah, the written Torah and the Torah of life to find those affirmations for which we yearn.
May it be God’s will that we all find the courage and fortitude to affirm and celebrate our lives as we continue on this blessed journey together.