Gay, Jewish - and not afraid to say so

By Charlotte Oliver, July 10, 2014
Jewish participants at the Gay Pride 2014 event in London

Jewish participants at the Gay Pride 2014 event in London

Benjamin Kaye has one regret. He never assured an elderly relative of his that he was not alone and did not have to suffer in silence.

Mr Kaye's relative, like him, was gay. But he never said so. His generation rarely did and he died, aged 88, never having spoken of it.

"He died alone, never marrying or having kids, just a bitter old man," said Mr Kaye. "He never came out during the whole of his lifetime. Back in the 1920s, when he was born, you couldn't be who you wanted to be. It's sad really. His family never knew the real him and he found it difficult to relate to me, because I wasn't shy about who I was."

For the 36-year-old auditor from Maida Vale, the cultural landscape has changed beyond recognition.

Where his relative feared ostracism, he came out with ease, prompted by his mother turning to him one day and saying: "All we would like is for you to meet a nice Jewish boy."

He now runs the Gay Jews in London social group, confident one can be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and still very much Jewish.

"It is important to have the Jewish side of LGBT because when you meet a Jew, straight away you have an understanding of their culture and their morals. If you're gay and Jewish, you have that two-fold. There is a lot in your life you don't need to explain, not least the guilt, the overbearing mother, or how you could possibly look forward to eating eggs dipped in salt water. That is a nice feeling."

Acceptance is the way forward. People can have a handle on Judaism and keep their identity

Peggy, Sherwood

Mr Kaye's group caters for 650 members, organising social events, festival celebrations like the "post-Pesach pizza fest", and marching at the annual Pride London parade. But they are far from unique.

Increasing support from synagogues across a growing number of movements, as well as the growing success of groups such as Keshet UK, Beit Klal Yisrael, Rainbow Jews and the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group (JGLB), has revealed a diverse spectrum of LGBT Jewry, all with voices and roles to play.

"For some, we provide the only sort of Jewishness in their lives," said Peggy Sherwood, president of the JGLG. It has 200 members, and has recently created an offshoot, Young Jewish LGBT+, for people aged 16-22. It holds regular social events, as well as monthly Chavurot, which are hosted in nearby Synagogues.

"While the Progressive movement is incredibly supportive and the Reform movement is catching up, there is not much support from the Orthodox community. Some members of the Charedi are confidentially in the group," Ms Sherwood said.

"Of course, being Jewish and LGBT does have its challenges, but not so much as it did when I came out 20 years ago.

"For me, acceptance is the way forward. People are still able to have a handle on their Judaism while keeping their own identity – that keeps people within the faith. That is the way of guaranteeing Judaism's future."

For many who are already out, the plethora of organisations available provides a rich social life, or a platform to campaign about issues that affect them. But there are still many struggling to come to terms with their identity – and here again these groups are invaluable.

Karen Lewis who runs Young Jewish LGBT+ said: "So far, everyone has had mostly positive coming out experiences. Some haven't made that final step and are anxious about it, but they know they don't need to be pushed into it.

"Our members range from being completely secular to frum."

The climate for LGBT jewry has improved, thanks in part to strong activism from within the community, coupled with changing attitudes and legislation. Following the Equality Act 2010, same-sex marriage officially came into effect in March and, while religious institutions have been slow in putting this into practice, many progressive synagogues have been encouraging couples to come forward.

But for all the progress made, there are those urging the need to avoid complacency. Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, a pioneer in the advancement of Jewish LGBT rights, said: "People still have to be prepared to be the odd lesbian or gay Jew and they don't want to be that, so many don't come to synagogue. When you're a minority, you're 'other'.

"It's also important to remember that, when we say LGBT, we're often only advancing the 'L' and the 'G'. Simple things, like gendered toilets in shuls, can be alienating. "

Surat Rathgeber Knan, project manager of Liberal Judaism's Rainbow Jews, is one such person raising awareness for minority groups.

Surat, who was recently nominated by Haaretz as one of seven international Jewish LGBT pioneers, is currently undergoing a gender transition from female to male, and said it was important to keep pushing for acceptance for all – not just lesbians and gay people.

For Surat, who would prefer to be referred to in the plural but will accept "he" as a pronoun, knowing how to refer to a trans person, or how to accommodate them in shul, needs attention. He said: "People are aware that the LGBT community is not just 'L' and 'G', but most are not thinking how to put that into practice. We're still in the black and white zone. It is all about increasing visibility, whether that is practical inclusion, like changing the liturgy, or silly things, like having at least one unisex toilet in every community building.

"If you compare it with the US or Israel, UK is behind. They have so many different awareness programmes and toolkits to help make communities more inclusive. We're still in our baby shoes, but at least asking questions."

There is general consensus that, among wider society, both secular and non-secular, progressive movements are at the head of the curve, in particular ahead of the Catholic Church and Church of England.

The wide range of organisations now available shows a climate where being both LGBT and Jewish is no longer mutually exclusive. But for those leading the way, it is essential to keep teaching, raising awareness, and trailblazing forward.


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Last updated: 9:49pm, July 10 2014