We can celebrate our freedom — but it's still not enough

It's fifty years since the law changed on homosexuality. Benjamin Ellis considers what's changed for LGBT+ Jews

July 06, 2017 13:28

It's fifty years - a jubilee - since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales.

Of course, a jubilee should be a celebration, and so it is. Everyone who believes in a free and open society should celebrate this milestone. We can celebrate our freedom together, as we will at Pride in London this weekend. And in England, Scotland and Wales, we can now celebrate our love and commitment through marriage.

As LGBT+ Jews, we know that celebration also involves memory. We must not forget how our own societies have treated LGBT+ people for centuries. And we must remember the daily humiliation and punishment that LGBT+ people still endure in other countries. We cannot take anything for granted. Every hard-won freedom must be cherished, and every right fiercely guarded. The UK government is now dependent on the support of an openly homophobic party. Would we be silent if it were Jews, rather than LGBT+ people, who were discriminated against?

With discrimination rife despite decriminalisation, LGBT+ people in this country learned to look after ourselves. From the foundation in 1972 of the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group – which is still going strong – to the establishment in 1990 of the LGBT+ synagogue Beit Klal Yisrael, LGBT+ Jews have come together and created our own communities. There have been pioneering LGBT+ rabbis too, including Rabbi Lionel Blue who in 1981 was the first UK rabbi to come out as gay, and Rabbi Sheila Shulman and Rabbi Eli Tikvah Sarah, ordained by Leo Baeck College in 1989. When Aids began to devastate the lives of gay men in particular, in 1988 the Jewish Aids Trust was formed to support those in our community living with HIV and Aids, challenge the stigma around the condition and educate around sexual health.

My own Jewish life changed dramatically in 2001, the year I came out. I was fortunate to be supported by Rabbi Steve Greenberg and Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, two men whose very different approaches to homosexuality and Judaism have helped shape discussions about LGBT+ inclusion for a generation. Later that year that the film Trembling Before G-d was released. Never before had I seen people like me represented on screen. When it was shown to packed audiences at Limmud that winter, it felt like the conversation was changing around me. For the first time, I began to wonder if it might be possible to live life as a proud Jewish gay man.

It’s been a long walk through a bitter wilderness. We have gone from Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Jacobovits in 1993 declaring that homosexuality was a disease that could be cured, to Chief Rabbi Mirvis in 2015 condemning homophobia. From prison sentences, to our first Jewish same gender marriages in Liberal and Reform synagogues in 2014. From fear to hope, from mourning to life-affirming celebration and joy.

We’re not there yet. The vicious public criticism of Rabbi Dweck was triggered by his clear support for LGBT+ people, and debate continued with little thought for the impact it would have on LGBT+ people and their families. It is frightening when Jewish symbols are rejected at Pride celebrations, as recently happened in Chicago. KeshetUK works create a world where no one has to choose between their Jewish and LGBT+ identity – yet some Jewish institutions still avoid engaging with us.

There’s work to do, and we are doing it. I won’t be at Pride in London this year. Instead I will be in Budapest on behalf of KeshetUK, delivering LGBT+ inclusion workshops to the local Jewish community. Later this summer, I will also be joining LGBT+ friends in Jerusalem for their march for Pride and Tolerance. So on this special anniversary let’s all take a moment, this moment of the Jubilee, to sound the trumpet of freedom and proclaim our liberty. And while we’re at it, let’s promise ourselves that by next year we’ll have achieved even more. 

Benjamin Ellis is chair of KeshetUK which works in Jewish communities to promote LGBT+ inclusion

July 06, 2017 13:28

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